African Safari: Searching for the Big 5 in Uganda

African Safari: Searching for the Big 5 in Uganda

Today I have a special treat for you! One of my adventure loving travel buddies is currently hanging out in Uganda (no big deal) and wants to tell you all about her incredible 4-day safari. The quintessential African safari has so far eluded the check on my bucket list, but this post has majorly reinforced my NEED to go and SOON! I mean… just look at these photos!

Guest Blogger: Katie Smith

My dad and I started our African adventure when we landed at the Entebbe airport and were greeted by my aunt, a local in Masaka. We drove through the capital, Kampala, on our way to Masaka, and made a stop at the Equator.

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After a week in Masaka, my dad and I embarked on a 4 day safari.

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On day 1 we travelled from Masaka to Kibale Forest Camp. The drive took about 5 hours but was well worth it. We were greeted by 10 red-tailed monkeys swinging from the trees.

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We stayed in the budget accommodation, which was a tent underneath a thatch cover. However, we were pleasantly surprised to find two twin sized beds in the tent! Who says camping has to mean sleeping on the floor?

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That night I fell asleep to the sounds of monkeys crashing through the trees.

On day 2 we went chimpanzee tracking in Kibale National Park. We hiked through dense brush for 3 hours trying to track down a family of chimpanzees. When we finally found them, it was even better than I had imagined. Since many of them were habituated to humans, some would come very close to us, not seeming to care that we were there.

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That afternoon we drove to Queen Elizabeth Bush Lodge. We were driving through Queen Elizabeth National Park at around 5pm, the perfect time for an evening game drive.

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Queen Elizabeth Bush Lodge was similar to Kibale Forest Camp. The major difference was that instead of red-tailed monkeys in the campsite, there were hippos! The camp borders the Kazinga Channel, which has one of the highest concentrations of hippos in the world. During the day you could hear them snorting and roaring from the channel. At night, however, they would come into the campsite to graze right outside our tents. They come so close that the camp requires  multiple security guards on duty every night just to keep hippo watch! The guards stand with large flashlights and escort you around the camp after dark to avoid any unwanted hippo encounters.

On day 3 we woke up bright and early to be in the park by 7am for a morning game drive.

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That afternoon we went on a boat safari in the Kazinga channel, where we saw more hippos, monitor lizards, Nile crocodiles and an incredible array of birds.

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Day 4 was meant to be a travel day for the long journey back to Masaka. However, we hadn’t yet spotted a lion, and our guide insisted that we couldn’t come to Africa without seeing a lion. So first thing in the morning we went to the Ishasha sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park for another game drive. Five hours later we found a tree serving as a siesta spot for 5 lionesses.

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On the search for the lions, I also spotted the Grey crowned crane, the national bird of Uganda. As the story goes, it’s the national bird because it contains the 3 colours of the country’s flag: red, yellow and black. Red represents familial blood lines; yellow represents the sun; and black represents the people of Uganda.

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Seven hours later we were back home in Masaka.

Most people want to see the “Big 5” when they go on an African safari: lions, elephants, rhinos, leopards and buffalo. These are the 5 most dangerous animals to hunt in Africa. There were no rhinos in these particular parks, and we never spotted a leopard, but seeing 3 out of 5 was still very exciting!

When you go on a Ugandan safari, you have the option of driving a rental car yourself or hiring a driver to be your guide. A guide at Your Way Tours was recommended to us, so we took that route and I’m so glad we did. In addition to the facts that they drive on the left side of the road and that we would have had to navigate through a completely new place, the roads were absolutely terrible! They were unmaintained with uneven ground and frequent large potholes. Even with an experienced driver and a proper safari truck, the journey was rough at times. The guide was also able to communicate with other guides to locate where specific animals had been seen that day, and he had a trained eye to spot elusive animals that otherwise would have gone unnoticed. Lastly, the traffic police in Uganda are notorious for being corrupt and finding any reason they can to issue you with a ticket. They are frequently on the side of the road and chances are you will be pulled over at some point. The tickets can usually be retracted with a bribe, but when we were pulled over it was great to have a local who knew how to deal with it! I highly recommend hiring a driver.

If you ever have a chance to go on a Ugandan Safari, do it!

Trip Journal: The Best of Egypt Tour

Trip Journal: The Best of Egypt Tour

Back in summer 2008 (before the Revolution), I spent two glorious weeks in Egypt. I already talked about my luxurious stay in Sharm El Sheikh on the Red Sea, but now it’s time to talk about the Egypt that everyone knows… and the part of my trip that crossed off some big to-dos on my bucket list!

Cairo

Upon landing in Cairo with my partner in crime, Stefi, we were met by our Insight Vacations guide and escorted to the beautiful 5 star Marriott Cairo Hotel with views of the Nile River. This place was so fancy they call it the palace and certainly had enough restaurants and grounds to make us reconsider ever leaving. IMG_1180 We had the day off (the real tour started the next day) so we decided that we would try and find Top Shop (this is before we had it in Canada) but ended up getting dropped off at the wrong mall where no one spoke English and tourists were clearly uncommon. I may have feared for my safety just a tad. But not to be deterred, we soldiered on in our quest to find expensive clothing and decided to try yet another mall. But, apparently our budgets were not meant to be blown and we ended up stumbling across an English movie theatre instead… with the newly released Dark Knight begging to be seen! Watching movies in foreign countries has become somewhat of a tradition for me over the years and usually makes for a very memorable experience. I love comparing the way people watch movies in other cultures. In Egypt there were no previews, assigned seating, an intermission, and people talking on their phones nonstop! To finish off our eventful evening, we almost died in a taxi on the way home. I feel like every traveller has a crazy taxi story but my goodness Cairo was the CRAZIEST! We honestly had to laugh to keep from crying. There were literally four “lanes” of traffic where there should have been two, tops! I just closed my eyes in the end.

The Tour Begins… egypt On our first day of the Best of Egypt Tour we hit up many of the major sights in Cairo including the Egyptian Museum (with King Tut’s treasures) and the Alabaster Mosque of Mohamed Ali. This was my first time ever setting foot in a mosque and we had to take our shoes off and adhere to a dress code… pretty standard stuff in Muslim countries. The best part was that even though our skirts were the same length, Stef had to wear a green modesty robe and I did not… teehee! IMG_0748 IMG_0768 IMG_0769 I got my first glance of the pyramids from the terrace but we were going to have to wait a whole week before getting a closer look. After some obligatory stops at a cotton store and a perfume shop, we boarded our overnight train to Aswan. Stef and I had a room all to ourselves! We may or may not have had a secret dance party.

Aswan

Night trains are not my favourite but waking up in a new city always makes it worth the discomfort. Our first stop of the day was the Aswan dam, which regulates the Nile River and has created the largest manmade lake in the world, Lake Nasser. The lake is so massive that it has actually altered the climate! Egypt used to get one day of rain once every 3 years and now it happens every year. In fact, it’s such an important structure that you are not allowed to video or take photos on the dam – but I totally cheated. IMG_0823 Next up, we took a ferry across the lake to an island where the temple of Philae was relocated due to flooding from the dam. IMG_0837 IMG_0841 IMG_0860 And our last stop of the morning was a quick (and hot!!) visit to the granite quarries where many of Egypt’s obelisks were made, including the unfinished obelisk that still lies attached to the bedrock. IMG_0869 The luxury continued when we checked into our second 5 star hotel of the trip – The Movenpick Resort on Elephantine Island. We loved the water taxi ride to our island oasis and the welcome Hibiscus drink. IMG_0870 IMG_0878

Not a bad view...

Not a bad view…

IMG_0872 The highlight of the day (and what really sold me on Aswan) was our Golden hour felucca ride on the Nile. IMG_0897IMG_2217 Oh yeah… and then to top it all off we enjoyed a premium high tea on the top floor (see what I did there?) of our hotel at sunset. IMG_0941

Overlooking Aswan and the Nile River

Overlooking Aswan and the Nile River

Abu Simbel The next day we woke up at the ungodly hour of 4:45am to head to the airport for our morning excursion to the two massive rock temples at Abu Simbel. The first temple we saw was dedicated to Ramses II and the second to Queen Nefertari… the only Egyptian temple dedicated to a woman. The Nubian complex had to be relocated in its entirety in 1968 to avoid their being submerged during the creation of Lake Nasser. I can’t even fathom how much effort that would take.

Queen Nefertari's Temple

Queen Nefertari’s Temple

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Temple for Ramses II

Temple for Ramses II

I don't think it's big enough...

I don’t think it’s big enough…

Back in Aswan we boarded the M.S. Media, our cruise ship for the next 3 days. This was my first river cruise and let me tell you, the rooms are SO much bigger than ocean liners. We even had a bathtub! Things were going swimmingly until… Stef got sick. It was bound to happen with our weak western stomachs but you really hope that it doesn’t. The odds were not in our favour. I ended up visiting the temple of Kom Ombo that evening by myself.

Kom Ombo

Kom Ombo… oh and my Australian friends John & Patricia (hey mates!)

That evening… while Stef was still hiding out in our room, I attended the traditional Galabea party. Delicious Food. Belly Dancing. Whirling Dervishes. A totally normal Tuesday night.

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Edfu

The next morning… I again got up realllllllly early again to check out the Edfu Temple (dedicated to the god Horus) before the scorching heat made it unbearable. IMG_1016

Stef finally returned to the land of the living and we spent most of the day lounging by the pool on the top deck and enjoying the views as we sailed to Luxor (aka ancient Thebes).

Yeah! She's back!

Yeah! She’s back!

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That evening we visited the Luxor Temple (so many temples!!). My favourite part was the avenue of sphinxes that used to extend a full 2 kilometres north to the Karnak Temple. Most of it is now covered by city but some have been excavated to show us what it would have been like.

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Luxor

We spent the day in the old capital and port city, Luxor. First we drove to the West Bank and into the desert to the Valley of the Kings. There were 62 tombs discovered there and the longest belonged to Hatshepshut, the first woman to become a king! We visited three tombs: Ramses I, Ramses III, and Ramses IV. IMG_1123

Tomb Entrance

Tomb Entrance

Shocker... it was a scorcher! Who would have guessed that Egypt in the summer is really hot?

Shocker… it was a scorcher! Who would have guessed that Egypt in the summer is really hot?

Next up: Queen Hatshepsut’s Funeral Temple! This lady sure knew how to celebrate herself! This site was actually the victim of a terrorist attack in the late 90s. Tourism is (or was) the main source of income for Egypt so there is strong police/military presence at all tourist sites to protect against such attacks. We felt pretty safe even though I’m not the biggest fan of machine guns everywhere. IMG_1134

Wowza… this is a long post. If you’re still with me… there were some more ancient things (Colossi of Memnon) and we saw some hot air balloons… but what you really want to hear about is THE WORST THING YOU COULD EVER BE ASKED by a stranger. Due to the heat, we ventured out on our own (stupid perhaps) to find ice cream. The harassment and crude comments came within seconds of leaving the ship as we were followed by a young Nubian man. We tried to ignore him but he really wouldn’t leave us alone with the questions… it seemed harmless at first. Where are you from? The basics. But, when we refused to come with him to his Nubian village the conversation took a turn for disgusting. We had already decided to head back at this point (ice creamless) but we still had a ways to go. He asks if we wanted to BE with an Egyptian man. We told him we were both married (lies) and our husbands were on the ship (more lies). This did not deter him though. Do you want to kiss an Egyptian man? Um… let me think… no thanks. At this point we were practically running when we were asked this gem. What about BUM SEX? Excuse me WHAT?!?! That is so not okay. NOT OKAY! Ew… What was his thought process? Oh, so they are married and said no to a kiss, but bum sex, oh yeah, they will totally go for that… Ugh.

We made it back to our ship in one piece but were a little concerned about leaving our tourist bubble again that day. The Egyptians were mostly wonderful to us but I guess you can’t win em all.

On our last day of the cruise we were both very ready to leave Luxor but not before checking out the largest temple in existence, the Temple of Karnak. It was contributed to by many pharaohs but I believe the main hall was built by the father of Ramses II.

Big Temple

Big Temple

Big Columns

Big Columns

Big Obelisk!

Big Obelisk!

Then we continued our jet setter status and boarded a flight back to Cairo in time to check out the Sound and Light show in front of the Great Pyramids of Giza. IMG_1189

Cairo Time 

On our last day of the tour we thought it was time to visit the Great Pyramids and ride camels… because when in Egypt. I even got to stand ON THE PYRAMIDS!

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Then we drove over to the ancient capital, Memphis and saw the colossal status of Ramses II. Man this guy built a lot of stuff.

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Then we ended the long morning of touring at Saqara where we visited the Museum of Imhotep. We saw a real mummy as well as the oldest stone structure ever made, the Step Pyramid of Djoser. IMG_0008

We ended our last night with a very authentic meal at the Hard Rock Cafe… okay… maybe not so much. But I missed salad with actual green vegetables. Okay… now I almost left out the end because sometimes I can’t believe it even happened. But, on my flight home, I was somehow, magically upgraded to business class. Like full on, reclining into a bed, unlimited champagne business class. It was a dream flight from London to Seattle and I was having such a great experience that I didn’t want it to end. There was so much sleeping to do and movies to watch and yummy chocolates to eat. That was likely the first and last time that I will ever fly business class. But, sometimes I still hold my breath when boarding the plane in the hopes that something magical will happen again. The perfect end to a (almost) perfect trip!

So that’s The Best of Egypt in one incredibly massive post. It really was the BEST trip; Stef and I still talk about it all the time. It wasn’t cheap but it was worth every penny.

What’s the best trip you’ve ever gone on? 

My 7 Wonders of the World

This is a special edition of my Favourites series.

It seems like there are so many variations of the Seven Wonders of the World floating around that I decided I would create my own from places that I’ve actually been.

My 7 Wonders of the World

Machu Picchu, Peru

Without a doubt, Machu Picchu is the most spectacular, awe-inspiring site that my eyes have ever seen. It absolutely lives up to all the hype! I trekked 33 kilometres over three days from Lares to Ollantaytambo before finally taking a train to Aguas Calientes and making the early morning trip to Machu Picchu. From touring the ancient capital of the Incas to hiking Wayna Picchu, the whole experience was incredible from start to finish. These Incan ruins need to be on every person’s bucket list.

Machu Picchu

Pyramids of Giza, Egypt

While I was planning my trip to Egypt, people were constantly asking me Why Egypt? This question seriously puzzled me. Don’t people understand that to see the pyramids one would have to go to Egypt? Well this original wonder of the world certainly earned its place. Riding camels around the site didn’t hurt either…

Camel Time

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

The most recent wonder on my list is the magical Halong Bay. Even on a mostly cloudy day this place had a mystical hold on me. With nearly 2000 limestone islets and floating fishing villages creating a tropical kaleidiscope above the green waters, this place is more than worthy of a spot on the new 7 wonders of the world list… and mine too!

Fishing Village

The Colosseum, Italy

I’ve visited this famous amphitheatre twice now and both times it transported me back in time. I’ve read so many stories and seen so many films (Gladiator anyone?) from the era of the Roman Empire and it is always haunting and humbling to be standing in a place so rich in history and tragedy. I can only imagine how impressive it would have been back in its glory days.

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The Eiffel Tower, France

Paris je t’aime! Sometimes I still can’t believe that I’m not living in a chic apartment in the Cinquième (5e) arrondissement splitting my time between the cafe culture and long walks along the Seine. But, I digress. There is no building on earth that I was more excited to see than the Eiffel Tower. After studying French for 8 years, this was the place that I most wanted to see when I went to France and the place that I would most like to re-visit… and soon!

Paris

Alhambra, Spain

This palace/fortress, originally constructed in 889 and reconstructed in the mid-11th century by the Moors was a major highlight of my 3 months in Spain. It might not be as popular as some of the other wonders on this list but it is every bit as beautiful. My only regret is that I didn’t take more pictures… I was too busy experiencing in the present tense.

Alhambra

Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia

Croatia, Croatia, Croatia. The country that won my heart in one, all-to-brief week. And the crowning jewel is this absolutely stunning national park filled with turquoise lakes and magnificent waterfalls. This was the perfect day trip from Zagreb and a must-see stop for any trip to the Balkans. I can’t wait to go back!

Plitvice Lakes

 

Trip Journal: Sharm El Sheikh

It’s been almost six years since I went on the trip of a lifetime with my best friend Stefi. We spent an unbelievable two weeks in Egypt filled with ancient ruins, stunning vistas, and luxurious living. Since I wasn’t blogging back then, I thought I would dig out my old journal and revisit my memories from that time.

We started out with 5 glorious days at the Hyatt Regency in the resort city of Sharm El Sheikh on the Red Sea. From the moment we arrived in the pristine and spacious airport we knew we were in for a treat. Our 5 star hotel was the most impressive place I’ve ever stayed complete with 3 pools, private beach, 5 restaurants, and the most attentive staff.

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During our stay we enjoyed some relaxation but we also checked out the local attractions, which included an overnight trek to the top of Mt. Sinai. Our Bedouin guide picked us up at 11:00pm and drove us deep into the Sinai desert or “wilderness” where we climbed up “Moses Mountain” in the middle of the night. We reached the 2255m peak just in time for a once in a lifetime sunrise. On the way down we stopped at St Catherine’s monastery to see the biblical burning bush.

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On our last full day, in what we affectionately referred to as Sharm, we took a snorkelling trip to Ras Mohamed National Park. We spent the whole day at sea and made three stops along the way. It was so easy floating on the crystal clear waters due to the extremely high salt content. Stef and I were even given a private tour over the coral reef by our guides who picked us some souvenir shells.

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I cannot say enough good things about our time in Sharm El Sheikh – I’m pretty sure the whole time we were there I just kept saying “I’m so happy!” over and over.

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Where is the most luxurious place you’ve ever stayed?