DIY (almost) Safari

It started with a picture a friend showed us years ago. I was mesmerized by her 4×6 pictures of elephants and lions from her recent safari. The idea of seeing those animals for myself stuck in the back of my brain.

When we got serious about traveling to Africa, we thought we would want to be part of a tour group. Traveling with an expert seemed the best way to handle the cultural differences and blunt the edginess of the sub-saharan world. We had friends who were veteran tour group travelers and so we looked to them to find a good tour. But as luck and circumstances would have it, their group’s tour dates didn’t match our calendar constraints. Back to the drawing boards.

Another friend had been to Africa with his family and urged us to go on our own, without a tour group, using a travel coordinator he had used. He raved about his experience — wonderful guide on safari, at every point transfers handled efficiently, and a personalized trip which reflected their priorities.

So we contacted the travel coordinator, Safaris Made Simple, spent several months emailing back and forth, planning our trip. She threw out an idea. We did a little research and reacted. We looked at the price and asked for something different for our budget. She threw out more ideas. And we settled upon an itinerary. Victoria Falls, two different safari camps in Zimbabwe to take advantage of different ecosystems, a few days on Cape Town and then a tour of the Garden Route along South Africa’s Southern coastline.

Then we started the whole process again, identifying lodging and details within that framework. And again, she asked us about preferences (price, size or amenities of lodging) and the type of adventures we wanted to have along the way. Many of activities and sites we knew about, but some we would never have found without her experience. And she told us where we would be better off making decisions once on site.

Whenever we had a question, she was quick with a response. She explained things carefully, highlighting critical pieces of information we might have missed.

And once in Africa, she checked up on us. When we had a little hiccup (a credit card left behind) she made sure all was well. The local firms she connected us with were fabulous, top, notch professionals. In a one month trip with twelve transfers, everything went smoothly.

Most of the time, whether in a Jeep on Safari, or touring the Cape of Good Hope, it was just us and our guide which allowed for a lot of spontaneity and personalization. We spent all the time we needed getting our digital shots of birds, or sipping wine in the Stellenbosch region.

And our travel consultant also founded one charity, Safari Samaritan, to provide solar powered lamps for African school children. And along with the safari company she hooked us up with, she has a strong commitment to conservation and building the local communities through the Wilderness Wildlife Trust and Children in the Wilderness. It made us feel good to give back a little bit to the communities that we enjoyed so much.

Leading the Blind: Our African Guides

We had used nature guides before—Costa Rica, Yosemite, Vancouver Island. Without them our uninformed urban eyes see very little. But in Zimbabwe, the guides are absolutely critical and a wonderful part of the African experience. It is possible to drive yourself through Zimbabwe’s national parks, but Themba, our guide in the Hwange National Park, laughed at how frequently they end up following a guide’s vehicle to see the animals. We also found out that beyond the obvious tracking skills, our guides were raconteurs, encyclopedias of local knowledge and history, security guards, and, occasionally, baristas and bar tenders in the bush.

Our guide at the Ruckomechi camp on the Zambezi River in northern Zimbabwe was a young man of about thirty, Mundoga. Our guide in Hwange National Park, Themba, was a study in contrasts—but more about Themba later.

Mundoga was a fast talker with a wicked sense of humor.

Constant banter and joking. “Hey, Peter, there’s a huge crocodile…I think he’s dead….would you go over and check please.” He had nicknames for many of the birds—the Jesus bird because it walked on water (jacana), Cain and Abel bird because the one of the two chicks invariably pushes its sibling out of the nest (Fisher eagle), the good husband bird because it fed the female (the little bee eater). And when we’d hit a very bumpy patch on the road and the Jeep became a bone rattling experience, he’d turn and smile….”African massage”.

Despite the humorous banter, we learned very quickly that Mundoga was incredibly skilled, intense and knew every inch of this huge park and its wildlife.It took him seven years, much of it in university, to become a guide—culminating with a comprehensive and very expensive test to get a guide’s license. Tourism is, however, about the only real industry left in Zimbabwe, and one of the few places to find jobs, so guiding is a sought after profession. Good work, but still with its downsides. His schedule was 54 days on (seven days a week) and then 14 days off. His wife and three sons—18 months, 6, and 9 —were a long’s day and two bus rides away.

We did two game drives a day set by when animals are active —one in the early morning, starting at first light (difficult for those of us who hadn’t seen a sunrise in years) and one in the late afternoon extending into the evening after the sunset. We were thankful because the midday October heat was punishing. As we drove, Mundoga would give lessons on the flora, stop to identify birds or small animals. He would scan the horizon for large game and would spot them well before any of us had even see a thing. Kudus, eland, impala, warthogs, sable antelope, Cape buffalo—all around us, and we would likely have missed them. He would then maneuver the Jeep into a position to intersect the animals and wait—giving us a chance to get great pictures.

The one exception were the elephants—they were everywhere, often in the middle of the road and, not surprisingly, difficult to miss.

But It was the big cats which brought out Mundoga’s extraordinary skills. The second day we were at the Rukemechi camp on the morning drive, another guide radioed that he had located a leopard nearby. Mundoga sped to the location in “Ferrari Safari” mode, as he put it, and when we got there the leopard was barely visible in the undergrowth.

On a very good hunch based on years of experience, he took us back to the same spot later to find the leopard clearly visible on branch in a very large acacia tree.

Our last morning at breakfast Mundoga asked us if we had heard the male lions roaring last night? Of course, we hadn’t. He would find them for us—for sure. Almost immediately he found fresh lion tracks. “They’re out there, I know it!”he said, pointing off to a large open area. We circled the area several times—nothing. You could sense his frustration. But then luckily we ran into a researcher studying wild dogs and, yes, he had seen two males five minutes ago. Off again, picking up more tracks. Several more frustrating minutes, and then, turning a sharp corner, two spectacular young male lions, resting in the shade. Mission accomplished.

Our guide in Hwange National Park, Themba, was older than Mundoga as his gray hair indicated.

Themba had risen to manager status in the Davison Camp and was clearly highly respected by his colleagues. Themba grew up in a small village in the bush and lamented that his three sons had no interest in returning to his village and that life. He loved the bush and his knowledge was tempered with a close connection to the land.“You rub this plant on your skin to repel bugs…you use smoke to catch an aardvark…this is how you snare a steenbok.” He admitted at one time the he had been a poacher—not for money but for food for his family. He was now a passionate conservationist, and a little embarrassed by his past. His family scrimped and saved enough money to send to him to a Quaker high school, a boarding school, and to college. He took the guide’s test and studied hard because he said he only had the money to take the test once. Failing was not an option. He had a deep, husky voice with a booming laugh.“Good people, here is what Themba proposes for the day…” he would say, usually referring to himself in the third person. He knew every bird in the park in all its variants, had all the superb tracking skills of Mundoga, and an intimate knowledge of the bush.He found lions everyday and pulled the Jeep right up next to them for our photo ops.

He pointed out every interesting detail on the elephants—this one a three split trunk—rare he said—this one was pregnant, this one had an ear disease that would cause it to have a blind spot on its left side.He located the rarest of the antelopes for us.He found the largest male giraffe in the park.

Themba’s real passion came out in our walk through the bush. Armed with a rifle, he lead us single file off into the scrub land.

Even without any large animals, this walk was magical. He would stop and talk to owls, imitating their calls.

He pointed out porcupine tracks, edible fungus, the wild basil his mother used for fragrance around their home, he showed us how to follow elephant tracks to water, and identified various animal holes, including the very large aardvark holes. He told us that during the war of liberation, his wounded brother was hidden in an aardvark hole until his comrades could rescue him. The walk ended with him very, very carefully blowing sand out of an insect hole to reveal a single larvae, the earliest stage of termite development, which he put in Mary’s hand

Our guides, Mundoga and Themba, opened our eyes to a world we would never have seen without them.

Sleeping with Elephants

At 5:30am a young man with an unmistakable Zimbabwean accent stood outside our tent and shouted “knock! Knock” or “Wakee! Wakee!” The sun hadn’t quite risen on the Zambezi River just beyond our tent. As we got ready for the morning game drive, we could hear the hippos snorting and splashing in the river a hundred yards away. Tea and a light continental breakfast was ready on the main veranda. Light breakfast was a relative term — usually hard boiled eggs, fresh bread toasted over a fire, sweet rolls of some sort, cereal, yogurt, juice, fresh fruit and cheese and meats.

By 6:30 we loaded into the jeeps and began the morning game drive. Peter road shotgun, a Danish couple in front, and Malcolm and me behind in a vehicle that could hold seven. Our guide, Mundoga, a slight, fast talking guy, kept up a happy chatter, exchanging jokes with us and laughing at our responses. A different Mundoga emerged when he was tracking animals — focused, intense and alert, leaning over the side of his door, studying tracks. Once or twice, he grabbed his rifle and walked a ways, leaving us in the safety of the Jeep. Without him we would have seen little, even if the animals had stood up on their hind legs and waved their arms.

When Mundoga spotted animals, we stopped. At least that first day. As the days went on we drove past the more common elephants, baboons, impalas and Cape buffalo. But initially we all got out our cameras and clicked away. The Danish couple had brought three bags of camera gear. They even had to buy an extra seat on the small aircraft that took us to the camps. Malcolm and me with our little Olympus cameras were clearly out classed. Peter was more respectable with our new Nikon.

We bounced along dirt or grass roads rebuilt each spring after the winter rains. Apparently, the “leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but pictures” philosophy sort of applied to the design of the roads. Any potential obstacle to the road was left where it was. The roads weaved around fallen trees, between termite hills and up and down through ravines carved by the winter rains. It made for a lot of swaying and jostling and slow speeds — our guide called an “African massage”. The smoother, but not necessarily speedier routes were the dried up riverbeds. Riding along them felt a bit like riding on compact snow and ice — some sliding and skidding, always with the potential for getting stuck. Even these four wheel jeeps with their low gears were challenged and at one point we did indeed get stuck in soft sand, requiring all of us to hop out the give a hearty push.

By 7:30 on our first day we could have left Africa having “bagged” most of the major animals, except for the lions and leopard. There would be no rhinos—we were told they had been removed from this area to protect them from poachers. Around 9:30 Mundoga stopped along the banks of the Zambezi, set up a folding table, placed a cloth on top, began to make fresh tea or French press coffee for us, served with a shortbread cookie while we watched the hippos in the river. Across the way we could see Zambia and its mountains.

We loaded back in the jeep and went off in search of wild game for another hour or so. Mundoga periodically picked up the radio and called to the other guides, sometimes speaking to them in Shona, his native language, and occasionally in English to share the location of the more elusive animals. The prized sighting was the lions. Once located, we drove within a few feet of them, where they remained unfazed, even bored, by our presence. Once they moved to sit in the shade of our Jeep.

Back to the camp for lunch. We were greeted by the staff with cold wash clothes to eliminate the worst of the road dust. And if time, and the elephants allowed, we might have time for a quick shower. Elephants allow? Yep. At Ruckomechi, the elephants rule. They wander through the camp at will, up to five or six of them at a time, an occasional male, several mature mothers and their babies. If the elephants were between you and your destination, you simply waited. In more extreme cases, the staff drove you to your door. More than once we were held captive as five or six of them surrounded our tent.

The baboons were another hazard. While they clearly ran from us — we suspect because they had learned humans carry slingshots — the real problem was they loved to drop from the trees shading our tents onto our tents, treating the tents as trampolines. Malcolm’s tent was one of their favorite landing sites.

Through the heat of the day we lounged, wrote a little, edited our photographs, read a bit, or went for a swim. Then headed back to the veranda for afternoon tea at 3:30. Tea for some consisted of beer or wine, but we generally stuck with iced tea with the appetizers and sweets served. Then back in the jeeps for the afternoon game drive.

Game was less abundant in the afternoon. But the elephants, the Cape buffalo and the hippos were visible any time of day. And then the safari ritual of a sundowner. Just before sunset, Mundoga again set out the table, often on the banks of the Zambezi where we watched the hippos, and tracker/guide turned bartender. Gin and tonics never tasted so good.

In northern Zimbabwe, on the border near Mozambique, when the sun sets, it gets dark almost immediately. The drink helped calm our nerves for the ride home with only a red light, used primarily to spot nocturnal animals and less for navigation. It was at night that we saw the painted dogs.

One morning our guide, Mundoga, urged us to load up earlier than usual. A leopard had been sighted, triggering a mad dash across packed dirt roads, onto soft sands in the riverbeds, through six foot high mounds of grass and down narrow animal paths through the scrub brush. Without our guide we would never have seen the leopard laying at the base of a tree. Even after he pointed to the spot I had trouble seeing the cat, he blended in so well. Mundoga was experienced enough to bring us back to the spot in the afternoon to see the leopard draped across the limbs of the tree, a dramatic sight.

We returned the camp for the happy hour before dinner at 8:00 to share around the fire pit stories of each group’s adventures. With a staff of 25, and only 12-18 guests we were well cared for. And well fed.

The last duty for Mundoga or one of the other guides was to grab a rifle and escort us to our rooms. Anytime after dark we could only walk around the camp with an armed guard. I thought at first this was over doing the protective bit until I saw a very large male lion with his kill about 500 yards from our tent.

Lights out shortly thereafter, as 5:30 am came quickly.

Greenwich — A Mean Time!

We’ve tried every jet lag cure. It doesn’t seem to matter what we do, the first few days in a place seven or eight time zones aways hurts. Sleepless nights. Afternoons of overwhelming exhaustion. And while our better-living-through-chemistry philosophy leads us to take sleeping pills, we still aren’t at our best those first few days.

So knowing that our safari in Zimbabwe was truly a once in a lifetime trip, we didn’t want to miss a beat. And a four day layover in London — a place we had been to several times before — seemed a great way to get over jet lag before an eleven hour flight, due South, with only one time zone change. Plus we had seen most of the sights we absolutely wanted to see in London. Now we could browse leisurely. Well, part of the plan worked.

London in those last days of September and first days of October was perfect! Sunny weather, but cool temperatures. Perfect for walking. And we walked. 24 miles in the first two and a half days.

Seeing Greenwich had been on our list before, but it always got missed. This time we hopped the boat at Westminster and enjoyed the views on the way to Greenwich, the birthplace of Henry VIII and his three children. We had anticipated taking the 90 minute tour (greenwhichtours.co.uk 8£) and then taking the Tube back to London for more sights. Didn’t happen. Once we started the tour we realized there was more to see and do than we could accomplish in one day.

We lucked out. Just the three of us signed up for the tour so we got essentially a private tour of the Old Royal Naval College, it’s chapel and the prime meridian as well as the park grounds. While tourists may consider Greenwich to be a second rate tourist site, it was the birth place of Henry VII, Henry VIII, and the remaining Tudors monarchs. As a palace it fell out of favor when Henry VIII divorced wife #1 and was marginally used until Charles II decided to build a riverfront palace on the site. He demolished the original building and started on his grand palace, only to be thwarted as Parliament flexed its control of the purse strings and England’s constitutional monarchy began to emerge. Charles incomplete building sat largely unused until William and Mary decided to build a home for the multitude of British infirm sailors. They donated the land and convinced renowned London architect Christopher Wren to design a home.

Later this became the Old Royal Naval College Today the buildings house a university and art college. We did a quick stop in the Royal chapel where the pattern on the marble floor mimics the rope on Restoration era ships.

And then began the long climb to the observatory and prime meridian. Wonderful views of the Thames and newer parts of London.

And we took the usual tourist pictures of us straddling the Eastern and Western hemispheres.

After the tour concluded we decided we could not do all three museums. We opted to skip the Royal Observatory — tough choice— and focus on the other two. Even then we were rushed as we went through the Maritime Museum. We focused in on the Napoleanic era and Lord Nelson’s triumphs with quick spin through Great Britain’s maritime history in the Pacific.

Our last stop of the day was the restored Cutty Sark. It had a $15 entrance fee, but being members of the National Trust brought that cost down for us to $10 a person. Well worth it. This ship, often referred to the fastest sailing cargo ship (although there were multiple races and Cutty Sark didn’t win them all), had a crew of just two dozen. The exhibit is exceptionally well done.

On the advice of our guide, we walked across the Thames — through a pedestrian tunnel build in the early 1900’s so worked could get to London’s docks and warehouses and not be dependent upon the ferrymen that charged exorbitantly. A little spooky to be under the river, particularly when we reached the end that had been repaired after bomb damage at the end of the German bombing of London.

So the bottom line? Greenwich is definitely a first rate sight. (By the way, the term first rate is a British naval term and refers to the size of the ship. Nothing wrong with being second or third rate; you’re just smaller)

Hometown Whales

The first time I saw a humpback whale it was so close I could have thrown a rock and hit it —and I don’t have a great arm. A group of us were kayaking along a fjord in Alaska and the whale came between us and the steep rock wall. Four times it surfaced just beside us and we were all to stunned, entranced and awed to take a picture.

After that trip seeing whales became part of most vacations. Humpback whales in Kauai. Gray whales in Baja. Orca in British Columbia. Blue whale in the Sea of Cortes.

But then there were “our” whales, the ones we see almost every year. On and off in April and May Gray whales come into the waters off our beach cabin on Puget Sound in Washington, as part of their annual migration from Mexico to Alaska.

This didn’t happen when we were growing up there, but over the last twenty years has become pretty routine. The same 10 – 12 whales come each spring. Whale researchers have named and identified two we often see, named Patch and Trim-tail because of their distinction features. Others simply are identified by numbers. They come into the shallow areas seeking the ghost shrimp and tubeworms that live in the sand. After the whales have been through the sand bars at low tide are marked with large divots, evidence of the digging the whales do with their fins.

Using their tails and fins, the stir up the sand, apparently taking in great gulps of water, food and sand. Yellow, cloudy water appears as they move along.

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This summer for some reason at least one gray whale has hung around longer, into August. Appearing now twice in the last couple of weeks, it spends several hours cruising up and down just a few dozen yards from shore, often unnoticed by the people along shore.

Twice now we have been lucky enough to be out in our kayaks when the whale appeared. It doesn’t seem to be bothered by us at all. Gray whales don’t have the sonar locating ability of orca, but our guy appears to keep track of its surrounding by sight, sometimes keeping its distance and other times appearing out of nowhere just beside us. Researchers report gray whales often approach boats. Are they curious?

When we get downwind, we can smell it’s fishing breath as it blows. But we can also hear a soft intake of breath after it’s blown — if the breathing of a 30 ton creature can ever be called soft.

I don’t care how many times I see these guys, they are always special.

Whale of a Good Time

Family vacations are sometimes not all they’re cracked up to be. Even in a close knit family, interests diverge. Taking our extended family on a four day kayaking trip could have been a disaster. A couple members have bodies that have betrayed them. From oldest and the youngest, our ages spanned 62 years. A couple of type A’s futilely try to organize the family. Three of us were veteran kayakers who had been on this same trip the year before while several were nearly kayak virgins. Nonetheless, the awe-inspiring wildlife, comfortable camp site, great guides and a flexible schedule worked magic for whole group. And we had the camp to ourselves. It only holds twelve max.

The camp site. No erecting tents, or foam pads on the ground for us. We slept in king size beds with four inch foam mattresses, sheets, fluffy comforters — all under a six foot tent, each placed to provide a bit of privacy. We went to bed clutching hot water bottles the kitchen crew provided to chase away the cool nighttime marine dampness.

And a salt water hot tub soothed our sore muscles and warmed our cold feet. Solar panels provided electricity for lights and charging our electronics. All the comforts of home, almost.

The food. French toast with blueberries. Coconut ginger carrot soup. Ling cod with Middle Eastern pesto. Gorgonzola stuffed dates. We ate well. Our camp had a full time chef and an assistant who had promoted herself to sous chef (actually a Brit from Australia who found this odd job through a website devoted to helping students and others find a cheap way to see the world, trading labor for room and board). Food allergies & quirks were accommodated (and we didn’t make it easy).

If any wildlife appeared, or we wanted to paddle a little longer, the meals were delayed. If we all were hanging out by the hot tub, that’s where the appetizers were served.

But we really came for the kayaking and wildlife. Located on Blackfish Sound in British Columbia, Canada, our camp was accessible only by boat. The Sound stretches along the northeast side of Vancouver Island and in the summer is a salmon freeway attracting orca (which formerly were inaccurately called blackfish). The regional waters are rich with herring which attracts a second large sea mammal, the humpback whale. And bald eagles, white-sided Pacific dolphin, sea lions, seals, plus other birds.

Sitting in our tents at dawn and dusk, we could hear the humpbacks in the fog just beyond our sight. The sound of their blow brought us racing for a glimpse of these huge creatures. On our first morning kayak we had been told to prepare to raft all the kayaks together should we get close to a whale. When the guides first yelled “raft,” I thought the warning was premature; the whales were too far away. But quickly they came close. Instead of humpbacks, it was small pod after small pod of orca. The tall, straight dorsal fin indicated a male, the smaller curved fin was the female and often the small fins of the immature whales were part of the mix.

That first morning we didn’t get very far as we had to repeatedly rafted up, each time accompanied by ohhs and ahhhs. At one point our guide put a hydrophone in the water so we could hear the clicks of the orca pods. Some day scientists will tell us what they mean.

We didn’t get as close to the humpback whales, although a year ago the three veterans had seen them bubble feeding right around our campsite when the herring are running. This year we had to be content seeing them from a distance or when we did get close, through the veil of the heavy morning fog. Almost siting prompted our chant, “tail, tail tail!” With cameras posed hoping for the classic pose. One afternoon we sat on the rocks below our camp and watched two Humpback whales breech repeatedly, causing one of us to yell, “I didn’t know those suckers could fly.” The guides informed us that the big whales rarely breech in these waters where they generally concentrate on feeding so we felt very lucky.

The big attraction to kayaking in Blackfish Sound is, of course, the whales. But our gang seemed to take as much joy in the smaller mammals. The big sea lions act like the bears of the sea, foraging in the bay, using their bulk to intimidate and their speed to impress. Unlike the bigger mammals, the sea lions swim the same waters we kayak and pose a far greater threat to our stability than the big guys who kept their distance.

But it was the dolphins playing off the bow and stern of the power boats we rode to and from the camp that earned the biggest smiles. They just simply played with the boats, appearing to leap and dive just for the sheer joy of it. Kind of reminded me of little of puppies. It was hard not to feel a bit of their exuberance.

When the fog prevented us from seeing many mammals on the third day’s whale watching trip, our First Nation’s guide stopped the boat so we could watch seven eagles and hundreds of seagulls feast on a herring ball. The poor fish form a tight knit swirling ball ball when threatened, based upon the premise there is safety in numbers. Those fish lucky enough to be in the middle of the ball survive. The ball is driven to the surface by the sea lion nipping at them from below which invites the attack from above. Eagle after eagle swooped down, talons extended to grab fistfuls of herring. Sometimes the eagle dropped ankle deep into the water; sometime shin deep. And as the eagles rose with their catch up they contorted their bodies, beak to toes, to eat literally on the fly. An occasional seagull followed a bald eagle, hoping for dropped scraps. The immature eagles, about four of them, who hadn’t yet developed the characteristic white heads and tails, were clearly less proficient. They generally made several passes at the herring ball before getting up the courage to dip into the water, and even then, they often came up empty-handed.

The early morning kayaks had a charm of their own apart from the wildlife. We experienced what our guides called an early “fog-ust,” the typical August weather pattern where warm land temperatures and cool water temperatures create morning fog. Islands just a few hundred yards away disappeared. And as we paddled, we hugged the shoreline so as not to get lost in the mist. This lack of visibility enhanced the feeling of floating and made distance sounds seem close. As as the fog shifted, it offered glimpses of the shoreline or tree tops, presented like like brief gifts to those of us who chose to get up early. At times we could see blue sky above and white all around us.

It takes a special person to be a guide on one of these trips. Part cheerleader, part safety patrol, they had to know the waters, know the wildlife and manage a wacky group of paddlers — a bit like herding ducks. And, of course, they had to know how to kayak and how to help us kayak — getting us safely into our kayaks, adjusting our rudder pedals, securing our spray skirts, and making sure our PSD were worn correctly. All the while making sure we were having fun. They succeeded.

The kayaking was really easy, as you might expect for a trip advertised as appropriate for inexperienced kayakers. With coaching from the guides, our least experienced kayakers managed the most strenuous paddle through some pretty strong currents — no sweat. The guides assisted us in and out of the kayaks, making the experience accessible for least flexible and least mobile among us. The strict and understandable no-paddling-after-wine-or- beer rule kept us from the post-dinner kayak. Only some of us went out on the water at every opportunity. The camp site attractions coerced some to stay ashore as an alternative. That’s why it’s called glamping.

Would we do it again? You bet! And maybe again and again. The camp may stay the same. The activities may stay the same. But the wildlife will always change and surprise.

Food for thought

Some people think the only reason I travel is for the food. And what’s wrong with that? Food is culture and by focusing on the food, I’m embracing the culture. Most of the time I don’t think about it and just enjoy the experience of shopping, cooking and eating the food where ever I am, although it is a harder argument to make when I am only hundred miles from home.

Food markets, particularly outdoor farmers markets have always captivated me. Going through my old slides, or more recently my digital pictures, ripe tomatoes, unique fruits and vegetables, bright-eyed fish dominate. The green cauliflower in Sicily, the maroon mangosteens in Kauai, stall after stall of mushrooms in Provence, demanded to be carried back to our temporary home and served for dinner.

My motivation to cook is not inspired only by the beauty of the food markets. I do get tired of restaurant food (even when it is good) and the whole restaurant scene. “How are your first bites?” from my server totally annoys me. Plus there are rarely enough vegetables and too often they’re just boring. My motto has always been that life is too short for bad food and too often touristy places offer beautiful views but just so-so food.

So we choose whenever possible to rent a place with a kitchen for at least part of our trip. And that often comes with its own set of problems. Rental unit kitchens usually have a weird collection of dishes and cookware. Knives are often mismatched or are a very poor quality set and always dull. My other favorite tools — a micro plane, garlic press, good set of tongs — rarely are included. So I’ve learned to bring my own or improvise.

For long weekend trips to the ocean or mountains I pack a travel set of good knives I gave Peter as a Christmas present years ago. (They go in checked bags when we fly). Worth every penny I spent. We sometimes even bring our espresso machine which we bought on eBay for $25. Okay, that is over the top…but in Kauai for a month, it saved us several hundred dollars and we had better lattes. I also bring my favorite spices — cumin seed, star anise, herb d’provence, smokey paprika — or which ones will match the local cuisine. Although when going on longer trips with limited luggage space my spices may get left at home.

And then I buy staples the first day I get into a supermarket. Olive oil, smallest amount of butter I can find, pepper in a grinder, a good quality salt (local if possible). Depending upon where I am and what I anticipate cooking the list grows from there, focusing on small sizes . Chicken broth concentrate, flour, sugar, soy sauce, mayonnaise, good quality red wine vinegar, plus the paper goods I’ll need and zip lock plastic bags.

Once in my temporary kitchen I know I’ll have to make some adjustments. If I have a cheese grater, but no garlic press, I rub my garlic cloves across fine section of the grater. A crummy pair of tongs? Wrap the gripping end with rubber bands. It’s harder to deal with the flimsy pots and pans.

And if there is a thrift shop close by, I always check it out for additional kitchen towels (can never have enough), glassware (surprisingly often rental kitchens don’t have wine glasses) and serving pieces. Guess most visitors aren’t there to cook three course meals. Or I cruise local flea markets or the inexpensive street markets often attached to farmers markets. My favorite casual tablecloths and the best travel souvenir I have cost about 10 Euros each at one of those markets in Provence. Just wish I had bought more.

When we are in a foodie’s heaven like Umbria, or Provence, of course we eat out and often a lot, particularly for lunch. We tend to cook more when staying in the countryside to avoid driving after enjoying some wine. And we eat out in the cities where restaurants within walking or subway distance are plentiful. And when we don’t take our own espresso machine we have to locate a good coffee joint to start the day. In between these restaurant stops, we still try to buy food for picnic breakfasts and lunches so we get to play with the local cheeses, cured meats and bread that tantalize us. Eggs and toast in a cottage near Loch Ness where our landlady gave us farm fresh eggs. Take-out roast chicken in Cefalu from a shop the local haunt.

Buying our food also brings us into closer contact with the locals. Our butcher in Apt, Provence who explained in detailed French how to cook a roast we purchased. The young bread peddler in Lourmarin, an underemployed college graduate, helping out her immigrant father. The shop merchant in Croatia shared her truffle recipes with us.

Food is the one piece of cultural heritage that seems to hang on from our immigrant past long after the language and other customs have faded away. Why else do I cook krumkake and meatballs at Christmas based upon a recipe from a Swedish grandmother I never met?

Traveler not tourist

On the last night of our adventure cruise around the Sea of Cortez, the captain praised our ship of sixty passengers for being travelers and not a tourists. Travelers not tourists? Made me think about the difference.

A tourist may see a lot, as suggested by the title of a decades old (and very poor) movie, If It’s Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium. Looking at the world primarily from a bus, or following the raised umbrella of a guide, or gazing at the sea from the twelfth floor of a cruise ship are definitively being a tourist. I understand the attraction. For one thing, it’s often the most affordable option. It feels safe. You’re unlikely to stumble into the wrong part of a city or unclean restaurant and your guide is likely good at keeping pickpockets at bay. And it doesn’t challenge your lack of language while in a foreign place. All good reasons. For some tourists with physical challenges, tour buses and big cruise ships open up new horizons. These big trips may mean you miss some things, but at least you get to see and experience some of the world different from home.

What do you get on a small boat adventure cruise that’s different? For starters, you travel small. Even though there were 60 passengers on our latest cruise, our outings ranged from nine to twelve people with one or two expert guides. The guides could point out the Cardon cactus and explains the differences from its cousin the Saguaro. They explained why the elephant bush grew where it did. A fish skeleton on the shoreline could be identified. This was not a march through the Baja desert accompanied by a lecture, but an exploration of objects either the guide or one of us found on the beach or desert around us. A little bit of biology and a little bit of geology with some natural history thrown in. With every found object, those interested circled around as the guide pointed out the details. Others continued their search for the next object. Everyone’s curiosity was satisfied. It is the difference between a small seminar class and a huge lecture hall.

Secondly, you get into places big boats and tour buses can’t go. You end up in the wilderness. An uninhabited desert island, a marine preserve where they only thing you can take home with you is a picture or your memories, close enough to hear a glacier calving. More often than not at night you can’t see any lights from civilization, just the stars and moon. On our most recent cruise, we watched a total lunar eclipse in the wee hours of the morning. And while it may not factor into planning the itinerary, you also get off the grid —no cell phones, no internet, no news.

Small boat cruises mean you take the time to move slowly. A drift snorkel. A hike through the jungle for some bird watching. A kayak paddle through a lazy river past. Sure, some of these things can be seen from a big ship cruise or from a tour bus, but you don’t experience them. A big cruise ship has to run on a tight schedule, often set by the minute with no variation. Our first adventure cruise completely changed direction 45 minutes into the trip in order the follow a pod of orca — our itinerary was flexible.

The people who go on these adventures most frequently have had other adventures. So evenings are spent telling stories of past travels, recommendations for the best routes and tips on the best time to go. Friendship are made. Not necessarily something that can’t happen on a tour, but the conditions of the smaller experience make it more likely, if not impossible to avoid.

Of course, small group adventures tours aren’t for everyone. That isolation and escape from people costs a lot. The staff to traveler ratio bumps up the cost even more. Not everyone is prepared to pay the premium price or if they do pay that price, they want more comfort than an adventure cruise may offer. If you can’t use the all the gear — the snorkels, wetsuits, paddle boards and kayaks —you may not want to pay for the cost of this inventory. And most of these tours require physical agility and stamina that not everyone has. Big cruises are known for big food buffets, big pools and and entertainment — elements completely lacking on adventure tours.

But adventure cruises aren’t lacking in the finer things, depending upon your cruise company. Hot tubs, a sauna and massages were options on each of our adventure cruises. And for my money, getting up close to the animals, makes it all worth it. And that’s why I choose to be a traveler.

Whale of a story

The whole purpose of the trip was to see sea mammals. That and getting out of Seattle’s gloom and doom weather. We’ve seen whales in various places in the Salish Sea & Alaskan waters but this trip promised something more. And it delivered.

From the eastern shores of Baja, we rode in vans to Magdalena Bay where Gray Whales give birth to their calves. At three different times since Europeans arrived on this coast, the whales have been hunted to near extinction and still they survive. At one time their numbers were below 300 animals. Now there are likely over 26,000. Each year they make this 7000 mile journey from their feeding grounds to this large bay.

The town, Puerto Lopez Mateos, doesn’t offer much beyond the whales. And before tourism became a business, fishing kept the town alive. The cannery is still there and operating. Today there’s a school, a restaurant or two, a military outpost and the docks for the whale watching industry. Beyond the two or three paved roads, homes line the dirt streets.

But once we got to the docks, we could see what kept the town alive. Several stands offered whale watching expeditions. Cheap tourist trinkets were sold in other stands. A snack bar served hungry tourists.

We boarded the pangas, the small open touring boats that would take us out into the coastal waterways. Eight or nine to a boat. Our panga had hardly motored more than 100 yards when we encountered our first whale. A mom with her calf, who in his excitement bumped up against one of the boats. I was surprised at how close we got to the pair, but it was the only time luck brought us that close.

At one point our boat sat in the broad channel where Magdalena Bay opens to the Pacific. Big rollers came in from the Pacific and the whales were all around us. Our heads were whipping from one side to another as the other people in the boat kept seeing whales. All the tail splashing and fin slapping was happening at some distance. But closer by, whales again and again popped up doing a sky hop which we were told was how they looked around above water. Very impressive.

Later that day, back on the Sea of Cortez in the Parque Nacional Bahia de Loreto, just as the sun was setting, a Blue Whale and her calf surfaced several times around the boat. The largest animal on earth, it really didn’t look like much….a giant blimp almost completely submerged except for a long backbone, sometimes with a second small blimp next to it.

It was a day or two later in the same waters when the captain spotted a group of bottle-nosed dolphins. As we got within a couple hundred yards of them, they turned and headed right for our boat. It appeared they wanted to play on our bow wave, a feat we had experienced several times in our little chartered trawler in the San Juan Islands of the Pacific Northwest.

Later we spotted a huge group of common dolphins, probably 100 or more of the creatures, in a fairly tight knot, leaping and diving in a feeding frenzy. The captain piloted the boat through the group three times. Each time, many of the dolphins left their feeding to play with our boat. We all wandered down to dinner that night grinning. You just can’t help but react with a smile to the sheer exuberance of the dolphins.

But the best was yet to come.

On the last full day of our cruise, we had to don our wetsuits by 7:30am and hit the water. It was an overcast morning which didn’t make the water look too appealing. But as our boat got near the rocks where the adult sea lions rested after a night of fishing, the juvenile sea lions made a beeline for us. One by one we rolled off the side of the zodiac skiff into the cold water and into the midst of a teenage sea lion party.

Adult sea lions, and particularly the big males don’t make as charming swim buddies. That’s part of the reason for the early morning snorkel. The big guys would be more likely to leave us alone. When one big male lumbered past us, I was grateful he was intent on getting home.

The juveniles were something else all together. Like frisky pups, they swam right up to our faces. They nipped at our fins. And I watched one guy bite on Peter’s fin and shake his head. I swear he as trying to steal it.

It seemed they delighted in sneaking up to us & darting in front of our faces. They watched us carefully as they swam past, the eyes tracking our movements.

Three of the pups found a puffer fish which they batted around like a beach ball. Glad I wasn’t like that puffer fish.

At times they abandoned their individual water ballet and clung together, looking for all the world like they enjoyed each other’s company.

They followed us out to our skiff at the end of our snorkel and seemed to regret us leaving as much as we did. Okay, probably not.

But was a grand ending to a week of sea mammals.

Mule riding in Baja:

Riding a mule was never on my bucket list. But when it was proposed to the group of us, my thought was, “when will I ever have this chance again?” Quickly followed by, “just gonna do this once.” So my husband, my brother and I all raised our hands when they asked who wanted to go riding. We were on the eastern shores of the Baja Peninsula and the small boat cruise company had connections with a local family who would once a week gather enough mules to take groups off the boat riding.

It started as a rather strange process, vaguely reminiscent of junior high dances or waiting to be picked for a kick ball game in grade school. The whole group of us stood in a line or rough semi-circle. The local vaquero stood in his cowboy boots beneath his cowboy hat, looking first at each mule as it was brought forward, then at the line of gringos and with a point of his finger and a nod of his head indicated who was to get on the mule.

Peter went first. Was that a good thing or not? Malcolm and I were among the last.

I tried to discern a rhyme or reason for how we were matched with our mules. By weight? By height? Were timid riders matched with mild mannered mules? Did zodiac signs come into play? But the cowboy has his method and no one questioned his wisdom. And after we were loaded on the mules, young boys led our mules to the side in a rather haphazard mix of nervous riders and fresh mules.

Our mule train started up a broad dirt road and I was encouraged when my gray mule moved right along to get to the front of the pack. Those initial steps were the only lively ones out of him. After that he had to be strongly urged to keep up, and picked up speed only to prevent the mule behind us from passing. Uphills were a real struggle. But that happened later.

Initially the path was wide enough for a car and the views of the Aqua Verde Bay below us were spectacular. I began to feel brave enough to take out my camera.

I got feeling pretty comfortable, swaying and rolling to the easy gate of the mule. Figured I looked pretty competent, too. Felt sort of like an adult version of the pony rides at the zoo or at a carnival. Clearly, I thought to myself, we had made the right choice to go mule riding.

But as the reached to ridge line, the path narrowed. And the distance to be covered was revealed.

As the mule made its way through the brush on the valley floor, it became clear any control I thought I had of this mule was just an illusion. He knew the route. He was going to go at his pace. I was, quite literally, just along for the ride. The mule in front of us made that even more abundantly clear as he stopped at each bush that caught his fancy for a snack.

Stubborn as a mule is not an inappropriate phrase.

A small flock of turkey vultures sat on the ground not far from our mule trail, not the least bit disturbed by our presence, perhaps waiting for an errant rider to fall off a mule.

Not long after passing the vultures, I became uncomfortably aware of my sit bones. I had always thought I was well padded, but was discovering my natural padding was not quite where I needed it for this mule ride. And while the scenery remained gorgeous, I began to worry the end was not in sight. Just how long is a two hour ride?

The final stretch came when the Aqua Verde Bay was back in view. We stopped at the top of the ridge and our cowboys tightened the cinches on our mules.

We had been instructed to lean back on steep descents. At this point I began to worry if my legs would support me when I finally did get off. But I leaned back and hoped for the best. As a side note, our guides hopped off their mules and lead them down the steep terrain. What did they know that we didn’t? No pictures here; I was too busy holding on.

The good news is none of us embarrassed ourselves by falling off. And while we all walked a little funny for the first few steps, we were able to move. The real soreness didn’t set in for a couple hours and for days later I was rather painfully reminded of the fun from my one and only mule ride.