Monday, December 28, 2009

Cruising Life in the “Other World”

[Kyle]Since my return to work in earnest at the beginning of December, we’ve developed what I guess could be called our land routine. Our sea routine usually involves planning for the next few days over the horizon, keeping constant watch on the weather and maintaining Footprint so that she will carry us there. Once at anchor, we stay in shape primarily by going for runs or hikes that take us to what is usually the top of the highest point in the area. Well, now Footprint is hauled out 5000 miles from where we are spending most of our time. We’ve had to leave her unattended in the elements and hope that our planning and preparation were sufficient to carry her through the winter. Oban was -6C (18F) the other day.

In the meantime, we’ve settled in quite nicely at Mom’s house in Phoenix. Maryanne and I go running almost every day followed by an hour or so at the gym. It is nice to have a gym that’s so accessible and running routes that are right out the door – no rowing required, no running down a road only to find that it dead-ends in a bog. All of this is, of course, necessary to counteract Mom’s wonderful food, which always continues to taste good well after the required number of calories has been consumed.

I think I have finally managed to get into the routine of work again. This mainly involves getting back into the mindset of putting my personal life out of my mind while I’m there. Even though every third overnight or so allows some free time, for the most part, it’s a 24-hour job. The days are pretty long on average. I’m clear on the other side of the continent staying where the company wants me to stay when they want me to stay there. My uniform is always hung next to the door waiting to be the next thing I wear.

The other thing I have to get used to again is living my personal life in the small doses that a weekend provides and then shifting back into work mode. We’ve had some help from our friends. We took one weekend to visit our good friends Kate and Mark in Norfolk. It rained pretty much the whole time, which gave us the perfect excuse to just stay in most of the time and catch up or have great, long conversations about whatever sprung to mind.

After that, we spent a weekend with JD and Dale in Richmond. Just before I flew in from work, the Blizzard of ’09 hit. Maryanne and I drove to their house in decidedly scary conditions, going about a third of normal speed. This pretty much assured that we would spend the next day in the house with our friends and their kids chatting and enjoying their new Wii.

Kyle really did shovel snow, but we never got that on camera!

The next day, with the end of the weekend looming, it became necessary to shovel ourselves out of the wet, heavy snow. I’m pretty sure that I have managed to avoid shoveling a driveway since I was a teenager in Denver. Don’t worry, It comes right back to you. JD has a really big driveway. As I was just going to sleep in preparation for catching the first flight out to work, Maryanne came up and admitted to me that she had locked the rental car keys in the trunk while loading the luggage. I had to get to sleep, but a few hours later, she crawled in bed saying the locksmith had just left and we had our keys back.

The timing of the storm could not have been worse for holiday travel. Thousands of flights across the country were cancelled. For the next week, almost every flight was overbooked with stranded travelers trying to get where they were going. I was actually pretty fortunate since most of the people bumped off flights from Richmond to Newark probably just gave up and drove, leaving a handful of seats left. It was not the same with longer trips. Every airport I went through all week was standing room only. I would constantly overhear conversations people were having about being bumped off one flight or another and being put on standby for yet another flight. Most of them sounded exhausted and completely resigned to spending their day stuck.
Maryanne got to be a part of it herself. After spending fourteen hours in the Richmond airport getting bumped off one flight after the other, she finally got the last seat on the last plane to Cleveland. She spent the night there, got bumped off the flight to Phoenix, and got the last seat to Houston and then the last seat to Phoenix. She arrived 38 hours after getting to the airport and got to see almost as many places as I did.

After a hectic week, a kind Captain picked up my last round trip, which allowed me to get the jump-seat an a jam-packed full flight to Phoenix six hours earlier than I had planned. That flight was looking really horrible and there was a really good chance I wasn’t going to make it home by Christmas. A bonus was that both of the pilots were Captains of mine when I was a shiny new First Officer. We managed to pass the long flight getting caught up with each other.

So I managed to arrive in Phoenix while it was still daylight and I have an extra-long weekend before I have to go back, and earn the money required for our cruising life.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Where Have We Been?

[Kyle]I know it’s been a while.

We made it to my mother’s house in Arizona as planned after our second departure from Tanzania. We were pretty exhausted from all the flying so once we got there, we pretty much crashed. We spent the rest of the remaining week resting and getting our circadian rhythms in line with Mountain Standard Time. For the first couple of days, I was waking up at 3 a.m. completely slept out. I’d go for a run or a long walk and would be ready for a nap right around sunrise. As time went on, I still kept waking up at three but stayed awake for shorter and shorter periods. Eventually, I didn’t even bother getting out of bed. By the next night, my sleep was finally normalized. Maryanne doesn’t have these problems. She sleeps wherever, whenever.

Once that was done, we got busy doing all of the things on our shore list that have been pent up for so long, most of which was pretty dull administrative stuff that’s just way easier with an address and some space to spread out. We’re still also marvelling at everyday “luxuries” like essentially unlimited electricity and water, just for the asking, in house laundry and stores with everything. I keep habitually wanting to check the ammeter to see how much electricity the TV or the lights are using but, of course, there isn’t one. Mom’s ammeter is the bill at the end of the month, which is too rough for my taste. I like to know my impact at all times.

Family Thanksgiving fun

Once we got settled in, the Thanksgiving holiday was upon us. We had lots of family over, notably my brother, Darren, whose boss rarely seems to ever give him a day off, so the week was occupied with that. My step-sister Heather and her family arrived in time for Thanksgiving day, and helped us eat too much turkey and pie. It was nice to see everybody. Mom topped it off by taking me, Maryanne and Darren to a live dinner theatre performance of A Christmas Carol. We all really had a good time with each other. The play turned out to be a musical. It was not a play with a lot of songs but a full-blown musical with EVERY line sung and big song and dance numbers every five minutes complete with way over the top acting. I chose to enjoy it as I would enjoy a retrospective on really bad monster movies or something. It was so bad, it was kind of fun to watch each other squirm as the stage filled up and we knew another “big number” was imminent.

To be fair, it was a very elaborate production and it was clear the cast and crew had prepared endlessly for it but, like hip hop or country music, no matter how hard I try, I just can’t get into the art form of musical theatre.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Not Exactly as Planned

[Kyle]Our last day was mostly transportation to Arusha and the Kilimanjaro airport but did include a few hours game drive en route. We saw lots of cute critters and beautiful scenery, of course, as we usually do. The big event of the drive was that Maryanne spotted a lion before anybody else did. He was lying down in the grass and could have easily just been a clump but she spotted him. Juma didn’t believe her at first and took some persuading to stop, but it was a real lion and Maryanne caught him before anybody else.

Maryanne's Lion

After the game drive, we were dropped at the beautiful Arusha Coffee Lodge for lunch. Most of our party had arrangements for the five hour drive to Nairobi, Kenya for their flights home. Maryanne and I didn’t have to leave for the airport until late, so opted to spend time at the much more comfortable lodge rather than go to the airport. This left us spending another couple of hours at the lodge with our least favourite people from our group, who were also flying out of Kilimanjaro later.

Arusha Coffee Lodge, where we dallied and watched monkeys eat from the Avocado tree

These particular people were a pair of young newlyweds on their honeymoon. I could go on for hours about them but I won’t. Suffice it to say they were snobs and complete narcissists and we had to spend two of the longest hours of our lives after the others left of listening to them talk about how wonderful they are and watching the wife fly into a rage about how every breeze was messing up her hair. She doesn’t do outside eating. We are so glad we will never see them again.

Our tour company wanted to take all four of us to the airport together but Maryanne put her foot down. Their flight was four hours before ours.

Two hours later the guy showed up and said we should get going because, even though we were really early, the third world ticket agents have a bad habit of closing the ticket counter with three hours to go and stranding people who were late. Our driver said, “I’m sorry. I know it is very early, but it is a Tanzanian thing. You don’t want to be late.”

Once we got to the airport and I already tipped the bastard, we found out his story was all B.S. I think he just wanted to go home early and just made it up. The ticket counter actually opened up three hours before the flight, two hours after he dropped us off. Since the flight only stops in Kilimanjaro on the way to Dar es Salaam, there were only about fifty people to check in. They didn’t even start clearing seats until an hour and a half to go.

We didn’t make it. The agent explained that there were no seats for two days. He was very nice and offered to help negotiate a better fare for the hour cab ride back into town and suggested a few decent hotels. By then, Maryanne had already gone online and found most hotels wanted around $150/night. The only one near the airport, the Kia Lodge, wanted $250/night. This actually made everything a close tossup as a cab ride into town runs about $50 each way. The KLM agent, generously helped us, offered us his personal cell phone number so we could check loads on the Monday flight, and said he could help us negotiate a cab ride into town for us for $30 (rather than the $50). The hotels in town were supposed to be decent but not in a particularly good area.

We were sitting there wondering what our fate would be for the next couple of days when the very last passenger checked in, the Honorary Consul for The Netherlands, and offered to make a couple of calls on our behalf. A couple of minutes later, he got us a room at the Kia for $150/night. The van was on its way. Not ten minutes after leaving the airport, we were given a room complete with fresh petals scattered on the bed. What luck.

KIA Lodge

The KIA lodge is beautiful. It consists of lots of open, airy buildings with thatched roofs set amid tall bushes of bright colored flowers. The staff is as friendly as could be and the restaurant has a view of Mt. Kilimanjaro itself. Our room was clean but had a mosquito net that was not up to the job. We augmented it the second night with our own. The bed was also rock-hard. We didn’t notice this the first night, but by the second, we felt like we’d slept on a flight of stairs. We had nothing to do the last day for the ten hours between check-out time and heading to the airport so we are hanging out in the shade by the pool on chairs that are way more comfortable than the bed. If we get too hot, we nip downstairs to the bar for a coldie.

Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance - as seen from the dining room

Our flights home are looking pretty good for now. If everything goes as planned, we’ll be at my mother’s house in 34 hours or so, 25 of which will be flying.

Saturday, November 07, 2009


[Kyle]We bid Ngorongoro farewell and descended back down the long dirt track to the Great Rift Valley. Just before Arusha, we turned south for Tarangire National Park, where our next lodge was located. Tarangire is home to the entire assortment of African animals but is best known for its elephants and its baobab trees.

Elephants are very much more careful of humans in this park

We saw both pretty much immediately after entering the park. The elephants in Tarangire are noticeably more aggressive than the other ones we’ve seen, particularly the older bulls. Juma, our guide says that this is because he elephants in Tarangire were hunted by poachers until about 1960. The older ones still remember what happened and as a result, are pretty mistrusting of humans. We were able to get close to the elephants, but with almost every contact the bull would stand guard while the rest of the family retreated. Once they were sufficiently far off, he would do a menacing charge for three or four steps, complete with tusks raised and dust flying. The message was clearly, “Don’t follow us, or else!” Apart from being scary, I thought it was sweet, a bull being worried about his family. If they manage to keep poaching at bay, in a couple of decades, when the older generation starts dying off, Tarangire’s elephants may start being more tolerant of humans.

We had a quick stop at the lodge to check in and have lunch and then it was out into the park again. By this point, we had pretty much seen most of the animals there were to see. We figured Tarangire was just time filler between Ngorongoro and the airport because the crater was so far.

We turned out to be wrong. Tarangire is a beautiful park in its own right. The hills are multicoloured red, yellow and tan. Giant baobab trees are everywhere as well as lots of elephants. There are probably few places in the park where you are not in sight of an elephant.

We left the lodge and stopped at a baobab tree to learn about them. The next thing that happened after that was Maryanne spotted a bird in the top of a far-off tree that she thought the bird watcher in the group would be interested. Our guide looked through his binoculars and declared it a Lilac Crested Thrush. While our bird watcher friend was snapping away, I took a look through our own binoculars. I was amazed at what I saw. It wasn’t a Lilac Crested Thrush; it was a Senegal parrot, Poicephalis Senegalis. Another look and Juma conceded that it was a parrot. Yes! I outguided the guide!

Senegal Parrot, picture taken by our fellow safari passenger Luce - way to go!

I love Senegals! Many, many years back, I had a couple of them (Scooter and Buzzy) and I still miss them dearly. They are such sweet birds. They are such animated clowns and their antics are hilarious all-day entertainment. It was such a treat for me to see them in the wild and see what their natural habitat is like. That alone would have made the Africa trip worth it for me. The bird took off and let out a screech. I recognized their natural screech immediately. I have heard it so many times interspersed with English and other noises picked up in the home. We heard several more but they seemed quite skittish and would fly away every time we got almost close enough to photograph them. I got a good long look through the binoculars, though, and all the happy memories of my birds came right back to me right then.

Lovebirds and dik dik

A little further on, our guide spotted three lovebirds (also parrots) on the ground in front of the vehicle. They took off when we approached, but we saw and heard quite a few of them as well for the rest of the day. I was in parrot-lovers heaven.

Oh, but that’s not all, a few minutes after that, we came across a female lion lying by a river. ‘Big deal’, we thought, ‘We’re all lioned out. She’s cool and all, but what’re we going to do with more lion pictures?’ Once we got closer, we got our answer. This just wasn’t another lion, but a mother with five adorable cubs. The half eaten carcass of a freshly killed wildebeest was under a nearby tree. While mom slept off the effort of the hunt and the subsequent food coma, the little cubs played with full stomachs and not a care in the world. They were so young that they seemed to be just giant ears and paws that stumbled over themselves just walking. Over and over, they would practice big lion stuff by sneaking up on, and then pouncing on each other, bursting with hyperactive joy like kittens.

Cheetah enjoys feeding on its recent kill

It was getting late and sunset was imminent, so we started back to the lodge. About a third of the way back, Juma, now known as Eagle-eye, stopped our vehicle and pointed out a cheetah feeding on a fresh kill. Cheetahs are so well camouflaged that none of us could find it. It wasn’t until Maryanne started looking with binoculars and started directing our gaze in the right direction that the rest of us found it. This cat was 50 meters off the road lying down in the grass. The only thing visible to the naked eye was some slight motion and occasional flashes of red from the kill. That’s what Juma saw. He didn’t even slow down and search for a while, he just saw it. Well, we knew all of the guides share information (in Swahili) over the radio. We figured he must have received a tip. Once he got on the radio, other vehicles started showing up. The other guides confirmed that Juma saw this one first and were all clearly congratulating him in Swahili when they showed up. Cheetahs are probably the hardest animals to find. They’re solitary, secretive, small and well camouflaged. We are very lucky to have seen not Just one, but two of them on this trip.

Juma, our ace guide

Juma, who rumor has, is the youngest guide, clearly scored himself some points with his peers on that one. Even though he is young, he has been a really good guide. He looks seventeen, but he speaks at least five languages and we haven’t been able to stump him on a biology, geology or ecology question yet. Every time we were able to check his answers from an independent source, he’s been spot-on. As far as we can tell, the Senegal thing was the first thing he got wrong. When we did later find a Lilac Crested Thrush, I thought it was another Senegal – until it turned its head and I saw the beak was pointy instead of hook shaped. In flight, they look completely different, but sitting on a branch, they are very hard to tell apart – until you see the beak. That one’s still mine, though.


Scenes from the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge

[Kyle]Descending into the crater, we immediately came to a standoff between buffalo and a pride of lions. One of the lions had managed to injure one of the buffalo calves and the big bulls in the herd were alternating between forming a defensive perimeter and charging the lions to run them off. The bulls managed to hold off the lions until the rest of the herd was a safe distance away and then they went off to join them. The lions had taken over all of the territory around a watering hole and were clearly more interested in having their food come to them than chasing it all over the crater. So the buffalo win that round. A little later on, we came upon a lion finishing off a kill from the day before, so they didn’t seem too motivated to hunt again just yet. They normally eat only once every four or five days.

Lionesses on the hunt

Lazy, lounging (male) lions

We left the area and came upon a traffic jam of safari vehicles. One of them had stopped to look at three male lions. The lions then came over to the truck and plopped down in its shade, effectively immobilizing it since the vehicle would have had to run over them to leave. Well, this gave everybody else a chance to get some good close shots of the lions and it all balled up from there. As soon as one vehicle would gingerly extricate itself, they’d go over to another one looking all drowsy and plop down, thus repeating the process.

Black Rhino

Once we were out of there with our fill of lions, we drove a bit further and found a lone Black Rhinoceros warming up in the sun. It didn’t really do a whole lot, just stood there warming up, but it was cool to see since they’re so rare. Our guide told us that participating in a rhino hunt, no matter how small a role, carries a life sentence in Tanzania. I don’t imagine anyone survives very long in a Tanzanian prison.

Hyenas feeding on a dead hippo

From the rhino, we went to a hippo pool, where a pack of about five hyenas was in the water eating the carcass of a hippo that had recently died. There was about twenty more of the pack sitting on the bank waiting to get at the carcass. Once the hyenas on the hippo had their fill, they’d swim off and would be replaced by new ones. The new arrivals had to run a gauntlet of swimming past hippos, which are very, very territorial and not happy to share their water with others, to get to the carcass. The hippos didn’t seem to mind when the hyenas were eating, but they were not happy to let them pass.

After the hyenas, we drove toward the forest at the edges and looked for more of the 30 rhino in the area, but were unsuccessful. Instead, we saw lots of ostrich, zebra, gazelle and baboons.

Beautiful Crater Scenery

It was getting late in the day and we started heading back to the ascent road on the other side. Along the way, we passed through large herds of wildebeest and zebra, which hang out together. We also saw several elephants grazing and cooling themselves off in the reeds at the edge of a pool.

More animals in the Crater

On the way out, snoozing right in the middle of the road, we found the same three male lions that had caused the traffic jam that morning. Since we were one of only two vehicles by then, they decided that we would be their shade for a while. They were close enough that if we were dumb enough to try it (which we weren’t, by the way) we could have pet them through the windows.

Lions resting, still; tough life

As we drove out of the crater, I stood up with my head out of the pop-top, facing backward, lost in thought as it receded below and into the distance. What an amazing place.

Later on, as we were brushing our teeth for bed, I heard a strange noise out the window. I went to the solarium and saw two huge buffalo grazing outside barely over arms length away. Buffalo are famously ill-tempered, always ‘with the angry faces’, as Juma put it. The thin floor to ceiling glass of the solarium seemed awfully feeble protection. Fortunately, they seemed more concerned with trimming the lawn than us.

Since it gets a little cold at the crater rim, the lodge places hot water bottles in the beds when it does the turn-down service during dinner. Maryanne especially loved this. The bed was nice and comfy warm. We were so tired at the end of the day that even with those behemoths munching right outside, we were both asleep within seconds.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Serengeti – Ngorongoro

[Kyle]This day was billed as mostly travel day, retracing the long, dusty road that we drove in. We did a little side drive through an area that our guide said was the territory of a large pride of lions. We found a few elephants cutting through the grassland on their way between their preferred feeding spots in the trees. We also found a small herd of impala. Our guide thinks the lions must have shifted out of the area to follow larger herds.

More Animals on Safari

We got back on the main road. Within a few minutes, the fine, powdery dust was filling the vehicle. Our guide had us open all the windows in an attempt to clear it, but it just got worse. Then somebody noticed the back gate was ajar, being held shut by one of the spare tires. That fixed the problem, but now all of us and our luggage were the same color.

We pulled off the road and started going cross-country across the flat plain. At first, we thought Juma had seen something, but he just kept driving and driving. Then, out of nowhere came about a dozen Land Rovers parked around a cluster of buildings.

We had arrived at the Oldupai Gorge. Many people know this as Olduvai Gorge. This turns out to be incorrect. Olduvai was a mistranslation of the Masai word Oldupai (for sisal) that was their name for the gorge. We went through the small museum and were given a talk by a resident archaeologist. He gave us a brief history of archaeological work on the site and what has been found there.

Olduvai/Oldupai Gorge

He explained that the oldest hominid remains found anywhere else in the world have been dated at 1 million years ago. Homo Erectus and Homo Habilis remains at Oldupai have been dated at 1.75 million years. The famous hominid footprints of Austrolopethicus Aferensis as well as tools found in the area of the footprints at Oldupai have been dated at 3.6 million years. New studies using mitochondrial DNA confirms this timeline. What this means for us as humans is that, to the best of our knowledge. This is where we came from. This is the place we started being human. It is a sobering thing indeed to look down at layers of rock tens of meters thick and realize that way back when the bottom layer was the top layer, we were figuring out how to make tools and build fire and it all happened right here. Everything that has happened to us since all traces back to this place. It was moving to say the least.

After Oldupai, we stopped at a Masai village. We exchanged formalities with the Chief’s son (who, unfortunately had a name I could not pronounce or remember) and were invited in after a welcome dance featuring the impossibly high jumps. The village is set up in a ring. The first layer from outside is a tangle of big branches, meant to make it very difficult for anything to get through, like thick undergrowth. Inside that, were a ring of oblong mud huts with about the floor area of a one car garage and standing around six feet tall. Inside that was the cattle pen. The Masai are predominately pastoral people, although they do seem to have discovered the racket of village tours and souvenir sales.

Masai Village.. a little bit of performance involved but still interesting to see

The Chief’s son separated us into twos and threes and then assigned one of the villagers to show us their hut. Maryanne and I, being near the end of the line, were taken by the Chief’s son to his hut. It was nice. It was comfortable and functional. It’s only real drawback was that the lack of windows made it a bit dim. We didn’t see it with the central cooking fire lit, though. He was very open and friendly and spent some time with us in the hut answering our many questions. Afterward, we were shown outside to the cattle ring, which had been set up as a kind of bazaar. We managed to ‘escape’ with only a couple of bracelets, for which we had to haggle for our lives.

We were escorted out and shown to an outdoor classroom where children were doing a counting lesson. They had not been there when we pulled up.

The rest of the day was a steep, slow drive to yet another amazing lodge. This one is perched right on the steep rim of the Ngorongoro Crater far below.

Ngorongoro Crater Is the world’s largest intact volcanic caldera. 12km across and 2000 feet (600M) deep, it contains the world’s greatest collection of large animals. The crater is large enough to support several large populations of almost every African animal (except giraffe, since there are not enough of the right kind of trees), yet small enough that the entire thing can be seen at once. The steep rim and thick growth at the top effectively eliminates almost all movement of animals in and out of the crater. This makes everything nice and easy to find. Predator and prey spend their entire lives within sight of one another. The crater has several zones within. At the bottom, the floor consists of perfectly flat grassland interspersed with areas of wetland. Higher up the sides, forest gradually begin and increase in lushness until the very top, which is thick tropical forest.

Our room (as well as every other) has a solarium looking west into the crater with a stunning view of the scene below. I couldn’t believe we were in our room and actually looking out at the Ngorongoro Crater. For so long, this had been a place I had read about in National Geographic or seen on nature shows, now we were actually here, the sunset was fantastic!

An Incredible Freaking Day

More animals on Safari

[Kyle]Get this. We woke up, pulled back the curtains, and saw giraffe and impala munching on the trees just outside. Out of our door on the other side, up on the hill were a couple of elephants. Most of the hotels I usually stay in have a view of the parking garage.

We ate our breakfast watching the giraffe eat theirs. Afterward, we headed into the Serengeti.

Cheetah - Now you see him, now you don't!

In short order, we found a male lion. Then we found a cheetah sitting up, scanning the horizon. When she laid down, her camouflage made her completely disappear into the grass. If you didn’t know exactly where to look, you could trip right over one, which would be bad. A little further on, we found a leopard in a tree pretty far off. Maryanne, sitting next to our guide Juma, managed to be the first to spot almost everything, which won her a lot of high fives from me.

Then we had lunch. Yes, we spotted all three cats before lunch.


We had lunch at the well done visitor’s center. In residence were these adorable little creatures, Hyrax, that live on the boulders. They get down by sliding head first to the bottom.

Afterwards, I joked to Juma that the next thing he needed to produce was a crocodile. He took us to see hippos. We did the usual. We stopped and took pictures and oohed and ahhed at them. We talked about them a bit and then moved on. We drove 100 meters and there they were, two Nile Crocodiles. Juma assured us his luck was never that good.

After the crocs, we were admiring a couple of giraffe, a herd of wildebeest came by. They were running fast and cut ahead of us and crossed the road. The giraffe took off and then we saw the lioness, right behind in a full gallop. She ran out of steam just abeam our vehicle and stopped for a rest. The wildebeest, no longer being pursued, coasted to a stop. She (and the wildebeest) seemed completely oblivious to our presence and she just kept her eyes locked on the tasty tasty herd. She would crouch, then advance, crouch, advance. We waited for the longest time for her second attempt but it never came. After a while the wildebeest nervously trotted away at an angle to their original path. The lioness seemed to decide they were too far away for a strike anymore and lay down to rest for the next attempt some other time.

We saw a few other things on our drive back to the lodge, but all anybody could talk about is how lucky we were to have been able to see an actual chase. I don’t think we could have asked for a better day.