Overlanding Africa (Pt.1)

Sunrise from on top of Dune 45, Namib-Naukluft NP

For this leg of our journey through Africa we did something we’ve never done before… we took an organized tour! We’ve always been of the mindset that tours were for the unadventurous- surely anything a company could put together we could do better and more economically! We are very independent travellers who don’t like to compromise in terms of where we go and how much time we spend in a certain place. And then there is the worry about getting along with all the others who are on a tour with you. Well, we did a lot of research via the Internet before leaving Canada and we happened across a tour company who offered overland camping trips taking in almost all of the places that we wanted to visit (for the most part). Camping seemed like a great solution in keeping costs down. Having never been to this continent before, we felt that this would be an ideal way to acclimatize to Africa before setting off on our own for the months to follow. So we swallowed our pride and booked a 20-day overland safari which would begin in Cape Town and take us through the western reaches of South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and finish nearly 6,000 kilometers later in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. The company we went with was Nomad Africa Adventure Tours (hereafter, “Nomad”). For this trip we each paid $2,000 CAD- so about $100 per person per day, and this included all transportation, accommodation (predominantly camping), food, and all attraction entrance fees as well as all game drives through the National Parks we visited. We would soon discover that in Africa we couldn’t have done it any cheaper on our own.

Our Nomad family posing in front of Luther in the Etosha Pan

We left Cape Town on the morning of February 15th after a brief rendezvous at the Nomad office. The first day was light on driving and we ended in the Cederberg region of South Africa. There we introduced ourselves and got to know each other a little better while hanging around in the swimming pool and later over dinner and some complimentary wine tasting. The following day we pushed onto the Namibian border, camping on the South African side along the picturesque Orange River. There we swam in the river and drank at the very excellent riverside bar all the while getting to know one another all the more. I think it was on that night that our greatest fear was put to rest- we would get along just fine with everyone in our group! Our group consisted of 23 travellers from a diverse sampling of countries: 14 women, 9 guys, and of those guys, four were named “Chris”. We had a guide named “Gertie”, our captain, “Cosmas”, and our ‘food engineer’, “Menzeli”- all Zimbabwean born and bred. Altogether 26 strong traveling through Southern Africa in our beloved overland truck named “Luther” (Nomad names each truck in their fleet after a dead musician, ours was named after the late Mr. Vandross). Gertie was absolutely amazing- always laughing, full of humour herself, and just a wonderful person and a brilliant guide too. Cosmas drove tirelessly through the African heat and always got us to our destinations on time and in one piece- a really nice guy as well! Menzeli always amazed us with what he could prepare under such primitive conditions. We were fed very well along the way. Luther was a very comfortable and spacious truck. Each of us had our own oversized locker that could easily store our backpacks and anything else we brought along. There was a charging station which allowed us to keep the batteries of all our devices charged and ready, and in the belly there was room for all of our tents, mattresses, chairs, tables, and all of our cooking and cleaning gear. A great vehicle custom made for long distance travel through Africa… but be careful not to call it a bus (that was the naughty “B-word”, punishable with campsite chores)! Each day four members of the group would be selected for “adventure group”, an exciting name assigned to the four people who were held responsible for cleaning up the dishes and other various tasks around camp. We were routinely and affectionately reminded that “this is an adventure, not a holiday!”

Our first night in Namibia was spent at the beautiful Fish River Canyon- the largest in Africa and second largest in the world, rivaled in size only by the Grand Canyon in America. Before the Namibian border we saw little in the way of foreign (to us) wildlife- springboks were probably the most exciting. But soon after entering Namibia, and definitely around the hills and valleys surrounding the Fish River Canyon, the number of grazing springboks grew, zebras became common and so did oryxes. It was here where we met our first San bushman who took us on a walk through the desert attempting to teach us how their people survive in the harsh conditions in which they live. It was also camping in this area where we could first really appreciate the massive, clear, and bright starry sky that would become a nightly norm.

900-year-old acacia trees inside of Dead Vlei

The next morning we broke camp and drove over 500 kilometers north into the Namib-Naukluft National Park- a highlight of Namibia and all of Africa for that matter. The Namib-Naukluft N.P. covers an area larger than Switzerland making it the largest game park in the whole of Africa. But this is one park that isn’t at all about the game, it’s the surreal desert landscapes and burnt orange coloured sand dunes that are the main attraction. The dunes are the oldest in the world and among the tallest as well with many over 200 meters and some nearly reaching a towering 400 meters in height. We did a late afternoon walk through Sesriem Canyon which was nice but not so spectacular. The real show-stopper came the next day when we climbed up Dune 45 (each notable dune is assigned a name or at least a number) to watch the sun rise over the surrounding dunes. Sunrise and sunset is by far the best time to be in the dunes, not only because it’s the times of the day when the temperatures are bearable, but mainly because these are the times when the dunes display their most vibrant colours. Crimson morphs into reds which turn to shades of orange and then give way to a spectrum of yellow. It is truly one of nature’s most breathtaking performances. By the time we got to Dead Vlei it was about 2 hours later and about 40 degrees hotter! Most of our group paid it some quick respects and retreated back to the truck in search of shade. We on the other hand lingered. This has always been one of those places on my travel ‘bucket list’, and, now that I was there, I couldn’t seem to tear myself away from it. The dead camel thorn acacias that punctuate the cracked white clay pan are ancient- some over 900 years old. When juxtaposed against the vast orange dunes, the images created are mesmerizing. It was sublime having the whole place to ourselves. After Dead Vlei we made a brief stop at Sossusvlei before joining the rest of our group back at Luther.

One of the incredible landscapes of Dead Vlei

Beautiful Spitzkoppe!

Our next stop, after a quick photo-op at the Tropic of Capricorn, was the coastal town of Swakopmund, 250 kilometers to the north. This was our first multi-day respite from our hectic travel schedule. Here we were given rooms (a welcomed break from camping) and free time to sign up for a host of outdoor activities on offer. Members of our group went skydiving (some sporting animal onesies), quading through the dunes and sandboarding. We opted to be lame and save money! Instead, we walked around the town and beach and did a lot of nothing. Swakopmund is a German town built in Bavarian style (so they say), but in our opinion the place was just weird. It was low season and the wide streets were totally devoid of any cars and people. It felt really artificial in a Truman Show kind of way. We lost one of our group members in Swakopmund but picked up a couple more as well. We were now a group of 16 gals, 8 guys, and half of those guys were still named “Chris”! Anyways, that was Swakopmund.

Day 8 of our tour took us to beautiful Spitzkoppe. The mountains and rock formations of Spitzkoppe seem to just jet out from the desert floor. The smooth granite that forms these mountains are over 700 million years old and have a lengthy human history as well. We were taken on a desert walk by a local Damara bushman who led us to some ancient Khoi San rock paintings and showed us how we can murder someone with the poison from the milk plant. Very informative! But Spitzkoppe is gorgeous and a fun place to release your inner monkey… but fu@k was it hot! We had to leave already the next morning which was one of my major regrets of the trip. I think Spitzkoppe was worthy of at least one more day and night, but this was a tour and this was the compromise. The next day we visited a Himba Tribe village en-route to Outjo which was something I was really looking forward to but something I was ultimately disappointed in. I guess I was expecting something more authentic, but this visit to this particular tribe was the same as so many other cultural visits we’ve done in the past. The Himba people, except for the children, didn’t seem too excited that we were there at all and you got the feeling that they just wanted the food and supplies that we had brought for them or for us to buy some of their homemade souvenirs. We later learned that this particular tribe wasn’t even from that area- they were just relocated there by a local business owner in hopes to attract more tourists. Boooo! What made it all better was knowing that our next stop was Etosha National Park.

The abundance of life at an Etosha waterhole

Etosha National Park is Namibia’s premier park in terms of wildlife watching and no doubt it is among the elite of all African game parks as well. The park surrounds the massive Etosha pan which is predominantly dry except for a few weeks during the wet season. This is the allure of Etosha- it is a desperately dry place so viewing animals is fairly easy as long as you can locate the sure sources of water. I can’t even describe the amount of animals we saw during our two-and-a-half days in Etosha… but I’ll give you a brief rundown. We watched a herd of nearly 40 elephants tramp through the dusty plains on their way to a waterhole (and many more throughout the park). We saw a total of 15 lions and 10 rhinos in various locations around the park. Zebras, springboks, giraffes, oryxes, impalas, hyenas, jackals, warthogs and kudus seemed to be everywhere. We even shared our campsite with a spitting cobra one night! The birdlife was also very impressive. Our campground featured a spot-lit waterhole where you could watch the wildlife come and go during the evenings and well into the night. This gave me an opportunity to test the sensitivity settings of my new camera (it did well). During the night you could hear the roaring of the lions all around. Etosha was most definitely another highlight of Namibia and of the tour as a whole. If you had to choose just one park to visit in Southern Africa, this just might be the one. Here are some reasons why…

The evening stretch, Etosha

Nighttime shot of a black rhino at the campsite waterhole

Yellow-billed hornbill, Etosha

Day 12 and we found ourselves in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital. It seemed like a clean and relatively pleasant city (by African standards) with streets and avenues named after dictators of the world, but we didn’t linger long. We were put-up at a very nice hotel for the night, the air con a blessing. That evening we went out to Joe’s Beer House- an long-standing institution in Windhoek. There we ate animals that we admired in Etosha, drank lots of beer and Jagermeister, and said goodbye to seven more of our group members, including 2 named “Chris”. A bittersweet ending to an amazing trip through Namibia. Eight more days left to conquer Botswana and Victoria Falls!

An overview of our trip

 

Cape Town (…is more than just a town!)

Never before have our feet tread upon the African continent, but this is where we now are, and will be, for the next four and a half months. Over the past 14 years we've travelled Asia extensively, and this year we decided it was time for change. Africa seemed like a good change. After a very long flight we arrived in Cape Town in the southwestern-most tip of South Africa. For someone who's never been to Africa before, no other city could break you in more gently than Cape Town. Due to a date cancellation of our original overland camping trip, we had 12 days to explore Cape Town- far more time than we ever like to spend in a city, but we soon discovered that Cape Town is so much more than just a city.

Our first couple of days were spent jumping from office to office sorting out visas for our upcoming visit to Namibia as well as attempting to get an extension on a South African one (note: if you are Korean and want to spend more than 30 days in South Africa, get your visa BEFORE you come). When not dealing with bureaucratic bullsh!t we walked… and walked a lot! We walked through the colourful old Muslim section, Bo-Kaap, and walked to the V&A Waterfront- a lively place of art, food and shops. We walked throughout the CBD and walked through Woodstock and District Six. We walked up and down Long Street probably a dozen times. We walked through the Company's Gardens and we walked up Lion's Head. Then we got a bus pass!

Walkin' around Bo-Kaap

One thing we also did during our first few days in Cape Town was take the City Sightseeing Bus (the “Red Bus”) which is a great way to orientate yourself to the city and it's surrounds. Touristy, yes, but fun and informative too. It does a very handy circuit through the city and outskirts as well. Camps Bay, Clifton, Sea Point, Hout Bay, Kirstenbosch and Constantia (as well as many more) are all included stops along its routes, and you can get on and off as you please.

One of the things that make Cape Town such an enjoyable place to walk around is its architecture- a blend of styles left behind by each colonial period with a few home-grown treats in between. Dutch, Victorian, and more than its fair share of art-deco buildings can all be admired in Cape Town. But the pièce de résistance of Cape Town has to be its iconic Table Mountain. Visible in one form or another from nearly everywhere on the Cape, it's a mountain, a national park, and one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature (of which we have now been to 5). It even has its own plant kingdom (1 of only 6 in the whole world)- the Cape Floral Kingdom, which is home to more than 2,200 species of flowering plants alone. It also supports a huge array of wildlife (over 300 species of birds), from penguins and ostriches to zebras and klipspringers- Table Mountain NP has it all. But it is its dramatic beauty that makes the mountain so special. On one side the mountain appears completely flat on top, hence its 'table' name. The backside however reveals an altogether different mountain as the “Twelve Apostles” drop dramatically into the Atlantic Ocean. The native Khoi inhabitants referred to the mountain as 'Hoerikwaggo' which meant 'mountain in the sea'- a name very fitting if looking at it from Bloubergstrand. It is also a hiker's paradise with hundreds of kilometers of trails winding their way around and on top of the mountain and all the way out towards Cape Point. For those not up to the task of climbing to the peak, there's a really cool cable car that rotates 360 degrees as it whisks you to the summit. Without a doubt, a visit to Cape Town would not be complete without a visit to Table Mountain.

Table Mountain as seen from Lion's Head

On one day we rented a car and drove out to Camps Bay and along the Atlantic coast via the stunning Chapman's Peak Drive and on to Cape Point (a part of Table Mountain NP) and the Cape of Good Hope. The views along this drive are breathtaking and a highly reccommended route to take. We then carried on to Simon's Town and Boulders Beach to visit the resident penguin colony- a feast for all the senses!

The penguin colony @ Boulders Beach

Another day we devoted to the more sinister history of Cape Town- the Cape Town under apartheid rule which uprooted tens of thousands of blacks and coloured people from their homes in District Six and other areas and relocated them to the townships of the Cape Flats. The District Six museum is a good starting point to collect information and stories from the former residents followed by a walk through the now barren spaces of District Six itself. After that we took a tour through two of the largest and oldest townships in Cape Town; Langa and Gugulethu. Our guide that day brought us to his own home in Langa (a closet-sized room actually) which he shared with eight of his family members. The washroom in the building was a one sink, one toilet affair that was shared with all of its 40 residents. It was a harsh and sombre reality that this still exists today. But the people of the townships are proud of what they have and strong for what they've endured, and if you ask them you will hear the same answer over and over again- they wouldn't want to live anywhere else. This doesn't mean that they wouldn't like to upgrade their living standards, it simply means that the townships are their home, their community, their support systems, and no one will ever take that from them again. My only advice to anyone taking these township tours is this: make sure that the tour you're signing up for benefits the townships you're visiting- not all tour companies give back to the communities they visit, and try to support the communities first hand while you're there. This doesn't mean giving handouts to begging children (in fact you should never do this) or even buying handicrafts you don't want, it simply means try buying your water or drinks from a local shop or eating at a local restaurant. We had the most amazing braai at a local restaurant in Gugulethu run by the sweetest woman. Just saying!

Chasing ostriches near Cape Point

Before coming to South Africa we were inundated with warnings and statistics on how dangerous of a place it can be. Having never been to Africa before we listened and were somewhat apprehensive about our upcoming travels. But after arriving in Cape Town (a city with a staggering annual homicide rate of over 2,200) we were soon relieved at what we saw and as soon as we dropped our guards we were exposed to all the good and beauty the city had to offer. But Cape Town is more than just a city- it's the mountains, the scenery, the greenery, the outdoor activities, the views, the beaches, the flora and fauna and the coastlines. Then there are the vibrant neighbourhoods, the waterfront, the architecture, the food, the wine, the people, the good times. Cape Town is a beautiful city full of beautiful people. Drop your guard and embrace this city and you will be rewarded. It is a destination in itself. We had 12 days to discover Cape Town and I think we got to know it fairly well, but we left it wanting more. Luckily we have a few more days to spend here before we fly home in June.

Papua: Valleys and Mummies

A Dani elder in the village of Jiwika

The last week of our Journey through Papua was spent amongst the hills and valleys of the Baliem region, deep in Papua's eastern interior. From Manokwari we flew to Jayapura, the capital of Papua, but stayed instead in the airport town of Sentani. Sentani lies beautifully between the imposing Gunung Ifar and the incredibly picturesque Danau (lake) Sentani. Flying into Sentani gives you a a spectacular birds-eye view of the lake and the undulating hills that line its shores. We had little choice but to overnight in Sentani as the connecting flights into Wamena, the administrative centre of the Baliem Valley, were full for the day. We did reserve seats for the next morning with no problems though. We stayed at the Rasen (a.k.a. the Ratna Sentani) Hotel which is a mere 5-10 minute walk from the airport and a solid option for a night or two in Sentani. That night we explored the town and indulged in some Western culinary comforts.

Hiking in the Baliem Valley

The guidebooks and websites will all tell you that for any travel outside of Wamena and for most places in Papua you will have to obtain a surat jalan (travel permit) stating, in detail, all the places you wish to visit. I can tell you now with certainty that this information is untrue, or at least outdated. As of January 2014, the government decided that processing these permits wasn't worth the cost (bribe money included) and trouble so they did away with them altogether. We did however need one for the Arfak region for some reason. Anyways, that's one less thing you have to worry about when visiting the Baliem Valley. Another thing that much of the available literature will lead you to believe is that an organized trek is the best way to explore the Baliem. This may be true if you trek for one or two weeks, but for anyone who is considering a 2, 3, or 4-day trek I don't think that is the best, and definitely not the cheapest, of your options. We talked to many people about their multi-day treks and were shocked when they told us that they only hiked for around 4 hours per day on average and covered the same ground as we did on a single day of hiking. There is very little variation in these kinds of organized treks. The daily regiment of hiking is calculated to meet the needs of the majority of those who trek with their companies and is also most likely based on which villages offer comfortable accommodation to their guests. When you consider the costs associated with hiring transport, guides, porters, and cooks, you can understand why these organized treks can be so expensive. The other downfall to these treks is that once you are done your program, you have still only experienced one part of a valley that varies so greatly with every direction you branch from it.

A Dani man we came across on a walk

What we decided to do instead was to hire a guide and driver (with a 4X4) for each of the days we were there (excluding our first and last day). This strategy allowed us to see much more of the valley and its varied landscapes than on a traditional trek as well as provided us with outings tailored to our specific interests. Another benefit to this arrangement was the freedom to cancel a day's outing if weather didn't cooperate (which luckily did not happen). So when we arrived in Wamena we headed straight to Papua.com (the local Internet cafe) where we met up with owner Mr. Fuji who reccommended a guide for us to call. We met with Jonas within a half hour and discussed the things we were interested in seeing and doing. He took care of the rest! For his and the driver's services we paid $100 per day, and, although we were just two, this fee could have been shared between a larger group as well.

The 300 year-old mummy in Jiwika

On our first day Jonas took us northeast of Wamena which turned out to be a great introduction to the valley and its tribal cultures. We started in Jiwika (Sumpaima) where we experienced our first interaction with the Dani people. Since Jiwika is known to be a village frequented by tourists we thought that the inhabitants were dressed in traditional garb (or lack thereof) for our benefit. But as we walked through villages in the surrounding areas we soon realized that this is very much the way it still is on a daily basis. The women wear little more than grass skirts and maybe a head dress of some kind, while the men wear virtually nothing except for a koteka (a penis sheath made from dried and hollowed-out gourds) and perhaps some type of head adornment. Both Dani men and women (and children too) are notorious smokers, so regardless of whether you smoke or not, it would be a good idea to pick up some cigarettes from town to distribute among the friendly folk of the villages you visit. One thing that you should be prepared for when visiting the Baliem Valley are the elongated greetings and a whole lot of hand-wagging. I think I shook more hands during that week in the Baliem than I did over the past 10 years of my life. When you consider the length of time each handshake lasts, you begin to realize that a good portion of each day is spent locked to another person's appendage! At other times the men will loosely wrap their arms around your waist and pat your back for a minute or two while reciting a chant-like “wa wa wa wa”. It's actually pretty endearing once you get used to it. Another thing we quickly noticed is that older Dani women are often missing one or more digits of their hands which reflects the now outdated custom of removing portions of a women's finger when a close relative dies. Yup!, there is definitely a lot to take in on a visit to one of these villages, but the people are very friendly and genuine. Jiwika is also known for its 300-year-old Wimontok Mabel mummy who was a celebrated chief of the village. The mummy is in remarkably good condition, and, if you are willing to pay a small fee for the privilege, you are more than welcome to take photos. We kept exploring that area for the rest of the day taking in many more villages and visiting the Kotilola Cave. On our way home, Jonas took us through the local market which sells everything from traditional regalia and weapons to fresh fruits and veggies.

Our second day was spent trekking a stretch of trail, southeast of Wamena, very popular with the organized trekking companies. We did a 8-9 hour hike that took in the countryside around the villages of Yetni, Kurima, Kilise, and Seima to name just a few. This is the part of the Baliem Valley that is perhaps most dramatic in terms of the depth of the valley itself and the whole day was just a really beautiful walk with some sections of more strenuous inclines.

I would say that our favourite hike in the greater Baliem Valley came on our third day. One of Jonas' passions is bird-watching and he is very knowledgable on the variety of species that live in the vicinity. We drove out towards Walaek (southwest of Wamena) early that morning and did spot a few species of birds including an Astrapia (a kind of Bird of Paradise). Once birding time was over we continued walking until we reached the village of Walesi about seven hours later. This stretch of path takes you over some impressive hills with stunning views and back down along the Sungai Owi which twists its way though beautiful forests and jungles complete with waterfalls and suspension bridges. As I said earlier, in terms of diversity and scenery, this was the part of the valley that we enjoyed most.

Just one of the friendly folk of the Baliem Valley

We were really intriqued by the mummy we saw in Jiwiki on our first day out in the valley so we asked Jonas if there were any other mummies, perhaps less visited, that we could see. He asked around and the next day he took us back up north, quite a bit further past Sumpaima, where we embarked on yet another excursion. He was bringing us to the small village of Pomo on the western banks of the Baliem- a place that he himself hadn't been to in over 10 years. The path was muddy if not waterlogged until we reached the Baliem. There we had to summon a boat driver to shuttle us across the river in just a tiny dugout canoe. Once on the other side it was just a short walk onwards to Pomo. The people of the village seemed shocked to see foreigners, but after some chat between our guide and a villager the mummy was brought out. We were told that it was one of the first mummies in the Baliem region but I can't say whether or not this is the truth. What I can say with certainty is that it was worth the hike. It may not have been in quite as good condition as the mummy in Jiwika, but considering it was 350+-years old, we were not disappointed. Later that day Jonas also took us to see the mummy in Aikima, but that one is kept behind glass and not very well preserved.

Mummies of the Baliem

Our week in the Baliem Valley was one we will never forget. We met many interesting people and saw tonnes of beautiful things. We feel very fortunate to have witnessed cultures and customs that, in the not so distant future, will be a thing of history books. We are always amazed by the diversity that we, a single species, possess and demonstrate. We truly live in an incredible world.

Papua: BOP til you drop!

The Magnificent Bird of Paradise

A visit to the Arfak region was a part of our initial plan to Papua, but the more we researched the area, the more it seemed a too expensive and too time-consuming venture to organize and therefore justify the stop. However, we tend to be lucky travellers and good fortune found us once again while on our island paradise of Pulau Piaynemo in Raja Ampat. There, on our first night, we met a small group hailing from Manokwari who just so happened to work for their local tourism department- Anggi, Salo, and Theo. So, after an evening of talk and discussing what we wanted out of a trip to the Arfak mountains, we exchanged contact info and they invited us to come stay with them once we could tear ourselves away from RA. We flew into Manokwari one morning a week later and Anggi and Theo were waiting at the airport to meet us. Anggi works for Manokwari Tourism and Theo owns and operates Abasi Surf Camp based out of Manokwari. They brought us back to their surf camp residence to unload our gear and then took us out to obtain our surat jalans (travel permits) and get some provisions for our next three days in the jungle-clad Arfak mountains. Anggi had everything organized for us by the time we arrived (guide, driver, accommodation, itinerary…), so other than purchasing some last minute supplies, there wasn't much else for us to do. Being the wonderful hosts they were, Anggi and Theo drove us around for the rest of the day to see some local sights around Manokwari including some great beaches and surf breaks. That evening Theo cooked up a feast and we met with our guide and driver that Anggi had arranged for us. The main reason we wanted to pay Pegunungan Arfak a visit was to try and find some of the species of birds endemic to the island of New Guinea, including the amazing Birds of Paradise (BOP).

The next morning we were up bright and early and our driver and guide were ready to take us up into the mountains. Our base at the jungle lodge was only about a two hour drive from Manokwari, but it was an adventurous ride- even with our 4X4. You have to cross a couple of rivers on the way up and the bridges are yet to be completed so the only way across is straight through them. Very cool! The jungle lodge accommodation was quaint and a little neglected to be honest. Anyone planning a visit up into the Arfak mountains heed this advice… bring a sleeping bag! Needless to say, we were the only guests there and probably the only guests who had been there in quite a while. I'm pretty sure the bedding in the lodge has never been properly washed, and so, hence the sleeping bags!

The Vogelkop Bowerbird

After settling in, we hiked into the jungle to a location where our guide Hans knew of an active Vogelkop Bowerbird (click on this link to learn more about the bowerbird which was filmed in the exact area where we were). There, in our jungle “hide” we watched the interesting antics of the bowerbird who spends most of its day perfecting and obsessing over the exterior design of its hopeful love shack. A pretty common looking bird itself, this bird is nothing short of fascinating with the time and energy it puts into the colour detailing and decor of his impressive bower, as well, he is a master of mimicking the sounds and songs of other jungle birds. But by noon, the clouds begin to envelop the mountains and you have just enough time to hike back to your accommodation before the skies open and release torrential rains until the wee hours of the next morning. This happened all three days we were up in the mountains and we planned our days accordingly. It is after all a rainforest! What made the weather that much more intolerable was the fact that the jungle lodge had no working power supply (or so they said) which meant no charging of our devices and camera gear. No electricity coupled with the combination of thick fog, cloud, and canopy cover blocking out most of the available light made for very dark afternoons and evenings at the lodge (you couldn't even read really). Yup, our days and nights were chilly and quite boring to say the least! Second piece of advice: bring a torch, a headlamp, or better yet, a working generator!

The next morning Hans led us out into the jungle once again, this time to a spot frequented by a Western Parotia (another kind of BOP). The only problem was he hadn't frequented this particular spot in quite a long time. But Hans had us wait in another hide for the next three hours nonetheless. After those three hours the daily routine of biblical rains and darkness induced boredom began once more. Not one of our better days in Papua!

Front shot of the Magnificent BOP

The next day was our second last in the Arfak region and we had yet to see a bird of paradise. So that morning we woke at 4:30 and set off deeper into the jungle (a very steep part of the mountain) where our guide knew of an active Magnificient Bird of Paradise. It was around 7 a.m. when we reached the secluded spot where there was another hide constructed. Within only a few minutes of waiting the first Magnificent BOP made an appearance, and not too long after a second male and one female flew into the scene. We spent the next few hours watching and studying the paculiarities of these beautifully ornate birds. The males are very colourful and perform stunning displays of dance complete with song. They puff out their chests and throw their back plumage over their heads. A truly remarkable sight. While a female did show herself in the dance grounds from time to time, neither the males or female seemed too interested in its opposite sex. That interaction with the Magnificent BOPs made the lodge and inclement weather a minor concern… at least for a while. When we finished with the birds, Hans took us to his home up on the mountainside and there we brunched. After our meal he took us to his village another couple of kilometers down the jungle path and we met some of his family. After some time there we started our hike back up to the jungle lodge this time taking a different route which passed through some small and scenic villages. The skies didn't open until about 5 minutes before we reached camp… perfect timing and a fulfilling day of jungle trekking, bird watching, and cultural interactions.

On our last day we hiked up the road in the direction of Manokwari just taking in the jungle scenery and sounds. Our goal was to see the giant birdwing butterflies a few kilometers up the road, but it turned out that a single village had the monopoly in the viewing of them and the chief wasn't around to grant us access to the forest beyond the village. Denied! But the walk was beautiful and as the clouds rolled in on our hike back the jungle scenes got even more mysterious and beautiful. Later in the afternoon our driver picked us up from the lodge and we made the adventure ride back to the city- this time even more adventure-filled with the recently swelled rivers.

Hiking in the Arfak Mountains

So here is where I give my honest two cents about our experience. We did love our time spent with the birds, but that was a total of about 5 hours spread over the three days. There were other good times as well, such as the jungle walks and visits to the nearby villages. But the weather and our accommodation made the majority of our time spent in the Arfak area quite a drag! The experience cost us about $800 all-in (3D/3N package not including airfare) and five days of our month in Papua. Without the help of Anggi, Theo, and Salo, I'm sure we would have spent at least a week doing the same trip- so to them we are very grateful. Papua is expensive by Southeast Asia standards, but a visit to Arfak, unlike a visit to Raja Ampat or the Baliem Valley, is difficult to justify unless you are a die-hard birder hellbent on ticking off a couple species on your list (Raja Ampat also has a couple of species of BOPs for your viewing pleasure). But to those who are die-hard birders and have the time, money, sleeping bags, and a good source of light, then I'm sure the Arfak experience will reward you well.

Papua: Island Paradise

With only six weeks at our disposal this travel season, we decided to visit a place new to us but in a country very familiar: Papua, New Guinea (Indonesia). A visit to Papua would allow us to see and do many of the things we love most while traveling: dive in pristine underwater environs, search for rare wildlife, and visit unique and endangered cultures. I refer to this half of the World's second largest island as Papua, New Guinea, rather than Papua, Indonesia, or the name it is referred to as locally in Indonesia, Irian Jaya. I do this for a few reasons. First, the comma distinguishes it from it's independent neighbour to the east, and second half of the island, Papua New Guinea. Next, as an Indonesian acquisition, Papua doesn't have the feel nor composition of any other province of Indonesia. Native Papuans are Melanesian and ethnically distinct from all other Indonesians. Lastly, it's the way the Papuan people would want it to be. The people of Papua have been fighting for their independence ever since the Dutch signed it over to Indonesia back in 1962 and many thousands have lost their lives in the process. I don't intend to get all political here, and Indonesia will always hold a special place in our hearts as one of our most beloved places to travel in, but I just want to show our respect to the people who made our one month journey through Papua one we will never forget. Right! Back to the blog then!

The beach and house reef at RABD

Papua has intrigued us for quite a long time. While in Sulawesi a few years back, we heard of the diving Mecca and stunning archipelago of Raja Ampat which has since remained on our travel “to do” list. The chance to see rare wildlife endemic to the island of New Guinea, such as the beautiful Birds of Paradise, was yet another great reason to want to explore Papua. But it was the opportunity to visit the endangered cultures and tribal life in Papua's remote interior and to trek though its lush Baliem Valley region that was the deciding factor in visiting this most eastern holding of Indonesia now rather than later. We broke our trip up through Papua into three stages. First we would head to Raja Ampat to enjoy some stellar diving and snorkeling and tour some of the most gorgeous islands and islets imaginable. Next we would fly to Manokwari and then venture into the jungle-clad Arfak Mountains in search of birdlife. The last portion of our Papuan experience would be the Baliem Valley where we would mingle with the Dani peoples and trek through the ever changing landscapes of this remote area. Our posts from Papua will follow these three stages in the order we travelled them.

Raja Ampat was our first stop in Papua mainly for logistical reasons as we had booked a 5N/4D dive package with Raja Ampat Biodersity (hereafter RABD) while still in Canada and we wanted to make sure that we wouldn't miss our booking (flights in Papua are notorious for delays and cancellations so by flying from Bali to Sorong in West Papua first we knew we would make our dive reservation). We stayed one night in Sorong (at the Belagri Hotel which is a very choice for a night or two in Sorong) and then took the 2 p.m. ferry to Waisai (the capital of the Raja Ampat Regency) the next day where we were met by staff from the dive resort who then shuttled us to Pulau Gam, the home of RABD. RABD is a quaint budget-oriented dive operation of an excellent standard run by a friendly Spanish, English, and Bahasa-speaking duo whom I formerly dove with in Bunaken, Sulawesi, Rey and Patricia. The “resort” itself is situated on a beautiful strip of sand in southern Gam with a gorgeous house reef and jungle walking trails to keep you occupied when not diving. You could often see dolphins right off the beach and pier and on a couple of occasions we spotted resident cuscuses in the trees around the huts.

Over the next few days we dove 8 locations, each offering something new to discover. The coral reefs in Raja Ampat are the healthiest I've ever seen (and I've seen some of the world's best) which attracts a staggering amount of marine life. One of my favorite dive sites in the region was “The Passage” which offered plenty of interesting macro life below the surface (as well as some larger creatures too) and beautiful karst scenery above the surface.

After diving we still wanted to explore more of the Raja Ampat archipelago so we decided that we would try one of the many homestays in the area set-up to accommodate tourists. This is where I have to deliver my one and only warning about travel in Papua- the Internet and telecommunications in general are horrible in RA (outside of Sorong and Waisai) and many of the people who operate these homestays either don't have Internet or phones or simple live in a place where the telcom infrastructure wouldn't support such modern amenities anyways. Even finding resources on the internet about these places or any reliable travel advice for that matter is scarce. If you are fortunate enough to make contact with a local homestay (click on this link for a complete list of homestay options in Raja Ampat complete with contact info) then communication becomes the next challenge. Try to have someone fluent in Bahasa Indonesia with you when attempting a booking. We tried to contact our homestay for many days while on Gam but to no avail. We ended up having to go back to Waisai to organize our homestay with a family member of the owner, who, through a network of other family members and friends, was able to put the word out to the owner that he was about to receive guests. So one night in Waisai organizing our next leg of our trip (paying for our homestay, buying provisions for our stay, and meeting with a member of the government tourism bureau who acted as a liaison between us and the homestay and made sure we were holding our proper Raja Ampat park tags) and we were off to our dreamy homestay in one of the most beautiful places in RA- Pulau Piaynemo, in the southwestern Fam group of islands. I guess I lied when I said I had only one warning! It would only be fair to warn others about the costs associated with a trip to Papua. Papua is not a budget destination by Indonesian or Southeast Asian standards. It is a remote place and the cost of fuel is high. When everything has to be shipped-in from larger centres and then shipped or flown to their final destination, the cost of living becomes drastically inflated. 500,000 rupiahs ($50 USD) is a realistic budget for a room per night in very basic accommodation. If you travel any substantial distance in Papua you will inevitably need to take to skies or the water and that alone can destroy a backpacker's budget. But I promise I will offer any cost saving tips I can for the most frugal friendly journey through Papua possible. We paid 500,000 rupiahs PER PERSON per night at Piaynemo Homestay which is very basic (you sleep on mats on the floor and you poop in a hole in the ground yet all meals are included and a boat is at your disposal for sightseeing and self-exploration) but to us it was absolute paradise. It is owned and operated by a very friendly Indonesian named Eli who speaks very good English.

The stunning karst landscape around Piaynemo

We only intended to spend three nights on Piaynemo, we ended up staying for five. Piaynemo is postcard material, but it is very remote (3 hours by boat from Waisai) and blissfully secluded. Some day trippers make the journey from Waisai on the weekends but other than that we had the whole bay, beach and homestay to ourselves for 95% of the time. The Homestay is situated on an island isthmus with an open view of Piaynemo bay and its karst landscapes on one side and a very nice (albeit a little dirty) beach on the other side. We spent our days lazing around the homestay reading, drinking tea, taking our tiny catamaran through the local islets, and climbing up the karsts for the most stunning panoramic views possible. We ate fresh fish (and I mean fresh) and coconut crab and shared our stilted hut only some mosquitoes and geckos, a monitor lizard, lots of fish and our resident juvenile black tip sharks that incessantly patrolled the water below us. In the bay we spotted sea turtles, monitor lizards, and lots of colourful birdlife and insects.

The back beach on Piaynemo

We could have easily stayed many more days but we had to take advantage of the window of good weather to exit the island safely. But the thing with weather is that it can change very quickly and we spent the next three hours white-knuckling the sides of our longtail boat hoping that we'd make it back to Waisai alive. This post is proof that we did! We made it back to the Waisai harbour in time to catch the 2 o'clock ferry back to Sorong where we overnighted and caught our onward flight to Manokwari the next day. The beauty of Raja Ampat can only fully be understood and appreciated in person. It is slowly becoming a more popular tourist destination mainly because it remains one of the most accessible destinations in Papua and because of its amazing diving opportunities. With every pristine place off the beaten tourist path we encounter, we can only hope that a healthy balance between tourism and the natural environment can be negotiated. It would be a great loss to us all if this, one of the World's last final frontiers, falls prey to the powers of capitalism.

India: Mission Accomplished

Thirty-seven long hours after leaving Darjeeling we found ourselves once again in Sawai Madhopur and Ranthambhore National Park. We learned from our visit one month earlier that in order to secure a spot in the core zones of the park we needed to book them in advance online- so that's what we did. Without having to worry about the park bureaucracy we could just relax and enjoy our daily safaris and final days in India. We booked a total of 5 safaris spread over 3 days: 3 morning safaris and two evening ones. On our first morning safari the weather was miserable and it poured for nearly two hours solid. The weather all over India had been abnormal as of late, but rain in Rajasthan in April was probably the greatest anomaly of it all. This was very unlucky for us because we were there to see the park's star attraction, tigers, and cats don't like getting wet. It was still an enjoyable safari though and it was kind of comical to see all the other animals sopping-wet and slightly uncomfortable looking. The weather improved for the remainder of our safaris but our luck in sighting tigers didn't. Of course there are many other animals to see on a safari in Ranthambhore. Over our days we saw thousands (literally) of spotted deer and langur monkeys, as well as many sambar deer, blue bulls, wild boar, and countless species of beautiful birds. There were also crocodiles, mongooses, turtles and many more that I'm likely forgetting.

Top: a pair of kingfishers Bottom: an owlet and a peacock lookin' to impress

However, we had seen all these animals during our first outings into the park so we were really only focused on the tigers. People are always saying how lucky we are to see all the animals we have seen during our travels. This trip alone we've seen leopards and lions and it was a goal of ours to see all of Asia's 'big three' cats before returning home. Yet after a combined seven safaris we still couldn't find a tiger. Many other people were seeing tigers while we were out there, but not us. It looked as though our animal-spotting luck had run out. We decided at that point to spend one extra day in Ranthambhore in lieu of one more day in Delhi, a last-ditch attempt in our quest for tigers. So in the evening we signed-up for one more safari. That was the one we were waiting for!

Finally we found what we came for

We had an amazing 15 to 20-minute-long interaction with a beautiful tigress who had wandered across the road from her usual territory. She was gorgeous and at times was just a few short meters away from us. It wasn't luck that accounted for our tiger sighting this time, but rather sheer determination. Our quest for the 'big three' was complete and we could return home with all our boxes checked. Our final safari count stood at nine and we covered all the core zones except zone number one. Our decision to revisit Ranthambhore was a good one. It was a relaxing and exciting way to wind down our trip and we really enjoyed spending time with Vishnu and his staff at Hotel Green View. The next day we took a very uncomfortable train ride back to Delhi, but at least it was the last of our trip through India.

Our final two days in India were spent in Delhi and were intentionally low-key. Delhi has many interesting attractions to visit, but it was hot and we were spent and just wanted to relax before our long journey back to Canada. So we ate good food, we drank strong coffee, we did some last minute shopping in the buzzing bazaars, we took a few short walks, watched a couple movies in our room, and I finally got the chance to get caught-up on this here blog. The rest of Delhi will have to wait until the next time, and there is no doubt in my mind that there will be a next time.

Truly the most magnificent of Asia's cats

265.5 is the total number of hours that we spent on public transportation during our 110 days in India. If my math serves me correct, that's over 11 full days of road and rail travel. It is a lot of time, and much of it unquestionably uncomfortable time, but there really is no better way to experience the real India.

 

Darjeeling and Sikkim: Mountains and Momos

A view from the Yumthang Valley, Sikkim

It was time to get away from the heat of the plains and only the north could deliver on that. We had never been to Darjeeling or the state of Sikkim before so that's where we decided to cool off. We took an exhausting train journey from Varanasi which still only got us as far as Siliguri. From there it was another 3 hours by jeep up into the northern mountains of West Bengal. Darjeeling is one of those places that you've heard so much about yet didn't really know what to expect. With mountainsides dotted with tea estates and a toy train winding its way up to the ex-colonial hill station, it conjures up images of lush green charm. However, upon our arrival we found something totally different. The streets were narrow and congested with fume-belching jeeps and throngs of people squeezing between them to get where they were trying to go. I thought it would be a small and charming town but it is actually a sprawling city of over 100,000 inhabitants. But charming it still is and as the days passed by the more charming it seemed to get. It was a world apart from the city of Varanasi that we just left behind. It didn't feel like India at all. The air was cool (even freezing at times), the streets were clean, and the demographics reflected the neighboring Himalayan states of Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan and some of the north-eastern tribal territories such as Assam, Nagaland, and Arunachal Pradesh.. It was so nice to be surrounded by people with faces constantly locked in smile mode and be embraced with their warmth and hospitality. The food too reflected Himalayan preferences like momos, thukpa, thanthuk, and shyabhale– the ultimate comfort food for cool days and colder nights. We pretty much sustained ourselves on those four dishes the whole time we were up north. We were in Himalayan heaven!

Tea Plucker @ Happy Valley Tea Estate, Darjeeling

April is not the best month to visit Darjeeling or Sikkim (from a clear skies point of view), but this April was particularly cloudy and rainy. It rained at some point every day we were there. The morning we went up to Tiger Hill for the sunrise views it was a complete white-out. Still we woke up early every morning to see if we could catch a glimpse of the Himalayas, in particular, Kangchenjunga (Khangchendzonga)- the World's third highest mountain at an elevation of 8,586 meters. One morning we did see some of the peaks briefly but Kangchenjunga remained hidden in the clouds. But on the morning after we returned from Sikkim, the clouds parted just after dawn and revealed a completely clear view of the prize mountain and its companions. Other than mountain gazing and momo munching, there are a few other things to do in the Darjeeling area. We took the Toy Train to Kurseong and back on one day, walked to the Japanese Peace Pagoda and the Bhutia Busty Gompa on another, visited the zoo as well as the Happy Valley Tea Estate. All were very worth while except for maybe the Happy Valley Tea Estate which was not one of the better we have seen. As you enter the estate a sign proudly proclaims that the tea produced here is packaged exclusively for Harrods (of London fame) yet the tea bushes were less than healthy looking to say the least. To make things worse, we found out from a local that the tea pluckers employed here work from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. and only earn 65 rupees per day- that's like $1.20 A DAY! Harrods will no doubt market the inferior tea in fancy packaging and sell it for a premium price. Remind me again how the rich get richer and the poor poorer?

Tibetan Buddhist painting at Lachung Gompa

We also arranged our permits for Sikkim while in Darjeeling, which is good for the south-east, central, and western parts of the state and valid for two weeks. To visit the northern reaches you must obtain an additional “restricted area” permit which is easily done from Sikkim's capital of Gangtok. Gangtok is even bigger and busier than Darjeeling and it is also far more commercial and modern, but I liked it almost immediately. The food we ate (again Tibetan) was the best we had on the trip by far and the people were still smiling and friendly. But it is still just a city and it held our attention only long enough to organize a trip up north to the scenic Yumthang Valley which we enjoyed with some fellow travellers that we met already on the train from Varanasi.

Prayer wheels, Lachung Gompa

The drive from Darjeeling to Gangtok was beautiful, but it only got better from Gangtok to the Yumthang Valley. Sikkim's “National Highway” is nothing more than a potholed gravel 'road' barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass. It's a slow road which was made even slower by our novice driver. It is a stretch of road susceptible to landslides and other harsh weather conditions and the ride at times is the very definition of discomfort. But beautiful it is. Sheer rock walls on one side and sheer vertical drops on the other. You pass by lush, steaming jungles, pristine waterfalls, amazing valley views and gorgeous Himalayan mountain scenery. Well worth the discomfort! We spent two nights in the peaceful village of Lachung and from there we explored the wild Yumthang Valley- 27 kilometers to the north. Lachung sits at the bottom of a lush valley split in two by the icy Yumthang River and surrounded on all sides by high Himalayan peaks- some spilling long ribbons of water from their precipice. Again, Himalayan heaven. It also has a small but interesting monastery worth a visit and wonderfully warm townsfolk decked-out in traditional Tibetan and Nepali garb. The last 27 kilometers into the Yumthang Valley is about as scenic as it gets. The road twists in hairpin turns another 1000 meters in elevation passing many yaks along with their herders and revealing more stunning mountain vistas. By the time we arrived in the valley the mountains were already being concealed with the daytime cloud cover. Withing a couple of hours it began to rain, hail, and even snow a little, and as a result, I took very few photos. It just gives me a great excuse to visit this area again soon. One more night in Gangtok, two more nights in Darjeeling, and then it was time to take the longest train ride of our trip- nearly all the way to the other side of India. From Darjeeling we would travel to New Delhi and from there another 6-hour train trip to Sawai Madhopur where we would again try our luck at spotting tigers in Ranthambhore National Park.

Our one and only view of Kangchenjunga (in the centre) with Darjeeling in the foreground

A staggering 231.5 hours of road and rail travel to date and soon to get much longer!