Exploring Madagascar Land of Lemurs and Baobabs


I long for places in this world that have experiences that will blow my mind.  Madagascar achieved mind blown status and challenged me on some levels as a traveler.  I’m so glad I decided to do it right and spend the time it takes to travel a large country with much to offer.  Some how it feels like saving the best for last, or at a minimum saving an incredible adventure for when I have more time.  Madagascar was breathtaking beautiful and had unique experiences that couldn’t happen outside the island.  It’s not just the lemurs, but the diversity of the night primates as well was incredible.

Sunrise at Avenue of the Baobabs

Sunrise at Avenue of the Baobabs

I spent my time primarily in two regions plus a 12 hour road trip between the two.  I spent about a week in Madagascar and was really taken in by the place.  I really enjoyed the amazing experiences, but I also felt for the place.  I do feel it won’t last.  The forests need help.  There isn’t much tourism that is not the issue.  The issue is the human deforestation and I’m sure corruption in many parts of the government contribute to large amounts of poverty and lots of societal issues that are levels worse than many poorer countries in other parts of Africa.  The poverty in the capital was rough with the fairly large population that appear to be living on the streets and begging.  It’s sad, I don’t want to overlook this as I focus on how amazing the country is, but it’s another reminder of the amount of impact that travelers can have that I hope can influence this for good.

Antananarivo also known locally as Tana, the capitol of Madagascar

Just 1.5 to 2 hours outside of Tana is a Lemur park.  While it isn’t a forest that is naturally filled with lemurs, it likely once was.  It is now a preserve and a rescue area for Lemurs.  For those with not much time, this is a must see.  I was anxious to see the lemurs and figured I’d start with the rescued lemurs that were relatively nearby.

The word lemur derives from the word lemures (ghosts or spirits) from Roman mythology

Indri Lemur

Indri Lemur

Black and White Ruffed Lemur

Black and White Ruffed Lemur

Ring Tailed Lemurs

Ring Tailed Lemurs – King Julian’s friends from the Show Madagascar

coquerels sifaka lemur

Coquerel’s sifaka Lemur – These look like relatives of Jovian, the Zaboomafoo star.  They also like to dance.

The lemurs look so human like it’s eerie.  From the fingers to the little faces and ears. 

We were told not to get too close, but we were still able to get some amazing shots.  No fences in this place.  Apparently the lemurs don’t like water, so water is a natural boundary.

Getting around Madagascar can be relatively expensive.  The locals on average don’t use many of the vehicles so it is really just tourists and people with money in the cars and those locals don’t drive cross country very much it seems. It requires a lot of negotiating.  While you’d expect the drivers would have a lot of motivation, most don’t own their cars and are working where most of the money goes to someone else who seems to have artificially high prices.  That being said, with some negotiation we did get out to this park and added a couple of additional stops for about $70-80.  Note we were able to negotiate a ride across the island after our van/bus ride was cancelled.  We paid the equivalent of 240 Euros (shared) for a 12 hour one way ride and flew back on the approximately $300 flight.

Kirindy Forest

After a 12 hour ride from the capital we arrived in Morondava on the coast.  We found an airbnb and did daily trips to the Kirindy forest, the densest amount of primates on the planet.  When walking through the forest, we could hear the lemurs and quickly we’d find an individual and then we’d find their troop or family.  We’d then walk a little ways and find yet another.   I highly recommend Kirindy National Park for visiting the lemurs.  You are 100% guaranteed to see Lemurs.  They say they have 10 different type.  We saw 4 types in the morning and 4 in the evening.  We ended up doing both the night hike and the day and thoroughly enjoyed them both.  We had some troubles with our 4×4 related to the battery and the crew willingly helped us go all the way back out to the trail and push start our car.  There are unique species of Mouse lemur that are still being discovered in the forest, and we came across biologist scientist crews from Europe.  I believe a couple of types of lemurs have been discovered this past decade.  This forest is dense, but has some great trails.  The guides are very knowledgeable and can make different sounds to call to the lemurs.

White Sifika Lemur

White Sifika Lemur

Brown Lemur

Brown Lemur

Mouse Lemur

Mouse Lemur

mouse lemur

Nocturnal Rare Mouse Lemur – smallest primate in the world

Nocturanal jumping rat

Giant Jumping Rat – Looks and acts like a cross between a bunny, rat and wallaby or kangaroo.

We saw Fork Mark Lemurs, Brown Lemurs, and we even saw a rare Fossa run across the road on our way.  The Fossa is like a big gray cat with steely eyes.  Just like in Madagascar the movie, we saw some Lemurs way up in the Baobab tree which I’ve heard isn’t supposed to happen.

Lizard

The lizards, geckos, and chameleons were really common even by in the road apparently they like to sun on branches by the road.  There were enough chameleons to go around for each kid to find one and bring it along to try to get tourists to take pictures to give them money. 

Avenue of the Baobobs

Sunset at Avenue of the Baobabs

The Avenue of the Baobobs was a highlight.  I spent the afternoon with the villagers watching them carve little trees. 

Algerian Saharan Oasis Walled Cities of M’zab Valley


Algeria has really been lost as a tourist destination.  In my experience, Algerian embassy really wasn’t big on outsiders.  While it has been off the radar to tourists, it’s really quite incredible with treasures so preserved.  From the ancient UNESCO sites in Algiers, to the imperial french colonial buildings.  The massive mosque in Algiers.  In one of the largest countries in Africa in Algiers deep into the Sahara desert.

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There are five “walled villages” (ksour) located on rocky outcrops along the Mzab collectively known as the Pentapolis. They are Ghardaïa, the principal settlement today; Beni Isguen; Melika; Bounoura; and El Atteuf. Plus a couple more recent settlements of Bérianne and El Guerrara, the Mzab Heptapolis.

The combination of the functional purism of the Ibāḍī faith with the oasis their way of life has led to a strict organization of land and space.  Each citadel has a fortress-like mosque, whose minaret served as a watchtower. Houses of standard size and type were constructed in concentric circles around the mosque. The architecture of the M’zab settlements was designed for egalitarian communal living, with respect for family privacy. The Mzab building style is of Libyan-Phoenician type, more specifically of Berber style and has been replicated in other parts of the Sahara.

The Mzab Valley was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982, as an intact example of traditional human habitat perfectly adapted to the environment.

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I love the story of the walled villages.  The ibadi people escaped into the desert and literally build their cities out of the stone.  They turned it into an oasis.  Far from outside influence they were free to worship and develop in their own ways.  Today you will find a mix of Arabs, and black african people from across Africa mix with Ibadi in the markets.  It’s cool to see the diversity in the markets.

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Some of the harshest environments on the planet provide the most dear people.  In the harsh climate of the Sahara desert, not far from the middle of nowhere… you’ll find a magical place.

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A place where the residents themselves were attempting to escape from any civilization around them.  They created their own Oasis amongst the rocks of the M’zab valley.

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The unbelievable stories I heard about wells taking three generations to dig through solid rock inspire you and help you understand just how dedicated these people are to their faith, their families and each other.   You may see the lady in the white.  They usually scurry around quickly to not be seen and show only one eye.  Depth perception can be a real problem, but they’ve become experts.

 

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These five small walled villages designed to keep out the hate and influences, but now the walls are open.  You can take a peak at a place seemingly untouched for 1000 years.  As a traveler one of my favorite things to do is time travel.  Wandering through the souks (markets) of these small villages eating some of the most delicious fruit grown with their precious life giving water.  Let me take you there.

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The more bumps on top the more the important the person is.

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When times get rough in the south.  The people migrate north.  While there are few black Africans in the north, there are an increasing number in Southern Algeria.  From Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Mali these black Africans look quite out of place among the Berber, Arabs, and

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I didn’t end up with too many photos of people and families because many cities outlawed it.  It was illegal to take photos of the people.  Check out these rules on the side of a mosque.

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These walled cities are walking cities no cars.  A few found a work around with their motorbikes.

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A secret Jewish cemetary and even a Christian churches

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An abandoned mosque was fun to explore.  It’s sad to see the current state.  Even saw a scorpion under a brick.

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Getting ready to pray to close the end of the day during Ramadan.

Until you’ve walked a mile in someone’s shoes you can’t judge them or so the saying goes… This past year I got to celebrate Ramadan with some friends while visiting the M’zab valley to a special set of beautiful walled cities in Algeria. It was a dream. Our host was a one we found through Airbnb only to find out he was a new father and family had come from out of town. We stayed in a dusty abandoned building by ourselves. My friend stayed on the roof and I took the bottom floor under the fan. Our host didn’t even have a way to collect on Airbnb, because he can’t hook up any system of payment so he couldn’t receive our payment if we paid. It was quite the odd arrangement, but ultimately he told us we could pay whatever we wanted. He really just wanted to meet foreigners. We surprised him by saying we really wanted to try to live like they did from prayers to eating. There were a few false starts and I struggled to go without food and water after walking nearly 15 miles in 100 degree heat. I cheated and snuck some water thinking the water part was optional. Apparently not. On day two we did a little less walking and decided to follow the path of the locals and take a nap in the heat of the day… that part worked out well and we were able to make it through the day without any cheating.

That night as it got dark we met up with our friends to break the fast. While I couldn’t speak any berber, french or arabic, I passed my phone back and forth using translator in arabic to share my experience with my new friends. One of them our host spoke pretty good english and his friend, who owned the home, not so much. By the end of the night we found common belief in a God who loved us, in Jesus and his kind words. We also both found safety and love in the community and family.

The Ibadi community simply wants to worship the way they have for a thousand years. They built their community out in the desert and if their stories of multi generational well digging is true, they are one of the heartiest communities ever. My grandparents as well established communities and had to escape persecution for freedom of worship. I could identify. In the end we shared some empathy for each other and again my perspectives grew. Travel helps defeat prejudice bigotry and hate and can open your eyes.

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This diverse group of muslims represented Ibadi as well as Arabs and young men from Togo & Benin.

Travel with me during Ramadan, and imagine fasting with no food or water from morning till night.  I was really surprised how seriously they took the no water and we were walking 10-15 miles that day.  The dates and milk tasted so good after a very long day of fasting in the Sahara.

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Ramadan meal with the community

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Algeria may not be on the top of your travel list, but never discount the loyalty and love and care of the Algerian.  If you wonder if you could ever find a more ancient version of Morocco you don’t need to go further than Algeria.  It was worth the trouble of the visa… amazing people, fascinating stories, loving people.  We got ours… just make sure you have the 4-6 weeks to wait.

 

Read more about M’zab valley on Wikipedia and on UNESCO “A traditional human habitat, created in the 10th century.  Built by the Ibadites around their five ksour(fortified cities), has been preserved intact in the M’Zab valley. Simple, functional and perfectly adapted to the environment, the architecture of M’Zab was designed for community living, while respecting the structure of the family. It is a source of inspiration for today’s urban planners.”

Traveling the Nubian Pyramids of Sudan


 

Nubian Pyramids

Who goes to Sudan?  I did and it was awesome!  My planning started by scouring the internet for stories of people who visited Sudan and searching for stories of visiting the Nubian Pyramids of Meroe.  Thought they were in Egypt???

Pyramids in Sudan? Indeed!  In fact there are more Pyramids in Sudan than in Egypt.  There are 255 pyramids in Nubia in three sites built over a few hundred years.

Yes, there are 120 large pyramids built over the period of 3000 years.

Nubian Pyramids of Sudan

Pyramids of Meroe

I had heard getting the visa for Sudan may take up to 6 weeks.  In fact 6 weeks is about what it took for my friend to get his passport back which pushed it almost too far.  He ended up having to call them twice for additional materials.  I had another trip where I needed my passport and had only 4 weeks.  My biggest breakthrough was connecting with Acropole Hotel.  Simply reaching out to these guys and we had a place to stay, we had a ride, and we were able to get customized trip with a driver and everything we needed.  In fact they were able to provide an invitation which then allowed for visa on arrival with a letter.  The turn around was less than a week, but they recommend a few more weeks, but can make it happen with simply a scan of the passport and $200 wire.  Normally I wouldn’t dive into details, but these guys were so great, and reasonable, and trustworthy, I do recommend them.  The owner is of greek parents but born in Sudan and has a great education and speaks great English and was very responsive and insightful.  On top of all this, I recommend getting the tourist permit and the photo permit (frequently on the same page, which the hotel can organize ahead of time), make sure you have lots of copies as every stop you’ll need to provide a copy.

ACROPOLE HOTEL

Your Home Away from Home

tel:  +249 1 83 772860

+249 1 83772518

Fax: +249 1 83770898

Email :  acropolekhartoum@gmail.com

Web : acropolekhartoum.com

P.s. No credit cards are accepted in Sudan

         only cash Usd,Euro,Sterling,Swiss Franc.

          Please bring 4 Passport photos.

 

When we landed we quickly found that the exchange for money happened on the ground as soon as you arrive.  There is no ATM, and the currency exchange is done primarily person to person as the official rate is 6 to 1, where the street rate is closer to 20 to 1.  Dollars and Euros are in high demand.

My trip to Sudan was super rich even though it was quick.

We visited three archeological sites each very distinct and unique.  The first was a real adventure offroading across the desert in a 4×4.  There was a new road under construction, which even made it more challenging.  We ended up picking up a nomad to help us track down the site.  Fantastic adventure.

First stop was a few temples that reminded me of Karnack and Luxor, but in miniature including the rams on either side of the approach and columns, but you’d find a mix of roman columns as well as egyptian looking temples and columns.

 

The time period of the pyramids is from about 700BC to 300AD.

 

 

Musawwarat es-Sufra

Musawwarat es Sufra is one of the most important archaeological heritage sites of Sudan. Situated in the semiard landscape of the Keraba, 25 km away from the Nile, it was the earliest site outside the Nile valley which the Kushites developed into a monumental arena of religious life in the Napatan period. Most standing monuments, including the unique sacral complex of the Great Enclosure and the famous Lion Temple, date from the Meroitic period (300 BC to 350 AD). Musawwarat is a UNESCO World Heritage.  Enjoy the discovery to find it.

Nubian Temples in Sudan

Nubian Columns in Sudan

Naqa

Nubian Heirogliphics

Horus and Isis

 

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The most extensive Nubian pyramid site is at Meroë, which is located between the fifth and sixth cataracts of the Nile, approximately 100 km (62 mi) north of Khartoum. During the Meroitic period, over forty queens and kings were buried there.

 

Pyramids of Meroe in Northern Sudan

 

Exploring these pyramids we were alone for the most part except for a couple of locals and guys with their camels trying to get us to take rides.  By the time we we were done with the first dozen or so we rode camels to the next set of pyramids and back to the 4×4… with bartering for the two of us the total cost was around 100 Sudanese pounds or about $5.

Camel Jockeys of Sudan

 

I got this info from the hotel, but it served very valuable:

· Passport Registration at the Ministry of Interior that all foreigners must do thru our hotel upon arrival is 42.5 Usd.  Please bring four passport photos.

· The cost of Tourist Visa is 120*** Usd paid to us plus 150 Usd (for US passport holders) paid at the airport upon arrival

Airport Authorities accept only U.S. dollars, all Bank notes of U.S. dollars should be edited after year 2006.

· Passport should be valid for at least SIX months and without Israeli Immigration stamps.

· For those who need a letter of invitation addressed to the Sudanese Embassy

· To issue exclusively a tourist visa**** (20 days before arrival Maximum) or a letter of invitation we need a clear scanned passport copy ASAP, guest must stay at our hotel for the whole period of his stay in Sudan and can travel outside Khartoum only to archeological sites.  We can organize excursions to all Archeological sites and also arrange for a Boat cruise in the Nile.

( From day trip to the Pyramids or more  up to 14 days in the desert with camping and food). We can arrange for free Photo and Travel permit to the North as without travel permit from authorities you will not be allowed to travel.*

· All foreign guests of the hotel must pay in foreign exchange currency as per regulations of Sudan’s Central Bank policy.

· Please note that NO credits cards are accepted in Sudan and there are no ATMs to withdraw money. Us dollar Bank notes should be edited after 2006.

 

 

My last night ended with attending a local wedding.   I wish I could attend a wedding in every culture across the globe.  Women on one side of the tent and men on the other with dancing in the middle.

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Best time to be at the pyramids for light is the sunrise, but I was able to get some interesting shots with the sun on it’s way down.

Sunset in Moroe

 

Beautiful People of Sudan

This young sudanese girl was selling traditional jewlery and rock carvings.  She was happy with the exchange and allowed me to take her photo.

 

Sudanese Food

Traditional Sudanese Lamb and Dipping sauce

 

Read more about Sudanese Archeological sites and pyramids at Wikipedia.

Travel in Tunisia: Tunis, Carthage, and Sidi Bou Said

Sidi Bou Said, Blue and White houses in Tunisia

Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia

I recently had the opportunity to explore a fascinating in the country of Tunisia.  Despite the news from the outside looking in, the other way around from those who are local have a very different perspective on the events these past few years.  Tunisia is being reborn with new found freedoms, but also is trying to find moderation that serves both the religious and the secular.

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Panorama of Lunch with my Tunisian friends.  I pray for the religious freedoms and the rights and freedoms of those who wish to be secular.  Tunisia represents the hopes of a new democracy built from a nation willing to rise up and demand for change.

hijab with headphones

This photo above captures the essence of modern and traditional.  The head scarves have been a fascinating debate throughout the middle east.  Great heated debates continue in many arab countries about whether the hijab should be worn to cover the head.  Should it be legislated.  Most now in Tunisia no longer wear it, but it also should be a choice for those that would choose to wear it.  It’s not for me to say, but I’ve found a lot of people in Tunisia are willing to share their opinions about freedom.

In my time in the country with local friends I met through my technical connections in the SharePoint community.  Tunisia is a very modern country with very strong ties to France.  A lot of my technical contacts have frequent visits from technical folks in France and visa versa with Tunisia.

Tunisia is a beautiful place.  While there I spent time across three main areas.  Tunis the capital, the ruins of ancient Carthage, and Sidi Bou Said.

Here are 7 MUST SEE Places in Northern Tunisia: Tunis, Carthage, and Sidi Bou Said

1. Tunis Bardo Museum

Bardo Museum

Old Door in the Bardo Museum

Tunisian Muslim Girls

Beautiful Ancient Doorway Nailwork

Stones found with religious art…

Adam and Eve Ancient stoneDaniel and the Lions Den Ancient

L: Adam and Eve  R: Daniel and the Lions

2. Sidi Bou Said – Amazing city of blue and white… very beautifully preserved

Sidi Bou Said

Lots of things for tourists in the beautiful sea side city of Sid Bou Said.  Incredible place to walk around and many shops will show you inside to see the interior of their homes and shops.

Sidi Bou Said

Sidi Bou Said

3. Carthage Cathedral

St Louis Cathedral in Carthage

St Louis Cathedral in Carthage

The days of Christianity are remembered by the large cathedral, but there aren’t many Christians left in Tunis.

St Louis Statue in Carthage

4. The Ruins of Carthage including many columns, statues and museum(s)

Acropolium

Acropolium

I have a lot to learn about Carthage, the Punic Wars, Hannibal… I think it was 5th grade and this part of history didn’t stick very well.  Here’s a quote from Wikipedia on Carthage.

“A city of the Pheonician and Punic periods from the 6th BC it was the base of a powerful trading empire spanning the entire south Mediterranean and home to a population of the order of half a million people. Its most famous general was Hannibal who crossed the Alps to battle with the Romans. Hannibal suffered his first significant defeat at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC, which ended the 2nd Punic War. After over 50 years of being watched closely by Rome, they were eventually attacked in the 3rd Punic War. The citizens defended the city against the Republic of Rome in 146BC yet lost, and Punic Carthage was completely destroyed by the order of the Senate. The site was redeveloped by the Romans a century later and Carthage became the capital of the Roman province of Africa. A UNESCO World Heritage List site.”

Carthage Museum Statues

Carthage MuseumCarthage Museum

5. Medina in Tunis

La MedinaLa Medina Markets

Narrow walkways of the old Medina in Tunis

Doors of Tunis Doors of Tunis

Old doorways that tell the story of time…

While I can’t compare the medina of Tunis with the medina of Rabat or Marrakech, there are major differences in the fact that as you exit the Medina and walk a few blocks you run into this large cathedral.  Tunis has had a fascinating history that is captured in the museums and architecture of the old city.  Looking at the doors on the right you can see how the archways have been filled in, many times over.

6. National Cathedral in Tunis

National Cathedral

Tunisian National Catherdal across the street from French Embassy – I took this photo with a juxtaposition of the razor wire around the embassy.  This was to keep the people from protesting too closely outside the walls of the embassy.  Within a couple of blocks as well, you’ll find the fresh market.

7. Tunis Fresh Food Market      

Fresh Market

Open Air Fresh Foods Market in downtown Tunis

Tunis Theatre

Tunis Theatre

Tunis Theatre – Very Ornate Theatre

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.

Traveled Anywhere “Dangerous?”

Tunis in Razor Wire Tunisie

I knew I had been to some sketchy places, but I didn’t realize in our small world that I had been to some of the most dangerous borders and places on the planet.  That being said, to a large extent dangerous places aren’t always what they are made out to be.  Your bias and perspectives based on news, history, among biases and other things will be incorrect until you visit.  It’s amazing how wrong I’ve been some times…

Last week I visited Tunisia, currently on the hot list of places that would be considered dangerous.  We were planning on avoiding the hot areas, but just a couple of blocks from the medina we came across a roll of razor wire that was stretched around the block in front of the French embassy.  They are trying to discourage people from gathering in large numbers around the embassy.  I think they saw the movie Argo.

Tunis cathedral with razor wire

Tunis has a rap for being the first in the Arab Spring.  The first to overthrow their leader and attempt to start a new government.  Trying to find the right balance of religion in the government is a tough call for the Tunisians.  They don’t want it too hot or too cold.  Egypt is trying to figure the same thing out.  They have a hard time figuring out what model to use, because there aren’t a lot of successful Islamic government models to fashion themselves after.

I really really enjoyed my time in Tunis, Sidi Bou Said, and Carthage.  Beautiful cities, incredible people, and tons of history.  In many ways I find people who have to deal with this kind of stress are either fighters or leaders.  The people that Tunis has created are real movers and shakers.  Tons of passion.

Sidi Bou Said

The same could be said for some of the other amazing places around the world where conflict ultimately creating a generation that will rise above the conflict and help us all.

Here’s a list of my favorite places where recent conflict leaves behind a city and a people who cry to be visited.  Some of the most beautiful places on the planet with darkness that is parting to light.

1. Lebanon – Beirut is one of my favorite cities in the world.  It’s incredible.  The food is fabulous.  If you eat much Mediterranean food you will find that it’s either influenced by Lebanese or is actually Lebanese food.  Lebanese… they rule in food in the middle east as well, that’s where is at it’s best.

Visiting some of the old historical sites you’ll find that this area of the world has been in conflict since the time of Cain and Abel.  I jest, but really since man has been sentient there have been battles for this fertile land with awesome sea access.  Byblos pictured,  has 10 different kingdoms that have claimed it over time and built it up.

2. Sarajevo – One of my favorite cities in Europe.  Beautiful Sarajevo, Bosnia.  In Bosnia you also have to visit Mostar.  A tragic past, which you can research before, during or after. It really redefines the way you travel.  Sarajevo is not dangerous today.  The same people who fought against each other live together.  They have been forced to find ways to move on. A visit to the very historical city library in Sarajevo makes this all very fresh.  A walk over starimost the bridge in Most will also bring the highest of highs and lowest of lows as you see the land mines and research the tragic history of the bridge.

Sarajevo bombardment
History is visible

3. Egypt – I still consider Egypt one of the safest places on the planet.  The people are so kind and caring.  Yes, Cairo is a large busy dusty city, but the people really do care about their future and are having a challenging time finding the right balance for the majority and minorities in the country.  Still find that Luxor is one of the places in the world where I can truly relax riding in a felucca letting the wind take me where it will.

I wrote all about how I feel about visiting Egypt post revolution.  I have friends who have recently visited within the past 2 weeks and they love it as well.

Relaxing on the nile

4. Nicaragua – This third world country has a tough rap.  Due to bias from leaders in the US government this poor country has had a rough time.  Definitely some of the poorest conditions in the Americas, but the beauty and simplicity is incredible.  I’ve felt very safe and the amount of crime isn’t what you might perceive.  Outside the capital, Managua it’s a very incredible country with much to offer the adventurer and for incredibly cheap prices.  I stayed at a villa on the lake for $30 with the shores lapping right up near the doorstep.  Sitting out on the balcony watching the waves… listen and you’re likely to hear monkeys just as birds, and look up to see incredible volcanoes, just beautiful.

5. Zambia & Zimbabwe – What happens when money becomes worth nothing… when 100,000,000,000,000 (100 trillion) notes are worth more as a collectible?  I’ve found desperation a scary thing.  I once ran into someone who said they would never go back to Africa.  To me Africa is the place that keeps giving back.  Every trip I go on is incredible, because it’s so raw.  It’s primitive.  As an anthropologist at heart, and Indiana Jones as my example, there’s no better place to explore than deep dark Africa.  Believe me, there are some dangerous situations, but again even these seem safer than many of the large cities in the US where most wouldn’t think twice to visit.  Victoria Falls is worth it.  Amazing place.  We ended up travelling around the whole area and really connected with locals, and it was one of my favorite trips ever.

There are some people who like to visit where natures destructive force has made impact.  As a child I remember going to Bountiful Utah after a flood.  It was fascinating to see rivers going through people’s yards.  A fascinating juxtaposition.

Now seeing buildings that were bombed by Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal in Belgrade, Serbia…  Modern history is pretty wild.

The irony here in all of this, is the *real* most dangerous places I’ve visited would not be where most Americans would think.  I have felt most unsafe in Detroit, Orlando an some parts of Chicago & LA.  There are a few places in Mexico that aren’t so safe, but even Mexico city has felt more safe than some of the large run areas in the US.  People outside of the US, may think so too.  Johannesburg does have real dangers based on desperation.  Many who live there carry a second wallet.  There are techniques for traveling safe and a lot has to do with keeping your wits about you.  Having local contacts can really help in visiting these WILD places of the world.  Travel brings perspective and erases prejudice.

Empires and Castles of Ethiopia

Ethiopian Castle

When you think of Ethiopia you think of impoverished people where 3/4ths of the country live on less than $1 a day.  When I first came across the fact that not only there were castles Ethiopia, but a vast Kingdom that rivals the Kingdoms of Europe and was larger than the greatest kingdoms of the world, I was blown away.  Ethiopia has quickly become one of my favorite places in Africa.  In fact what I’d discover was wild stories of King Solomon of Jerusalem of the famous Temple of Solomon and his many wife’s including the Queen Sheba whose  kingdom is believed to have been in modern Ethiopia and Yemen.  The more Kebra Nagast I read the more I was fascinated and even becoming convinced of the connection between Ethiopia and the old Judean kingdom.  In Ethiopia you can’t separate religion and these vast kingdoms.  As a Kingdom there are strong Judean traditions and Christian influences and is the first Christian Kingdom.  If you read the Ethiopian scriptures you’ll find the marriage and first born son of Solomon and the connection to Sheba and her son Menelik.

Aksumite Empire and Kingdom

The Aksumite Obelisks marked the reign of the old kingdoms.  One of them was taken by Italy and then returned in 2005.  Imagine if England and France returned the obelisks from Egypt?  I know the Paris one was for a trade for a clock that never really worked.

The Empire of Aksum at its height extended across most of present-day Eritrea, Ethiopia, Western Yemen, southern Saudi Arabia and Sudan. The capital city of the empire was Aksum, now in northern Ethiopia.  It was known as one of the four great powers of his time along with Persia, Rome, and China.

Right: St. Mary’s church which contains the Arc of the Covenant behind the curtain in the Holy of Holies according to the Ethiopian Coptic church.  They wouldn’t let us go back there. Instead they wanted to show us their old colorful Holy Book or Bible.

The Aksum empire achieved prominence by the 1st century AD, and was a major player in the commerce between the Roman Empire and Ancient India.

Aksum’s capital is found in northern Ethiopia in modern Axum which is now smaller than it once was. The Kingdom used the name “Ethiopia” as early as the 4th century. It is also the alleged resting place of the Ark of the Covenant and the purported home of the Queen of Sheba.

Abyssinia (Ethiopian) Empire – Solomonic Dynasty

The Solomonic Dynamisty claim direct male line descent from the old Axumite royal house. Menelik II, and later his daughter Zewditu, claim direct male descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.  The importance of this is very significant for Rastafarians and much of Ethopia.  The last emperor of Ethiopia born Tafari Makonnen Woldemikael, known as Haile Selassie I was Emperor of Ethopia from 1930 to 1974. He was the heir to a dynasty that traced its origins by tradition from King Solomon and Queen Makeda, Empress of Axum known in the Abrahamic tradition as the Queen of Sheba.

I took this picture of Emperor Fasilides (1603-1667) Castle in Gondar, which was one of the best preserved of the many castles in a small area in the city of Gondar.

Here Paul and I were messing around amongst the castles.

Above: Emperor Yohannes I Castle in Gondar – 1667-1682

We were a little surprised to find a heard of donkeys running down the road.  The castles are on the other side of the rock wall.

These cool Banyan roots remind me of Cambodia.

Below: Coffee Ceremony.  Coffee is originated in Ethiopia.  If you love coffee I highly recommend the personal roasted coffee bean ceremonial experience.  I’m not much for coffee being LDS, but my friend Paul must have tried it a half dozen times and loved every one of them.

Fasiladas’ bath – created by Fasilidas back in the 16h century.  It’s a beautiful place where they perform baptisms.

Timket – Once a year the Ethiopian church celebrates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan river on January 19 (or 20 on Leap Year), corresponding to the 10th day of Terr following the Ethiopian calendar.

Below: This blue house appears made of dung and this fabulous blue color.

Below the ancient kingdom of Yeha even older than Axum as the capital for Ethiopia and has the oldest building in Ethiopia dated to somewhere around 700 BC.  We were definitely out of place in this little village.  If you really want to see people who rarely see outsiders this is a great place.

The Monastery of Debre Damo is on a flat-topped mountain with and contains a 6th century monastery available only to men. While on top of this plateau you can see hills and landscape in Sudan and Eritrea.  It’s a real treat for multiple reasons. The only entry is via a rope made of animal hides that’s dropped.  You tie one it around you and start climbing up the other animal rope.  It’s an incredible experience climbing up 100 foot cliff straight up.

If you visit Axum Ethiopia it’s a short 2-3 hours through an amazing countryside ride.  Yeha is less than a half hour away.  We were able to see much of Axum in the morning and make it out to the amazing unique monastery.

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.

Lalibela Ethiopia and the Famous Rock Hewn Churches

St Georges Cross

8th wonder of the world Unesco Rock Hewn Churches

In our world there are few places shrouded with as much mystery, culture, and history as Lalibela the second holiest place in Ethiopia.  Designated as the 8th wonder of the world, and a UNESCO world heritage site.  These rock hewn churches made in the 16th century are an ancient treasure built by Angels.

St George in Lalibella Ethiopia

Lalibela starts with the story of a King that as a baby was shrouded in bees.  The bees weren’t bees at all, but angels.  The angels took him up to heaven and showed him how to make tools and how to carve churches from rock.

Megalithic Rock Hewn Church

The story doesn’t end there.  King Lalibela shared the ideas of the tools that were ahead of their time, and the humans took the day shift and the angels took the night shift and together they built amazing churches that are built with deep symbols of early Christianity.  Rather than pilgrimage to Jerusalem at a time when the Christians had been kept from safely visiting Jerusalem and the other holy sites of Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and the life of Jesus.

Narrow valleys carved into the rock can take you from church to church, each with it’s own story.  The largest megalithic church in the world is found among the 11 rock hewn churches in Lalibela.  All of them are within a couple of miles, and easy walking distance.  You can easily spend a day or two.  Loyal Christian orthodox priests act as guides for a negotiated price.  I was trying to explain that these churches were a lot like the church caves in Cappadocia, but our guide wouldn’t have it.  These were literally carved by Angels.  It was great to have a guide who was so loyal.

Coptic Priest

At lunch we stopped at a little place.  We were told it was Friday and so we couldn’t order the lamb.  It’s fasting day.  So we ordered the fasting food.

Injera

The Ethiopian fasting food is made up of various veggies. The food is designed to be eaten with your hands and is designed to be a social family experience.  Beets, potatoes, lentils, cabbage, tomatoes, amazing food.  It’s served on a traditional injera which is not only edible, but is how you eat the food.  Rip off some injera and wrap it around whatever you’d like.  Sometimes it comes in a roll so you can rip off a little and have plenty to eat a nice big pile of food.  There really is a lot of variety in the food, served on large platters.  Ethopian food really grew on me.  I had some in Zanzibar and a few years ago in Capetown.  It’s really a fun food.

Tukul Village

Ahead of time I did a little research and came across the Tukul village hotel.  I *really* enjoyed it.  They were cheap enough, around $50-60 that both Paul and I got our own rooms.  The nicest rooms in town.  We had hot water 24×7, plenty of power, and free wifi and it almost reached to our room.  I say 24×7 cause some say they have hot water, but it’s only on in the morning.  One also said they had wifi, but it was a hard wire in a room behind reception.  Across Ethiopia this was our favorite city and favorite hotel.

The rock churches were about a mile or two walk from the hotel.  When we’d walk around, a group of kids that would grow as we’d walk would tell us stories about their lives.  They were from the countryside.  In a sort of boarding type situation.  Groups of kids put together sharing a room.  Most, basically all, don’t have money.  Part of the story you hear from the kids is that they are going to school and need supplies.  Notebook, dictionary, and more.  If you’re around long enough you hear about how they are months back in rent and will get kicked out of their place.  Some don’t have shoes.  In some places I wouldn’t believe the stories, but I was convinced.

Lalibela Festival

After a day of walking through the rock churches, I overheard some amazing traditional music and as we got closer found what looked like the whole of the 15,000 of the village gathered to watch the dancing in a festival.  I was offered a prime seat, but instead found a spot next to some young kids.  One of the children was a blind boy, and his faithful friends who he held onto, one behind and one in front.  They filled me into what was going on.  None of them had parents around… they too were from the countryside and were here in Lalibela for school.  They told me about their need for notebooks and that they would struggle without them.  After hearing the price and seeing the sincerity I walked with the boys to the little store and purchased a pack of 10 notebooks which they shared.  Word got around, and we saw some kids that we’d seen earlier in the day, so we went back and decided we’d buy them out.  70 more notebooks, but this time the story was more sincere.  The 3 of us will share.  Ok.  I’ll get a notebook for all the children, there can’t be more than 70 around here.  I was warned by one of the older children that the kids will fight over the books.  Paul and I weren’t sure how to take the advice we were given of giving him all the books and have him distribute them.  Images of him running off, or only giving books to the older kids concerned me.  We gave him a pack of 10 and committed him to promising to share.  Then another and another and then Paul and I each took 10 or 20 to distribute to the growing crowd of children.  To my surprise, it was as if we were handing out food to a starving crowd who hadn’t seen food in ages.  Fights broke out, emotions ran high, as older kids pushed and little kids tried to find a way to get close to us.  I was nearly in tears as I saw the thirst.  As I saw one notebook ripped to shreds I put the rest under my shirt and said no!  I wasn’t going to waste these.  The needs were too great.  We were beyond sincerity.  This meant their ability to learn.  One child then explained to me that 3 kids could share one book.  I appreciated his willingness to share and gave him a book.  Another tried to line up and smile.  Those that were surrounding me reminded me of what I had seen earlier in the evening before all the amazing cultural dancing.  It totally reminds me of chickens fighting.

Ethiopian children dancing

At the beginning of the festival a sort of sacrament or communion moment was happening.  It was loaves and fishes Ethiopian style.  A large platter with a large loaf of bread was split among the elders of the group, then to the guests like myself and other adults.  I shared my ripped off piece with the blind child and his friends, really felt the spirit of what was going on, that is until it never made it’s way to the children, and others were chastised for grabbing at the loaf of bread.  I needed to find a way to distribute the books in a way that wouldn’t result in ripped up pages.  As I walked away to see how Paul was doing I secretly pulled out a book at a time with no one looking and gave it to the children who seemed heart broken.  It really lit them up.  Paul had given out his books and had a similar experience of kids fighting over them.  We were both really shaken by the experience and knew we’d never forget it.  Paul vowed to buy a dictionary, which he did, and ended up giving away wads of local currency to the children we walked with.  Hoping that they could buy some shoes for the boy with no shoes.  We don’t know how it worked out, and if the dictionary purchase was a ploy.  That one to me did seem that way me, but we both hope that it ultimately would be used for good.

Lalibela is in my top places of the world.  It has has special place in my heart.  I was only there for a couple of days, but it did change me.  It also makes me consider the wonders of our modern world and make me wonder what we’re contributing to our future.  How will they judge us based on our megalithic buildings propped up around economics.  These walls will fall much sooner than those in this little town of Lalibela, Ethiopia and they won’t mean as much as these either.

Zombies on Kilimanjaro – My Trek on the Marangu Route

Mt Kilimanjaro Zombie

I left off the story of the Kilimanjaro Ultimate Hike at the end of Day 4 as we were going to bed at 6pm.  You should read that post before you read this one to really understand where we were.  We had just retired to our hut, and you could tell people that had stayed at this hut were mental.  It wasn’t unusual to see carvings all over the room of people who were out of their minds.  Some would talk about how sick they were, others how they were hopeful, but concerned.  These out of place carvings were all over the beds and walls, with stories of people from all over the world.  It really was a very global moment.  The Russians were down the Hall, the Japanese we had left behind at the last camp, and the Netherlanders were on their way down. It was actually the Canadian couple that were Bosnian immigrants really represented the mood of the camp.  The wife was feeling great and couldn’t wait to get started, the husband on the other hand couldn’t keep anything down and was feeling awful.

As I lay in bed, I wasn’t really tired.  Yes, I was exhausted but my head was really hurting.  I have had some really bad headaches in my life.  In fact one such headache made me wonder if I had a tumor or brain hemorrhage.  In my dream that night, I dreamt I died.  This headache was nearly that bad.  I had images of my head exploding on the mountain, but also thought about my son at home that had doubts that I could make it.  If you’ve ever heard that Kilimanjaro was a mental hike… it really is.  You have to dig deep and this was the night where the head game started.

Before I fell asleep I went through my bags and took 3 Aleve and a few high doses of vitamin C.  As well I took one more trip to the toilets.  The toilets at Kibo hut are the worst on the entire hike.  They really don’t want you to spend much time here.  The turkish toilets (non western) were non flushing hole in the ground style latrine.  They stunk and people who had been using them were sick… really sick.

When I got back in my sleeping bag, I was cold.  Really really cold.  I felt like I was freezing and started shivering.  I put on my thick socks and put on my coat which I had taken off.  Even then I was still feeling cold and my neck felt like it had a kink in it.  It was at this point I was starting to get a little worried.  What if I can’t get any sleep and everyone wakes up in a few hours and I haven’t slept at all.  I can’t do this hike with 2 days of no sleep, but I also can’t NOT do it.  I felt like I had to put it all off and get out of the mental games I was playing with myself and after a little prayer I was feeling relaxed again and closed my eyes.  What seemed like less than an hour later, the door was getting knocked on and I was closest to the door.  It was our wake up assistant cook bringing in the hot drinks.  No fresh water at Kibo.  Only that which was hauled up from Horombo hut and boiled.  My head was feeling some better and after eating a little something I started getting ready.  I had heard it was going to get VERY cold.  So I started putting on the layers, from the thermals, pants, to layers of shirts short and long, and then a rain coat which I’d shed in the first half kilometer.  My snow coat was good enough for me, I actually had to open it a little to get a little relief.  My hands were cold despite the gortex snowboarding gloves I was wearing.  They weren’t the best gloves, but I had a second pair on my waist if I needed them.  None of us bought the glove heaters.  There were some for sale at the bottom of the mountain, but none along the way.  I may have been tempted otherwise.

Day 5 the hike to the Summit 

After getting all our gear on, we gathered around for the details.  It was midnight and we were starting day 5 nice and early.  Our guide discussed that we would make it to Gilman’s Point by around 5 or 6am, and watch the sunrise from Uhuru, the highest point on Kilimanjaro.  He explained there would be 3 of them for the 5 of us, which seemed different than what I had overheard another group say where there were 2 porters for every person.  He did go on to explain our water would be frozen by 3am, and that they would be carrying boiling water in thermoses, and would get us water refills as we needed it after that point.  After not hearing any details about whether we were ok or not, I asked him what the warning signs were and what was NOT ok like a headache?  He explained that headaches are normal, even bad ones and that we shouldn’t be worried about a headache that goes away with medication.  What we should worry about are passing out, dizziness, but even vomiting is ok.  “Just vomit and you’ll feel better.” was his advice.

After the great pep talk we all turned on our headlamps and headed out into the dark.  The night sky was incredible.  A foreign sky with unfamiliar constellations minus Orion.  He stuck with us all night.  Very comforting to Mark, as his son is named Orion.  Polo, Polo something we had heard every day up to this point really sunk in.  Slowly Slowly they would say in Swahili.  This was the steepest trail we had experienced up to this point.  The switch backs were long, and the rocks and bouldering we did was long.  I never felt threatened at all.  No jumping from rocks where I felt I might die, but I did feel sore and tired, and cold all night, but to keep that off my mind we sang local Tanzanian hiking success songs we had heard at camp, and we dug deep and sang Reggae songs.  It felt very appropriate to sing our hearts out… “So, Don’t Worry, About a Thing… ‘cause every little things gonna be alright.”  Bob Marley would be proud.  I think the Bob Marley himself was listening to our prayer as only 2 nights later we would be greeted like brothers at a Rastafarian celebration in the fort in Zanzibar, but that’s another story.

As we trudged slowly up the mountain, all of us kept our spirits up while some went a little quiet.  It wasn’t unusual to see someone in another group as we passed, vomiting (so they’ll feel better).  As well, there were some other unsightly smells and things we saw that were unpleasant that made hiking that much more challenging.  Every couple of kilometers we would stop for a few minutes to catch our breath, get some new energy bar, or pure energy.  Up we went, no plants, lots of dust, lots of dirt and rocks, with only our headlamps to light things in our path.  As we’d look ahead we’d see strings of lights like a christmas tree with very visible switchbacks like the strings going back and forth on the tree.  It also seemed like prison gangs trudging along in the night at an even pace.  On this night we were determined to push ahead against all odds.  All of us were going to make it, we were sure of it.  Every so often we’d see someone heading back, with serious failure in their eyes.  They were just so sick and in such pain.  It tore at my soul.

With Gilman in our sights the horizon was starting to change colors.  The sun would soon be coming up.  We pushed ahead and what seemed close was still much further away.  It was important to focus on closer things than the top.  The next big rock was a much better goal.  After going from rock to rock to rock, we finally made it to the top of the mountain, just not yet the highest point.  We had arrived at Gilman’s point. 

We stopped to take pictures and take in the view.  It was incredible.  It felt great.  On the other side we could see the crater, and we could also see Uhuru, the ultimate destination and highest point of the peak.  As I was taking it in, many in the group thought they could make it to Uhuru for the final sunrise shot.  I wasn’t in a hurry and found Paul was of the same attitude.  Why rush it?  We have spent the last 6 hours getting to this point.  Let’s enjoy the view, watch the sunrise and then push on.  Gilman’s point started getting really crowded and after the other guys left, I encouraged Paul to push on a little further for a less crowded view where we could find a comfortable place to relax.  We found a great place on top with a couple of strategic rocks.  It felt great, and the sun definitely was warming things up.  It had been minus 6 on the way up and the wind chill made it feel like minus 20.  The two hats I was wearing up to that point weren’t enough to keep my ears warm, so I was really welcoming the sun.  We could see all the way to Kenya and I imagined the animals roaming around the Serengeti in the distance. (Not suggesting I could see anything, but our friend John was down there or at the crater… somewhere).

After a break, and having some prodding from the assistant to the assistant guide try to convince us to move on, we finally were ready and had what it was going to take to get us to the top, but what we were about to see I wasn’t ready for.

Zombies

As we moved along the top now at over 19,000 feet, I had seen and heard individuals along the way crying and digging deep, but I hadn’t noticed until now that between two porters I would see a person… limp, and often the eyes rolled back and barely a little bit of life.  I had heard of temporary blindness, and dizzyness, but what I was seeing was scary.  There were some people traveling along the trail that didn’t seem human.  They must have committed their guides to take them the rest of the way, or the guide must have felt the hike was that important.  Either way I was seeing people feeling the elevation in pretty serious ways.  Days earlier I had seen a stretcher being run down the mountain at top speed with the person’s face looking reddish purple.  Now I was seeing people that were nearly passed out and barely walking.

I’m so glad none of us got into that state.  It was cool to see our guides and porters taking anything we wanted to give them, from packs to coats, and such. 

Uhuru – The Peak

It was on this leg that I most appreciated everything that our Guide Daudi had done for us.  He had set a pace that really paid off on this day.  We knew that pace and all crept closer and closer.  Paul and I finally caught back up to the group and kept trudging along.  A couple of hours from when we left Gilman’s point we were at Uhuru the top of Africa and the top of the highest free standing peak in the world.  As well, it was all of our highest peaks by thousands of feet and all of us felt incredible.  At the peak at Uhuru at 19,341 ft (5895 m)!

The way down was painful, but I’m not going to be as wordy.

After we arrived at the top, I laid down for a little nap.  30 seconds into it, I got yelled at.  You can’t sleep!  Not at this elevation.  So I sat up.  No, get up!  They didn’t want to see me laying down at all.  I think they were worried I would turn into one of the zombies.

On the way down, the pace wasn’t as important.  No polo, polo was shouted out during the descent.  In fact I think they appreciated that we wanted to get down.  Getting back to Gilman’s point took half the time, and after that point, the world was changed.  It was no longer dark.  It was light.  What we saw were strange sights.

The strangest thing was all these switch backs took on new meaning.  We didn’t have to honor them.  We could simply dirt ski or slosh through the sleuss.  The dirt, rocks could almost be parallel skiied through.  The style was to slide and push ahead with each foot and lift at the end and start again.  It was a lot of fun actually for a while until my right knee really started taking on the stress.  It was getting painful and even trying to do the switch backs didn’t offer relief.  It was a steep trail and my mind was made up to simply get back to Kibo in hopes of getting a nap in. 

After a couple of hours of dusty rocky dust clouds of sluess we made it back to Kibo and were greated with our first and only flavored drink.  Tang! The drink of champions.  It tasted great.  Then we took off our boots and relaxed.  It felt great.  In two hours we were back up and told the beds were no longer ours and that we’d sleep in Horombo.  Yes, it would be the longest day in my life.  Another 7.5 miles after what I just did… 10,000 feet (5000 up and 5000 down) was what I had just done, and how I’d do another 4000?  I didn’t push back too hard.  I knew it was part of the plan.  After the nap, I took two of Mark’s magic 800 MG IBU profen hoping to take away some of the pain in my knee.

Below: Kibo at midday.  We were in the stone hut on the left.

Another 4-5 hours and we were back in Horombo… our home away from home.  That night 3 of us didn’t get up for dinner.  Popcorn, cucumber soup, and spaghetti with vegetables in red sauce sounded awful.  Two showed up for dinner and they made grilled chicken… the only night they had it.

The next morning we walked 20 miles to the bottom of the mountain to complete our trek.  We saw 2 more monkeys… It’s always a great day when you see a monkey…

At the bottom we gathered for one last picture under the A frame that began our trek.  We did it… 51 miles in total to and back to Mandara gate 2743 m

Who was the mystery mountaineering company?  We went with Ultimate Kilimanjaro, run locally by Zara Tours.

Thanks Colligo our SharePoint iPad app sponsor.  Their help it made this possible.

Also, my phone camera gave out on day 3, so this last couple of days photos are thanks to Michael Noel…  be sure to check out his extensive write up on climbing Kilimonjaro on the Marangu Route