Traveling the Silk Road from across the “STANS” Introducing Central Asia


wild camels

I recently got back from traveling across Central Asia. Some things have changed and some things haven’t.  The road is now mostly paved roads, but you will still find sheep herders, and wandering camels in some places.  When I shared with my friends I was going to Central Asia and even mentioned some of the countries by name… Most don’t know what I’m even talking about even when I added Silk Road or Central Asia.  I needed to fill in the detail between China, Russia and Turkey.  In this post, I want to give you some of the highlights and background.

My friend Michael and I have been planning to travel the silk road and visit “the stans.”

Our plan involved spending time in each of the following countries:

  • Kyrgyzstan – Serene Kyrgyzstan Land of Mountains
  • Kazakhstan
  • Uzbekistan
  • Turkmenistan
  • Afghanistan – A day as a tourist in Afghanistan
  • Tajikistan

I plan to share some of my experiences from each of these amazing and diverse countries.  Each of them is different in their own way and I saw amazing and fascinating things in each of these places.  There are incredible people in every country.  I continually get asked if I ever felt threatened or at risk.  No, I didn’t.  I did have some moments where I was feeling eyes watching me and moments where I felt like I was out of place, but I really enjoy that feeling of being the minority and feeling odd.  If I’m traveling and I’m not feeling that then I’m not challenging myself enough.  This trip was the most logistically challenging.  It took over 3 months just to get visas and I still didn’t get all the visas I wanted.  I missed out on Pakistan due to my Jamaica and trip to Quebec and Montreal earlier this year.  The only country that didn’t require a visa for US Citizen was Kyrgyzstan, and the hardest to get into ended up being Turkmenistan who assigned us a monitor and required traveling company which ended up being our most expensive of the trip.  In addition Pakistan was a challenge for time.  The visa would have been an additional 4-6 weeks and I couldn’t surrender my passport long enough make it with my Jamaica plans.

Samarqand, Bukhara, and so many of these places stir up the magical and mystical old world of East meets west.  Where Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and a variety of old faiths like Zoroastrianism met through caravans and trade routes.  I had the incredible opportunity to visit some of these places and soak up the influence of this melting pot of culture, religion, food, and history.  I plan to share the highlights and some favorite stories, but wanted to get this post out as a placeholder.  I’ll link to the subsequent posts from this one to be as a landing page of the best of Central Asia.

 

Women of the desert of Turkmenistan

Turkmeni ladies of the desert selling camel hair trinkets on the side of the road

 

desert yurt

Desert Yurt in Turkmenistan

furry camel

One of the friendliest camels I’ve ever met. This friendly hairy camel enjoyed posing with us.

 

dome

Old Dome in Merv

merv

Merv, Turkmenistan

bukhara, uzbekistan

Bukhara, Uzbekistan

blue mosque of mazar-e sharif afghanistan

Blue Mosque and Shrine in Mazar-e Sharif Afghanistan

uzbekistan yurt

Countryside in Uzbekistan

sheep herding

Wandering Sheep in Uzbekistan

 

shakrazabh

Old Shakrazabh, Uzbekistan

ark in shakrazabh

Ark of Shakrazabh, Uzbekistan

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5 Incredible Alaska Adventures


Alaska is amazing.  Everything you’re heard and then some.  My visit to Alaska was my last state in the US (50/50).  For that reason alone I was excited to visit.  I was debating doing a cruise from Seattle or from Vancouver, Canada but ultimately decided on a flight to Anchorage.  It took me by surprise when I was trying to figure out what I should do with my Alaska Miles. I had 45,000 miles and after my move to Salt Lake City, I found my miles were going to expire.  What I discovered in my searches, I could fly from SLC to anywhere in Alaska even as far as Borrow, AK for 25,000 round trip.  That’s not the same case with Hawaii.  It was 40,000 round trip, but flying from Salt Lake City to Boise Idaho was the same number of miles.  At first I was thinking I should go with a friend to Alaska, but my wife expressed interest, and getting a multi day baby sitter to watch my 3 boys has never been easy, and they are all great travelers.  Then I was talking to my parents, and they expressed interest.  At first I thought I could go with my dad, but then my mom wanted to go as well.  Why not make this a super family trip?  With the partnership with Alaska I found a direct Delta flight from SLC to ANC (Anchorage.) I had to check to see how much the Delta points were for this same flight.  25,000 miles!  With this discovery I decided to book 5 award tickets on Delta in addition to the 2 on Alaska.  I even ended up buying 5,000 miles to make up the difference.

Lessons Learned:

  • Alaska/Delta miles let you book a flight to Alaska for the same price as a domestic (48 states) ticket – (Best Deal was 25,000 Award Miles)
  • Same number of miles for adjoining cities as it is for Miami to Alaska

One other thing that came in looking at the best way to book Alaska was in discovering that an Alaska Cruise would ultimately mean getting on a smaller boat to see the glaciers and getting closer to the wild life ultimately.  I did find that both food and hotels are pricey in Alaska.  So that was definitely points toward cruise, but I used some tricks to find a hotel in Anchorage for less than $100 using Priceline.com.  Food was a different challenge.  Most meals were about $5 more than in the states.  The 2 for 20 deal at Chilis was 2 for $25.  A large bowl of Pho soup was $12 in contrast to 6 or $7 in UT or WA.  The IHOP average meal was around $12 vs. 7 as well.  At fast food places, the $1 menu was $2.  Anchorage did have a lot of choices for food, and out in the smaller cities the deli’s and sandwich shoppes could get you a meal.

Rustic Cabin with fire

Some of my best advice for the adventure traveler is to think outside the box.  There are hostels that have much better rates, but also consider camping and cabins, some of the best deals and most flexible options are in this area.

5 MUST DO ACTIVITIES IN ALASKA

1. Glaciers and Fjords – The Glaciers and Fjords in Alaska are simply amazing.  The size and scale of these things dwarf most things on earth.  They sure seem like they are alive.  Calving, Moving, Groaning, Shrinking, Growing, Cracking, Carving…  There are multiple ways of reaching these amazing beauties.

Fjords with Calving Glacier

The best way is to get right up to the Fjords of Kenai by cruise.  Right out of Seward there are multiple cruise companies with multiple cruise options.  I took the 10am Kenai Fjords Cruise with Salmon Bake Dinner on the island.  I have no regrets.  It was a great cruise, we saw a couple of Fjords up close, but also amazing wild life.  I’ll talk about that later.

Kenai Fjords Cruise

As well, you can hike up to the Glaciers.  Exit Glacier has a great hike that starts with a flat handicap accessible viewpoint within a mile, or add another mile and hike up the mountain to view them up closer, and add another mile to touch the glacier, or add another few miles and you can hike up the largest snow field in the US.

exit glacier sea ice kayaking

or even Sea Kayak to the Fjords, not too close because these things are very active and can create amazing tides.  I’m sure you could even dog sled in the winter.  There are options to take a sled with wheels to help the dogs practice for the Iditarod.

2. Whale Watching – Some of the best viewing of whales in the world is right here in Alaska.  On this short 8 hour Fjords and Nature cruise of the Kenai peninsula, Kenai National Park from the water, we saw a half dozen hump backs, a couple of pods of Orcas with many individuals covering a large distance, half dozen porpoises, hundreds of seals and sea lion and dozens of sea otters. Such a great feeling when you see these gigantic creatures of the sea.  It’s not the same as watching National Geographic, because you’re seeing it and experiencing it first hand.  I can imagine whale watching in a kayak or small boat would also be quite “wild.”

orca pod wild

Orcas, Hump Backs, and Belugas are all within reach, I saw a couple of pods of Belugas driving along the Arm headed to Seward.  I’m sure the population increases and changes based on the seasons, but the Orcas and Hump Backs and the Belugas all call it home.  I’m sure they have additional whale friends who come and visit.  I’m also sure it’s a different experience every time, but reading the reviews from the Kenai Fjords Cruise, I think you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t think it was incredible.

hump back whale tail

As a photographer, catching the tale of the whale, or the even more rare breach of a hump back whale is beyond exhilarating.  These are wildlife memories that will ruin any future visits to sea world, or at least remind me when I saw it IN THE WILD.

seal rock

While seeing large groups of seals and sea lions and the like, I am reminded of a number of encounters the docks in San Francisco or Seal Beach California, the docks in Ensenada or the elephant seals on the beach in Antarctica, but seeing them in their native habitat on rocks away from people is pretty darn cool.  I can’t tire of seeing these amazing animals.

3. Encounter the Animals of the Forrest – With more than 3 types of Bears, and some of the densest and largest populations of large land mammals, Alaska is the best place to find bears, moose, elk, caribou and more in their natural habitat.  You can go flight seeing and bear viewing they’ll take you right to where they are dinning on salmon.  We saw a little brown bear chewing on a carcass on the side of the road.

little black bear eating

While I can’t guarantee you will see a moose or bear while simply driving.  There are plenty of signs to watch for moose.  That’s a big concern.  They are big animals and cause serious damage to your vehicle if you hit one.

big rack carribou

If you are looking for guaranteed great sightings, I won’t send you to the Anchorage zoo which does have them, I would suggest going to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center which has decent rates (carpool for even better rates).  You can definitely get up and close.  With a simple fence separating you.  While you don’t feed them, you can visit the Musk Ox or Reindeer center in Palmer (close to Anchorage) for even closer encounters.  The good news is the money goes to rehabilitating animals and reintroducing and strengthening the population of endangered animals.

big black bear in meadow

We saw…

  • Baby Musk Ox
  • Huge Herd of Wood Bison
  • Elk Herd
  • Black Bears
  • Moose
  • Caribou/Reindeer
  • Porcupine

baby musk ox cute

4. It’s a Birders Paradise – Eagles, Swans, Cormerans, Puffins, and way more.  If you love birds, you’re in paradise.  Even if you aren’t you’re going to see some amazing examples of some of the most beautiful birds.  Below this is one example.  We’re watching this elk herd and noticed a bald eagle in the tree nearby.  Incredible.

Eagle watching over the elk herd

This pair of swans was swimming with their three ugly duckling swan babies in a pond just outside of Seward.

Swan Family

Seems like every where you turn, there’s some amazing majestic bird watching.

bald eagle alaska

On our cruise we saw the funniest little puffins.  The rare crested puffins, and the more common puffin were so funny to watch trying to take flight.  Seeing them on their terms in these huge rock fortresses which seem designed for birds.

puffin bird rocks

5. It’s a Fisherman’s Paradise – Every where we went people asked if we were doing a charter.  No, we were there to observe, and observe we did.  We started stopping at the streams to see the salmon.  Amazing salmon jumping up their fish ladders and making their way to spawn.  Huge fish, many with their humps out of the water, finding their way upstream.  The rivers were teaming with life.

teaming with life spawning

Red Salmon

In addition as a sportsman’s paradise it wasn’t hard to find huge halibut and a variety of fish on the walls, and in boxes being shipped home.  Lots of great finishing and amazing catches.

After such an amazing trip, I can’t answer why it took Alaska so long to get on my list.  Amazing place… Highly Recommended.  Yes, it does rain and it get’s cold in the winter and dark 22 hours of darkness, but in the summer you get 16 hours of light, and 2 months without much rain in June and July.  Rain starts back up in August.  While I didn’t see the Aurora Borealis, I can see reasons why the time of year has it’s benefits.  It’s a different place with different experiences.  Do you’re research and consider Alaska a great destination to make the most of your miles.

 calving glacier with baby seals

Travel Back in Time – Smell the Mint Tea of Morocco


I am entranced with Morocco.  There are few places in the world that do such an amazing job of preserving life as it was hundreds even thousands of years ago. 

Fez Medina Donkey Travel  

Fez, has truly captured life as it was 1000 years ago.  The Medina or urban center is the gated old city in Fez.  The only transportation in the Medina is by foot, or by donkey. No cars.  I have seen a scooter or two, but the preference is no motorized vehicles.  The narrow old streets couldn’t support a car anyway.  It is amazing how well preserved the the traditions, culture, and structures are in Fez. 

Narrow Alleyways Vegetable alleyway Morocco Metalwork

You see water being hauled in for drinking, common community ovens for cooking bread, hammam or bath houses, and common tanneries and more.  The beauty of this gem of the desert is most precious.  

 

Riad Fez .

I stayed for a couple of nights in Riad Fez – very beautiful feel to it.  The wood is so intricate, and the tile beautiful with color.

Fez Metal Work

This chandelier the size of a VW bug is hand made stamped metal.  Morocco is known for the lamps and chandeliers.

 Moroccan Coke Donkey

In Fez, this Coca Cola delivery donkey is the same as a Coke Truck.  Fez, now preserved as a UNESCO heritage site.

The Medina of Fez was founded in the 9th century and is home to the oldest university in the world. Fez reached its height in the 13th–14th centuries when it replaced Marrakesh as the capital of the kingdom. Much of the infrastructure in the city dates from this period.

Mosque in Fez Water Delivery by Donkey

The Medina of Fez is considered as one of the most extensive and best conserved historic towns of the Arab-Muslim world. The unpaved urban space conserves the majority of its original functions and attribute. It not only represents an outstanding architectural, archaeological and urban heritage, but also transmits a life style, skills and a culture that persist and are renewed despite the diverse effects of the evolving modern societies.

Moroccan Tannery

15th Century Tanneries of Fez from a neighbor balcony

You just have to imagine the sounds and smells of the tanneries.  Here they start with sheep, camel, goat and various animal skins.  Here they soak them to remove the wool with lyes, and then move to drying and dying.  You can then purchase a huge assortment of hand made leather goods.

Much of Morocco is still very local.  I worried I would see tons of tourists in the cultural capital of Morocco.  I didn’t see a single tourist until I reached the square.  Going through the narrow labyrinth of the Medina was awesome.  While I would have preferred to simply get lost in the streets, the locals all really want to help.  At some point it is easier to allow someone to be a guide than continue to be bothered.  There are official guides and hotels can arrange them, but the students love to help as well even if they may be restricted to their routes.  Don’t let someone tell you they can’t take you somewhere.  There is much to see and experience.

 acrobat gathering in fez

Instead the squares are full of locals who browse the flea market style spreads of clothes and shoes.  One doesn’t have to feel like a tourist.  You can try to blend in.

 the square in Fez

Unfortunately, in a crowd watching an acrobat it’s still tough to blend in.  Reality sets in.  Of course, they need to see a tip.  Make sure you have lots of small bills and coins on hand to keep the entertainment going.  Asking for change with this crowd doesn’t work.

 Jewish Cemetery in Fez Morocco  Jewish Cemetery in Fez Morocco

This Jewish cemetery in Fez reminds me of the scattering of Israel and gathering of Israel.  Amazing how far the Israelites were spread across the world.  Ethiopia, Georgia, and across Europe and even Argentina and Mexico city.  Amazing stories abound of how the King would keep the Jews as advisors, ambassadors, and tax collectors.  Apparently 15% of the current state of Israel or 1,000,000 Israeli Jews are of Moroccan descent, while only 35,000 Jews remain in Morocco.  Jews have 2000 years of history in Fez.

There isn’t just one amazing city in Morocco.  There are many.  I love Marrakech and Meknes as well.  Do not judge Morocco based on a brief visit to Tangier.  I highly recommend you spend time in the Atlas mountains.  They are magical.  They themselves contain the history of the world.  Incredible fossils have made their ways across the globe.  Rock hounds will find heaven.  Those wanting to see a simplier life will see the mountain people with their goats and sheep walking on trails thousands of years old.  If you can… escape to Ait Ben Haddou.  As a child when I imagined visiting Jerusalem, a visit to Ait Ben Haddou is closer than the real thing.  It’s in many of the biblical stories.

Ait Ben Haddou - Kasbah

From Ait Ben Haddo, Oaurzazate is a quick trip and the great Sahara is nearby.  The gateway to the Sahara with a variety of multi day excursions with Berbers into the sand and mystery of the desert.  I found this the beginning of another world.

Simple and pure I found many people who willed life itself to slow.  While many vendors simply want to show you their wares, and the children want to put you on the backs of their donkeys and horses, the simple life is pure.  Tourism has left some scars, but there are ways of finding the past and connecting with time gone by.  Slow down, sip the mint tea and relax and listen to the stories of the desert.

Mysteries of the Rock of Gibraltar and the Barbary Apes


Barbary Apes

 

I love travel mysteries and Gibraltar has lot of deep stories that make it one of the most powerful, interesting and mysterious places.  It’s said that this place once held greek temple to Hercules and the caves inhibited by early man… maybe even the last hold out for the Neanderthal.  There is a labyrinth of tunnels that are longer than the trails that go over the top and caves filled with mystery from early inhabitants.  It is first recorded in history as the “pillars of Hercules” from Greek Mythology. Until Columbus it marked the edge of the known world.  It’s a magical place filled with mystery that transcends time.

Here are a few of the things we saw..

  • Wild Barbary Apes in Europe – Living on the Rock of Gibraltar are the only wild apes in Europe
  • An International Airport runway that people can drive across, the only road into Gibraltar
  • A gigantic gun that can shoot from Europe to Africa
  • A viewpoint for viewing the straights of Gibraltar to Africa
  • Hop a ferry to Africa or Spanish Morocco on the African Continent
  • Century’s old military Tunnels and caves inhabited by Neanderthals and Neolithic times

gibraltar map

Here’s a snippet on the history of Gibraltar… “It was first inhabited over 50,000 years ago by Neanderthals and may have been one of their last places of habitation before they died out around 24,000 years ago. Gibraltar’s recorded history began with the Phoenicians around 950 BC; the Carthaginians and Romans later worshipped Hercules in shrines said to have been built on the Rock of Gibraltar, which they called Mons Calpe, the “Hollow Mountain”, and which they regarded as one of the twin Pillars of Hercules.”

One of the craziest airports in the world, Gibraltair International (GIB) has daily flights to and from Heathrow, Gatwick, and Luton.  Went through all 3 airports in one day once.  I don’t recommend it.  As well Malaga is only 120 kilometers away.  Notice how the airport goes through the only road that goes into Gibraltar.  Locals call it Gib (sounds like jib).  The locals even have a British sounding accent, but they used GIP Pounds or Euros in most of the places where I went.  There are a number of Spanish as well that live in Gib.  While the Gibraltarians have their own culture, it’s definitely a mix of english and spanish supporting a very strategic military installation mostly turned tourist attraction.  I don’t think the apes realize just how important that little strip of land has been over time.  It get’s stirred up every 50-100 years it seems to me.  Spain still doesn’t seem too happy for it to be there.   

Gibraltar is not part of the Schengen Area. This means that there are immigration and customs controls when travelling between Spain and Gibraltar. Citizens of the European Union are required to have a national identity card or passport, while all others are required to have a passport to enter.  Right after you cross the border you cross the airport.  Hopefully while you’re there you’ll see a plane coming in or out… it’s a beautiful site.

I do encourage you to read the history.  The wikitravel article on Gibraltar has a sview of africa from europehort but decent write up.  The history of Gib goes all the way back to Neolithic times, some evidence in St Michael’s cave. 

As far as visits go, take the gondola up the rock and spend time with the apes.

Quite the view… across the straights, you can see Africa!

There are very few spots in Europe where on the other side you can see Africa.  It’s a real treat as a traveler to be able to be this close to two of the huge continents and see history reveal itself.  I had no idea that it was real UK territory. It’s fascinating.  If you like traveling to unique places this is a real draw for a number of reasons.  The Apes, the military arsenal, the huge iconic and powerful rock, the majestic views, and the point at which Africa is close to Europe.  There’s a lot of symbolism and exciting parts to this story.  I’m sure you’ll love it.  I mean come on, it’s also very close to Morocco, one of my favorite places to time travel, and to some of the most relaxing parts of Europe.  The Ferry is just down the road to visit the islands… It’s a great destination.

When I visited, we went to Spanish Morocco and then a night taxi ride to Fez.  What a fabulous place cultural that is. 

 

big guns

The Barbary macaque or Barbary ape, is a species of macaque with no tail. Traditionally found in the Atlas Mountains.  There is a small population, about 5 troops and 300 individuals in Gibraltar with an unknown origin.  They are the only monkeys or apes in Europe. The Barbary apes are the best known species from the old world.  They are recognized as an endangered species.  If you visit Morocco you can visit a troop in the forest. 

The Rock is beautiful and iconic.  It rises in such a way that you can understand why it’s used in Greek Mythology, and why companies even now like Prudential take advantage of it’s symbolism.  It carries power.  Over time it has been one of the most densely fortified and fought-over places in Europe.

Did I wet your appetite?  Maybe you’ll consider this amazing place filled with mystery.

The Rock Hotel Barbary ape looks over the Gibraltar cliffs

Private islands

Panama Island Escape: Bocas Del Torro and Urraca – Adventures in Paradise


monkey scream

Before when I thought of Panama, all I could think of was the Panama canal.  Now I think of Islands.  There are so many little islands off the coast of Panama.

The only way to get around the islands is with boats.  The boats are like busses taking you from place to place.  The first time I visited Bocas del Torro, I thought the island was the destination.  It wasn’t until I spent a little time on the island and I discovered that the adventures are all around you.

  • Red Frog Island
  • Urraca Private Island
  • El Tigre – Native Tribe Island
  • Bat Caves
  • Waterfalls
  • Scuba Diving for underwater ship, sea horses, and amazing

I wasn’t satisfied just to see a small bit of Panama.  I had to come back, so I brought my family.  I did some searching and came across Urraca Private Island.  It sounded magical.  Your own private island, the lady who runs the place has her own monkey, a French Canadian who travelled the Caribbean looking for paradise.  She found 2 islands of mangroves and found a way to put a house on stilts.  These beautiful places are designed with nature in mind.  The electricity comes from the sun, the water in the house comes from the rain.

water out the window

While I was really hoping to find “utopia,” instead we had a great adventure that tested my wife’s limits.  I think over those few days I’d see something in her as an adventure traveler that would make me realize things have changed (at least knowing that there are comfort limits.)  My wife didn’t like the cold showers, didn’t like the rain showers that barely let up a couple of days. Even though it wasn’t the rainy season we spent a lot of time in the rain forest and you don’t know how it will effect a person.

I realized we couldn’t do hostels as a family.  I tried a couple of different styles and we drew the lines at A/C – required, hot showers – required, and no bugs.  We didn’t have screens in the windows and the little fans didn’t do enough to keep the kids and my wife happy.  The adventure became too much of one.

It was a little daunting not to be able to be in control.  You tell the boat when to come and that’s when it will come.  No earlier, no later.  When it’s time to eat and you’re on a private island, you don’t have a lot of choices if you didn’t prepare.  You likely will eat what is being cooked and if you don’t like it or don’t like the prices… tough.  You may not even know the price until the end of the week, and at that point you better be prepared.  Ask for a menu and ask for prices, and ask for alternatives.  I did come across some places, but easily 30 minutes away and that means gas or it means going to dinner on your way back from an adventure.

water bar bocas del torro island paradise

Pictured: Left the food places at Bocas are often out on the water with incredible views. Right: The swim up to it table, difficult to get on those seats at low tide, but beautiful to look at.  There’s a lot of symbolism in this… It looks better than it feels without knowing and realizing it’s going to be an adventure and that’s what it’s all about.

While it may not have been the ultimate paradise for everyone on those three days on the private island.  I really really enjoyed the adventure even though I discovered their comfort limits.  Here are just a few things we experienced.

  • Capuchin monkey
  • Fresh lobster
  • Private beaches
  • Encounters with natives
  • Snorkling and scuba
  • Cave spiders that look like scorpions
  • Seeing sloths in the wild!
  • Bioluminescent waters
  • Dolphins

monkey manprivate islandwater walkway

Crossing from Costa Rica across a wild train bridge was quite the adventure.  It really wasn’t hard to catch a bus from Puerto Viejo or Manzanilla to the border.  You can even pay to get all the way to Bocas del Torro which involves crossing the train bridge then riding a van transport to water transport and then on for another hour to Bocas del Torro.

big rodentbaby with monkey

Pictured: Jared with his rodent friend that had a rabbit face on Right my 3 year old and Tutsi the monkey

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Pictured: Get your scuba certification in 3 days. Open Water PADI certified. It was the best dive with the worst equipment, but I got what I paid for… it was cheap!

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Local breakfast on Bocas del Torro… a local meal of scone and two meatballs.  I’m sure there was a local name for it.

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South Africa’s Kruger Wild Animal Park: Wild and Wonderful


I’ve visited South Africa on three different occasions and found it incredible each time.  I would go at the drop of a hat.  I still need to take my family with me, and yes if you were wondering.  I would do that.  Something that holds a lot of people back is they are sincerely worried about this world we live in and they see Africa as a whole as a place that isn’t safe or ready to be explored.  In my various adventures in Africa I’ve found South Africa to be a great hub to explore other parts of South Africa.  It does feel like that hut surrounded by barbed wire that protects me from the wild animals like in Kruger wild animal park, but then I realize I’m the one that’s in the cage.

After you’ve been to Africa and been on safari, a zoo will never be the same.  As I suggested, you are the one that’s in the cage.  During the day you venture out in your car, and in our case it was a rental car with insurance.  Our little car was chased by bull elephants a couple of times and we drove through herds of buffalo, zebra, and numerous horned antelope and other horned beasts.  Before nightfall we’d drive into a gated area that would keep the wild animals out.  We’d share stories with others and see what large animals had been spotted. 

The big 5 are on everyone’s mind.  You have to see what of the big 5 you can check off.  In our 3 days of driving around never once crossing an existing path, we saw them all but the leopard. 

  1. Elephant
  2. Rhino
  3. Lion
  4. Buffalo
  5. Leopard

Why it doesn’t include the Crocodile, the Hippo, Hyena, Giraffe or Zebra or other animals that are just as huge I don’t know, but I did see them as well.  I’d also recommend tracking down a troop of baboons.  It isn’t enough to just see one of these animals, you need to see them in hundreds and it again changes your perspective.

Kruger Wild Animal Park is a must.  If you visit South Africa you should definitely plan to do it.  There are other less wild parks where you can get closer to the big cats, but the wildness of it all will change your perspective forever.  This is the Yellowstone of wildness for Africa.  I later spent some time in Botswana that made me rethink what I thought was wild, but really this is a great introduction into the wilds of Africa.  As well having spent some time in Kenya and Tanzania, I think this is a great place to start.  Tons and Tons of animals and you can do this on your pace.  They’ve even got maps that point out the climates and what to expect in the various ecosystems.

Eric Harlan, a Microsoft engineer and I ventured out into Kruger with his massive camera and a very expensive rented lens that made the far off animals seem within reach.  It was Eric’s first foray into the wild, and he to this day refers to the changes that took place on this trip.  Not just the animal wild and crazy, but our walking border crossing into Mozambique to Maputo.  An incredible experience I’ll have to share in another post.  Eric and I have since been on a few other trips, but Kruger stands out.  We flew into Johannesburg, stayed with a good friend in Joburg.  The next morning we rented a car and were in a hut in the park that night.  It was a good drive and we barely made it before they closed the gate, but it was a beautiful drive.  After 3-4 days in Kruger we went into Mozambique and got the human side as well as in Swaziland before arriving in Durban where we did our speaking gig at TechEd Africa before flying to Capetown for the first SharePoint Saturday event in Africa… 

If you want to go on a guided safari you have lots of options.  First you can take a guided tour and they will track down the animals for you.  As well, you can take your vehicle into the park and at each of these self enclosed villages that often include bungalow, or beehive huts, and more primitive tent spaces.  You decide how primitive you want to go.  At these places you can pay to go on a morning or evening walking tour, or go out on a safari on a huge truck that can go on special routes and get quite close to a watering hole, or a night safari that has exclusive access to the routes during the dark.  They are all freaky and I highly recommend them all.  Each of them is a real experience… having a guide with an elephant gun in the front and one in the back… and walking through grass thinking wasn’t that a lion roar and it was, is truly exhilarating.  Very raw.  We tracked down some rhinos grazing who eventually smelled us and ran off, but not before we were about 10 feet away… and followed some buffalo and zebra.

When you stop for lunch at one of these rest camps you can eat gazelle or other meat that you’d never thought possible didn’t think you’d ever eat Wildebeest.

At night we tracked a lion, a bull elephant who pushed our safari truck, and spotted a family of hyenas with tiny little 3 babies.  Incredible experiences.  It was amazing to see these animals in their habitats on their terms.

It’s unreal when you see a HUGE elephant looking straight at you and there’s nothing more than a little metal or tiny little glass window between you and them.  On the walking safari, you feel very vulnerable.

Do I recommend these experiences.  Oh, definitely.  Is it safe, you’ll have to ask your guide what his stats are.  These are experiences of a lifetime… 

Kruger Wild Animal Park

Above is a video of footage from my camera mixed with some photos that Eric took.  He snagged the lion photo as well.  Getting that lion photo was a real experience.  We had gone two days without seeing a lion, and we really wanted to see one.  On our maps we tracked down the area where we should see one, and asked as well around camp.  We saw a car that was stopped and pulled up quietly behind it.  A man in the car had a camera pointing into some tall grass.  We must have sat there for 5 minutes before we saw a tail swish and realized what we were waiting for.  A group of lionesses were sunning.  Over the next half hour we’d get nearly out of the car (not recommended and anything more would be against the rules) to get the best viewpoint.  All of a sudden they jumped up looked around… (maybe smelled us?) and then ran off.. it was beautiful and an experience I will cherish.

Goblin Valley Hoodoos

United States Utah: Top 10 Vacation Destinations


When I tell friends they should visit me in Utah.  They often think I’m joking.  Many of my European friends dream of visiting New York City, Los Angeles/Hollywood, or Las Vegas.  What they don’t realize is that Utah a state easily dismissed as one of those states somewhere in the middle or above Las Vegas and West of Denver… host of the 2002 Olympics Utah has a lot to offer in National parks and a lot more.

The perception of the world the US comes from T.V. and it’s amazing to me how some think that there’s really not much between New York City and Los Angeles.  As a traveller myself I first saw most of the U.S. and grew up going to the mountains and parks of the Western US.

I will continue to spend most of my blogs on non domestic destinations, but I needed to share my home to really give Utah the credit it needs.  As well, I’ll have a blog to point friends to who might consider visiting Utah… only 6 hour drive from Las Vegas which passes by some of the most incredible things our planet has to offer.  I’ll break this into a top 10 list to make it easy to follow…

10. The largest man made hole in the world.  Bingham open copper pit mine.  This huge copper mine is impressive and can be seen from space!  Complete with it’s own museum, you can see the tires of the huge mining trucks, the largest vehicles in the world.

9. Sundance, Park City, Alta, and Snowbird – Year Round Beauty.

The Best Snow on Earth, and incredible resort towns all year round.  Park City has many adventures has very visible remnants of the Olympics.  Take one of many zipline downs the ski lifts and jumps, or take the alpine coaster or alpine slide one of the longest in the world.  The Alpine coaster is more than a mile of track of loops, curves, and hair pin turns.   l couldn’t believe Sundance and that amazing natural beauty.  Known famous for the Sundance film festival and Robert Redford’s restort, conference centers and getaways.  There is a lift open year round for full moon night rides, and a 45 minute round trip ride or one way up and mountain bike down the trails. Big and Little Cottonwood canyon is a great escape for lake and waterfall hikes.

Stop by Bridal Veil falls in the Provo Canyon on your way up to Sundance, or ride the Heber Creeper, an old steam engine locomotive that rides along the rack.

8. Visit Antelope Island The Great Salt Lake is a huge remnant left over of the ice age formerly known as lake Bonneville.  Now a huge salty lake it reminds me a lot of the Dead Sea.  A place I’ve visited a couple of times both from Jordan and the West Bank.

The Mormons delivered the Saints by their Moses like prophet Brigham Young called the Salt Lake Valley “Zion,” and the Great Salt Lake was their Dead Sea and Utah Lake the equivalent of the sea of Galilee.  The Jordan River which connects the two is named the same.  Antelope island state park is one the largest of the 9 islands on the lake and a great place to view wildlife including antelope, deer, bobcats, coyotes, many varieties of birds and waterfowl.  Over 600 American Bison roam the island since 1893. Camping is available.

Directions: Take Exit 332 off Interstate 15, then drive west on Antelope Drive for 7 miles to the park entrance, then another 7 miles across a narrow causeway to the island.

Hiking, biking, horseback riding, and swimming in the lake

Contact Information
Antelope Island State Park
4528 West 1700 South
Syracuse, UT 84075

On the South side of the lake you’ll find remnants of former glory the Salt Aire.  Famous in the early 1900’s for balls, parties and even roller coasters.  Much of the area was destroyed by floods.  Now you can visit a small museum and venture out into the water if you dare.  This side of the lake has a lot of brine flies and gnats.  Unlike the Dead Sea, the Salt Lake has been introduced to brine shrimp also known as Sea Monkeys.

If you like Animals you may enjoy Hogle Zoo across from this is The Place Monument and Pioneer Village where people will dress up in period dress, or go to Provo and visit BYU Campus and visit the museum on campus to  see a real stuffed Liger.  Napoleon Dynamite was right, even take a day trip up to Preston if you’re a fan and stop by the city chambers office to get a map to locate his house, Pedro’s house and the Cuttin’ Corral.

7. Temple Square and the world famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir

The 1.4 million square foot LDS Conference Center seats 21,000 with not a bad seat in the house.  The organ has 7667 pipes!  The choir has over 360 members and sings every week they are not on tour in the longest running radio program in history… Music and the Spoken Word.  If you are in Jerusalem you can hear the pipe organ in the BYU Jerusalem Center.

Within walking distance of Temple Square you can visit the Beehive house (pictured above).  Home of Brigham Young, the first governor of Utah and Deseret and 2nd prophet of the LDS Church.  Visit the famous Christus, and answer for yourself if the Mormons believe in Jesus Christ.

The famous Salt Lake Temple is accompanied by two visitors centers where you can learn all about the history of the plight of the Saints who were expelled from the US, kicked out of Missouri and Illinois with an extermination order and later pursued by the largest US army ever assembled.  It’s all worked out.  In fact there are many Mormons in politics and in positions of power.  Mitt Romney, presidential nominee has a great shot at the white house.

In the Joseph Smith Building, Old Hotel Utah from the top floor you can see out over the Temple.  An incredible view, where I got engaged to my lovely wife.  The museum’s provide an amazing history of the settling of the West that is often overlooked.  As well, the visitors centers tell the story of faith and how this restored church of Jesus Christ sprung up in the 1830’s in upstate New York to a Church with 6 million Americans and over 14 million world wide.

Don’t miss the old Tabernacle and organ (pictured below).  Tours are available for free.  They’ll drop a pin and you won’t even struggle to hear it.  Incredible.

Be sure to stop by the Family History center, the largest of it’s kind in the world.  The majority of the worlds family history records are here in Salt Lake stored in a granite vault up little cotton wood canyon, but the records are indexed and available for search on http://familysearch.org or leverage the free help from volunteers ready and willing to help you do your family history.

6. Goblin Valley – filming location of Galaxy Quest.  I really love Goblin Valley.  It’s one where you can drive right up and be in another world.  The hoodoos are wind and rain shaped fairy chimneys.  They remind me a lot of Cappadocia region of Turkey.

As a young boy we met up with our cousins and hiked around following trails of flint.  We found a few small arrow heads and one large one.  What an incredible place to go rock hounding (outside the park of course).

Very narrow Slot canyon hike near Goblin Valley.  One of my favorite hikes is this narrow hike which completes nearly a full loop.  The water has carved out a narrow slot.  If it looks stormy at all, definitely avoid it.  You might avoid it if you have claustrophobia, but it’s amazing.  It can get hot during the highs of summer, be sure to carry water.

From I-70, exit onto Highway 24 and drive south for approximately 24 miles to the signed park turnoff

Activities
Sight seeing from the park overlook
Hiking among the goblins
Photography
Picnicking
Camping
ATV trails nearby
Mountain bike trails nearby
Slot canyons nearby

5. Bryce Canyon – Some of the most amazing vistas and canyons in the world.  You’ve heard of Grand Canyon, but this is something you should combine with that trip.

Bryce Canyon is fabulous.  It’s another place you can drive right up to incredible vistas, hop out take a bunch of photos and stop at a new view of a different part of the canyon and take in a completely different view that again will blow your mind.  You can do this for hours.  As well take a horse ride, ATVs, or hike on some of the most incredible ridges.  There are easy hikes and longer hikes… something for everyone.  You’ll definitely appreciate our world a lot more after seeing it like this.

This natural arch is just one of the stops you can do along the road through Bryce Canyon.

We’ve done family reunions in this area.  There are so many parks and outdoor things to do you can easily fill a week multiple times over.

4. Monument Valley – Near the four corners area where Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and Nevada meet up are some incredible sunsets and majestic plateaus including easy day trips to Mesa Verde in Colorado.  Navajo Tribal park.

4. Zion – with nearly 3 million visitors a year this is Utah’s oldest and most famous National Park.  The park is known for its incredible canyons and spectacular views. Famous hikes including The Narrows, Subway, and Angels Landing attract adventure enthusiasts from around the world.  Memories of 72 hours should come to mind.  I was going to do Subway with my cousins this year.  It’s an 9.5 mile hike through narrows, complete hiking through rivers.

(Image courtesy americaswonderlands.com)

Read this description of the Subway hike “The mystical journey through the Left Fork of North Creek involves route finding, plunging cautiously into chilly pools then sloshing, sometimes frantically, through frigid water over and through difficult obstacles. The narrow Subway section of this hike forces hikers through a unique tunnel sculpted by the Left Fork of North Creek.”

3. Arches – You may have seen the world famous Delicate Arch, but Arches National Park contains the world’s largest concentration of natural stone arches. This National Park is a red, arid desert, punctuated with oddly eroded sandstone forms such as fins, pinnacles, spires, balanced rocks, and arches. The 73,000-acre region has over 2,000 of these “miracles of nature.”  These are great day hikes.  If you want to do biking, driving, or off roading there are lots of options in this area.  Plan on staying in Moab and spend a few days in this area.

2. Temple Hopping – There are over a dozen temples across the state.  If you simply try to visit them all you’ll see some of the most amazing construction dedicated to God, and see a variety of different communities.

Pictured below is the Brigham City Temple currently under construction which will be open for visitors this is a very unique opportunity to see an LDS temple as visitors may only enter prior to it’s dedication unless you hold an LDS temple recommend which requires you live worthily and have a temple recommend interview with your Bishop and Stake President.

The Jordan River Temple – Looks like a rocket ship

As an interesting fact… The Logan Temple, The St George Temple, and the Manti temple were all finished prior to the Salt Lake Temple which took 40 years to complete as is still the largest temple of the more than 136 temples dotting the globe.

Is it a birthday cake or a spacecraft?  Provo will have 2 temples, the first city in the world.  The old Provo tabernacle is being converted into a temple after a fire and reconstruction.

For a list of the Utah Temples and for pictures visit the ldschurchtemples.org

Photo: Stopping by to see one of the temples that dot the wasatch

Brigham City Temple Taken 7/15/12

Information below from ldschurchtemples.org

Location: 250 South Main Street, Brigham City, Utah, United States.
Site:  3.14 acres.
Ordinance Rooms:  Two ordinance rooms (two-stage progressive) and three sealing.
Total Floor Area:  36,000 square feet.

Announcement:  3 October 2009
Groundbreaking and Site Dedication:  31 July 2010 by Boyd K. Packer
Public Open House:  18 August–15 September 2012
Dedication:  23 September 2012

Public Open House

The general public is invited to attend an open house (video invitation) of the Brigham City Utah Temple. Admission is free, but reservations are required.

Reservations:  Open house tickets will be made available beginning Monday, July 30, 2012, at 10:00 a.m. at templeopenhouse.lds.org.
Dates:  Saturday, August 18, through Saturday, September 15, 2012 (excluding Sundays and Saturday, September 8)

1. Mt Timpanogos

Take a cave tour in Timpanogos Caves.  Take a ranger led cave tour through a 1/3 mile with gravity defying helectites with all the famous formations on a 3 – 3.5 hr hike and cave exploration.  The cave is great.  There are more adventuresome cave splunking if you want to get off the beaten path.  That route requires advanced permission.

If you’re a hiker, then this is the hike for you.  Alpine lakes, Glaciers, Mountain goats, and wreckage of a B-25 air force jet, Timp is amazing.  It is a popular hike, but a great workout with a great payoff and one you can do in a day, but you’ll want to start early.

The Hike to the summit of Mount Timpanogos is 11,749′, the second highest in the Wasatch Mountains. Many consider the hike from the Timpooneke Trailhead to be the best hike in Utah. Reaching the summit will require 4-5 hours. The summit is 7.5 miles one-way with an elevation gain of 4580′ on a well-maintained trail.  There are a few scary parts if you’re afraid of heights, but the trail itself is not too technical.

Honorable mention:

Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument – Breathtaking views and panoramas… hiking, camping, climbing

Canyonlands – Rocky Spires, arches and canyons… Ruins and Petroglyphs of natives. hiking, biking, whitewater rafting and ATV

Salt Flats – Bonneville.  Great stop after seeing the Great Salt Lake.

Capitol Reef National Park – You’ll be getting into this when you go to Goblin Valley, my preferred spot

Cataract Canyon – whitewater rafting destination (see it when you do arches.  It’s near Moab)

Slick Rock Trail – 9 miles of rock path for mountain biking (excursion from Moab)

Consider day or overnight trips from St. George or Moab to the Grand Canyon from Park City you could go into Wyoming and even work your way up to Jackson Hole, and Yellowstone quite easily.