Sunglasses and Passport

worldwide travel experiences

Author: clare

A magical fly in safari around the varied landscapes of Namibia

Looking out of the window from the small Cessna aircraft you could be forgiven for thinking that you may be landing on Mars. The sparsely populated landscape was dominated by desert, huge rocks and dry riverbeds. It is a place unlike any other I have seen.

Our first destination was Little Kulala Lodge, located just outside of Namib-Naukluft National Park. The Park encompasses part of the Namib Desert, which is considered to be the oldest desert in the world. We flew with Wilderness Air from the capital Windhoek for around 50 mins, where we touched down at Little Kulala airstrip. From there it was around a 20 minute drive to the lodge. Little Kulala is situated in a 67,000 acre private reserve, along with its sister lodge – Kulala Desert Lodge. Kulala reserve conveniently has a private entrance to Sossusvlei – the main attraction in the area.

Little Kulala has 11 luxurious, large rooms (known as ‘kulalas’ in the local language of Oshiwambo) all of which have air conditioning, indoor and outdoor showers with hot water, a private plunge pool and a sleeping deck on the roof, where you can sleep under the stars. As we visited in January, the height of the summer, both the air conditioning and the plunge pool were most welcome. During our stay the temperature one lunch time was up to 41˚c!

The huge bed was adorned with a mosquito net, however we didn’t see any mosquitoes during our stay, the area is possibly too dry for them, it hasn’t rained there for at least 5 years. The rooms also come with a stocked fridge containing water, soft drinks, beer and wine – which is all included in your stay.

The main lodge has a small waterhole opposite which was frequently visited by lots of wildlife. During the daytime we saw springbok, ostrich and oryx and at night we saw a cape fox and black backed jackal. There is also a large communal sociable weaver bird nest, with over a hundred birds coming and going. The lodge has free
WIFI should you wish to use it, but we mostly preferred to admire the views and forget the outside world. The main lodge also has a swimming pool and sun loungers.

Our first activity was an early morning trip to Sossusvlei to visit the red sand dunes and Dead Vlei, a dried up clay pan in the desert where the dead camel thorn trees are still standing, despite the fact that the water disappeared around 700 years ago. Dead Vlei is an incredible and awe inspiring place to visit and it is makes for some beautiful photos in the morning light. Sossusvlei is home to the highest sand dunes in the world some of which are over 300m high. Popular dunes to climb are Dune 45 (located 45km from the gate), Big Daddy and Big Mama. Big Daddy is situated next to Dead Vlei. After visiting Big Daddy & Dead Vlei we were driven to a shady area for some welcome cold drinks and snacks.

In the afternoon we went quad biking around the reserve with our guide aptly named ‘Action.’ The terrain is a mixture of flat sandy/gravelly tracks and large rocky hills with faces covered in sand, it was a fun place to quad bike and from the top of the rocks the views were remarkable. We returned to the lodge somewhat sandy and ready for a sundowner drink before dinner!

We chose to sleep on the rooftop bed under the night sky, where the stars were absolutely magnificent and Venus was shining brightly. We were awoken at around 4am by some jackals barking to each other; we couldn’t see them but it was fun to listen to them for a while before drifting off back to sleep under our warm duvet. The evenings can be quite chilly in the desert but we were lovely and cosy.

The following morning we were woken before sunrise for a hot air balloon flight over the Namib desert. Only a short drive from the lodge, we approached the balloon which was in the process of being inflated. At 6am, just before sunrise, we and 14 other passengers climbed into the basket and Eric the balloon pilot took off. Whilst we were climbing the sun was rising above the horizon, creating beautiful colours over the sand dunes and surrounding area. A swoop of swallows crowded around the balloon feasting on the insects that we were pushing their way, however every time the burner was deployed they scattered sharpishly!  Eric was an interesting pilot, having grown up in Belgian Congo but a resident of Namibia for over 30 years. He was part of the fledgling tourist industry in Sossusvlei, encouraging everyone to see the potential of tourists wanting to visit Sossusvlei and the National Park. After 60 mins in the hot air balloon, we landed very gently and were served a wonderful champagne breakfast in the middle of the desert, close to Dune 1. It was a truly magical experience.

We spent the afternoon sitting in the plunge pool to keep cool and enjoying a couple of beers whilst watching oryx march past our room to head for the waterhole.

On our last evening at Little Kulala we were driven to a wonderful viewpoint to watch the stunning sunset, where we could enjoy a glass of wine and some snacks before returning to the lodge for dinner.

The lodge is fully inclusive, meaning that all meals and drinks are included. Breakfast includes cold buffet options and a menu of hot breakfast items cooked to order. Lunch varies daily and the main course is a choice of a meat or fish option or a vegetarian option, a starter and dessert are also served. A three course dinner is served each evening, usually comprising of a choice of two starters, three mains and two desserts. There is an excellent choice of wines, mainly from South Africa and a good selection of spirits. There are two local lagers Windhoek and Tafel.

The staff at the lodge are excellent; Michael the manager is friendly and knowledgeable. Manfred the bar manager was welcoming, efficient and was able to remember everyone’s beverage of choice.

Our three nights at Little Kulala went by quickly and soon it was time to head back to the air strip to head for our next adventure at Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp. A 400 mile journey, it required us to take 3 flights in a small Cessna aircraft. The first from Little Kulala to Swakopmund, a journey which flew us over the golden sand dunes of the Namib to the Atlantic coast, we saw seals, flamingos and two sand covered ship wrecks along the way. From there we flew to Doro Nawas in Damaraland, where the landscape is full of red coloured rocks and golden sand then it was another 40 min flight onto Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp.

The camp is situated in a remote area close to the dry Hoanib riverbed and surrounded by large rocky hills. There are 8 tented rooms, which are chic, spacious and luxurious. This is not camping as you know it, the rooms are sturdy with floor to ceiling windows and contain a bedroom with a humungous bed, two wardrobe units, a desk with chair and a coffee table with two chairs, a large bathroom with two sinks and a giant shower and a separate toilet. On your outside private deck there is a sofa and table and chairs plus a fridge which is stocked with soft drinks and water. Each tent has a view of the waterhole, which is visited often by a variety of wildlife. The camp has no WIFI available and there is no mobile phone signal. It is marketed as a digital detox, which was a pleasant break from looking at the news and social media. The rooms do not have air conditioning as there is a lovely breeze that comes from the Atlantic which keeps the rooms cool and even though we were there in the height of summer it was never too hot in the room. Each room has an electric fan available.

The main lodge has plenty of comfortable seating, a bar and a separate restaurant area. There is also a small swimming pool for cooling off. In the evenings a campfire is lit and chairs arranged around it where you can sit and have drinks before & after dinner. One of the highlights of sitting around the campfire, is listening to Clement, the manager tell his hilarious and interesting stories. Clement and his team make the camp a truly memorable place to visit and they run an extremely slick operation. Without a doubt, our stay was one of the highlights of our trip to Namibia. From the moment we were collected from the airstrip the warm welcome that we received from all of the Hoanib staff was a large part of the reason that this camp is one of the best we have ever stayed at.

The food was delicious with a good variety of dishes on offer. The camp is all inclusive and meals included a cooked breakfast to order alongside a cold buffet, lunch was 3 courses with a choice of main courses and dinner was a choice of two or three options for each of the 3 courses. There is a large choice of wines, beers, cider and spirits as well as soft drinks which are all included.

Each group of guests is assigned a guide for the duration of their stay, we were lucky enough to get Charles who was part of the team who set up the camp 2 and half years ago.

On our first evening we went for a drive into the dry riverbed. Charles quickly picked up the tracks of a desert lion and followed them. She had been moving around a fair bit, but after a 30 min search he found her, sitting on a rock. She was absolutely beautiful and we felt very privileged to be able to see one of these rare lions. There are only an estimated 150 desert lions in Namibia, they are extremely endangered. We watched her as she climbed down from the rock and walked along the riverbed and then climbed onto a small dune before settling down to keep an eye out for any game to hunt. We left her to it and drove up to a high viewpoint for a sundowner, and whilst we were sipping out wine and tucking into our biltong a pair of giraffe walked past us below. The sunset turned the sky pink; it was a truly magnificent evening.

The following morning Charles took us for another drive in the riverbed where we saw the lioness once again; she was studiously staring at some oryx. We carried on along the riverbed where we saw plenty of giraffe, some chacma baboons, a jackal family with four pups and 16 of the known 18 desert elephants in the area, including some babies who are around 5 months old. The elephants were an absolute surprise to us, we weren’t expecting to see these stunning animals in the desert, but they looked in great condition. There are plenty of green trees and vegetation in the riverbed, which although it doesn’t often have water flowing through it, there is water underneath which the trees and bushes can root down into.

In the afternoon we went for a walk around the camp area where we were shown different animal footprints in the sand around the waterhole, showing that plenty of wildlife including brown hyena, springbok, oryx and elephant had visited the previous evening. We also saw the communal ‘hyena toilet’ where the hyenas like to go, telling them all about who else has been in the area and how recently! We saw some baboons, giraffe and oryx and then returned to camp for our sundowners by the campfire.

We had a fantastic day trip to the Skeleton coast with a drive through the riverbed and flood plains, through the dunes and ending up at the Skeleton Coast. On the way we had some fantastic spots including honey badgers, spotted eagle owl and a porcupine. We stopped for a coffee break in the dunes and Charles drove us down a steep dune which roars when you travel down it. We also ran/slid down the dune, which also makes it roar and vibrate.  It was lots of fun!

We visited a pebble beach on the Atlantic coast, the see is freezing so we didn’t swim, but this didn’t stop Charles going in for a dip and then warming himself up on the pebbles afterwards. We saw flamingos and a huge flock of cormorants and we also visited a ginormous seal colony, which was very smelly but an incredible sight. Some of the seals were swimming in the waves and looked like they were having a great time.

Our trip to the coast was topped off by a delicious lunch served right next to the sea, complete with chilled wine. It was one of the most beautiful locations you could wish to sit and eat lunch. We were collected by plane and flown back to the camp.

Charles was an excellent and knowledgeable guide with the perfect balance of professionalism, friendliness and humour. He is also possibly the only Stoke City football fan in Africa! Our three nights at Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp were incredible and we were genuinely sad to leave.

Our next destination was Ongava Lodge close to Etosha National Park. We were flown from Hoanib to Doro Nowas where we changed planes and then onto Ongava airstrip, a flight time of around 45 mins.

It was immediately obvious to us that the landscape was different, there were many more trees and green bushes. We were collected from the airstrip by our guide Kapono and it was a 20 min drive to the Lodge. At around 1300m above sea level, the temperature is slightly cooler and we did experience a few rain showers during our three night stay.

The lodge comprises of 14 brick, rock and thatch chalets with air conditioning and a private outside deck. Some of the chalets have a great view of the floodlit waterhole, we were lucky enough to be in chalet number 1, which was situated closest to the waterhole.

The main lodge also has a great view of the waterhole, meals are served out on a large decked area and there is a bar which has a good range of wines, spirits and beers. There is WIFI in the main lodge area. Breakfast is a mixture of cold buffet and hot items cooked to order. Lunch is usually a choice of two main courses and the dinner menu is a choice of starters and main courses with one option for dessert. Some evenings the main courses are cooked on a large coal fired grill outdoors.

There is a large swimming pool close to the main lodge and also a curio shop. The lodge is in Ongava Reserve, which is a private reserve that borders Etosha National Park. Ongava means Rhino and both black and white rhino are the main draw here. It’s reportedly the only place in the world where you can see both black and white Rhino with their horns, as many rhinos around the world have had their horns removed to save them from poachers. The reserve will not confirm how many rhinos they have, in order to keep them safe, they have a large anti-poaching team on site to protect these magnificent creatures.

Afternoon activities are game drives in Ongava Reserve, which usually end in a sundowner drink and snacks before returning to the lodge for dinner. Morning activities are game drives in neighbouring Etosha National Park. It takes around 30 mins to get to the park, departing after an early breakfast you return in time for lunch.

During our afternoon drives in Ongava we were lucky enough to see two white rhinos together and a white rhino and her calf and a black rhino. It’s wonderful to see them with their horns, the way they are supposed to be. We also saw two female and one male lion resting and a male lion roaring very close to our vehicle. Other wildlife spotted were zebra, black faced impala, springbok, waterbuck, jackals, wildebeest and giraffe.

After dinner, whilst sitting on our deck enjoying a glass of wine we saw a stream of rhino coming to the waterhole to drink one after another, some of them with calves. It was absolutely magical and we felt so lucky to be able to watch these rhino roaming in a natural environment for them where we knew they were well protected. We also saw zebra, waterbuck, oryx and a porcupine come to drink.

Often we were woken early in the mornings by lions roaring, which in my opinion is a wonderful way to wake up. It’s often difficult to judge how far away the lions are as the roar can carry over 2 and half miles.

On our game drives in Etosha we had some wonderful sightings including a black rhino, lions eating a zebra kill with jackals stealing scraps, a large journey (group) of giraffe, zebra and springbok at a waterhole, wildebeest, zebras with foals, ostrich, blue crane, kori bustard, slender, yellow and banded mongoose, and jackals with pups.

Our next stop was Africat at Okonjima, around a 3 hour drive (150 miles) from Ongava. We were driven by a chap called Vincent, who is a huge rugby fan, so we spent most of the journey talking rugby, especially about England, South Africa and the All Blacks! Africat was founded in 1991 and their mission is to contribute to the long term conservation of Namibia’s large carnivores. Since 1993 it has rescued over 1,000 predators from farmlands across Namibia and 85% of them have been released back into the wild. Okonjima offers a wide spectrum of accommodation options, ranging from private camp sites to safari lodges. Unfortunately we were only able to participate in a day visit, but the accommodation looked very nice and the activities on offer such as tracking cheetah, hyenas and wild dogs on foot looked especially exciting. Our day visit included visiting Lewa a beautiful 8 year old leopard, who lives in a large enclosure which has a fantastic viewing room. Lewa is unsuitable for release back into the wild and she is not equipped with the skills to hunt, so food is provided for her by Africat. We were then driven into an enclosure where three male and two female cheetahs that were rescued as orphaned cubs. As they have not been taught how to hunt by their mothers, they are unsuitable for release back into the wild; however they may be suitable for release into a larger part of the reserve where they have the opportunity to hunt but they would be monitored so that if their hunting was unsuccessful Africat would be able to provide them with meat to eat.

The vehicle was able to drive fairly close to the cheetahs, who were resting in two groups, the males in one group and the females in another. We were given some excellent information and facts about cheetahs by the guide whilst taking some lovely photos of these special cats.

After visiting the animals we were taken to the Africat Information Centre where we learned about the work that Africat is doing with communities in Namibia including with farmers and locals and with children and education in schools.

The tour lasted for around 90 mins and then we had a delicious lunch in the large restaurant on site, before visiting the gift shop. Our journey then continued onto the capital Windhoek, 140 miles further south, which took around 2 and half hours.

Windhoek is a relatively small capital, with a population of around 360,000. The centre of the city is dominated by government buildings, headquarters of businesses and companies and German style churches. We stayed at the small Olive Grove Guesthouse in a residential area of the city. Olive Grove consists of 11 en-suite rooms which are modelled from cement. The facilities include air conditioning, mini bar fridge, kettle, free WIFI and a small swimming pool. The restaurant is excellent with a large and varied menu and a good wine list.

On our final morning in Namibia, we arranged a tour of Katutura Township with African Desk. Lorraine came to collect us in a local taxi driven by Philip. Both of them grew up in and still live in Katutura, known locally as Silver Town due to the thousands of huts built from corrugated shiny metal. In the 1950s Namibia was ruled by South Africa and subject to Apartheid laws, resulting in the segregation of the black population, who were forcibly moved to townships including Katutura (meaning the place where we do not want to settle). It is said that over 200,000 people now live in Katutura with the population growing monthly as people move from rural Namibia to Windhoek to look for work.

Lorraine and Philip took us to a viewpoint up on one of the hills in the area where it was possible to see the sprawling township extending for miles and miles in all directions. The government have been making clean water available to residents and have provided public toilets, however in some areas one toilet is shared by hundreds of people. There are health centres in the township but they are not completely free to all residents. We visited a large primary school, which was bright and colourful, in good condition and full of friendly and committed teachers.

We also visited a bustling market place, which revealed the full diversity of the population of Katutura, with many goods on sale from Angola and The Congo as well as local produce. The stall holders were welcoming and friendly and very happy to explain their different products to us.

Philip our driver kindly took us to his house, which he has built himself from corrugated metal. Despite the heat of the day which much of been at least 35˚c it wasn’t as hot inside as we expected. He had also built his own private toilet next to his room, which is becoming more and more common in the area as people understandably do not wish to share with hundreds of other residents. Philip was lucky and had been allocated a plot of land to build on top of a hill, which meant that he received a nice breeze. For those located at the bottom of the hills, it must be quite unpleasant when there is heavy rainfall.

Whilst travelling around the township it was clear to see that there are lots of entrepreneurs who have set up their own businesses including car washes, barber shops, bars and food stalls, catering to the needs of the Katutura residents. We were very glad to have the opportunity to be shown around Katutura, feeling that it is important to see all sides of a city before you can feel like you have experienced it all. Especially in this instance, where more than 70% of the capital’s population live in townships.

Our time in Namibia was up, we had visited four wildly different areas; the Namib desert in the south, the Skeleton Coast and dry Hoanib riverbed, the grasslands of Etosha, Ongava and Okonjima and the City of Windhoek. My leaving thought was that Namibia is a fantastic country, with beautiful and varied landscapes, incredibly resilient people in a challengingly dry climate and a wide range of striking wildlife. Every single Namibian that we met was welcoming and friendly and proud of their country and keen to show it off – and rightly so.

OTHER INFORMATION

Weather

Partially covered by the Namib Desert, one of the world’s driest deserts, Namibia’s climate is generally very dry making it fine to visit all year round. Namibia only receives a fraction of the rain experienced by countries further east.

December to March – summer, can be very hot. Towards the east of the country there can be rain and thunderstorms.

April & May – autumn, warm and dry with more greenery in the landscapes.

June to August – winter, cold nights and early mornings, below zero in the desert. Very dry – good for game viewing.

September & October – spring, warmer but can be windy and dusty.

November – a variable month, sometimes experiences cloud and rain but recently has been hot and dry.

Food

Game meat is very common in Namibia, the terrain and lack of rain makes it difficult for much of the country to raise cattle. We found oryx, kudu and eland to be delicious as well as springbok sausages.

What to pack

Comfortable walking shoes, hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, insect repellent, light cotton shirts/tshirts, long trousers & shorts (neutral colours), a jumper, waterproof jacket, torch, camera, binoculars.

Little Kulala – Rates

11 rooms. Rates are fully inclusive including food, drinks, activities, entrance to Sossusvlei.

Per person sharing per night                         Rates (South African Rand)    £ GBP

11 January 2017 to 31 March 2017                ZAR 6,740                                   £407

01 April 2017 to 31 May 2017                         ZAR 6,985                                   £422

01 June 2017 to 31 October 2017                  ZAR 10,375                                  £627

01 November 2017 to 19 December 2017    ZAR 6,740                                   £407

20 December 2017 to 10 January 2018       ZAR 8,310                                    £502

11 January 2018 to 31 March 2018               ZAR 7,280                                    £440

01 April 2018 to 31 May 2018                        ZAR 7,545                                     £456

Hot air balloon flight not included – rate 5,950 Namibian dollars per person – includes champagne breakfast, balloon flight, Sossusvlei entrance fees, transfers from selected lodges. Also contributes to local community projects such as schools and education for disadvantaged local children. Minimum 2 passengers. (Approx £360pp) Book with Namib Sky

Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp – Rates

7 double/twin rooms and 1 family room. Rates are fully inclusive including food, drinks, activities. Trip to Skeleton Coast included for guests staying 3 nights or more.

Per person sharing per night                      Rates (South African Rand)  £ GBP

11 January 2017 to 31 May 2017                 ZAR 9,470                                 £572

01 June 2017 to 31 October 2017                ZAR 13,055                               £788

01 November 2017 to 19 December 2017  ZAR 9,470                                £573

20 December 2017 to 10 January 2018     ZAR 13,085                              £790

11 January 2018 to 31 May 2018                 ZAR 10,230                              £618

It is not possible to drive to Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp, it is a fly in camp only. Flights with Wilderness Air can be arranged when making your booking – nearest airstrip is Doro Nawas, where you can park your vehicle.

Ongava Lodge –Rates

Fully Inclusive (incl game drives)                Months           Rates                   £ GBP

Double room Per Person Sharing                 Dec – Jun       ZAR 6,668          £403

Single Room                                                      Dec – Jun       ZAR 8,336          £503

Double room Per Person Sharing                 Jul – Nov        ZAR 8,891          £537

Single Room                                                      Jul – Nov        ZAR 11,114          £671

Dinner Bed & B’fast (no game drives)         Months           Rates                   £ GBP

Double room (per person sharing)              Dec – Jun        ZAR 3,816          £230

Single room                                                       Dec – Jun       ZAR 4,771           £288

Double room Per Person Sharing                 Jul – Nov        ZAR 5,089          £307

Single Room                                                      Jul – Nov        ZAR 6,361           £384

Africat Day Visit – Rates

Activity (compulsory) – N$ 385 per person (approx. £24)

Children (age 7 to 16 yrs) – N$ 285 per child (approx. £17.50)

Activity departure times:

Summer (Sept to March) @ 11:00 & @ 13:00

Winter (April to Aug) @10:30 & @ 12:30

Lunch N$ 175 per person (approx. £11)

Olive Grove Guest House – Rates

11 rooms. Rates include breakfast.

Per person sharing per night             Rates (Namibian Dollars)         £ GBP

Double Standard Room                       N$805                                           £49

Double Luxury Room                          N$1270                                          £77

Double Executive Suite Room           N$1495                                          £91

Per person per night                            Rates (Namibian Dollars)         £ GBP

Single Standard Room                        N$995                                            £60

Single Luxury Room                           N$1570                                           £95

Single Executive Suite Room:           N$1790                                           £108

Katutura Township Tour – Rates

900 Namibian Dollars for two people, including guide, taxi for the duration and pick up and drop off in Windhoek. (Approx £55)

INFORMATION ABOUT NAMIBIA

  • Population of approx. 2.3 million
  • Official language is English but Oshiwambo and Afrikaans is widely spoken. German is spoken in some areas
  • Currency is the Namibian Dollar – which is linked as 1:1 to the South African Rand
  • It is advised that you drink bottled water or filtered water provided by lodges
  • Vehicles drive on the left hand side of the road
  • There is one main international airport in Windhoek. There are flights from Walvis Bay Airport and Swakopmund Airport to both Johannesburg and Cape Town.

 

 

Luxurious Botswana – Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park

8 days of luxury adventures in Botswana

Flying over the Okavango Delta in a light aircraft made for fantastic aerial views of the vast connected waterways filled with shimmering clear water and the luscious shades of green. As we approached the Oddballs airstrip, we were bubbling with excitement to explore this beautiful wilderness.

Upon landing we were greeted by the manager in an old Land Cruiser and driven a short distance to the camp. In the winter months, when the water levels are highest, it is possible to be transferred to the camp in traditional dug-out canoes (mokoros).

 

view from room

view from room

Delta Camp is located on a small island in the heart of the Okavango Delta. The rooms are built from reeds and designed to take advantage of the many indigenous, old-growth trees of the island forest. Most rooms have trees growing through a roof or a floor, the windows have no glass, and rooms are elevated onto a deck, to minimize our disturbance of the earth and vegetation below. I loved

our room

our room

the feeling of staying in the forest, feeling as close to nature as possible. Because the rooms are open to the elements you can hear all the noises of the wild. Our room had a resident genet (small cat like mammal) living in the tree below and as they are nocturnal creatures we heard it scrabbling around, preparing to go and hunt as we went to bed each night.

 

inside our room

inside our room

Each room is en-suite with hot and cold running water, mosquito netting and solar-powered electric lighting. The rooms are spaced apart, so you have a great feeling of privacy. Staying at Delta Camp is a wonderful experience; the rooms feel luxurious whilst also blending in to the landscape and the staff are fabulous. Although the vibe at the lodge is relaxed, the staff work extremely hard to fulfil all your needs. As all food & drinks are included in the overnight rate there is a help yourself policy at the bar in the lodge – with a large chest fridge full of soft drinks, beers & white wine, a cabinet of premium spirits and a rack full of delicious red wines – all tastes are catered for.

our guide Vee

our guide Vee

We were introduced to our guide Vee, who would be our own personal guide for the duration of our stay. Each guide comes from the local village, meaning that they have grown up and spent the majority of their lives in the area, giving them excellent knowledge and skills to give you the best possible experience.

 

 

 

As the geography of the land makes it impossible to drive vehicles around the area, activities for guests are undertaken on foot andmokoro-view by mokoro. Early morning and late afternoon walks give a different experience to game drives in a vehicle and gives one an opportunity to take in the smaller details that you may not notices from being in a vehicle. It’s also a lot more peaceful.

There are obvious potential dangers of being on foot without the refuge of a vehicle, but I felt reassured that Vee has walked around this area his whole life and knew how to keep us safe. The guides don’t carry guns; and I felt happy about this, I hate the thought of any wildlife being shot because we want to take a walk through their habitat. I am not aware of any serious incidents occurring to tourists walking through the area.p1060416

Our afternoon activity began with a ride in the mokoro, which was very peaceful and taken at a leisurely pace. The waterways are shallow and so the mokoro is propelled by a long pole, pushing along the bottom, requiring good balance. Sitting so close to the water level offers an interesting perspective; I enjoyed being at the same level as the waterlily flowers and seeing the various creatures perched on them including colourful frogs, butterflies and dragonflies.

p1060431We took a short walk around to see if we were able to spot any wildlife. We saw a few impala in the distance and we spotted the largest termite mound I have ever seen!

Our excursion lasted around 2 hours and we returned in time to have a shower before going to the main deck for sunset. Having a drink, watching the stunning view of the sun go down over this beautiful wilderness, we heard some splashing and suddenly the silhouette of an elephant came into view. He walked past nonchalantly, keeping his distance. It was the perfect end to the day.

Dinner is served at a large dining table, where guests can swap stories of what they have seen during the day. All dietary needs can be catered for with advance notice; dinner is served as three set courses. On our first evening we enjoyed crepes with ricotta and spinach, wonderful Botswana beef with potatoes, vegetables and gravy and a fantastic chocolate mousse. The food would not have been out of place in a top London restaurant; considering that all ingredients have to be flown in and the lodge does not have mains electricity, the dishes that we were presented were absolutely astonishing.

When it was time for bed we were escorted back to our room by the staff, as there could be wild animals around such as hippos or elephants – quite a thrilling feeling!

The next two days followed the same pattern, we were woken at around 6:30am and p1060465given a quick breakfast snack and tea and coffee. Vee then took us out for a morning walk, starting with a short mokoro ride. After a 2 hour walk, before the sun gets overbearingly hot we were welcomed back to the lodge with a delicious cooked breakfast. The rest of the day was our own to relax. Lunch was served in the main lodge and included an elaborate cheese board with delightful imported cheeses. Around 3:30pm afternoon tea was served and then we went out for our afternoon walk, returning in time to freshen up and be ready for sundowner drinks.

p1060487During our walks around the delta we saw lots of different wildlife including large herds of impala, kudu, elephants, zebra, wildebeest, tsessebe, warthogs and hippos.

We also visited the local village where the guides from Delta Camp live. Being guided by Vee around his village, seeing his house and meeting his friends and family was wonderful.  The majority of the residents of the village have lived there their entire lives and pretty much all of them have never left the Okavango Delta. Many of thevillage houses are built with mud and using empty aluminium drinks cans as supporting bricks – absolutely ingenious! The roofs are thatched from dried grass. We were welcomed with friendly smiles and the children were eager to show us around.

mokoro-1We also came across the work in progress of a traditional mokoro hand carved from a whole sausage tree trunk. It takes over a full week to carve one of these dug-out canoes from scratch. Additionally we saw an old carcass of an impala high up in a tree, where a leopard had taken it to feast on.

We could have happily stayed longer at Delta Camp, it was such a relaxing and beautiful lodge and I absolutely loved being there. I wouldn’t hesitate to go back. But alas, we had onward plans, so we went to the air strip and boarded our small plane to Savuti Airstrip. The flight took around an hour and 15 mins, and upon landing we could see that the terrain was different from the Delta; large sprawling plains where the land was drier and the ground more sandy.p1060599

We were met at the airstrip and taken in an open sided land cruiser to Camp Savuti. On the way we encountered a large herd of elephants, some zebra & wildebeest and then our driver was informed that some lionesses had taken down a zebra so we zebra-kill-1took a detour to go and see. The pride of lionesses were resting in the shade keeping a beady eye on their kill. We agreed to return to the spot later on our afternoon game drive. We arrived at the lodge to find that we were the only guests staying for the next 4 days; what a treat to have the entire place to ourselves! We were given a warm welcome by the staff singing a greeting song to us along with cold towels and a refreshing juice.

 

outside-tentThe camp consists of 5 meru style tents on raised platforms and a main lodge building with a bar, lounge area and dining area. The tents are fitted out with carpet, a king size bed or twin beds, an en-suite bathroom with hot and cold running water, a flush toilet, a bath and an outdoor, open air shower. A real plus is that the tents also have full air camp-savuti-roomconditioning, which in the scorching summer months is an absolute blessing.  The lodge is adorned with African-inspired woodwork, cattle skin rugs and arts & crafts.

The tents are arranged to overlook the Savuti Channel, which began flowing again in 2005 after being dry for a period of 28 years.

elephantOn our first afternoon game drive we set off to go back to the pride with their zebra kill. On the way we encountered more elephants, lilac breasted rollers, guinea fowl, giraffe, zebra and a recent arrival to the area – a coalition of 5 male lions who are interlopers to the area and attempting to take over the territory. The lionesses were still resting in the shade near their zebra kill, so we left them to it and after seeing some more giraffe we stopped for a sundowner – some beers and snacks and watched the gorgeous sunset before heading back to the lodge for dinner.

As we went to bed that evening we heard lions roaring and hyenas whooping; it was very exciting to hear these iconic sounds whilst inside our tent.

main-campEach day we rose early for a morning game drive, returning for a delicious cooked breakfast and then some time to rest in the hottest part of the day. A light lunch was served around 1pm and then an afternoon tea before the evening game drive. There was then time to freshen up before drinks and dinner. We found the food to be excellent, with three courses prepared for each dinner served with wine.

hyena-zebraThe game drives were the real highlight of our time at Camp Savuti with a large variety of game in abundance. It was fascinating to visit the site of the zebra kill day after day. On our second morning the pride had evidently gorged overnight and were nowhere to be seen, but whilst we were looking a nervous hyena arrived and began to eat from the carcass right in front of us, soon a second hyena arrived and they took turns keeping watch for the lions. Once they had had their fill they went into the channel to bathe, it was lovely to watch; they did not seem to be bothered by our presence. The following day we saw that the carcass had been picked clean vulture-carcassby vultures leaving only the bones and on our final day we saw that the majority of the bones had been eaten by hyenas and only a few pieces remained. It was absolutely fascinating to see all of the stages in person instead of on the TV.

Other notable highlights for us included spotting a leopard, an elephant walking through the camp and splashing through the channel whilst we lionwere sitting out on our veranda, visiting giant baobab trees, ancient rock carvings and a very long encounter with the 5 male lions who having evidently just gorged themselves were laying on the track and allowed us to photograph and watch them for over 90 minutes. During most of our game drives we didn’t encounter any other vehicles and it truly felt like we had the whole National Park to ourselves! We were joined on one drive by some guests who were camping at the campsite owned by the lodge, they were fun and friendly and it was nice sharing our experience with them. Our guide Gabana was absolutely brilliant and as we were the only guests it was a pleasure having him as our own personal guide!

zebrasList of wildlife seen whilst at Camp Savuti – elephant, zebra, giraffe, lion, leopard, banded mongoose, black backed jackal, spotted hyena, wildebeest, impala, kori bustard, lilac breasted roller, guinea fowl, red and yellow billed hornbills, oxpeckers, cape glossy starling, vultures, hyenasouthern carmine bee-eaters, ground hornbill, cape buffalo, kudu, warthog, boomslang, brown snake eagle, waterbuck, comb duck, ostrich, steenbok and francolin.

I was genuinely very sad when it was time to leave Camp Savuti; our stay had been fabulous – the staff were gracious, friendly and conscientious, the food was delicious and the game viewing had been outstanding. I could have spent another week there, it was a wonderful routine of game drives, eating, afternoon naps and sundowner drinks – I was in African heaven.

 

OTHER INFORMATION

Weather

July to October – dry season – Winter

It can be cold at night and in the mornings – average 6˚C in mornings and evenings and average 28˚C daytime temperatures.

There is less vegetation and animals concentrate around waterholes and rivers, making wildlife easier to spot. The skies are clear, rain is rare and there are fewer mosquitoes.

April to June – mid season

Short afternoon rain showers are likely. Temperatures between 20˚C and 28˚C.

November to February – wet season – Summer

Very hot and rain can be frequent. Average temperatures of 20˚C minimum and 33˚C maximum.

The scenery is greener and wildlife can be harder to spot although you are still likely to see plenty.

Mosquitoes are prevalent.

 

Delta Campdelta-room

  • Hosts a maximum of 16 guests in 7 chalets
  • One chalet is a ‘treehouse’
  • Serviced by Delta Camp Airstrip – a 20 minute flight from Maun, 50 minutes from Kasane, and 15-30 minutes from most other camps
  • Activities include walks and mokoro rides (no game drives in vehicles)
  • No electricity in rooms – batteries can be charged in main lodge only

 

Rates

All food & drinks included as well as your own personal guide

  • Green (off peak) season from Dec to Mar – rooms from US $495 per person sharing
  • Shoulder season from Apr to Jun & Nov – rooms from US $730 per person sharing
  • High (peak) season from July to Oct – rooms from US $885 per person sharing

 

What to pack

Comfortable walking shoes, hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, insect repellent, light cotton shirts, long trousers & shorts (neutral colours), pack warm clothing during June, July and August for the cold morning game drives, torch, camera, binoculars.

 

Camp Savutbathroom-savuti

  • Hosts a maximum of 10 guests in 5 tents
  • Camp Savuti is accessed via light air transfer, 40 mins from Maun or Kasane. The camp is also accessible by road.
  • Activities take place in 4×4 safari vehicles and on foot (optional)

Rates

All food & drinks included as well as your own personal guide

  • Green (off peak) season from Dec to Mar – rooms from US $420 per person sharing
  • Shoulder season from Apr to Jun & Nov – rooms from US $535 per person sharing
  • High (peak) season from July to Oct – rooms from US $635 per person sharing

 

What to pack

Sunhat, sunglasses, sunscreen, insect repellent, light cotton shirts, light comfortable clothing in neutral colours, pack warm clothing during June, July and August for the cold morning game drives, torch, camera, binoculars.

 

INFORMATION ABOUT BOTSWANA

  • Population of approx. 2 million
  • Official language is English but Setswana is widely spoken
  • Currency is the Pula – at the time of writing ex rate is approx. 13 Pula to £1 and 10.5 to US $1
  • It is advised that you drink bottled water or filtered water provided by lodges
  • Vehicles drive on the left hand side of the road
  • There are 4 international airports in Botswana – Maun, Gaborone, Kasane and Francistown

Easy Rider motorbike tour off the beaten track from Da Lat to Hoi An, Vietnam

Riding through the lesser known towns and villages of central Vietnam was an unforgettable experience; if you like meeting people, understanding cultures and traditions and eating delicious food then this is the tour for you. You don’t even have to know how to ride a motorbike or scooter.

Hong from Original Vietnam Easy Riders was recommended to us by a friend who had taken a trip with him previously. We arranged the booking in advance over email and arrived with excited anticipation.

hong easy rider Vietnam

Summary

Da lat to Hoi An – a 6 day and 5 night tour, riding between 50 and 160km daily. Overnight stays in Ho Lak, Buon Ma Thout, Pleiku, Kon Tum and Kham Duc. Prices dependent on destination/number of days. Agreed price includes Easy Rider tour guides, motorbike hire, helmet, fuel, overnight accommodation and entry to sights/attractions. Price does not include food & drink.

If you are not an experienced or confident rider it is possible to have an Easy Rider guide per person and it is comfortable to travel as a passenger on the bike as well as having your bag strapped to the back of the bike. It will be covered in polythene sheeting to protect it from dust and rain. NB hard suitcases are not suitable; you need to bring a fabric bag.

easy rider tour vietnamAll of their tours are suitable for complete novices, even if you have never travelled as a passenger on a motorbike before. You do not need to bring any special clothing with you, although a waterproof jacket is recommended. The motorbikes provided are locally purchased and the engine size is usually 125 or 150cc.

The tour

The tour was the complete highlight of our holiday in Vietnam; an absolutely wonderful experience that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone. I felt like we were getting under the skin of Vietnam, seeing and experiencing things without seeing many other tourists and being welcomed into people’s homes and businesses without a second thought; it was an amazing trip.

vietnam-mapWe arrived at the office in Da Lat and were greeted with Vietnamese coffees and completed the payment formalities. As my partner is an experienced rider, we had opted to have one bike between us that we would both travel on and our bags would be strapped to Hong’s bike. Whilst Hong strapped the bags to his bike, my partner had a quick whizz around the streets of Da Lat to familiarise himself with the bike.

 

Day 1 Da Lat to Ho Lak – 160km

crazy-houseOur first stop was Crazy House in Da Lat. Crazy House was built by a former President of Vietnam’s daughter, it is a functioning hotel, but is open to visitors during the day. Building began in 1990 and although it is ‘finished’ it is continually being added to. I can only describe Crazy House as being like some kind of film set from a trippy 1970s fairy tale movie with echelons of haunted castle and an enchanted forest. It often features on published lists of top crazy hotels to visit/stay in around the world. Entry is 40,000 VND.

We also visited a flower farm, where thousands of flowers are grown and sold to markets all across Vietnam. During the journey from the farm we came across a group of men cutting stone bricks by the side of the road. We stopped to chat to them about what they were doing, with Hong translating. roadsideThey were chopping huge slabs of rock into square bricks with just a hammer and chisel. It was absolutely scorching in the midday sun and these guys were just working on through the blistering heat. They pile their bricks up by the side of the road and hope that someone driving by will want to buy them for any building work. All of the men had built a tin shack by the side of the road, which they were sharing at night; only going home to their families once every month or so. It was a humbling experience.

We also went to Trai Ham Da Lat coffee plantation  which is famous for its weasel coffee. If you are unfamiliar with weasel coffee, you may be unaware that it could also be known as weasel poo coffee. The process involves feeding the weasels coffee beans, the beans then pass through the weasel, with the digestive acids said to improve the flavour. Someone then has the lovely job of collecting the weasel poo and sorting out the beans, which are washed and roasted and turned into coffee. It is the same process to make civet poo coffee in Indonesia (known as kopi luwak). One sad side to the process is that the animals are kept in cages and essentially fed only on a diet of coffee beans. I felt slightly uncomfortable about this, as it didn’t seem very humane. Researchers in Florida have developed a process to emulate the digestive enzymes of the animals, without having to involve them and some Vietnamese companies have also claimed to have done the same. I hope that this will become commercially viable and that soon people will be able to produce the coffee with the same tastes without the animals having to be used.

elephant-fallsWe continued on our journey and stopped at Elephant waterfall. The climb down to the ‘viewing platform’ was pretty treacherous with slippery rocks, tree roots sticking out, mud and at points getting soaked by the falls. There are some hand rails, but they are few and far between. Sturdy footwear is required, I saw people attempting it in flip flops and giving up half way. I am glad we climbed down as the waterfall is impressive, but they could certainly do with some hand rails all the way down! Entrance 20,000 VND.

happy-buddhaClose by to the falls is Lihn An pagoda, a huge Buddhist temple built in 1999 situated in beautiful gardens and home of a giant happy Buddha statue. Entrance is free, donations are welcome.

 

As Hong had arranged for us to have dinner with his nephew who lives near Ho Lak we visited a village inhabited by the M’nong people to buy some rice wine (also known as happy water!) to take with us as a gift. Rice wine is an alcoholic drink made from fermented rice and it is very strong. Similar to sake drunk in Japan but in my opinion somewhat less refined. mnongIn the village we were welcomed into the home of a M’nong lady who must have been at least 75 years old. Whilst she smoked her pipe she told us that she had a terrible hangover and that to make herself feel better she would sing us a song. She sung what I assume was a traditional song with vigour and joy. Then she asked us to sing a song to her. We were completely taken aback, could not think of anything else to sing apart from Happy Birthday; a bit embarrassing!

 

On our way to our hotel, we passed by Lak Lake at sunset, it was a striking view. We rode up to Bao Dai’s Villa, our accommodation for the night. This villa was the former holiday residence of Bao Dai, the final emperor of Vietnam, ruling from 1926 to 1945. Now a hotel with a free WIFI, air conditioning, a restaurant and lake views you would think it would be popular, but we were the only guests staying. Perhaps it is because it is a bit out of the way? Rooms from $32 per night including breakfast.

crab-and-fishWe were welcomed into Hong’s nephew’s house like we were part of the family. On arrival it was clear that a feast had been prepared including crab, grilled fish, salad, rice noodles and fish hot pot – each dish was absolutely delicious. There were around 15 members of the family there, all seated together on the floor and enjoying having dinner together. We had a lot of fun; the rice wine (happy water) was being passed around and drunk frequently. Hong was required for lots of translating, as we were keen to all be able to have suitable dinner conversation! After dinner, coffee was served and a plate of jammy dodger type biscuits appeared – it seems they were more than prepared for us Brits. The family own a fish farm; their humble house is on the land of the farm. The farm is doing well, but it is hard work and they don’t earn a lot of money. However it was easy to see that the happiness of the family and spending time together was of the utmost importance to them and they were very happy to welcome us into their home and share an evening with us. I felt privileged.

 

Day 2 Ho Lak (Lak Lake) to Buon Ma Thout – 50km

A shorter ride today, giving us time to make more stops and experiences. The lake was covered in a layer of early morning mist; combined with the traditional fishing net contraptions out on the water, it almost felt like the scene before us was taken from historical photographs. Cattle were being herded through the fields and along the roadside as we pulled up alongside a group of rice paddy harvesters. Did I want to have a go with the sythe? Yes please! Crouching down to chop the bundles of rice stalks was absolutely back breaking; I could not imagine doing that all day, especially in the searing heat.

Moving on we stumbled across a brick factory, the machinery was like something from Wallace and Gromit, but fair play to them it was efficient and they were producing a large number of bricks. Like everyone we met, they were welcoming and very happy to show us around and explain what they were doing.

edeOur next stop was a village inhabited by the Ede people. In Vietnam they refer to indigenous people or people from what is considered an ethnic minority ‘minority people’ or a ‘minority village.’ Although it sounds a little derogatory to us, it seems to be the accepted term in Vietnam. I am not sure what the indigenous people themselves think about it, as none of the people we met were able to speak English.

When we arrived in the Ede village we were quickly welcomed into a family home where we were eagerly shown around. Built on stilts, the house was essentially one large room, divided into separate areas. There was a kitchen area with a wood fire for cooking, a sleeping area which was separated by hanging sheets of fabric and a living space for socialising. There was no bathroom to speak of; I think the swampy pond out the back of the house serves as the family bathroom. The family were very proud of their wooden house, which has been built by hand and offers a cool, shady and friendly space.

tapiocaFurther along the journey we visited a family of tapioca farmers, who were peeling and drying their recent harvest of tapioca in their garden. Every inch of space was being used to dry out the root, which was being peeled by the entire family, including the children. Tapioca is the root of the cassava plant and is used to make MSG (monosodium glutamate) which is used in many different foods throughout Vietnam. The root is also used to make tapioca pearls, which you will know if you are a fan of bubble tea. Tapioca is easy to farm as it doesn’t require nutrient rich soil and is not as susceptible to disease and pests as other crops, making it a good choice for families who could not afford to have a failed crop.

We parked up outside a large building which Hong told us was a business that made magic mushrooms. This was very confusing to us, as in the UK magic mushrooms are also known as psychedelic mushrooms and are known to give hallucinogenic experiences. However, this was not a place in the business of illegal drugs; they were cultivating black mushrooms, which are popular to eat with noodle dishes. The cavernous dark room was full to the brim of polythene bags hanging from poles, stuffed with sawdust and stony sand that are watered each day and currently sprouting huge ear shaped black mushrooms. It was a strange sight. I think the magic part is because they are grown inside a building, using sawdust rather than out in the fields.

chicken-riceWe stopped at a ‘truck stop’ for lunch. The car park was full of lorries hauling their goods between big cities. The restaurant only served one dish, chicken and rice, but boy was it delicious. The truckers were very surprised to have two westerners walk in whilst they were having their lunch and they were keen to come and sit and talk to us. They seemed impressed that we were going to eat the same lunch as them! The dish was approx. $1.50. During this lunch we also learned the rules of throwing your bones, used paper napkins and other debris straight onto the floor. Everyone does it; and it is a good indication of restaurants which are popular and the food is good – the more debris on the floor the better the restaurant. It felt alien to us, but we soon got into the swing of it; it actually felt quite liberating!

waterfall-vietAfter lunch we continued towards Buon Ma Thout stopping at Dray Sap falls, another impressive waterfall. Entry is 30,000 VND and there is a 600m trail to get to the waterfall. You can walk further along a rope and wooden bridge to get a good view. There were very few tourists and just a handful of locals having a picnic. It is possible to swim, the water is very clean.

Our last stop before arriving into the city centre was a small family business making rice noodles. This husband and wife team had some small machines for making and cutting rice noodles, which they sprinkle with crispy onion and black mushrooms. This is a popular breakfast dish. We were served a bowl each and they were absolutely delicious.

Riding into Buon Ma Thout was a slightly hairy experience; it is a large city home to around 350,000 people and we had arrived in rush hour. Motorbikes where whizzing from all directions and we had to negotiate several large roundabouts. Arriving in one piece, we checked into Eden Hotel.  Rooms from $20, this is a clean hotel with free WIFI and air-conditioned rooms.

 

Day 3 Buon Ma Thout to Pleiku – 180km

cocoaAn early start for a long ride, first stop – Hong noticed some cocoa growing next to someone’s house; it turned out to be a small farm. We asked for permission to enter and Hong picked a cocoa fruit from a tree, he split it open and the inside was not at all what I expected, there was a white fleshy fruit surrounding the cocoa beans. The flesh is actually very tasty; it’s very sweet and quite sticky.

We paid our respects at a war memorial on the outskirts of the city; the sheer number of names of those who perished in the war just from this small area was shocking. We went to a local market, which I always enjoy immensely; I love looking at all the different produce on offer and discovering foods that are unfamiliar to me.

Continuing our ride through the bustling villages and marvelling at what can be carried on the back of a motorbike, we spotted a wedding taking place. We stopped at a respectable distance whilst the bride and groom were having their wedding photos taken. Next thing we know, we are being dragged over to join in the photos – there I am in my dusty clothes and with grit in my hair, being pulled into have photos with the bride and groom, photos with the bride, photos with the bride’s family, photos with the grandparents…..you get the picture. Then we were invited inside, promptly sat down and offered drinks and then some food was brought out for us. We sat with the bride and groom and with the band who were having their meal break plus the very drunk man who I can only assume was some kind of embarrassing Great Uncle (we all have them!). He was wearing a military uniform and insisted we were from Russia. It was pretty bonkers. weddingWe stayed at the wedding for around an hour, being introduced to various family members and being constantly brought food to try. It was hospitality like I have never experienced, imagine pulling strangers off the street into your wedding? Although none of them spoke a word of English we had a great time; I hope they did too.

We entered the home workshop of a husband and wife blacksmith duo. They were making various knives and trowels. Everything done crouched over a fire with rudimentary tools. It was impressive and very hard, hot work. By now I was getting used to walking into people’s homes and businesses, what once felt alien now felt more normal; these people were proud of their businesses and the products they were making and only too happy to show them off. If someone turns up at my work and stands next to my desk staring at me, I don’t think I will be so accommodating.

Although we had a lot of kilometres to cover, we couldn’t help wanting to pause at places of interest. We had a quick look at a cotton plantation and then popped into a black pepper farm. The farmer immediately invited us in for a cup of tea and we chatted with him for a while. He was very keen to tell us all about his family and his farm.

Time for a quick photo at Phu Cuong waterfall before continuing on to Pleiku. A city of 220,000, it was strategically important for the USA during the Vietnam War as it was the end of military supply route. The city was left in ruins at the end of the war and was rebuilt with the help of the USSR, giving it somewhat of a Soviet feel.

We stayed overnight at HAGL Hotel this is the biggest hotel in Pleiku, but as the saying goes, biggest isn’t always best. The ground floor is a bar, has karaoke and live singing each night from 7pm until late. It is loud and very audible from the rooms. To top it off, the singing was awfully out of tune! I would definitely recommend staying elsewhere in Pleiku.

 

Day 4 Pleiku to Kon Tum – 50km

A very pleasant ride to Kon Tum, beginning with a visit to Chua Minh Thanh pagoda followed by a walk around Gia Lai museum. The museum features artefacts from the indigenous Ba Na (also known as Bahnar) people. There is also a hysterical collection of taxidermy animals.

Riding past Bien Ho a beautiful crater lake, known as the ‘eye of Pleiku,’ we arrived at a tea plantation and took a walk along the waist high tea bushes; it was very peaceful. glueBefore we stopped for lunch we went to see a family who were huddled under tarpaulins in their front yard, stripping the bark off from long thin tree trunks. They were collecting the sap to make glue. In the midday sun under those tarps it felt like being in an oven; I have the utmost respect for these hard working families.

 

At lunch I had my first experience of not liking a food in Vietnam – bitter melon. It’s a vegetable, which was served stuffed with minced pork and in a clear broth as a soup. It lives up to its name; extremely bitter. I could not eat it, but I did eat all of the minced pork which was delicious. Luckily this was served as a side dish alongside some delicious grilled pork and rice.

Arriving in Kon Tum we went to see the Roman Catholic wooden church, built in 1913 it is architecturally impressive and ornate. We then rode onto an airfield that was used by the US during the war, overlooked by the famous Charlie Hill. The hill was a stronghold of South Vietnam during the war and was the scene of a bloody one and half month battle with the Viet Cong with mass causalities on both sides. The hill was heavily mined during the war and is unsafe to climb.

Visiting a Bahnar village, we were welcomed into people’s houses and shown around the village. longhouseWe were taken into the longhouse, a large structure on stilts made of bamboo and a tall thatched roof. Longhouses are generally used for village meetings and also serve as a village court of law; this one was also doubling up as a school for the children of the village. The construction is impressive, standing at around 12 metres tall it is built with no nails; the bamboo poles are simply tied together. Looking up into the roof from the inside shows that it is a serious architectural accomplishment.

We spent the night at the Konklor Hotel which has 25 rooms and boasts excellent staff who are very willing to ensure their guests are happy. The rooms feature a lot of bamboo including the bed, the en-suite bathroom is a wet room which has been nicely decorated. The surrounding small gardens are beautiful and we witnessed a wedding photography shoot in the gardens when we arrived which made for entertaining viewing. Rooms from $16 USD.

 

Day 5 Kon Tum to Kham Duc – 170km

First stop of the morning was a business where they were drying out ground down tapioca powder in the sun on huge circular trays, ready to sell on for MSG production. Afterwards we saw a group of wood carvers creating intricate statues and furniture, all with hand tools.

Pushing on, we came across some people selling rubber tapped from nearby trees to a broker. I was fascinated by this female broker; Hong told us this was a predominantly male industry so she was not the norm. Her demeanour was friendly but feisty; she was only going to pay the price she wanted to pay – rubbereven though all of the negotiations were in Vietnamese I could tell she was driving a hard bargain. To test how pure the rubber being offered is, she ladled some into a frying pan that was heated on a gas stove to evaporate any water and then rolled the rubber into a ball and weighed it.

 

We drank some freshly squeezed sugar cane juice from a roadside seller; it was absolutely delicious, served with a squeeze of orange. We followed the winding roads to Kham Duc, climbing higher and higher and following parts of the infamous Ho Chi Minh trail. The ‘trail’ was a logistical supply route used during the war and running around 1,000 miles from Laos, through North Vietnam to South Vietnam. Weapons and other supplies were transported along the route to arm the communist guerrillas who were fighting against Southern Vietnam and US Forces. The scenery was stunning and we stopped by several villages to meet some of the indigenous people who live along the trail.

We stayed at Be Chau Giang Hotel which is one of the only options in Kham Duc. The rooms were clean and the fried eggs for breakfast were delicious. Rooms from $11, breakfast not included.

 

Day 6 Kham Duc to Hoi An – 100km

We descended from the Highlands towards the coast. The temperate increased the closer we got to Hoi An. We made many stops along during the final part of our journey; we saw rice crackers being made, tasted sweet pineapple dipped in salt & incensechilli, visited a family making rice paper and then had a go at making incense sticks with a machine that wouldn’t look out of place in a Victorian museum!

It was a fun final day and although we were sad to be finishing the tour; we knew we had something to look forward to as we had treated ourselves to a luxurious hotel in Hoi An – Anantara Hotel.

We vowed to Hong that we would be back again soon for another tour, it had been a brilliant and fascinating adventure and we had loved every minute of it. Hong was a thoughtful guide, quickly picking up on the things that most interested us and incorporating as much as possible into our days without making them too long and tiring. Above all, Hong was great fun and always had interesting stories, anecdotes or snippets of history to tell us.

anantara-bathroomBut now it was time to check into the plush Anantara, wash off the dust in the plush bathroom and put on the comfy bathrobe.

 

 

 

 

Rooms at the Anantara are from $166 including breakfast. The hotel consists of 93 rooms and suites and also boasts a spa, two swimming pools, free bicycle rental, free WIFI and 4 restaurants. anantara

Guests can also participate in Vietnamese cooking, language, painting and lantern making classes.

 

About Original Vietnam Easy Riders

Hong was one of the original Easy Riders in Da Lat, starting in (1994), since opening his own tour business with his son in law Phuong, they have been successfully taking people all over the country on interesting and fun tours. They also offer 1 day city tours around Da Lat, taking in the many sights of the city and surrounding area.

All of their riders take safety seriously and they ride at a suitable pace for the conditions of the road. The idea is not to go as fast as you can like being in a race – it’s to go at a steady pace, to take in the sights and enjoy being in Vietnam.

You can find Original Vietnam Easy Riders here:

67 Truong Cong Dinh Street, Da Lat 610000, Vietnam.  – MAP

Tel +84 (0) 166 763 2059.

Email – ross321dl2002@yahoo.com

easy-rider-photo

 

Read Trip Advisor reviews about Vietnam Easy Riders here. 

 

 

 

 

Key facts about Vietnam

  • The currency is Vietnamese Dong (VND). At the time of writing it is approx. 22,000 VND to $1 US.
  • US Dollars are widely accepted.
  • The official language is Vietnamese. English and French are popular second languages.
  • Vehicles drive on the right hand side of the road.
  • Vietnam is 7 hrs ahead of GMT and does not observe daylight saving hours.
  • Many Vietnamese people do not consider themselves to be religious, the most popular religion is Buddhism followed by approx. 12% of the population.
  • It is not recommended to drink the tap water in Vietnam. Bottled water is cheap and readily available.
  • In South Vietnam the dry season is from Dec to April and the monsoon rains are usually from May to Nov.
  • In central Vietnam the rainy season runs from Nov to Dec, sometimes continuing on until Jan. This is also the area that can be hit by typhoons, occurring during Autumn months.
  • In North Vietnam the weather is warm and sunny from Oct to Dec and then gets colder as it gets deeper into the winter months. It begins to warm up from March and between May & Sept – the summer months – it can be very warm but this is also the rainy season.
  • If you plan to visit the whole country the months that are considered best are between Sept and Dec & March to April.
  • You should check with your travel insurance company that they will cover you to ride or travel on a motorbike under your policy.

Mountain gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

Trekking in Volcanoes National Park to visit mountain gorillas, in their own natural habitat is an absolute highlight of a trip to Rwanda – read my article here to give you lots of handy hints of what you should know before you arrange your trip and what you need to take with you.

This article has been published by Travelicious – a revolutionary travel website & community that uses online advertising and sponsorship to fund independent travel writers.

Mountain gorilla

4 days on Ometepe Island, Nicaragua – the largest freshwater volcanic island in the world

Ometepe Island is composed of two volcanoes, Concepción which is an active volcano and Maderas which is extinct. Ometepe is surrounded by the vast waters of Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America. We boarded the Ferry from San Jorge and began the 1 hr 20 min journey to Ometepe. The lake has larger waves than you might expect, so the ferry crossing was a little bumpy. Beware if you choose to sit at the front – there is a lot of splashing, even on the upper decks!

The volcanoes rising high from the water are visible from the mainland, and the view of Ometepe from the ferry makes for some pretty photos, with curious circular cloud formations often hanging around the tip of Concepción.

ometepe

We had booked to stay on Ometepe for 3 nights, so without wanting to waste any time we had arranged for a driver to meet us upon arrival at the port at Ometepe to take us to the Istian Wetlands for a kayaking trip. En route we stopped for a quick lunch at Hotel Villa Paraiso which has a restaurant with a waterside view, located in Santo Domingo. The menu is large with many different options including local fish, pasta, kebabs and salads; the prices are in line with other hotels in the area and the food is average, being aimed at tourists rather than locals. This seems to be a popular place for drivers and guides to drop tourists for lunch.

Things to do

Istian Wetlands

Our kayaking trip was booked with Caballito’s Mar, a hotel & restaurant located on kayakthe beach, close to the Istian Wetlands.
Kayaking costs $25 per person and includes a life jacket and a boat to take you across the lake to the wetlands (saving both time and your biceps). Our guide was in one kayak and we followed behind sharing a tandem kayak. The pace was gentle as the focus was looking for wildlife. We kayaked around the beautiful channels of the wetlands for around 1 and half hours and spotted many different animals including a turtle, various water birds, howler monkeys and caiman. We returned to the boat, which istiantook us back to Caballito’s Mar, taking around 20 mins. Whilst it is possible to rent the kayaks yourself on an hourly basis, I am glad that we had a guide as we probably wouldn’t have seen the monkeys or the turtle if he wasn’t there to point them out. Kayaking is dependent on water levels and usually only possible between July and February.

San Ramon Waterfall

Described in the Lonely Planet as a relatively flat easy hike, we decided to don our swimmers and walk to the waterfall for a relaxing dip. Whoever wrote that piece in the LP has never, ever been there! This was a sweaty tough hike of over an hour with tricky loose rocks and at times scrambling up boulders on the path. By the time we arrived at the 120m waterfall – breathless, dusty and drenched, I couldn’t wait to strip off and cool down. The edge of the pool was a bit muddy and also san ramoncovered in stones, not the nicest to walk on, but once in the refreshing water all of that was forgotten! We took towels with us but to be honest we probably could have done without, as we dried very quickly in the sunshine. During the steep walk back down, we encountered some visitors on horseback who were on their way to the waterfall, their guide explained that the horses could only go half way up as then the terrain becomes too difficult for them (no kidding!), so they leave “park” the horses, leaving them to rest and travel the remainder of the path on foot. I am glad that we went as the waterfall is beautiful; I just wish we had been more prepared for the hike.

Ojo de Agua

aguaThis natural spring pool is filled with crystal clear water that comes from underneath volcano Maderas. There are two separate swimming areas, chairs and tables for visitors, bathroom facilities and also a bar and restaurant. You are permitted to bring your own drinks and food should you wish. Entrance is $3.

We visited on a public holiday and it was full to the rafters, but I can imagine on a weekday it’s probably quite serene.

Rock carvings and stone statues

There are rock carvings (petroglyphs) and stone statues found all over Ometepe idolIsland. These were carved by indigenous Nahuatl Indians who considered the Ometepe as their promised land. To them Maderas was known as the sacred place of the sun and Concepción was the brother of the moon. Some of the oldest rock carvings on Ometepe date back to around 1,000 BC. Many of the carvings are highly intricate and consist of spirals, lizards, turtles, caiman and frogs.
We saw some basalt statues in Altagracia next to the Catholic church; almost as tall as me, these were created in the 19th Century and were to represent human figures and their alter egos, mainly the eagle and jaguar. Other places to see rock carvings on Ometepe are San José de San Marcos, La Primavera farm and Corazal.

Canopy Zip Line

Chico Largo zip line tour is a popular activity; it consists of 2.5km of lines spread across 16 platforms. I’m told there is quite a steep hike to get to the first platform. Cost is $25 per person.

Volcano climbs

It is possible to hike both Concepción and Maderas. To visit the crater of Concepción is a challenging hike; it will usually take between 9 and 11 hours for a round trip. A high level of fitness is required. Hiking to Maderas crater lagoon will take around 7 to 9 hours roundtrip and requires a moderate level of fitness. It is possible to see monkeys and birds in the forest during the hike.
You will need to take your own food, snacks and water for both hikes; there are no facilities or shops available.

Accommodation

totoco ecolodgeWe stayed at Totoco Ecolodge, located high on the slopes of Maderas volcano. The road that leads to the lodge is extremely steep and very bumpy, but it’s worth it once you have made it to the top! The lodge is situated in 15 hectares, 6 of which are organic farmland, with absolutely stunning views of the island. There are 8 rooms of varying sizes, a communal restaurant and bar area with free WIFI and a swimming pool.

The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and provides self-service filtered totoco blogdrinking water. This helps with reducing waste as you can reuse water bottles by filling them up before you venture out. The food is delicious with a varied breakfast menu including hot food cooked to order and homemade bread. Lunch and dinner menus change each day with a choice of two or three options, including at least one vegetarian. The staff are excellent and the bar is well stocked with premium spirits, a good wine list and made to order cocktails available. The view from the restaurant of Concepción volcano is beautiful, a great place to watch sunset and indulge in a few drinks.

shower totocoWe stayed in one of the standard lodges, which consists of one queen size bed and a sofa with an outdoor private bathroom attached with a hot water solar powered shower. As this is an eco lodge, there is no air conditioning but there are fans and the rooms are designed to receive a breeze through them. I was never too hot inside the room and it was comfortable to sleep well. All of the toilets in the lodge are composting, in practical terms that means they don’t use water, so once you have used the toilet instead of flushing you throw some sawdust down with the scoop provided. Each toilet has a lid which you replace when the toilet is not in use. We never experienced any unpleasant smells from the toilets and it means that they can use the waste for fertilizer on the farm. As the bathroom is outdoors (it does have a roof but it still open to the elements) we did have quite a few insect visitors, but nothing too scary. By keeping the door from the bedroom to the bathroom closed, none of them ever found their way into our room.

One of the best things about the lodge was our private porch complete with chairs and a hammock. Sitting outside watching the birds, listening to the howler monkeys and feeling part of the tropical jungle was wonderful. We had a roadside hawk land right in front of us and carry on as if we weren’t there. Each of the lodges are far enough apart from each other to be completely private, so you don’t see or hear anyone else…which was bliss.

There are seasonal variations in room prices – all rooms include breakfast. sunset view totocoStandard lodges are from $99 per night, Value Lodge from $85pn, Family Lodge (sleeps up to 5) from $120pn and the House (sleeps 6) from $140pn. It is possible to book half board to included your dinners, which is useful if you don’t have your own transport as there isn’t anywhere within walking distance to visit for dinner. Alternatively you can let them know each day before 2pm if you want to have dinner. Dinner is around $22pp for 3 courses.

I thoroughly recommend Totoco Eco Lodge, it is a beautiful place to stay and I would definitely stay there again, I loved hearing the howler monkeys calling at dawn and dusk. Although there are benefits to staying in Moyogalpa or Merida where there are a variety of cafes and restaurants around, in my opinion that is outweighed by the peace, tranquillity and privacy of Totoco.

Travel

The Ferry costs 60 Cordobas (£1.60) one way and tickets can be purchased either on arrival at the port or on board.
There are smaller, cheaper boats but they do not have a good safety record so the official ferry is the recommended option.

There is an airport on Ometepe, flights with https://lacostena.online.com.ni from Managua take 20 mins but only fly on Thursdays and Sundays ($50 each way).

Transport on the Island

It is possible to hire your own transportation – car ($100pd), motorbike ($35pd), scooter ($25pd), bicycle ($5pd). It is also possible to travel by bus – your accommodation should be able to help you with timetables. You can also ask them to arrange private taxis for you.
The island is shaped like a figure of eight and the main road follows this shape. This road is paved, but some of the roads off the main road are not paved and you will need a 4WD or off road motorbike to travel on them.

All our ground arrangements were arranged in advance by Careli Tours, who provide drivers & excellent guides, I recommend them highly.

Food

Fish is the main staple of protein on the island and most meals are served with rice and beans (gallo pinto) and plantain. As the island is volcanic, the soil is extremely fertile and much of the produce served on the island is grown there. The plantains (type of banana) that grown on Ometepe are said to be some of the best in Central America; we saw a truck that had driven from Honduras on the ferry that was coming to collect plantain to take back to sell 500km away.

Summary

We spent a fantastic 4 days on Ometepe and could quite happily have stayed a few more days. The atmosphere was relaxed, the scenery was stunning, the food was tasty and I just loved listening to (and seeing) the monkeys. Compared to the mainland of Nicaragua, some things are slightly more expensive, possibly because many items have to be transported over but I still found Ometepe to be very good value compared to prices in Europe. The island is pretty windy constantly, so I didn’t have any good hair days but that was the only possible complaint about the weather. We experienced beautifully sunny days with a pleasant temperature and no rain (travelled in month of January). I would definitely go back to Ometepe if I was visiting Nicaragua again, next time I would try out the canopy zip lines and I would like to visit the Istian Wetlands again.

Other information

• The currency used is Nicaraguan Córdoba – at the time of writing approx. 28 to $1US / 37 to £1.

• The language spoken in Nicaragua is Spanish. English is spoken at some tourist spots and hotels but is not universal, so it pays to have a phrase book and learn a little before you travel.

• Nicaragua is 6 hrs behind GMT and does not observe daylight saving hours.

• Vehicles drive on the right hand side.

• Nicaragua is one of the safest countries in Central America.

• The dry season is November to May. Expect tropical rains from June to October.

• It is not recommended to drink the tap water.

• Managua is the main international airport in Nicaragua and is served by United Airlines, Delta Airlines, American Airlines, AeroMexico and Avianca. Domestic flights are operated by Air Costneña.

• Concepción had some small eruptions between 2007 and 2009 where minimal ash was spurted out from the volcano intermittently often many months apart. There have been no eruptions since then. The last serious eruption where some people nearby were evacuated was in 1985.

Iceland – a long weekend amongst volcanoes and snow

A mere 3 hour flight from the UK or 5 hours from the East coast of the USA – Iceland is the perfect destination for a long weekend.

 

First Impressions

Walking out of the airport in Reykjavik, the first thing that struck me was that the views of the stunning snow covered scenery went on for what seemed like forever. It took me a while to realise that this was because there are scarcely any trees, so your vista is uninterrupted and boy is it stunning.

We arrived mid-March and there was heavy snow all around. It was with some trepidation that we collected our 4WD hire car (recommended in winter months), having never driven on snow before I wasn’t sure how we would cope. I needn’t have worried however; the roads were excellent, completely cleared of snow and hardly any traffic to speak of so we could take our time. Our destination was Hotel Ranga in Hella, approx. 2 hours drive from Reykjavik airport.

scenery icelandI was mesmerised by the roadside scenery, stopping continuously to take photos. Living in the UK we don’t see much snow and when we do it hardly settles before it melts and turns to brown slush. This was pristine white blankets with beautiful blue sky and sunshine, a novel sight.

Accommodation

Upon arrival at Hotel Ranga we were welcomed into reception by a huge stuffed polar bear named Hrammur. Slightly curious as they are not native to the island but I was stunned at his enormous size nonetheless.

Hotel Ranga is a log cabin style hotel and is the only 4 star resort in Southern hotel rangaIceland. It has 51 rooms and has its own observatory for star gazing. Due to the isolated location there is a good chance of seeing displays of the Aurora Borealis also known as the Northern Lights as there is no local light pollution.

 

Single rooms from €232 double rooms from €266 incl breakfast.

We had been forewarned that alcohol is pretty pricey in Iceland, so we came prepared with some bottles of wine purchased at the airport before we departed. It felt like as good a time as any to pop one of those open and jump into one of the three outdoor hot tubs at Hotel Ranga – located just outside our room overlooking the East Ranga River. Sitting in the warm water whilst the air temperature was -2˚c was absolute bliss, although it did result in a very rosy red nose! This became a ritual each day when we got back from our sightseeing; warming up in the hot tub whilst drinking a bottle of wine was a great way to end each day before dinner.

reindeerDinner at Hotel Ranga is served in the restaurant overlooking the river which has huge glass windows on three sides, for optimal Northern Lights viewings – should you be lucky enough for them to make an appearance. The menu combines Icelandic specials with gourmet cuisine, resulting in us sampling dishes such as reindeer carpaccio with parmesan and truffle oil, smoked puffin with cream cheese and pan fried arctic char. All were absolutely delicious.

After requesting that the hotel reception wake us if the Northern Lights make an appearance we went to bed full of anticipation. At around 2am we were woken with a phone call to say that the lights were just coming out. Cue a mad dash to pull on our thermals, adding as many layers as we could fit underneath our coats and running outside into the freezing temperatures. The lights were there, but only as a very faint green-y white line in the sky, nothing compared to what I have seen on the TV with coloured lights dancing about. I thought perhaps this is just the beginning and then they will come out in their full splendour? It was not to be, after 30 mins of waiting, with my face going numb from the cold, there was no change. We gave up and went back to bed. After all, we had lots planned for the next day.

Things to do

Mýrdalsjökull Glacier

Around 40 mins from Hella is Mýrdalsjökull, Iceland’s southernmost glacier, where we had booked a morning of snowmobiling. After meeting at the cabin and getting kitted out in snow suits, boots, balaclavas, helmets and gloves we set off in a huge ATV to the snowmobiles which were already on the glacier. I opened the door of the truck, jumped down, took two steps and then promptly got blown over by the wind. I was actually cleanly blown over into the snow, flat on my back…that doesn’t happen in London!

The snowmobiling was lots of fun; we travelled up one side of the snow covered glacier and then down the other side back to the ATV. We were gifted continuous beautiful views of the surrounding wilderness. The snowmobile was simple to control and suitable for novices. You are required to shift your weight to lean either to the left or the right at times when travelling along a steep slope, so a reasonable level of mobility is required. Full instructions are given before you set off. I felt safe and happy that I had been provided all the right clothing and equipment. It important that you wear warm layers underneath the snowsuits that are provided.

snowmobile 2 snowmobile

The snowmobiles can carry up to two people, one driver and one passenger. Children aged 6 and over are allowed as passengers. You must hold a driving licence to drive the snowmobile. Our snowmobile activity was priced as 24,990 ISK per person (around £165). We spent around 1 hour on the snowmobile with approx 20 mins drive each way in the ATV.

Arcanum’s meeting cabin is approx. 2 and half hours drive from Reykjavik.

 

 

Vik

The southernmost village in Iceland is a 30 min drive from Mýrdalsjökull Glacier. VikThis stunning black sand beach is often voted as one of the top 10 most beautiful beaches in the world and I can see why. A thick layer of snow lay in continuous blankets from the road onto the beach and then in stark contrast the black sand stretched to the angry looking sea. The wind was whipping our faces but I didn’t care, I wanted to walk along this beach as it was like nothing I had seen before.

I was looking out for sea birds, we saw a few sheltering in the cliff sides… but alas no puffins, we were a bit early they don’t normally arrive until April.

Vik is approx. 3 hours drive from Reykjavik.

There are not a lot of options for dining in Vik as it is only a small village. We had lunch at Víkurskáli a café at a petrol station. There are plenty of choices on the menu such as burgers, fish and chips, meat stews, fish stews, sandwiches etc. Main dishes around 2,000 ISK (£13). Open 8am to 10pm daily.

Skógafoss

SkogafossOn the way back from Vik to Hella we stopped at Skógafoss waterfall. In comparison to our visit to Gullfoss, there were not many visitors there and we almost had the views to ourselves. Parking is free and there is free access to the waterfall all year round.

Skógafoss is a 30 min drive from Vik, 40 mins from Hella, 2 hours from Reykjavik.

 

 

The Golden Circle

The Golden Circle is a set of three popular attractions all within 100km of the Reykjavik: Þingvellir, Geysir and Gullfoss. It is possible to visit all three in one day – either by a self-drive or joining a tour bus. We drove to all 3 of them during our second day comfortably and they were all interesting and enjoyable.

Gullfoss

This waterfall is one of the most popular attractions in Iceland. There is a dedicated gullfosspath for tourists to walk on to the viewing areas where you can take in various views of the powerful rushing water.  There is no admission fee to visit the waterfall and it is open 24/7.

There is a large café & restaurant with hot and cold food available and a souvenir shop open from 09:00 – 21:00. There is a large car park and parking is free. Be prepared to share your experience with hundreds of other visitors. We found that the walkways were quite icy and slippery on the day that we visited as there had been snow earlier in the morning. It is important to wear sturdy footwear with good grips.

Gullfoss is approx. 2 hours drive from Reykjavik, 10 mins drive from Geysir.

Þingvellir National Park

Parts of Þingvellir are classed as a UNESCO World Heritage site as it was the meeting place of one of the oldest parliaments in the world; established in 930 AD. There is a church built in 1859 which you can visit in the summer months. There are some remains of the buildings visible. A highlight is being able to see where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are moving apart, creating a rift valley. Some of the submerged rifts display crystal clear water. Walking paths take you through the rifts where the towering walls of rock are either side of you. Entrance to the National Park is free of charge.

pingvellir

Parking is 500 ISK and is pay & display (so you need to pay when you arrive) machines accept credit/debit cards only. Cash can be used to pay for parking but you must go to the visitor centre to do this.

There is a visitor centre (close to Hakið viewpoint, where a footpath leads down into the great Almannagjá fault) it is open 09:00 – 17:00 which is free of charge. There is a range of multimedia and interactive information displays available in Danish, English, German, French and Icelandic. There is a 200 ISK charge to use the toilets at the visitor centre.

There is also a free information centre located at Leirar, open from 09:00 – 17:00, where you can get information regarding the nature and history of the National Park and find details about hiking trails and camping. There is a café open all year round.

Þingvellir is 35 mins drive from Reykjavik, 1 hour from Gullfoss.

Geysir

This hot spring area has boiling mud pits, azure blue springs and gushing geysers geysirone of which sprays water up to 30 meters into the air every few minutes. It is currently free of charge to visit, however there have been ongoing appeals by the land owners to be able to charge an admission fee. There is free parking and a café & gift shop.

Wait with your camera poised by Strokkur which erupts frequently, if you are anything like me it will make you jump every time!

Geysir is 1 and half hours from Reykjavik, 50 mins from Þingvellir.

 

Reykjavik

The colourful capital city is full of excellent restaurants and cafes serving both traditional and international cuisine. If you are feeling brave you can try fermented shark; if you are not quite feeling that adventurous perhaps some reindeer or some smoked lamb. Reykjavik also has a bustling nightlife with live music venues, pubs and clubs aplenty. It also has lots of museums including The National Museum and several art museums. It is a fun and friendly city and a good place to base yourself if you don’t want to hire a car during your visit. It is easy to book onto various tour buses to see many different attractions.

We liked The Laundromat Café – where unbelievably you can actually do your laundry whilst you grab some food and a coffee or a beer. They also have books that you can buy or trade and board games.  The chocolate fudge cake was absolute heaven!

Sights

  • Hallgrímskirkja church is the main landmark of the city and its tower can be seen from almost everywhere.
  • Tjörnin pond next to City Hall and some beautifully coloured old houses making for beautiful photographs, this is a natural pond and home to ducks, swans and geese.
  • Harpa Reykjavik Concert Hall – an architectural wonder
  • Whales of Iceland featuring 23 life-size models of the species found in Icelandic waters
  • The Old Harbour

The Blue Lagoon

Conveniently located close to Keflavik International Airport the best time to visit is either when you have landed or on the day of your departure. We decided to visit The Blue Lagoon before our departure, so we arrive around 3 hours before we needed to be at the airport. We did not book in advance (but you can through the website). There are lots of different packages on offer – we chose the ‘comfort’ option which included the use of a towel so we didn’t have to fly home with a wet one, plus a free drink. We paid €10 (£8.60) extra to also have a bathrobe, which is nice when it’s below zero outside! The online price for the comfort option is advertised from €55 (£48) per person (advance ticket).

 

blue lagoonGetting into the lagoon was absolute bliss, like a very warm bath. It was snowing when we were in the beautiful turquoise water, and the snowflakes were gathering on my eyelashes. A beautiful experience. There are places to hang your bathrobe and steps to walk down into the lagoon. It was fairly busy while we were there, so it’s difficult to get a whole patch of water to yourselves but we found if you swim out a bit further you could have a bit more peace and quiet. There is a bar where you can be served whilst you are in the lagoon, you charge your drinks to your entrance bracelet and pay for everything when you leave.

There is also an indoor restaurant and café and a sauna and steam room.

The showers provide shower gel, shampoo and hair conditioner in each cubicle. It’s important to use a lot of conditioner on your hair as it will feel very dry after being in the lagoon. Small plastic bags for wet bathing suits are provided. Ensure you rinse your bathing suit whilst in the shower or else it will turn stiff when dry.

The Blue Lagoon is 40 mins drive from Reykjavik, 20 mins from the airport.

Summary

Our weekend in South Iceland was fabulous, it’s an incredibly beautiful place with so much to see and do. The landscape at times almost feels like you are on the moon; it was unlike anywhere else I have ever been. I am glad we went in the winter to see the land covered in snow and despite the ever present gusting winds (I am sure it is the windiest place I have ever been) I didn’t feel ever so cold that I wished I was somewhere warmer. I would love to go back again soon to visit other parts of the island and see more. I would also find it interesting to travel there in the summer, as I am sure it has a completely different feel. Unfortunately we weren’t lucky enough to be treated to a full display of the Northern Lights, but that’s just a good excuse for us to go back!

Other Information

  • Iceland is on GMT and does not observe daylight saving hours.
  • The currency is Icelandic Krona (ISK) which is currently approx. 150 to £1 and 115 to $1US.
  • Vehicles drive on the right hand side.
  • The native language is Icelandic, however English is widely spoken as a second language.
  • The country is connected by one main ring road known as Route 1 which runs around the entire country.
  • Iceland has 130 volcanoes; most famous is Eyjafjallajökull whose eruption in 2010 shut down the entire air space of Europe, resulting in thousands of flights to be cancelled over an eight day period.
  • Iceland is not part of the European Union.

 

 

Rwanda – the land of a thousand hills

Rwanda – the land of a thousand hills – it’s so much more than just the country who suffered from a genocide in 1994.

Rwanda is setting itself up as a bona fide tourist destination, ready to compete with its much larger neighbours. This landlocked country is full of hills, volcanoes, lakes, rivers, national parks and is the reputed source of The Nile (White Nile). It’s also home to the majestic mountain gorilla. With only 880 remaining in the world, Rwanda is one of only three places that mountain gorillas are found along with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Mountain Gorilla RwandaOne of the highlights of a visit to Rwanda is trekking to visit a group of mountain gorillas, in their own natural habitat in Volcanoes National Park (see my other article about gorilla treks). But there is a lot more to explore before or after your gorilla trek.

I absolutely loved our holiday in Rwanda and I would definitely want to go back for another visit soon. The scenery is incredible, I found Rwandans to be friendly, gentle and kind. In contrast to some of its neighbouring countries I felt very safe in all of the towns and cities and was amazed at how little litter there was. The roads are in good shape and the all of the food and beer I sampled was delicious. When travelling around the winding roads of the country, I found myself exclaiming in awe at every single vista of the beautiful lakes and mountains – truly stunning. Although my hour with the mountain gorillas was the absolute highlight, I enjoyed immensely the canopy walk in Nyungwe and the walking tour in Nyamirambo.

NYUNGWE NATIONAL PARK

l'Hoest Monkey

l’Hoest Monkey

Approximately 4 hours drive from Kigali near to the border with Burundi is one of Africa’s oldest forests, Nyungwe. At around 1,000 sq km there is plenty to discover. One of the major draws is that you can track a troop of habituated chimpanzees, but there are no fewer than twelve different species of primates found in the forest.

Treks to the chimpanzees typically start early (around 5:30am) so you can find them before they wake up, as once they are on the move it is very difficult to keep up as they swing through the trees. Treks typically would depart at 5:30 and return around 2pm, the terrain can be steep so a moderate level of fitness is required.

Treks to see Black & White Colobus monkeys are also possible; often this is a shorter and easier trek.

Guided bird watching walks can also be arranged. There are over 300 different bird species in the park, with 16 of them being endemic to the area.

Nyungwe Canopy Walk

Nyungwe is also home to East Africa’s only canopy walkway; hanging 60m high above the forest floor it is possible to see the forest from a different perspective. It is often possible to spot birds whilst on the canopy walkway plus if you are very lucky you may see some primates too.

I felt safe on the walkway, I was able to hold on with at least one hand at all times and the mesh at the sides makes you feel secure.

Cost is $60 per person and there is a minimum age of 6 years old. Children must be accompanied by adults.

If driving from Kigali to Nyungwe, you may find it convenient to stop in Butare (approx. half way) where there are a number of restaurants and cafes, plus the National Museum of Rwanda.

Accommodation – Nyungwe 

Nyungwe Lodge

We stayed at Nyungwe Forest Lodge, which is a luxurious hotel with beautiful rooms, set in a tea plantation on the edge of Nyungwe National Park. The hotel has a restaurant, a heated swimming pool, free WIFI in the main building, spa treatments and each room backs onto the forest, with a chance of spotting wildlife including primates from your room. We found the service to be excellent, the food – particularly breakfast & dinner – was delicious and the bar stocked imported wines, beers and spirits plus local beers. Spending time relaxing at the lodge right next to the forest was very special. Rooms from $295 pp sharing (full board).

Nyungwe Lodge

Nyungwe Lodge

Other accommodation options:

Nyungwe Top View Hill Hotel – Single room $135, double room $200 – bed and breakfast.

Giskura Guest House – Rooms from 23,500 RWF (around $30) for single occupancy and 35,400 RWF (around $45) for double occupancy.

There is a campsite at Uwinka, should you wish to stay in the forest.

KIGALI

The capital of the land of a thousand hills. This high altitude city is home to more than one million people. The city is clean and safe and very welcoming to tourists. It is also conveniently located in the centre of the country, making it easy to travel to visit other areas. Often skipped by some tourists, it is well worth at least twenty four hours of your time.

Things to do

Kigali Genocide Memorial

In 1994 Rwanda suffered a brutal genocide, where it is estimated that up to 1 million people were killed over a 90 day period. Rwanda is now at peace, and there are memorials all over the country to serve as a permanent memorial but also a place where families could bury their loved ones. 259,000 are buried at the Kigali Genocide Memorial.

Although a visit to the memorial is full of sadness, Rwanda wants visitors to know what happened to their country, to understand the warning signs that were missed at the time and their goal is that this awareness should not let it happen again, anywhere in the world. I am glad that we went.

Nyamirambo Walking Tour

Nyamirambo Walking Tour

Pounding cassava leaves

This was one of the best things we did in Kigali. Nyamirambo is a busy and lively, multi-cultural area of Kigali. This tour takes you around this part of urban Rwanda, introducing you to the local businesses including hair salons, embroiderers, charcoal sellers, market stalls – everyone is friendly and happy to tell you about their business and show you what they are doing. I even got to have a try at pounding cassava leaves to make a Congolese style sauce, it was hard work! The tour is run by the Nyamirambo Women’s Center, where they have been teaching new skills to the local women, including sewing and weaving – their products are for sale in their shop.

Nyamirambo Walking TourWe were guided around by a son of one of the women, he spoke excellent English and as he has grown up in this area he was knowledgeable and was able to answer any questions. The tour took place in the morning and then at lunchtime we were taken to our guide’s house, where his mother had prepared a delicious Rwandan meal for us, including sweet potatoes, a spinach, garlic and carrot dish, a mixed beans dish and some plantain – absolutely divine. It was wonderful to be shown around an authentic urban area of Rwanda and to talk with the people who live there. Highly recommended. Walking tours cost around 15,000 RWF ($20 including lunch).

Inema Art Center

Inema Arts Center shows a collection of work by Rwandan creative artists. Paintings, sculptures, jewellery, leather goods and textiles are all created here, all on show for visitors to both observe and purchase. Three times a week there are performances of the Rwandan traditional dance styles. Classes for visitors are available in painting, Rwandan craft and traditional dance. Open 9am to 7pm.

Hotel Des Mille Collines

This Kigali hotel was made famous by the film Hotel Rwanda, based on the true story of 1,268 people taking refuge inside the hotel during the genocide of 1994. It is possible to visit the hotel even if you are not staying there.

Accommodation –Kigali

milles collines

We decided to stay at the Hotel Des Milles Collines. It is a large hotel; each room has a balcony and the views of the cityscape and rolling hills are pretty nice. There is a large swimming pool with sun loungers and a bar service.

The food in the restaurants is average, prices are slightly on the high side plus the service is not speedy but the WIFI was good and the staff were pleasant.

Some of the rooms are a little tired but there are refurbishments happening. Rooms from $275 (based on 2 people sharing).

Other accommodation options:

Kigali Serena Hotel – rooms from $290 (based on 2 people sharing)

Urban by CityBlue Kigali – rooms from $150 (based on 2 people sharing)

Five to Five Hotel – rooms from $90 (based on 2 people sharing)

AKAGERA NATIONAL PARK

Akagera National Park is on Rwanda’s border with Tanzania and is one of Africa’s oldest national parks. While the park has suffered from poaching and human encroachment in the past, it is now run by African Parks and the wildlife is making a good recovery with substantial increase in numbers over the past couple of years. The park is approx. 2 to 3 hrs drive from Kigali and doesn’t receive a high volume of visitors, so it could be nice to have the park almost to yourselves. The park also offers a behind the scenes tour of the park headquarters and the management of park. The terrain is similar to the more famous parks of East Africa.

Game drives can be conducted by your own driver-guide and accompanied by a wildlife guide provided by the Rwandan National Parks or you can book a driver and guide through the park management. Self-drive is also possible (you must take a guide). There are frequent sightings of zebra, hippo, impala, buffalo, bushbuck, giraffe, tsessebe, elephant and crocodile. The park is also home to leopard, hyena, side-striped jackal, lion and there are plans to introduce black rhino in the near future too. There are lots of birds including water birds such as marabou stork, fish eagles and cranes.

Accommodation options:

Akagera Lodge located inside the park. Rooms from $100.

Ruzizi Tented Lodge – $165 per person per night (based on two sharing)

 

VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK

Aside from the mountain gorilla trekking there are other activities in Volcanoes National Park. (2 hrs drive from Kigali)

Golden monkey trekking

There are two habituated troops of golden monkeys. Treks are limited to 8 people per group and they take place daily. Permits are $100 per person. Moderate level of fitness is required.

Visit Dian Fossey’s Tomb

Dian Fossey studied the mountain gorillas in Rwanda for over 18 years. Visits to her house and her grave can be arranged through Volcanoes National Park headquarters – $75pp. The terrain is steep and a moderate level of fitness it required.

Hike Mount Karisimbi or Mount Bisoke

Mount Karisimbi is the fifth highest volcano in Africa – this is a two day hike. You can also visit Dian Fossey’s grave en route.

Mount Bisoke can be hiked in one day. The ascent usually takes approx. 4 hours with a 2 hour descent.

You need a high level of fitness to undertake these activities.

Accommodation – Nearby Volcanoes National Park

Virunga Lodge

We stayed at Virunga Lodge, a deluxe lodge located about 50 mins drive from the gorilla trekking headquarters. The views from the lodge of the volcanoes and the lakes are stunning, the service is first class and the choice of food & beverages was excellent. The main lodge has a cosy fire (you are at altitude so the evenings are chilly) and free WIFI. The lodge provided packed lunches for the gorilla treks, clean your boots on your return plus offer one free massage per person.

I would definitely recommend staying here, the views are absolutely stunning. You must book early as it is extremely popular. Room tariff including all food & beverages is as follows:

High season per person sharing $826 (single occupancy $991)

Low season per person sharing $500 (single occupancy $500)

Other accommodation options:

Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge – close to the park headquarters, ideal for gorilla trekking/other activities in the park. Rooms from $470 – $880 pp per night.

Mountain Gorilla View Lodge – 15 mins drive from the park headquarters. Rooms from $350 (2 persons sharing)

Le Bambou Gorilla Village – situated right next to the park headquarters. Rooms from $250 (2 persons sharing)

Other Information about Rwanda

  • Rwanda has a ban on plastic bags – which is why it is one of the cleanest cities in Africa. Recyclable paper bags are used in shops; alternatively people use their own cloth bags. Rwandan’s take a lot of pride in the tidiness of their country; each month there is compulsory community service where all citizens are expected to clean the streets, pick up any (rare) pieces of litter, painting fences and any other nominated chores to keep the country spic and span.
  • The local currency is the Rwandan Franc, which at the time of writing is approx. 800 RWF to $1 USD. US Dollars are also widely accepted.
  • Kigali is the only international airport in Rwanda and is served by many airlines including: KLM, Kenya Airways, Rwandair, South African Airways, Turkish Airlines and Ethiopian Airlines.
  • English and French are official languages of Rwanda; and Kinyarwanda is spoken by most Rwandans.
  • Vehicles drive on the right hand side of the road in Rwanda.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén