Thursday, January 18, 2018

East Africa: Trip in Review

As i sit here watching the snow come down in Vermont, I can't help but think back on our amazing trip to East Africa. There were so many highlights, so before the new year really gets rolling I thought I would write them down so we can always look back and remember.

Nairobi: Everyone makes their flights and finds me waiting for them right outside the arrivals gate of Jomo Kenyatta Airport. We kick back our first night in a quiet part of Nairobi at the historic Norfolk hotel, with everyone reuniting at breakfast the next morning in the Lord Delamere Terrace. Then we jump on our first of many small safari plane rides. We are able to see the slums, Nairobi National Park, the Abedares, and Mt. Kenya before landing at Samburu.

Samburu National Reserve: We find the Samburu 5 almost before our first game drive. We visited Gabriel's village to dance with the Samburu warriors. We worked hard to see a leopard, and a lion, although the ostrich may have been an even bigger hit. Larsens Tent Camp was a big hit as we saw elephants crossing the river that our tents looked out on. It was a great place to have Christmas as Santa Clause made an appearance and the local choir gave a moving performance. The group was introduced to Africa's amazing birds and survived a charging elephant that gave one of our cars a very close call. 

Masai Mara: So many highlights from this one. Flying in we lost count of all the animals filling up the fields. A beautiful welcome table with drinks and snacks was waiting for us as well as our all-star guides Jackson and Massek. We almost saw a river crossing as several zebras came close. The crocodiles were closing in. We found our final Big 5 with a black rhino encounter. Then we watched as three lions narrowly missed a warthog. We got closer to the small stuff on a walking safari. Our nighttime sundowners on the airstrip with nearby hunting lions and grazing hippos really got everyones attentions. We traveled to the border to have lunch with two cheetah brothers who work the gorgeous open lands between the Mara and the Serengeti. On the way we were very lucky to see a lion hunt from start to finish with only our group, no one else around. Another drink break was high stakes as we had to jump back into the vehicles with elephants trumpeting in the nearby bush. The group had another leopard at night right before being blown away by our first bush dinner complete with chanting Maasai and hyenas walking through the area. Even with all the amazing wildlife it was hard to leave our amazing accommodations at the exclusive andBeyond Bateleur Camp.

Serengeti: This was big cat central. Right off the bat we saw two male lions followed by two females. It seemed if we couldn't see lions we could hear them, including all night long from our tents at andBeyond's Under Canvas Mobile Tent Camp. We found hunting cheetah, cheetah with a fresh wildebeest kill, and even a cheetah carcass hanging from a tree compliments of a local leopard. Lion skirmishes broke out across the Ndutu region due to a neighboring pride invading this area. Sherry was given a new name by the Maasai here which translates to 'Lion Queen.' We chased after the Great Migration, taught our guide Justice the dance, and had a wonderful encounter with a rare Serval cat. We roughed it with bucket showers in a tent fit for royalty.

Ngorongoro Crater: Driving from the adjacent Serengeti took us past the enigmatic shifting sands and into the cradle of mankind, the Olduvai Gorge. Made it to one of the best lodges in the world, Ngorogoro Crater Lodge for a once in a lifetime New Years Eve. A little hail and rain early on wouldn't dampen the festivities later which included 100 chanting Maasai warriors leading us on a winding dance through camp. Sunrise over the crater and an all day game drive into the famous Ngorongoro Crater followed. We counted 32 lions, hyena, flying flamingos, another rhino, and a serval. Everyone loved the close encounters with zebra, wildebeest, and buffalo. Although the encounter with the black kite was a little too close for comfort. We spent time enjoying the lodge with make-yourself-gin and tonics, fireplaces in the rooms, fudge samples, and drawn baths. And we'll always remember our private happy hour overlooking the crater.

Mnemba Island, Zanzibar: Kicking back tropical island style after safariing in the bush at andBeyond's private Mnemba Island. Scuba diving, snorkeling, stand up paddleboarding, sundowners sailing on traditional dhows, and fly fishing kept us busy. Breakfast and coffee delivered to our open air bungalows was a good way to start our days and amazing dinners with great conversation provided a solid end. Not wearing shoes for four days is how every adventure vacation should end.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Stone Town, Zanzibar: Historical Walking Tour

Walking the markets of Zanzibar

Welcome to the Spice Island
  While walking through the open air bazaars and ancient Persian architecture of Zanzibar's Stone Town we couldn't feel farther away from the dancing Maasai and hunting lions of East Africa. It is like walking through a different continent.
Monument to the slaves
 Known as possibly the most famous of the Spice Islands, Zanzibar's main hub is Stone Town. For years it was the haunt of the ruling Omani class. In 1840 the Sultan of Oman moved his seat from Muscat, Oman to Stone Town. This is when much of the stone work was begun.

 In the late 1800's it was also the site of one of the most prolific slave markets in the Indian Ocean. A lot of Americans think that the slave trade was limited to the Atlantic Ocean, so the group was surprised to hear about a second major trade from the East coast of Africa sending slaves up to the Middle East. However, once the British outlawed slavery the fortunes of the Sultanate collapsed.
Maneuvering narrow alleys
Vertical panorama

  Zanzibar gained its Independence from Oman in 1963, and then joined Tanganyika to form Tanzania in 1964. Zanzibar would remain a semi-autonomous part of the new nation. We did have to go through a semi-customs on the way in.

  One of my favorite parts of Stone Town is walking through the narrow alleyways and admiring the beautiful wooden doors that mark the entryways to some of the town more prestigious abodes. The doors are decorated with iron spikes, modeled after the doors in India secured against charging elephants.
Local Zanzibar art style
No elephant getting in here
  We walked by beautiful art galleries and even Freddy Mercury's childhood home before jumping into our waiting motorcade which whisked us off to the Zanzibar airport. Our trip had come to an end, but we really packed fun things into every possible moment. Now it's time to sit back on the plane and reflect all that we have experienced. It has been a wild and wonderful ride.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Scuba Diving Mnemba Island, Day 2: Zanzibar

Heading to the boat
After our first day of diving in the warm, beautiful waters around Mnemba Island the group woke up ready for more today. We decided to head out as a united front today, scuba diving in one large group so everyone could share in the experience.

Emperor Anglefish
Fire dartfish (Nemateleotris magnifica)
  I wasn't able to bring my big camera setup this trip due to the weight limitations of all the small safari planes, but I did bring Heidi's compact camera, a Canon PowerShot S110 in an underwater housing to record some of the underwater action out here off the coast. All of these pictures were taken with that, and you can see the underwater video capabilities in the previous post.

Clear blue waters of the Indian Ocean
Fi in her element
  We saw many of the same fish and nudibranchs from yesterdays dives, although the schools were even bigger and denser today. A couple of beautiful angelfish showed up as well as a sleeping green sea turtle who we found hiding out inside a big coral bommie about 60ft down.

Schools of fish for days
Beautiful anthias

Oriental Sweetlips
Indian Ocean Green Sea Turtle

Skunk Anemonefish
Flying Gurnard

Curious Blenny looking out
Lionfish in its natural habitat

Fiona, aka the 'dirt dart'
Relaxing on the safety stop

A well camouflaged Crocodile Fish

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Underwater Video, Mnemba Island, Zanzibar

  Often when I tell people about the beautiful tropical coral reef off the coast of Kenya and Tanzania to people back in the States I get a lot of blank stares. I feel like it is one of East Africa's great secrets. People know about the incredible savannas filled with antelope, and big adventures like climbing Kilimanjaro, but scuba diving off the coast around the ancient Spice Islands can be right up there.

  Here is a quick five minute video I put together to give you a feel of that beautiful underwater world that won't remain a secret forever.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Scuba Diving Mnemba Island Day 1, Zanzibar

  After a wonderful night listening to the sound of waves outside our open air bandas everyone awoke excited for our first full day on Mnemba island. A stay here comes with two scuba dives daily included in the price. They also offer different PADI level scuba classes which some of the group was going to do. So after devouring a delicious breakfast which magically showed up on my front deck, I went off to the boat house to meet up with the group.

  Jack, Fiona and myself were all headed out for a fun dive in the morning and another right after. Mary, John, and Maggie were all going to do a refresher dive and then dive with us for the second dive. And Moira was going to do a discover scuba course since she is not certified...yet.

  For most of the group this was their first time taking a dip in the Indian Ocean. We went to Little Wall and Cabbage Reef and had a couple of wonderful dives. The critter hunting was nonstop as we came across cool finds like pipefish, nudibranchs, scorpionfish, crocodile fish, and moray eels. There were patches of sand where droves of garden eels waved to and fro and at a much shallower depth than in Hawaii. And Jack even found a white tip reef shark hiding in a little cave about 65ft down.

Fire Dartfish
  One of the beautiful things about staying on Mnemba island was that we could easily jet back there in between dives. All the other dive boats we saw came out from Zanzibar, some over an hour away just to dive the reef at Mnemba, as it is the best around. Everyone was so excited after their first dive that we chose to head right back out for a second.

Camouflaging Scorpionfish
  For this dive the whole group stayed together for more critter finding action. Huge schools of anthias covered the coral heads while different species of anemonefish hid out in their protective homes. We passed some giant clams and more eels to wrap up two wonderful dives.

Giant Clam
Skunk Anemone fish
  Now this meant we could unwind for the rest of the day and truly kick up our feet, island style.

Dai Mar, Fiona, and Jack

Mary and Andy

Nudibranch find by Jack
Rarely seen shark at Little Reef

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Welcome to Mnemba Island, Zanzibar

From Ngorongoro Crater to Mnemba Island, Zanzibar Archipelago

Our 12 seater plane
View from Seat 1
  After sleeping in and getting a wonderful breakfast at the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, the group set out on a long, but exciting travel day. We were headed towards the coast of Tanzania where a series of beautiful islands dot the clear turquoise waters like something out of a postcard. We were headed to the only private island among the Zanzibar archipelago, called Mnemba. But to get there we will need an hour and half transfer by road, then a short jumper flight to Arusha, then a longer flight to Zanzibar, followed by another hour and a half road transfer, and finally a ten minute boat ride. But I knew as soon as the group saw what was waiting on the other side they would think it was all worth it.

  All of our flights were on small 12 seater Coastal Aviation planes. Flying out from Lake Manyara airport took us right off the edge of the plateau. It was a beautiful sight to see the land suddenly drop out from below us. As we landed in Arusha everyone got a good glimpse of Kilimanjaro, the 'roof of Africa.' It was fun to look up at the snow covered summit from our plane and think back to just a few years ago when I was standing up there. The real beauty of where we were headed struck everyone as we closed in on Zanzibar which was surrounded by dozens of small spits of sand and beautiful reefscapes clearly visible from our low flying plane.

Last leg to Mnemba
  We loaded up into four white SUVs that sped across the island like some presidential motorcade, and dropped us off on a beautiful white sandy beach on the far side of Zanzibar. Traditional dhows lined the beach and two modern motorboats were bobbing in the shallows waiting to whisk us over to our private island.

Welcome drinks on the beach
We made it, The Welcome Briefing
  The amazing service started from the second we hit the beach. Cool towels and tropical drinks were there to refresh everyone after their travels. During our briefing with camp managers Dave, Scott, and Andy, a huge platter of sashimi and sushi as well as several margarita pizzas were spread out before us. 

Lounge area for each room
Testing out the water

  After gorging on fresh fish the group split up to see their rooms and explore the island. It didn't take long for the girls to test out the water. Everyone quickly got into the island spirit by kicking off their shoes once and for all for the next three days.

Every room comes with this as well
Entrance to our open air bungalow
  There is something so refreshing about coming out to the islands after being in the bush for a while. Safaris in East Africa can get pretty dusty, and if you spend much time on the roads in between the parks they can be a bit jarring (the locals jokingly refer to it as the 'African massage.') By coming out to the ocean it is a great way to wash the dust off and soothe your body at the end of a safari in Africa. It also gives everyone a chance to reflect and soak in all that they have seen. And even though Zanzibar is still technically part of Tanzania, it feels like you have traveled to a very different part of the world.

All set for dinner on the beach
Next on the schedule was a moon rising party on the eastern spit of the island. It's going to be a magical few days out here on Mnemba.

Toys for use

The Mnemba soccer team

Ready for the moon rising party
Ready for island life on Mnemba