Fly & Drive through Greece 2014

Prologue

With this pandemic still hanging around and me being grounded, I decided to revisit some of my past trips virtually. This trip has been quite some time ago. I had posted a couple photos, but not really written about it. Going through the stack of photos brought back some nice memories of a beautiful country with amazing history. We spend 2 weeks in Greece in March of 2014 due to having to use up some tickets on British Airways. The timing was a bit off from when people normally head to Greece, but that turned out to be true blessing. The weather was on the cold side, but most places had one very few tourists. So much so, that there were only a few hotels and restaurants open. I did dig through my old emails to try and find all the places we stayed in to be able to give good pointers in case anyone is tempted to go visit.

The trip started and ended in Athens with a couple days on the island of Crete. We focused mostly on the historic side of Greece and less (or actually not at all) on the beach vacation aspect. The trip was split in three parts. First, explore Athens on foot. Second, fly to Crete and drive around the island. Third, drive a loop through the Peloponnese to visit Greece’s most famous historic locations. The idea was to have a couple days to recover from the jet lag while enjoying the sights before embarking on driving. I wanted to especially avoid driving through the heart of Athens. That was a good decision because the ancient Greeks definitely did not have cars in mind when they laid out the historic center of Athens.

Act I: Athens

We arrived in the evening after an under 2 hrs plane change in London Heathrow. I do recall that they packed us in the last row of a 747 and had to do a mad dash through the airport to make our connection. But that was soon forgotten once we settled in our hotel in downtown. Overall we stayed 3 days (4 nights). I chose the Central Hotel within walking distance of the Acropolis. It was good to be able to walk everywhere and not have to bother with taxis or a car. To that end I highly discourage anyone from renting a car to drive through Athens. The hotel has a beautiful view of the Acropolis which we were soon to visit. But first order of the first day, and I remember this well, I had to go buy a pullover as it was quite chilly and did not bring any warm clothes.

We did visit the National Archeological Museum on our first day. It was interesting but felt a bit neglected and old-fashioned compared to the newer and much shinier Acropolis Museum. It is still worth a visit. On the second day we did spend a lot of time on top of the Acropolis to take in the views and visit the southern side of the Acropolis, including the Acropolis Museum and the Temple of Zeus. The museum is beautiful and does show the history better than the Archeological museum. The temple of Zeus has not much left but is in a nice park which sees more locals than tourists. Day 3 was dedicated to the northern side, including Hadrian’s library and the Ancient Agora. The latter was the main market in ancient Athens. Today it has some remarkable buildings and long winding paths away from the crowds. Make sure to climb up the Aeropagus hill on the south. It does offer great views. There is not much left of Hadrian’s library, but it is nearby. The 3 days in Athens came to an end sooner than expected and we packed back out to the airport to fly to Crete were we would spend the next couple days.

Act II: Crete

The flight to Heraklion was quick and we soon were in possession of a rental car and on our way around the island of Crete. On Crete we noticed even more so than in Athens that we were definitely ahead of the season. At most places we were the only tourists around. Even at the main attractions. Another noticeable difference from Athens was the complete lack of respect for any street signs. Do as the locals do and I found myself quite comfortably navigating the streets.

The first stop was the local aquarium, CRETAquarium. Being a diver I always visit aquariums and this one was rather nice. Besides, it was on the way to Agios Nikolaos on the eastern side of the island. There we stayed at the Mirabella Apartments a bit outside of town. We stayed for two nights as I did not want to miss the opportunity to go giving in Crete, but more on that later. The first day we did drive a bit inland to visit the Dhiktean Caves (orange marker), the birthplace of Zeus. It lies on the Lasíthi Plateau which by themselves make for a nice drive. The caves are not very big, yet quite beautiful. Take a picnic as the view from the visitor center is gorgeous. As I mentioned, I love diving and definitely wanted to look at what the underwater world had to offer. However, this being outside the tourist season, no shop was open for normal business. Stefanos, the owner of Pelagos Dive Center, was so kind as to make an exception. The water was cold at this time of the year, but nothing a couple layer of wetsuits could not fix. I admit that I was hoping for some ruins or so, but instead it was mostly some relics from WWII. Still, a dive is a dive and this was an enjoyable one.

After the dive we continued on south towards the small town of Matala. The town lies at the end of a gorge with a small beach. Given the size of the tourist market I would assume that this place is anything but serene during high season. Luckily for us this was not high season and we were the only tourists in town. The only open hotel (Sunshine Matala) we could find was still having some renovations to prepare for the summer, but they rented us a nice room rather cheaply. Crete had two more historic sites I wanted to see. The Minoan palace of Phaestos (green marker) nearby was the first one. It is less visited and also less reconstructed than the better known palace of Knossos. But that made it more interesting to visit as well.

After the visit we continued our loop around Crete towards the city of Réthymnon on the northern shores. The city has a beautifully preserved city center with Venetian and Turkish architecture and is toped by the old fortress. We stayed near the center in the cozy Sohora Boutique Hotel and spend the rest of the day exploring the city on foot. The following day we closed the loop and ended back in Heraklion. The famous palace of Knossos is just a short drive from the city and was the main attraction for the day. The site has been partially reconstructed which is a bit controversial, but aides in understanding the grandeur of this old Minoan city. Being off-season was once again to our advantage as there were only a handful of other people around. The place is large and full of beautiful frescos and wall-paintings. Heraklion itself is a rather industrial city that we did not spend much time exploring. We stayed the night there as our flight back to Athens was early morning next day.

Act III: Peloponnese

Perhaps the most famous places in Greece outside Athens are Olympia and Delphi which were next on our agenda. For this we booked another rental car at the airport. Fortunately the airport is a bit outside of Athens and thus I did not have to navigate the city itself. But before we headed north, we drove south the see the temple of Poseidon near Sounion (orange marker). The temple sits on top a tall bluff overseeing Poseidon’s kingdom. It is one of the better preserved temples and offer stunning views of the Aegean Seas. We then retreated our steps and, after a somewhat circuitous path thanks to our GPS, crossed the Corinth Canal. The GPS seemed to not yet incorporate all the road improvements made for the Olympics and took us on several occasions through the scenic route. We did not mind too much as scenery was what we were after. As such we came across several small villages, some of which were abandoned and picturesque.

Unfortunately, we did not have time to visit ancient Corinth as we needed to drive a bit further to Náfplio. The city offers a good number of hotels and was close to next day’s attraction. We stayed at the Park Hotel at the entrance to the city center. The hotel was also within eyesight of the Palamídhi Fortress I wanted to see. The fortress sits on top of a steep hill and is expansive. There are two ways to get there, a steep, long set of steps and a road. The steps allow for magnificent views of the old city and so I chose that route much to the misgivings of my significant other. I am still surprised she did not throw me off the cliff once we made it up on top and she saw the signs for the parking lot. The views from the fortress made up for the hard work of walking up the steps. Fortunately for us Náfplio had a good number of restaurants open and so we ended the day with a nice dinner.

The following day was dedicated to visiting the ancient site of Mycenae (Mykínes), seat of the well known king Agamemnon. History has it that Agamemnon lead the Greek expiation against Troy. The entrance to the city is marked by the Lions Gate one has to walk through. The site is not very large, but is well worth a visit. Nearby is the beehive shaped tomb of king Agamemnon. After a couple of hours to take in the sights we were off to the next stop, Olympia.

Olympia was the first of the two most famous stops. On both we decided to stay in a local hotel to get to the site before the day trip busses from Athens get in. It was a good plan that allowed us to have the the sites almost entirely to ourselves for an hour or two in the mornings. The village of Olympia is small and we stayed in the Hotel Pelops on the outskirts of town. After a good breakfast we made it early to the ancient site of the Olympic Games. The Temple of Hera is still the site at which the Olympic Flame is lighted for the games. At this time of the year all the trees were in full blossom which added to the magnificence of the location. We spend quite a bit of time walking the grounds and ended the with a visit of the nearby museum. The site is beautiful.

Early in the afternoon we then continued on to our last stop of the trip to visit Delphi. Once again we stayed at a local hotel (Hotel Leto) to beat the crowds in the morning. Olympia was impressive but did little to prepare us for the setting of Delphi. Delphi is located on a up hillside and offers views of the valley below from every spot. It is also much better preserved (or restored) than any of the other sites we have been to. It is well worth to spend a bit of time to hike up to the stadium and beyond.

At long last it was time to make our way back to Athens to return home. We did one last stop along the way to visit the impressive Byzantine Monastery of Ósios Loukás. It is remarkably well preserved and houses some of the best murals of the time. It is only a short drive from Delphi and should not be forgotten. We made it back to the airport hotel in good time and decided to go back to observe the sunset at the Temple of Poseidon which was said to be beautiful. It most certainly did not disappoint and was a fitting end to this remarkable trip through ancient history.

Epilogue

We spend two weeks in Greece to take in the beauty and history this country has to offer. While I did not dwell on it, we certainly made good of the phenomenal Greek cuisine as well. Of note is the  restaurant Bokos in Agios Nikolaos. Since we were the only guests, they would usually just ask their chef (mother) what was fresh of the sea and serve us that. I am still salivating over the red wine marinated grilled octopus. Two weeks is about the minimum one should take. I think we could have easily filled a third week to visit some other important historic sites. And of course there are all the small islands to relax which we completely passed by on this trip.

Driving through Namibia 2019

The Trip

Namibia map

It is said that once the Africa bug bites one has to keep coming back. That is certainly true for me. Ever since my first trip to Botswana in 2013, I have been returning to Africa every couple years. There is something amazing and mesmerizing about seeing animals in their natural habitat, rather than in a zoo. Just as in the past, this was another camping trip to be closer to nature.

This trip included most of the normal tourist destinations in Namibia like Etosha National Park, Sossusvlei and Swakopmund. But Namibia has a lot more to offer and so we went off the beaten path all the way to the Caprivi strip and only recently opened areas of Etosha. Overall the trip took a bit over three weeks, of which 20 were actually enjoying this beautiful country. The rest was the very long and tiring flight. Getting from southern California to Windhoeck required stops in London and Johannesburg and took a total of about 36 hrs each way. It was well worth it. We drove 4830 km (3019 mi) and came back with over 90 GB worth of photos and videos.

The car

Unlike my previous excursions to Africa, this trip was a self-drive trip in a slightly modified Toyota Hilux from Bushlore. It had two fold out tents on top which were surprisingly roomy, stable and, most importantly, comfortable. The back had a large drawer with all the kitchen tools, pots and pants as well as a fridge/freezer. The latter did indeed freeze quite well as we discovered the painful way after my beer became frozen solid. A few adjustments resulted in a better experience. The car itself is a solid 4×4 performer with a locking rear differential. Both are essential to successfully navigate the more remote areas.

Namibia in general is ideally set up to drive by yourself. It has a very good network of gas stations throughout, most of which accept credit cards. The road system is for the most part well maintained, although that varies with the commercial importance of the region. However, even the worst gravel road is signposted. It is almost impossible to get lost as long as you have a decent map.

Days 1 – 4: Windhoeck to Rundu

The adventure started right away after the long hours en-route to Windhoeck. The car company picked us up from the airport and proceeded to provide an hour long introduction into the various aspects of the Hilux we had rented. I do quite a bit of off-roading in the Mojave desert near where I live so this part was fairly easy. Driving this truck on the left hand side through rush hour Windhoeck on the other hand was less so. Especially considering that I do not have any muscle memory for the manual transmission in my left hand. In the end we made it to our first base, the Trans Kalahri Inn (A), and were able to enjoy and nice cold beer and the first of many unbelievable sunsets in Namibia.

The next day started off with acquiring provisions and Money. The Superspar near the Maerua mall is convenient as the mall next door also offers an easy point to exchange money. Few banks will exchange money in Africa, something I suffered from on other trips. With the car fully loaded up, the trip started in earnest going to the Okonjima Nature Reserve (B) which was to become home for the next two days and nights. The latter should not be overlooked. With almost no light pollution, the night sky is breathtaking.

Okonjima is home of The AfriCat Foundation. This foundation rescues and rehabilitates carnivores throughout Namibia. The Okonjima location houses leopards and cheetahs, some of which we would get to see during our stay. The reserve itself offers a couple nice hikes as well as the opportunity to visit the AfriCat Foundation. All of the hikes are inside a large fenced in area and thus safe from predators. It is a great introduction into the local flora and very much worth it. The reserve also does the obligatory game drives and the more interesting leopard tracking. Personally, I found the tour of the AfriCat Foundation and vet clinic the most rewarding of all options. If offers a great insight into the dangers these large cats face in today’s Namibia. Of course the visit ends with a tour of the resident leopard and cheetahs. Even though they are in a fenced in enclosure, it does appear zoo like.

The first part of the trip concluded with the longest drive of the trip going up to Rundu at the Angolan border. Fortunately, the B1 is tarred and in excellent condition. Unfortunately, the fridge in our truck decided to give up. The prospect of warm beer did not sit very well with me. Being the engineer I am, I started to disassemble the battery wiring of the car. Here is a little bit of background on cars that are upgraded for these types of trips: They have two batteries. One for the engine and a second one for the fridge and auxiliary lights. The two of them were connected through a rather ingenious piece of electronics, the Electronic Battery Isolator. This thing is supposed to connect the two batteries while the motor is running and disconnect them when still to prevent the main battery from being discharged by the fridge. In between is a large 100 A fuse that protects this gizmo. It was broken and thus the second battery did not charge. That fuse is not easy to get to and has no window to show its status like normal car fuses have. Long story short, I removed all the wires, checked them with a 12 V light I had and was able to patch it. In the end all was good. The fridge worked again, the car still worked, I had no parts left over and none missing, and most importantly, had cold beer again.

Rundu, at long last, is a rather drab city. It is the main gateway to the Caprivi strip that runs between Botswana and Angola.  As such there is a lot of truck and passenger activity going to all the neighboring countries. It is the last opportunity to load up on groceries before heading east. While Rundu has a few decent lodges and places to stay overnight, it is hardly a destination in itself. I chose the Camp Hogo Kavango (C), located right on the Kavango river, to rest for the night. The bar is located right on the river with some of the most beautiful sunsets anywhere.

Days 5 – 9: The Caprivi Strip

The Caprivi strip, as Wikipedia informs named after German Chancellor Leo von Caprivi, is a long thin land strip running between Botswana and Angola, almost reaching Zimbabwe. I have been to the Botswana side many years ago and was amazed by the animals drawn to the water here. The rivers flow year round and the landscape is unusually green and lush compared to the rest of Namibia. Especially this year since the last rainy season essentially did not happen. However, even here the lack of rain has left its mark with many normally full channels being completely dry. It was a theme we would see many more times this trip.

The trip along the strip was divided into two locations, the Popa Falls and Bwabwata National Park on the western end and Nkasa Rupara National Park on the eastern end. Popa Falls are the shallow waterfalls the Kavango river goes over before flowing into Botswana to become the famous Okavango delta. There are two accessible areas of the Bwabwata National Park that lines the Kavango river. On the western bank lies the Mahango Core Area and the eastern bank houses the Buffalo Core Area. The rest of the park is not accessible other than driving along the B8 autoroute that runs the entire length of the Caprivi Strip.

The morning of day 5 was spend shopping in Rundu to load up on supplies for the coming days. So we arrived late at the Popa Falls Resort (D) run by Namibia Wildlife Resorts, the state owned company managing accommodations in the national parks. The resort is located right by the falls and has a nice deck from which to enjoy the sunset overlooking the falls. While it is certainly very relaxing to enjoy a cold beer there, the falls are really more of a set of slow rapids. Anyone expecting something along the scale of the Victoria Falls will be very disappointed.

The wildlife on the other hand is everything but disappointing. Both the Mahango and Buffalo core ares are easily accessible by car and very much worth it. A 4×4 does help as there are a couple sandy stretches. Otherwise, the resort, like all others, offers a 3 hrs game viewing drive. 3 Hrs on each side is plenty to see everything there is to see as the road only runs a couple kilometers to the Botswana border. The Caprivi strip is about the only area in Namibia were one can see hippos. There is just not enough water elsewhere in the country. Besides the hippos, all the park has an abundance of all the other animals one expects to see in Africa, Elephants, Giraffes, Zebras and of course as the name would suggest, Buffalos. For those interested in history, there are old military installations from times past.

When planning this trip, I was somewhat exited at the possibility of driving the B8 through the park and seeing all the animals. This road did not deliver on that hope, though. It did however offer a good insight in how the locals live in this part of the country. For that it was interesting to drive along here. And since I am at the topic of the local population, there is stark difference between this part of Namibia and the usual tourist paths between Swakopmund and Etosha. There are comparably few tourists in this area and as such the people do not pay a lot of attention to the random white guy showing up. Whereas elsewhere I was immediately swarmed by people trying to sell stuff and asking for money.

For anyone looking to have a national park to oneself, Nkasa Rupara is a dream come true. This park is essentially a flood plane of the Linyanti and Kwando rivers that border it. It is criss-crossed by channels and mud and sand planes. Quite a few of the roads running through the park require some more advanced 4×4 skills to use. And that is if the road can even be found. On many occasions we had to double back because a road simply did not exist anymore as a new channel had formed where the road used to be. However, that also led us to discover a lot more of the park than we would have otherwise seen. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. There are 3 camps in the park, two tented lodges and one small campground, the Nkasa Rupara Restcamp (E), in which we stayed. It is fairly small with only 7 spots and rudimentary facilities. It also came with one crazy Hornbill that clearly had lost a couple marbles along the way.

Nkasa Rupara NP

After two days in this beautiful part, it was time to move on by retreating all the way back to Rundu with another stop at the Popa Falls Resort. The goal was the famous Etosha National Park some 900 km (560 mi) away. However, before we got there I had to learn the hard way why all the cars come with two spare tires. On our way out of the park I drove over a dead acacia twig. Anyone who has seen these things before will know what came next. A 5 cm (2 in) long thorn bored into the front tire. Fortunately there are no lions in this park as I had to spend some quality time in the dirt to change and fix the tire.

Days 10 – 15: Etosha National Park

When most people think of a safari in Namibia, it will invariably be Etosha National Park. The Park is centered around the large Etosha salt pan which in the past used to be the only accessible part of the Park. Pretty much everything in this National Park is enormous. The park itself, the size of the animal herds and the size of the human herds which are being brought in literally by the busloads. It was a stark difference from Nkasa Rupara with its almost lush greens and utmost lack of humans. Etosha is dry, very dry. Especially due to the lack of rains in the past years. While there are a couple natural waterholes, most are artificial with a bore and solar pump. They were made not only for the sake of the humans visiting, but also to draw large animals away from the surrounding farmlands.

Etosha has three main lodging locations. From east to west these are Namutoni with its fort, Halali at the center and Okaukuejo at the west. Until a couple years ago the western half of the park with its mountainous terrain was closed to tourists. It is now open and has one more campground, Olifantsrus. The line separating the main, eastern part of the park from the newly opened western part also separates the park into mass tourism in the east from the calm in the west. Unlike the camp in Nkasa Rupara, all the campsites are surrounded by an electric fence with the main gates closing at sunset and reopening at sunrise. This is to protect the humans from predators, but adds a distinct zoo-like feel to it. All camps also have an illuminated waterhole with stadium seating to safely see the animals at night.

We drove the entire length, or rather width, of the park staying at all four campsites. We spend one night each at Namutoni (F), Halali (G) and Okaukuejo (H), and two nights at Olifantsrus (I) using the day to drive every available road from one camp to another. There are not a lot of roads available and off-roading is strictly prohibited. That results in a constant, insane traffic on all roads which distracts quite a bit from the overall experience. Another quirk of the mass-tourism at Etosha manifests itself every morning at about 6 am. All guides state that the best times to see animals is early morning and late afternoon when the temperatures are more agreeable. And so, every morning, dozens of diesel powered buses and trucks take off in search of whatever walks and crawls. Not only is it impossible to sleep in a bit, but the whole camp sounds and feels worse than a highway during rush-hour.

The first day we drove around Namutoni in search of lions of which there are supposed to be around 200 in the park. The search for lions became a constant and futile endeavor for a while. What we lacked in lions we saw in all other animals. In that regard Etosha does not disappoint. My personal favorite was a little elephant having fun and blowing bubbles in a waterhole. Overall, the region around Namutoni is marked mostly by the salt pan with a rather featureless landscape. Namutoni camp itself is rather large and features the old fort prominently. The campsite is also home to a large group of Banded mongoose which are a lot fun as long as they do not steal ones breakfast.

Halali camp is a bit further remote from the pan in a forested region of the park. Although with the lack of rains, the forrest is suffering and not a lot trees have any leafs left. There are supposed to be a couple rhinos in this area, but we did not encounter any. With this area also being far from any water sources we did not see many animals in general until we got closer to Okaukuejo. Okaukuejo at the western end of the salt pan is the largest of the camps and the main entrance for most visitors. It had the largest waterhole of the three camps and offered a beautiful sunset with various animals.

The next day we departed for the newly opened western half of the park. As soon as we left behind the main road out of the park Etosha returned to wild and empty. The single road from Okaukuejo to Olifantsrus is a steady slow climb away from the salt pan to the more mountainous region of the park. And here we were finally lucky and saw our first lions. It was already noon by the time we encountered them and thus they were more interested in what little shade there was to be found to what cats to best: sleep.

The next 80 km (50 mi) of road were almost desert with only the occasional little remnant trees. I fear that if Namibia does not get significant rains in the coming years, most of the park will become like this. Global warming is having catastrophic effects and this region bears the brunt of it. These days the only water in the vast region of Etosha is found at the artificial waterholes. They all consist of a solar powered pump feeding a swallow concrete pool. The overflow then feeds a natural dirt pool below. While animals keep their distance from one another in the natural pools further east, they all cluster in huge impressive herds around here.

Olifantsrus camp is the newest and smallest of the camps and features only 10 sites for single cars. Like the other sites, it has an artificial waterhole with viewing platform. However, here they build a small house next to the waterhole outside the fence and connected it to camp by an elevated walkway. This allows for much closer view of the animals which is very impressive. Especially when herds of elephants come by to drink and get a mud-bath.

We stayed at this camp for two nights to be able to drive the last of the roads further west of the camp. Here the park transforms into a mountainous terrain with tall acacia trees. It is quite different from the lower elevations and we got the see the first of the red sand which is so prominently featured further south. After another gorgeous sunset and star studded night, it was time leave the park and make our way to the Skeleton coast. But before we finally left, we were rewarded by another group of lions with the most impressive male so far.

Days 16 – 17: Skeleton Coast

There are two ways to get from the Dalton Gate at the west end of Etosha to Swakopmund. The first first goes by Palmwag and includes almost the whole drivable length of the Skeleton Coast. The second runs through the interior to the old mining town of Uis and then turns toward the ocean. We first planed to take the former, but then in the last minute decided to drive by Twyfelfontein to see a bit more variety. I was hoping to have enough time to maybe see the petroglyphs at Twyfelfontein.

That was not to happen. Turns out that our map had the road marked as asphalt, but in reality it was all gravel and sand. Worse yet, most of it was in terribly washboarded condition. Travel was slow and painful, both mentally and physically. The landscape was beautiful, though. First passing through the Grootberg pass and then through the desert valley dotted with oasis in which Twyfelfontein is located. If we had one more day, stopping in Twyfelfontein would have made all the difference. But hindsight is 20/20 and we had to be in Swakopmund the next day. I also wanted to drive at least a little bit of the Skeleton Coast to view the seal colony there.

Uis is a small town next to a now defunct tin mine. Closing the mine dealt a devastating blow to the community. Today the town is little more than a refueling stop between Swakopmund and Etosha and the north. The old leisure facility with a huge pool has been converted into the Brandberg Rest Camp (J) in which we stayed. The hot shower and ice cold draft beer helped undo the damage from the road. A ginormous burger from the restaurant helped a well for sure. Unfortunately, the washboard also did a number on one of our tents as one of the main brackets broke.

The next morning we drove to the coast and were amazed at the difference 100 km (60 mi) makes to the temperatures. It was freezing cold wind coming in from the ocean while we had endured 40 ºC (104 ºF) just before. The roads at least did change for the better with the old gravel washboard giving way to a nice salt road. They use salt brine to bind the dirt and it makes a rock hard surface almost like concrete. We made good use of that road looking for two things the Skeleton Coast is famous for: Ship wrecks and seals.

Turns out there are not a lot of wrecks still visible, safe for a recent Angolan fish trawler that is now a bird heaven. The seals on the other hand were abundant at the Cape Cross seal reserve. There were thousands of them all over the place. Many had pubs and were still nursing. The sounds and smells were overwhelming, but seeing them up close is amazing. The seals are so accustomed to humans that many will let you touch them. I can now understand why people used to like fur coats. They are very soft and cuddly.

As the day was drawing to a close we arrived in our first hotel in over 2 weeks. After eating pasta for most of the trip, the prospect of a real meal, a real bed and a real shower was awesome. We decided to stay right in the middle of the old city at the Secret Garden Guesthouse (K), which I can highly recommend. Swakopmund is nice, but an odd city overall. It is a German city transplanted into the desert and just does not really seem to fit in. It is also a huge tourist hub with buses upon buses of tourists descending on every available restaurant. Strolling around town and watching the sunset over the pier was a nice break from the arid climate elsewhere.

Days 18 – 20: Sossusvlei

After a bountiful breakfast we returned inland on our way to the last stop of this trip. The red dunes and dead trees of Sossusvlei are maybe the most famous and visited destination in Namibia. I have seen pictures of Dead Vlei and had wanted to visit for a long time. All I can say in short is that this place is mesmerizing. We stayed at the NWR campground at Sesriem (L) at the end of the regular road and entrance to the park. The camp itself is nice and conveniently located, but that is also its biggest drawback. Just like in Etosha all the guides state that sunrise is the time to be in the park and so, at 5 am, the diesel caravan takes off with all the noise and commotion that comes along with it. We did not experience a sunrise, but I can confidently say that sunset is marvelous and you have the park to yourself.

Sossusvlei itself is another 60 km down the only road after which the nice asphalt turns into deep, soft sand. There are two options. Park your car the end of the road and have the park shuttle take you in to see the main attraction or put the car into 4×4 and master the sand yourself. The latter is not very difficult, but definitely requires true 4-wheel drive and high clearance. This part absolutely not doable in a normal car.

Sossusvlei has four major stops along the way. First one is the aptly named “Dune 45”, located 45 km (28 mi) along the road. This is one big dune and everyone crawls up along the spine. The second stop, Hidden Vlei, is at the end of the asphalt road by the parking lot. It is called that because in order to see it one has to hike 2.5 km (1.6 mi) over soft dunes to get there. Take enough water and start at the wooden sign. The path is not well marked, though. Once you cross the little forest, look slightly to the left and there will be rods in the ground. Follow them and you will be rewarded with an empty desert and have Hidden Vlei all to yourself. It is worth it! The next stop is about 4 km (2.5 mi) along that soft sand road. Sossusvlei, all the way at the end, has a couple nice shaded picnic benches. Otherwise, sadly, I did not quite see the appeal of the namesake of this park.

For me Dead Vlei, shortly before Sossusvlei, is the true marvel of the whole park. The photos with the dead trees in front of red dunes are all from Dead Vlei. It is just a short, easy hike of about 1.1 km (0.7 mi) away. For a desert-lover like me, this place is breathtakingly beautiful, almost spiritual. Make sure to get there about 1.5 – 2 hrs before sunset and you will be rewarded with shaded red dunes and the long shadows that amplify the otherworldly experience. And as all the tour buses have left to drop their human load off at Dune 45, you will again have this all to yourself. Although in my case I had a small hawk or falcon to accompany me. If you really feel adventurous, you can climb up Big Daddy, a huge dune at the far end of the vlei. I did not, but I am sure the views must be gorgeous.

Remarkably, even in this most arid of all regions, there is an abundance of animals. We have seen lots of Oryx and antelopes all over and even the occasional jackal. After a couple hours of taking it all in, it was time to return to camp.

Next morning we went to the Sesriem canyon after which the area and camp are named. It is nice little slot canyon with a water hole at the end. One hour is about all it takes to see it. Just avoid the early afternoon as that is when all the buses arrive.

Finally, the last day had come around and we made our way back to Windhoeck. We had to return the car and exchange the hiking clothes of the past 3 weeks for a more civilized attire. That last day was bittersweet. A cold beer, nice steak and comfortable bed awaited at the end of the long road back. However, it also meant that I had to trade the beauty of Namibia in for the sights and comfort of 36 hrs in airports and airplanes.

Final Words

We spend 20 days in this beautiful country full of amazing signs and experiences. The people are genuinely friendly, helpful and proud to show off their country. Namibia is very safe. Even the folks trying to sell trinkets or asking for money were not very pushy. Other countries are far worse in that regard. At no time did I ever feel threatened or uncomfortable.

Self driving is very easy and allowed us to do things at our own pace. The fully equipped rental car is not cheap and a no-frills bus tour might come in lower. But then you do not have the peace we had. Namibia is also quite popular. We tried to do this trip a year before but did not allow enough time to book everything. In the end we booked all the major stops in December for a September trip.

If you are ever thinking about visiting Africa, Namibia is an easy introduction. Go ahead, but be warned. If the Africa bug bites, you might just have to come back for more.

P.S. Since I talked a lot about a cold beer, I recommend the Windhoek Draught beer.

Diving along the Great Barrier Reef

Diving along the Great Barrier Reef has been on my list for a long time. After having been there I can wholeheartedly say that it is absolutely worth it. We did a weeklong life-aboard on the outer reef and it passed way too fast. We did this trip in four stages. First a couple days in Sydney to acclimate and get over the jet lag. We then flew to Cairns where our boat departed. The main act was diving long the Great Barrier Reef. Finally we spend a couple days in Melbourne looking for Australia’s other famous critters. There are a couple pictures and impressions of the non-diving part in the Australia 2019 post.

We chose to spend our week on the Great Barrier Reef aboard the Spoilport, a custom dive live aboard run by Mike Ball Dive Adventures. It was perfect in every way with a phenomenal crew. The original itinerary was to spend 4 days diving the Coral Sea near Osprey reef and then 3 days on the actual GBR. Unfortunately, the weather was not with us and we could not make the crossing. It was just too windy. On the upside, we got to dive a couple more days on the GBR.

As an added bonus we had several encounters with Dwarf minke whales. It was already past their prime season at this location, but a couple did decide to hang back. These encounters are snorkeling only, which is nice as there is no limitation on how long you get spend with the whales. It is entirely up to them to decide. There are no pictures as my little camera that I normally take on snorkeling gave up on me. Still, seeing these beautiful animals is amazing.

The rest of the actual diving is also nothing short of amazing. We encountered a huge variety of animals of all colors and sizes, big reefs full of healthy corals and calm waters. Over the course of the week I got a total of 22 dives and 19.5 hrs below the waves with a couple stories to tell.

First off was the encounter with a large Olive Sea Snake. These are amongst the most lethal snakes anywhere, but do not attack humans. This one snake, however, took a liking to my dive buddy and decided to go after her. Not to harm, but simply out of curiosity. It was quite impressive to see this huge snake move about and checking out a diver. Needles to say, my dive buddy was far less interested in the snake.

Another dive was marked by a group of huge, (American) football sized, cuttlefish. I have seen plenty of them before, but they are usually rather skittish and maybe fist size. This one did not care at all that I was there and proceeded to poke around the holes of a coral mount to find a good spot to deposit her eggs.

Lastly, it is interesting to compare the GBR with Fiji and Indonesia, the two regions in the coral triangle I have been to. Indonesia has more colors on the corals of the Bunaken National Park, but mostly smaller critters. Fiji has more soft corals. The GBR appears a bit subdued at first, but has much more and much bigger marine life. The reefs have suffered from global warming and patches of coral bleaching can be seen occasionally even on the outer reefs. It is still a beautiful sight to be seen, though. There is an enormous diversity of life out there.

Australia 2019

Diving along the Great Barrier Reef has been on my list for a long time. After having been there I can wholeheartedly say that it is absolutely worth it. We did a weeklong life-aboard on the outer reef and it passed way too fast. We did this trip in four stages. First a couple days in Sydney to acclimate and get over the jet lag. We then flew to Cairns where our boat departed. The main act was diving long the Great Barrier Reef. Finally we spend a couple days in Melbourne looking for Australia’s other famous critters.

Stage 1: Sydney

After a long flight we got to Sydney in winter. It was a lot colder than expected to start with. Once we had properly bundled up, we got explore the center of this beautiful city. It is very user friendly on foot. The rapid transit and ferry system make getting around a breeze. We did not have that much time and thus stuck to the main attractions. Day one was spend walking through the nice botanic gardens and visiting the famous Opera House and Zoo. While strolling around the gardens we made our first encounter with the native Cockatoos. They would become a common sight all over the place. The weather was not with on the second day and so we decided to get a sneak peek at our diving section by going to the Sydney Aquarium.

Stage 2: Cairns

Our only reason to visit Cairns was to get on our ship. The way flights and schedules worked out, we ended up with essentially two days to look around there. It is definitely a different vibe from bustling Sydney, but it did not disappoint. The aquarium is small, but very much worth a visit. It only displays the fresh and salt water species found around Cairns and does a great job in explaining all. One series of displays in particular got my attention. In these they sorted the fish by color and explained why that color gives them an advantage in their individual habitats (depths). The botanic gardens offer a nice impression of the surrounding tropical forrest. Lastly, at nightfall look for the flying foxes. They are huge bats of almost crow size. During the day they settle in a large tree near the library.

Stage 3: The Great Barrier Reef

The main part of this trip was diving the Great Barrier Reef on a live aboard. There is separate post ‘Diving along the Great Barrier Reef‘ with all the pictures about this part.

Stage 4: Melbourne and the Great Ocean Road

After a week on the boat, it took us a couple days to get our land legs back. It also took us a bit to get acclimated with southern Australia in the winter. It was cold, rainy and we got hailed on. As the name suggests the Great Ocean Road run along the coast near Melbourne. Given the number of rental homes and hotels it is clearly a major tourist attraction. Deservedly so, I must say. It offers beautiful views of the coast, wineries, and lots of hikes to see the local flora and fauna up close.

We were particularly interested in finding some of that local fauna, Koala Bears especially. I do not qualify as an expert in all things Koala, but I can say with certainty that they are indeed very cute, abundant and put any sloth I have seen to shame. They are the most stationary terrestrial animal I have encountered. The vast majority of them was curled up in a little fluff ball. That did not distract from them still being cute and fun to find and watch. Of course we found more Cockatoos and a plethora of parrots.

The trip did end with a day in Melbourne itself. It is a nice city and worth spending more time in than we did. But if you only have a short amount of time, I suggest doing one of those free walking tours. You get to see a lot of the city and learn a couple quirky facts along the way.

Traveling The Last Frontier – Alaska

 

Prologue

Alaska routeAlaska seems to be one of those almost mystical places in the United States. It has been featured in countless documentaries and everyone has seen at least a dozen photos of Kodiak bears catching salmon. Many people have taken a cruise to Alaska or have that on their list. I wanted to explore it myself on a more personal level, camping. At least that was the plan until I was soaking wet from the heaviest rain-falls in 10 years (or so the locals told me to make me feel better). Regardless of the weather, I still got to experience beautiful landscapes, an abundance of animals and an interesting mix of locals.

Chapter  One – Denali

The trip started out with a late arrival in Anchorage and foraging through various stores on the next morning. Anchorage is a great jumping off point. It is fairly small compared to my home near Los Angeles, yet is fully stocked with every store one could need from REI to Costco. After successfully filling the trunk of the car with enough food (and wine!) for 10 days, I set out inland. First stop was Denali State Park. It is a great stop on the way to the national park of the same name. The recently opened K’esugi Ken Campground is a the south end of the park and a comfortable half day drive from Anchorage. If the weather gods are with you, you can even view Denali itself. Be sure to attend the ranger talk in the evening to get a briefing on how to deal with bears. There are a couple nice hikes that start out at the campground with lots of informational posts to introduce visitors to the environment.

The next day had me going to Denali National Park where I was to stay for 3 nights. Unlike the state park, the national park to its north is very much a tourist attraction. As such it is not possible to drive through the only road into the park. Savage River campground is about as far as it goes. Beyond that it is by tour bus only. There are a couple choices, but I found that the green transit bus is a great compromise between cost and sight-seeing. As an added bonus it seemed a bit less crowded than the tan narrated busses into which the cruise line passengers get hoarded. I went all the way to wonder lake, which is a full 11 – 12h adventure. Even though it is a transit bus, it does stop for animal sightings. That gives everyone a chance to snap as many photos as the heart (and memory card) desires. On our tour we had 17 grizzly bears, mostly moms with cubs, countless caribou and several moose. After that it is easy to forget the gorgeous landscapes that surround it all.

The second day was taken up by some hiking to explore the landscape on a slower pace than the day before. There are several nice hikes from the savage river campground or you can take the free shuttle bus to the entrance and do some of the hikes there. One other highlight of the park is the fact that they still employ a cadre of working sled dogs. Every day the team that cares for them has a presentation to give some insight into the history and use of sled dogs. Definitely not to be missed. It is quite fascinating to see the enthusiasm of the dogs when they see the sled. They really want to run.

 

Chapter Two – Fairbanks to Wrangell/St. Elias

Unfortunately, at the end of the second day the clouds opened up and released a torrential downpour that would last for the remainder of the trip. As such camping was pretty much out of the picture. After Denali the next stop was Fairbanks to resupply, shower and change our rental car. The latter was not planned, but necessary as the Ford Explorer I received had a bad battery and left me stranded twice. Fortunately, the camp site host was prepared with a portable starter. As such, if you plan to do car camping, refuse a car that has more automated gadgets than you have fingers.

Fairbanks itself is a fairly compact city with only a limited number of attractions. The Museum of the North stands out. Downtown Fairbanks is home to a quite a few restaurants which was very much welcome after a couple days of freeze dried food. Freshly fed and showered, the trip went on along the Richardson highway towards Wrangell/St. Elias National Park. The trans-alaskan pipeline runs mostly parallel to the highway and is visible throughout the trip. I was hoping to camp at Tangle Lakes along the Denali Highway. It is a very beautiful route to there from Paxson. But the rains and lack of shelter at the high altitude of Tangle Lakes (above the tree line), made that rather uncomfortable. After a short stop at the lakes, I continued on to Gakona for the night.

The next day did not bring much relief from the weather as I progressed to the next major stop of the trip, McCarthy, inside the national part. The road to McCarthy used to be a railway and is fairly flat. It provides gorgeous views of the Copper and then mostly Chitina Rivers. Along the way you cross over the Kuskulana Bridge, a converted railroad bridge high above the river of the same name. Once more the heavy rains of the days before had its impact and transformed the 60 miles of gravel road into 60 miles of potholes within potholes. Take this road slowly as I have come across 4 people with damaged tires on the day alone.

 

Chapter Three – McCarthy and Kennecott

The main attraction to come along all this way is to visit the abandoned Kennecott mill and copper mines and the Kennicott glacier. It is really spelled with an ‘i’, but a clerk made a mistake and misspelled the mine with an ‘e’ and henceforth the two have different spelling. I wanted to do a day’s worth of hiking on the glacier, but the trail to the glaciers had disappeared the night before thanks to the rain. No hiking for me.

However, the mill was still there. It was the other reason to get here and it did not disappoint. It was the most profitable copper mine in the States before it was abandoned. History has it that the owner of the mine did not want the workers to slack off and did not tell them that the mine was closing. That is until the last train pulled in and everyone was given a couple hours notice to leave on that train or be on their own. Up until recently the mill was a free for all when the national park service took it over and is now working on preserving what is left. It is amazing to see what they built in the middle of nowhere to access the copper in the mines above the mill.

McCarthy is the little settlement about 5 miles from the mill and used to be the place where the workers lost their hard earned money. Today it is home to an eclectic mix of folks, a hotel and a couple eateries.

 

Chapter Four – Valdez to Seward

After two days in McCarthy I had almost forgotten how bad the next 60 miles of road would be, but it is the only way in or out of McCarthy. At least the weather had cleared out a bit and made for nicer landscapes. Clearing the rough road, I continued on to Valdez along the remaining section of the Richardson Highway. This being Alaska, there is a lot to see along the way. I came across several eagles, a river otter and lots and lots of jaw-dropping landscapes.

Originally I wanted to take the ferry from Valdez to Whittier. I did not anticipate the heavy demand for that ferry and the fact that it needs to be booked 2-3 months in advance during the summer. Instead I drove the 420 miles to Seward. Turns out that the Glenn highway that connects those cities is very much a destination in its own right with beautiful meadows and deep valleys.

Even with all the beauty, the highlight was the Matanuska Glacier. The end of it is accessible from the highway. You can take a guided tour or, after signing a two-page liability waiver, wander off on your own. The advantage of the guided tour is that they give you the proper equipment to walk on mountains of ice. Of course, I did not do that and slid and scampered along the icy surface. It is an experience not to be missed for sure.