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Africa & The Middle East Travel

    Africa & The Middle East Travel

    Rwandan Renaissance

    Remember – Rebuild – Rebirth

    Location: Rwanda

    Rebirth of Rwanda – a renaissance story.

    Like many people, I knew very little about Rwanda, other than the terrible events that happened here in 1994.

    It’s interesting to me how many people still believe Rwanda is a dangerous place…26 years after the genocide. The Rwandan genocide, though devastating in the loss of lives (an estimated one-million Tutsis), lasted only 100 days.

    African textiles
    Colorful Rwanda fabrics

    In the 26 years since, Rwanda has had a renaissance. It hasn’t been easy and it hasn’t been perfect. Following the brutal civil unrest that began on April 7, 1994 and ended three months later, Rwanda struggled to put itself back together.

    Government was in disarray (both the President and Prime Minister had been murdered), infrastructure was not in place to handle the hundreds of thousands of children and adults misplaced, orphaned, and suffering both physical and mental trauma. I can only imagine the chaos.

    Kigali Genocide Museum
    A handful of the genocide victims at the Kigali Genocide Museum

    Today Rwanda shows few immediate scars from the horrible events of that spring in 1994, and tourism is on the uptick. It’s inexpensive and friendly and fascinating. Many people come to see the gorillas but we came to just see a wee bit of Rwanda as our final stop in our three-month tour of East Africa.

    Genocide

    A brief history lesson. It’s complicated but here is a simple synopsis (learn more here);

    The Belgians began issuing ID cards to all Rwandans over the age of 10 in 1932-1933. These ID cards, the first Rwandans ever had, showed which tribe they belonged to, Hutu, Tutsi, Twa, or Naturalist. In 1962 Rwanda gained independence but class structure continued to cause conflict. In 1994 President Juvénal Habyarimana was Hutu but he was a moderate Hutu, and class system favoring the Tutsis remained. A faction of Hutu was quietly rising up and this faction was extreme. For months they planned a type of coup.

    Rwandan Genocide
    Belgium Peacekeepers Memorial

    On the evening of April 6th, a plane carrying the President and several of his advisors as well as the President of Burundi was shot down on approach to Kigali airport. It is still unknown who shot the plane down with a surface to air missile. Scenarios speculate it was shot down by the Hutu extremists who then blamed the Tutsis in an effort to incite the genocide. Another scenario is that the Rwandan Patriotic Front led by Paul Kagame was responsible in an effort to eliminate the old regime.

    Hotel Rwanda
    Hotel made famous in the movie Hotel Rwanda

    On the morning of April 7th the killing began. Hutus began massacring men, women and children, using the tribal identity cards to choose who lived and who died. Hutus also killed moderate Hutus and forced moderate Hutus to murder their own Tutsi neighbors or they would be killed. Belgium had a peacekeepers force in place, who tried to protect the Prime Minister, but all 12 of the Belgian peacekeepers were killed along with the Prime Minister and her husband. The United Nations was totally unprepared for the magnitude of the killing spree and no other country came forward to assist.

    Meanwhile one million people were killed before the insurgent RFP army led by Tutsi Paul Kagame (who later went on to become President in 2000) took control of the bloody war.

    Today in Kigali

    Today President Kagame is leading the country forward with a focus on technology and tourism as well as other industries. There is construction everywhere, even though the majority of the Rwandan population remains agrarian.

    Kigali Genocide Museum
    Kigali Genocide Museum

    A visit to Kigali is a must to see the Kigali Genocide Memorial and the Belgian Peacekeepers Memorial. Both are worth a visit and give a truthful albeit painful chronology of what happened to the beautiful people of Rwanda during the genocide. You can also stop by the Hotel des Mille Collines, also known as Hotel Rwanda.

    There is another museum, newly opened that we did not visit called the Campaign Against Genocide. This museum explains how the insurgents took the country back. We are sorry we did not get to see this one.

    Lake Kivu

    Seeing gorillas (and chimpanzees) is the biggest tourist draw in Rwanda, but since we had already done that we chose to spend four days on Lake Kivu, about a four hour drive from Kigali. The town of Gisenyi sits right on the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Congo is a country currently in turmoil and we had no interest going there. But the people of Gisenyi and its Congolese sister town of Gomo pass back and forth over the border with ease.

    Lake Kivu Rwanda
    Beautiful Lake Kivu Gicenyi Rwanda

    During our short visit we enjoyed a lovely boat tour of the lake to see the many islands in this gigantic lake ( maximum depth of 475 m (1,558 ft) and is 90km long (56 miles) and 50km wide (31 miles)) as well as to see the fishing industry, hot springs, busy market place and to get a good look at the DRC from the water side. Lake Kivu has methane gas from surrounding volcanoes that Rwanda is attempting to harness for electricity.

    Lake Kivu
    Touring Lake Kivu and a bridal party in the background

    On our second day we had a wonderful 18 km day hike (one way with a return by boat) with a guide along the Congo Nile Trail. The trail goes 227 km along the east side of Lake Kivu, which marks the divide between the Congo drainage basin and the Nile drainage basin. This is probably our favorite thing we did in Rwanda. It’s a tough hike, even just doing the 18 km (you can walk the entire 227 km) but it provides beautiful views of the lake, lots of bird watching and opportunities to learn about agriculture of Rwanda (particularly the coffee). But our favorite thing was all the kids we met along the route, most going to and from school from their rural mountain villages. We passed a primary school and all the kids were out in the courtyard and they ran out into the dusty dirt road to hug us. They call us muzunga (pale skin) and are genuinely happy to see us.

    So many children are the hope of Rwanda
    One of hundreds of kids we saw on the Congo Nile Trail

    Both of our tours in the Lake Kivu region we did with Ames Tours. I highly recommend them.

    Coffee Plants Rwanda
    The flower, green berry and red berry of the healthy coffee plant Rwanda

    Umuganda

    One of the most astonishing things we learned about the people of Rwanda is regarding the monthly celebration of Umuganda, which roughly translates to community day.

    Rwanda people
    The hard working people of Rwanda

    On the last Saturday of EVERY month, from 8am – 11am in the morning, all adult citizens are required to participate in Umuganda. We had not been made aware of Umuganda, and stepped outside at 9am on Saturday morning to an absolute ghost town – no cars, no taxis, no motos, no people, no shops open…not even a dog or cat. It was eerie. We then learned about Umuganda. Police patrol the main streets because no one is supposed to be driving. Everyone should be in their village and neighborhood helping each other.

    Kids of RWanda
    We met so many wonderful kids, ready to bring Rwanda forward in peace

    Community projects are undertaken through out the entire country on Umuganda. It might be helping someone whose home is in need of repair. It might be clearing a field or repairing a bridge. It might be just families working together to build or harvest. It might be adding a room onto the school or building an entire road. It’s an age-old tradition in this country, fully supported by the people, mandated by the government and a bit shocking for an unprepared visitor.

    In the 110 countries I have been to, I’ve never seen anything like it. I can’t begin to imagine something like this in my home country of the United States. Selfless, productive, loving and revered. Wow.

    Final Thoughts

    Rwanda is tiny, about the size of the state of Maryland. It has endured a great deal. Our short visit to Rwanda was very eye-opening. We met some wonderfully kind and proud people. The population has few elderly, both due to the genocide and the difficult agrarian lifestyle. But I am convinced I have never met a harder working population than Rwanda. Everyone is working – man, woman, and child. The Tutsi are in charge of the government now, and big efforts continue for all people whether Tutsi or Hutu to live together as Rwandans. Rwandan proud. Rebirth of Rwanda, a renaissance story.

    People of Rwanda
    The youth of Rwanda

    We wish them continued success.

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    Africa & The Middle East Travel

    Uganda Gorilla Trek

    A Dream Come True

    Location: Uganda

    Do you remember the 1988 movie Gorillas in the Mist based on the life of Dian Fossey? The film takes us to Congo, Uganda and Rwanda where Fossey studied and tried to protect the magnificent mountain gorilla. She gave her life doing so. But to her credit there is no disputing that her work saved the mountain gorilla from extinction and opened the doors for gorilla tourism. Thanks to Fossey, I marked my 60th birthday on a exhilarating Uganda Gorilla Trek.

    Uganda Mountain Gorillas
    Juvenile mountain gorilla

    Most of us have seen lowland gorillas in zoos. But the mountain gorilla has not been able to survive in captivity. Biologists are not sure why they don’t survive. So the only way to see these animals is to go to them.

    And so, for one blessed hour, I sat in the jungle of Uganda and observed up close and personal one of earth’s most noble, splendid and humanlike creatures.

    Ugandan Mountain Gorilla
    Can be mean, but just playing here.

    Expensive

    Unfortunately doing a Uganda gorilla trek is expensive. The cost is mostly due to the permit fees required by the government. The money of course is helping continue to save these magnificent beasts, but at $600 per person for the permit alone, it’s beyond reach for many people. Rwanda’s permit is more than twice as much. You can trek in Congo for less, but you would also be putting you life in danger going to Congo. And so, for us, as a celebratory birthday event, we chose to do our Uganda Gorilla Trek with Achieve Global Safari of Uganda.

    Ugandan Mountain Gorilla
    Two year hanging out

    How it Works

    Through Achieve you can sign up for three day, five day, ten day or however long you want. Achieve can take you beyond the Uganda Gorilla Trek and also show you many of the other wonderful animals and sights of Uganda. But having already done a couple of safaris, our focus was just the gorillas.

    With our guide John

    We arrived at Entebbe Uganda in the afternoon and were met by our guide John. We were so glad to have been assigned John, he turned out to be an amazing guide. John took us from Entebbe about an hour to our Marriott hotel in Kampala for a first night. Very nice hotel. Bright and early the next morning John picked us up for the ten hour drive from Kampala to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park.

    The Drive

    It was a very long drive, but we saw some interesting sights along the way, including a stop to have our photo taken as we crossed the equator. This was our first time crossing the equator on land.

    On the equator

    We also enjoyed seeing many beautiful birds, zebras grazing alongside cows, and the famous Ankole longhorn cows praised for the beef and milk. We enjoyed seeing mile and miles of agriculture. Uganda’s mild climate and long days provide a stable growing environment year around for everything from sweet potatoes to bananas, onions to avocado, rice to pineapple. We passed dozens and dozens of villages large and small and slowly ascended into the mountains. At the highest point we were at 7800 feet (2400 meters) but came down to about 6500 feet on arrival at our lodge.

    Ankole Cow

    Ichumbi Gorilla Lodge

    Verandah for our room in the jungle

    If you decide to make this trek we highly recommend using Achieve, asking for John to be your guide, and requesting to stay at the beautiful Ichumbi Gorilla Lodge. Small, lovely, comfortable and possibly the best service of anywhere we have stayed in all of Africa. I wished we had the time to stay longer and linger…enjoying the misty mountain views and relaxing on the verandah. The food was also exceptional. A very nice touch was a hot water bottle placed in our bed every evening to keep us warm as the mountain temps dropped.

    Hot water bottle for a good night’s sleep

    Uganda Gorilla Trek Day

    Overnight I woke up with a frightful headache, and I knew I was suffering from altitude sickness. At breakfast I began to feel very queasy and I was unable to eat anything. Damn. I was not going to miss this! I put on my happy face and we headed to the trek site.

    Ugandan Mountain Gorilla
    Three year old

    In 1981 it’s estimated there were only 250 mountain gorillas left in the world. Thanks to conservation efforts the population is healthy and growing in all three countries where they live. There are 36 gorilla families in Uganda’s Bwindi National Park, with a total of about 650 gorillas, half the world’s population. Of these about 13 families are currently habituated for the tourist trekkers. Habituation began in 1991 and the first trekkers came in 1993.

    The time of our lives

    After a briefing by the ranger and some local entertainment, we were split into groups of eight and assigned to trek to one of the families. The families stay within a general area that is their home, so using advance tracking ranger teams, the guides know approximately where the gorillas are hanging out today.

    Ugandan Mountain Gorilla
    The eldest female of the family

    Our trek group consisted of a German/Dutch family of four, two women from Estonia and me and my husband. Our lead ranger was Phillip and we were accompanied by two armed guards, one forward and one aft. In addition local porters could be hired ($15 US minimum) to assist trekkers with their packs or to help them through the mud. We were the only ones who hadn’t hired a porter and we probably should have, if only to provide a good day’s employment to a local person.

    Mama Gorilla

    Nshongi Family

    Despite my upset stomach I was feeling pretty lucky when we were assigned to the Nshongi Family. This currently is the biggest habituated gorilla family in Uganda with 25 members but more than 10 have left to form another family called the Mishaya Group. The Nshongi group also was in a area we could hike to from the orientation site, instead of driving a distance to start the hike. I started to feel better once we started moving and after the first few kilometers I was no longer suffering the upset stomach. Instead I was focused on what was turning out to be a very difficult Uganda gorilla trek. (read more about all the habituated families here.)

    Ugandan Mountain Gorilla
    The kids at play

    Mud

    Our name was mud. Wow. So much mud. It sucked at your shoes and oozed into your socks. It had rained a lot the day before, and we were counting our blessings for a clear morning, but the weather the previous day left its calling card and it was named mud. There was no chance of staying out of the mud and so we didn’t try. I was very glad to have my hiking poles with me as we trekked along, slurping through the muck.

    Mud

    It took us about two and half hours before our guide was on the radio conversing with the advance trackers. We were feeling lucky since we had heard that sometimes it takes 7-8 hours to find them. The trackers had the gorillas in sight. But the gorillas wait for no tourists and they were on the move. At this point we left what was somewhat of a trail and went headlong into the dense bush. Our guide Phillip had a machete and he hacked as much of a trail as possible for us as we stumbled through the vines and bushes and up the mountain side. The sweat was pouring off of me.

    Ugandan Mountain Gorilla
    One of the females

    And Then There They Were

    My heart stopped as the first gorilla, a small juvenile, came bounding across the path right in front of me. But he was gone in a flash. We continued, hacking with the machete through the bush. Suddenly there were four gorillas, two females and two two-year olds. The kids were playing and the mamas were resting after their lunch. I was taking photos and switched to video just in time to have this little fella get up on a branch and pound his chest. Chest pounding in a large gorilla can mean an attack, but this little guy was just acting tough and I was smitten.

    Ugandan Mountain Gorilla
    Baby playing

    Our guide led us down a little incline into a clearing where two more juveniles (a three year old and a two year old) were wrestling. This is both a form of exercise and play, but also a way for the older gorilla to teach the baby. We were watching this playtime and our guide had me step a little to the right and pointed ahead about twenty yards. And there I saw him. A resplendent silverback gorilla.

    The Silverback

    King Kong comes to mind. This beautiful creature is twenty-four years old (they live as much as forty) and weighs nearly 500 lbs. We never saw this beast stand up but mountain gorillas can grow as tall as 2.25 metres (7.5 feet). The mature male sports a crest of fur on his head and the magnificent silver fur on his back.

    Ugandan Mountain Gorilla
    Just chilling

    Our new friend seemed quit content as he laid there snoozing, then grazing, then watching the littles play. Unlike many in the animal kingdom, the patriarch of the family is intricately involved in the lives of the young. The little gorillas crawled all over him, banged on him and cuddled up to him as he lay. He rolled over into a half sitting position (he seemed to be posing for a centerfold) and watched us watch him. He addressed the kids with a gorilla grunt, which sounds more like a pig grunting than what you think a gorilla would sound like.

    Ugandan Mountain Gorilla
    Papa and little one

    Slowly, slowly, my heart returned to it’s normal rhythm as our hour with the Uganda Mountain Gorillas came to an end. Phillip said it was time for us to take our final photos, as our hour was nearly up. As if he understood, the Silverback sat up, looked us in the eye and we snapped our final shots.

    Farewell.

    Ugandan Mountain Gorilla
    Watching us

    Final Thoughts

    On our trek back we had to ford a couple of high running streams. We were soaked, muddy and exhilarated. I don’t think anybody was thinking about how hard the trek had been…only thinking about how rewarding.

    Once in a lifetime. I feel so grateful.

    Ugandan Mountain Gorilla
    Wrestling for fun and learning

    I should point out again that the hike was very difficult. Occasionally there are trekkers who just can’t go on. The porters provide another service, but for a price. An additional $300 USD and they will literally carry you in a kind of rickshaw up the mountain. They call this the gorilla helicopter.

    Ugandan Mountain Gorilla
    Lunchtime

    On our return ten-hour drive back to Entebbe for one final night before our flight out of Uganda, John took the time to really share his gratitude to us for choosing to visit Uganda. He elaborated on how many jobs are created through gorilla tourism – not just the guides, the rangers and the porters, but all the staff at hotels, restaurants, shops and gas stations. This on top of the money we invested into the conservation of the gorilla through the work done by the African Wildlife Foundation.

    Ugandan Mountain Gorilla
    Silverback sleeping while toddler waits

    Our five day tour included four nights lodging, all our meals, a personal vehicle and our guide John, park entrance permits and all the staff it took to get us up the mountain to the gorillas. We tipped everyone generously. Total for all of this was $3100.

    Ugandan Mountain Gorilla
    What a day

    We were sorry our visit to Uganda was so short. It’s such a green, friendly country with UNESCO recognizing it’s biodiversity. Certainly Uganda still has political challenges, and the Entebbe airport is in need of signifcant upgrades. But as a visitor, there are so many exciting options for wildlife viewing, Uganda is poised to be the next big safari destination, although currently still flying under the radar. Your dollars help both the people and the animals, and help save the habitat of these incredible creatures. Just like in Borneo when we visited the Orangutans, loss of habitat is the greatest threat.

    If you can afford it I highly recommend a Uganda Gorilla Trek. Come now…before the secret gets out. Come for the gorillas. Come for the beauty. Come for the people of Uganda. Uganda, the Pearl of Africa.

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    Africa & The Middle East Travel

    FALLING FOR VICTORIA FALLS – Mosi oa-Tunya

    Location: Victoria Falls, Zambia - Zimbabwe

    I am admittedly a bit of a waterfall geek.  There is something about the free fall of water that literally takes my breath away.  I always find myself trying to watch a single drop…and thinking about how far that drop has traveled.  One drop of precious water, suddenly falling, falling, falling…SPLASH.

    Be still my heart.

    Rainbow over Victoria Falls
    My first breathtaking view

    Breath. Taking.

    Last year I was enchanted with Iguazu Falls in Brazil…a stunning waterfall that at the time I couldn’t imagine anything more beautiful.  Oh but wait…there is.  Bigger, badder and more beautiful…the wondrous Victoria Falls.

    We came here just to see it.  It’s a tall order, particularly with all the travel we have done, it’s hard to impress us anymore.  But impressed we were.  We could hear it long before we could see it…and then there it was.  My first look…breathtaking.

    Victoria Falls
    Cascade

    Locals know it as Mosi oa-Tunya, meaning smoke and thunder. The name Victoria Falls was given by David Livingstone, the first European to lay eyes on it, in 1855. The falls straddle the border of Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia) and Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) in South/Central Africa.  The falls are generated from the Zambezi River, flowing some 2700 km (1700 miles) from the headwaters in North Zambia. The Zambezi is joined by several tributaries such as the Luena, Chifumage and the Chobe before reaching the falls where the vast amount of water plummets 100 metres (360 feet), creating the biggest curtain of water in the world. The river then flows on, eventually reaching the Indian Ocean. On this journey the Zambezi flows through six countries; Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique and Angola.

    Victoria Falls
    From Livingstone Island

    See. It. All.

    The falls were formed over thousands of years as the basalt plateau eroded from the pounding water.  Today the thing that makes the falls so magnificent  is the width.  Spanning 1700 meters (5604 feet – about mile and a quarter), you can view the spectacle from the Mosi oa-Tunya National Park on the Zambia side and the Victoria Falls National Park on the Zimbabwe side.  We did both. And a whole lot more.

    We were told by many people that the view is better on the Zimbabwe side.  I wouldn’t say better…but I would say there is more variety of viewing on the Zimbabwe side. It’s easy to see both sides in one day.

    On the edge of Victoria Falls
    A sheet of water from the Zimbabwe side

    It’s also quit easy to see both sides without a guide.  Unless you are looking for someone to provide you with wildlife, birdlife or geological details, a guide is not necessary.  

    We started our Victoria Falls day taking a taxi from our hotel in Livingstone, about ten minutes to the entrance of the Mosi oa-Tunya National Park on the Zambia side.  It’s $20 per person to enter the National Park.  Consider bringing a poncho or raincoat but make sure it’s not one of those cheap plastic throw-away kind – because those are not allowed.  One small effort the park is making to eliminate plastic.  If you don’t have a poncho there are plenty of vendors willing to “rent” you one and to sell you all kinds of other things as well.  

    Victoria Falls

    Our visit in February had the falls running pretty high and that means the mist was high too.  Low season is August to December and high water is March to June.

    We purchased our tickets at the entrance and did an easy self guided tour on the Zambia side.  We walked all the paths and stopped at all the viewpoints and marveled over and over again at the majesty of it.  We also did a hike down to “Boiling Pot”, more difficult going down than going up, but worth the view of the “boiling” river just below the falls.

    Victoria Falls Bridge
    Victoria Bridge from Boiling Pot

    Border. Run.

    We had planned to go to the Zimbabwe side on a different day, but after thoroughly seeing the Zambia side it wasn’t even noon yet so we decided to walk across the border.  There are lots of taxis and rickshaw drivers who want your money to take you across the bridge, but as walkers, we wanted to do the walk.  From one park entrance to the next it’s about 2.3km (1.4 miles).  First you exit Zambia and there is border control there.  We had purchased the KAZA Visa before arriving in Zambia, a special visa that allows visitors to this region to easily cross the borders of Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana.  After exiting Zambia we marveled at the hundreds of big rig trucks filled with copper waiting to be cleared to cross the border.  As we walked we had to ignore all the men aggressively trying to sell us carved wooden figures, copper bracelets and drinks.  Arne calls it running the gauntlet.

    Victoria Falls
    Looking up the river from the Zambia side

    Eventually we arrived at the Victoria Falls Bridge which provides another beautiful view of the falls on the right hand side and down river on the left hand side.  This bridge also is home to both a zipline and bungee jumping operation.  No thanks.

    On the opposite side of the bridge we had to clear Immigration to enter Zimbabwe.  This included a medical check and having our temperature taken.  Moving on to the entrance to the park the fee was $30 per person.  Wow expensive.  I was surprised that the two countries can’t come up with some way to do a combined ticket.  Currently Zimbabwe has a worthless currency and they are using USD as their currency.  But we used our credit card to buy tickets on both sides of the falls.

    Poncho style at Victoria Falls
    Bucketlist

    Once we were in the park we realized it was much bigger and the views offered are really lovely.  We had shed our ponchos because they made me sweat so much I was getting wet anyway, so we just let the mist cover us.  The temperature was warm so it felt good. An interesting fact about the Victoria Falls Rainforest is that it is the only place on earth that it rains 24 hours a day.

    There seemed to be more visitors on this side, but overall we enjoyed a very sparsely populated park.  Comparing to our visit to Iguazu the week of New Years 2019 where we could barely move because of the crowds, we were pleasantly surprised by the lack of tourists.  

    As we walked we encountered a film-crew from ABC News doing a live shot for Good Morning America.  We learned later that the story is a combined nature series with National Geographic.  

    Walking to Zimbabwe

    The Zimbabwe side offers some pretty amazing up close and personal moments with the falls – nothing like feeling like you are on the edge of the abyss.  The massive flow of water made my fantasy of following one drop of water pretty difficult….but I tried.  But later we got even closer to the edge, actually a little too close for me.  

    Just. Plain. Crazy.

    Before arriving we had booked a tour through Victoria Falls Guides to do what it called the Angels Swim.  OMG.  I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into.  First of all let me say that there are two separate pools that visitors can “swim” in on the very edge of the falls.  Devil’s Pool is only safe during the dry season and requires a walk/swim across the river holding on to rope.  Say what?  Angel’s Pool is accessed via Livingstone Island, a small island in the middle of the river on the Zambia side.  It is only available for swimming during medium water flow because when the water is at its highest level, Livingstone Island disappears underwater.

    Angels Pool Victoria Falls
    Balancing on the edge

    So we signed up to do the Angel’s Pool swim.  I knew the pool was close to the edge of the falls because I had seen photos but holy cow.  We were right on the ledge.  This activity is not for someone faint of heart, afraid of heights, afraid of water, or sane.  Seriously this was crazy.  At first I told my husband I didn’t think I could do it when I saw how close we were getting…. but of course I ended up doing it.  Absolutely heart stopping.  I don’t think you could ever get a permit to operate something like this back home in the USA. Too many lawyers.

    Angles Pool Victoria Falls
    Angels Pool

    But now I can add it to the list of crazy, fun exhilarating travel stories…one for the record books. Worth the $230 price for two people. 

    And by the way, the water was surprisingly warm.

    Angles Pool Victoria Falls
    Angels Pool

    Most visitors come here on full-tours but we rarely do  group tours and had no problem enjoying the area on our own.  We made all our own arrangements.  We stayed at Ngoma Zanga Lodge, a lovely oasis in Livingstone with a full restaurant.  From Ngoma Zanga we were able to easily take a taxi ($6) to the falls.  

    Much. More. Fun.

    In addition to swimming at the edge of the falls the region offers a wide variety of other activities for both the thrill-seeker and the more subdued.  There is bungee jumping, ziplining, ultralight and helicopter rides.  You can also go to a crocodile park, have a candlelight dinner on the edge of the falls, walk with rhinos or have breakfast with elephants.  There are jet boat rides, canoe trips and whitewater rafting.

    Chobe National Park Botswana
    Magnificent. My favorite animal in the world.

    We didn’t do any of those, but we did choose to do the following;

    Chobe National Park – Using Victoria Falls Guides, we booked a full day tour in Chobe National Park in Botswana.  Door to door service provided us an amazing opportunity to cross the border to Botswana, spend the entire day in Chobe on a morning river cruise and an afternoon land safari drive with lunch in between.  We saw amazing animals including hippopotamus, crocodile, water buffalo, antelope, giraffe and hundreds and hundreds of elephants.  This full day was worth the $340 price for two people. I would certainly do it again.

    Chobe National Park Botswana

    Sunset Boat Cruise – Our hotel booked an evening sunset cruise for us on our final night in Zambia. The boat could probably hold 100 people but there was only about 30 people on board so it was not crowded. Live African music, snacks and open bar was included in the $150 price for two people. The cruise also included a naturalist guide who pointed out hippopotamus, giraffes and so many birds along the shore. And of course we enjoyed a beautiful sunset.

    Hippopotamus
    Hippo in the Zambezi

    Seeing Victoria Falls checks another item from my never ending bucket list.  It was worth the effort to get here.  I continue to love this continent chock-full of surprises  – the never ending wonders of Africa.  I know there are still a lot of people who fear traveling in Africa.  We found these tourist areas of Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana all safe, welcoming, and beautiful. And though the days are long gone where animals roam freely and abundantly, conservation efforts and National Parks offer the most astonishing opportunities for visitors.  The natural beauty, lovely people, and incredible history (we all came from here) makes Africa one of the most fascinating places in the world.  Our three months enjoying the African continent continues…watch for more adventures coming to a blog near you.

    Zambezi Sunset
    Sunset on the Zambezi

    I’m so glad we came. 

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    Africa & The Middle East Travel

    Johannesburg South Africa in One Day

    Our Top Four Sights

    Location: Johannesburg South Africa

    Johannesburg

    Two years ago we visited South Africa, spending nearly a month in and around Capetown and the Western Cape. But we didn’t get to Johannesburg.

    At the time, I was afraid to visit Joburg, falling victim to the media accounts of a violent place. The very same media accounts I now try to convince would-be travelers to take with a grain of salt.

    Johannesburg Constitutional Hill
    Artwork at Constitution Hill

    Because Johannesburg, like countless places around the world, certainly has some areas you don’t want to wander around alone. It has violence, crime and continuing racial divide. But all that said, during our short visit we found a sparkling clean city with a beautiful airport, good infrastructure and roads, art and cultural sites and kind people.

    Johannesburg’s violent past should be remembered and never repeated, all while this city of 8 million people (five million in Joburg and 3 million in Soweto) works with painstaking slowness towards a future where people of all races have the same opportunities.

    Johannesburg Prison #4
    My husband inside one of the tiny isolation cells at Prison #4

    Trying to see Johannesburg South Africa in one day? Is it enough? No it is not. But one day was all I had and so we made the most of our time with a tour with MoAfrika. During our more than nine hours with MoAfrika and our tour guide Michael, I experienced a rollercoaster of emotions as I witnessed and learned about the past, present and future of South Africa’s largest city.

    Listed below are the highlights we enjoyed. Given more time the city has much more to offer, but this is what we saw and what we learned.

    Constitution Hill, Formerly Prison Number Four

    “There is perhaps no other site of incarceration in South Africa that imprisoned the sheer number of world-renowned men and women as those held within the walls of Constitution Hill’s Old Fort,  Women’s Jail, and Number Four. Nelson Mandela. Mahatma Gandhi. Joe Slovo. Albertina Sisulu. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Fatima Meer. They all served time here. But the precinct also confined tens of thousands of ordinary people during its 100-year history: men and women of all races, creeds, ages and political agendas; children too; the everyman and the elite. In this way, the history of every South African lives here.” (Quoted from website Constitution Hill)

    Toilets at Prison #4
    The outdoor latrines at Prison #4

    Constitution Hill is a living museum that tells the story of South Africa’s journey to democracy.

    Barbed wire at Prison #4
    Barbed wire and blue sky

    What I learned and saw here was the unimaginably cruel and inhumane prison that for more than 90 years beat, starved, humiliated, tortured, and worked to death 1000’s of Africans both famous and infamous. In a repatriation effort the site stands in memory of those victims, and the grounds also house the home of South Africa’s Constitutional Court.

    Guard tower at Prison #4
    The prison guard tower watches over the yard


    The Constitutional Court of South Africa is akin to the Supreme Court of the United States and was created in 1993 during Nelson Mandela’s Presidency and the development of the new constitution of the country. I find it very gratifying to see the chambers of the Constitutional Court placed on the grounds of this most violent place. A vivid acknowledgement to the past and a strong statement to the future.

    South Africa's Constitutional Court
    The Chambers of the Constitutional Congress

    Apartheid Museum

    “South Africa’s struggle for liberation has been a journey of pain and strife. Freedom brought peace to our land in 1994 after centuries of colonialism and more than 40 years of life under apartheid.” (Quote from the Apartheid Museum website)

    Johannesburg Apartheid Museum
    Apartheid Musuem (no indoor photos allowed)

    What I learned and saw here was the volatile history of this country and how it came to be the fragile place it is today. This museum is one of the best I have ever visited and the hour and forty-five minutes we spent here was not near long enough. I believe you could easily justify an entire day in the cleverly laid-out walk through South Africa’s history.

    Nelson Mandela art
    Both Nelson and Winne Mandela are held in very high regard

    On arrival you get your ticket and randomly are given a ticket that says “Whites Only” or “Non-Whites”. Depending on your ticket you enter the museum through different doors – immediately creating a feeling for the visitor that you have stepped back to another era.

    The amazing museum is laid out chronologically taking you through the horrors of race classification and how that led to apartheid. You then learn what life was like as a “non-white” during apartheid, the exterminations and executions, the rise of black consciousness leading to the very violent days of 1976 in Soweto. The museum continues through the roots of compromise, the election of President Mandela and the new constitution.

    Non-whites entrance
    Entering the “Non-Whites” entrance

    If you haven’t been to South Africa you may not know about the remarkable Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The museum covers how in 1995 the government created this commission, chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to promote reconciliation and forgiveness among perpetrators and victims of apartheid. The Commission was charged with three specific tasks: to discover the causes and nature of human rights violations in South Africa between 1960 and 1994; to identify victims with a view to paying reparations; and to allow amnesty to those who fully disclosed their involvement in politically motivated human rights violations.

    Apartheid Museum
    Inside the “non-whites” entrance

    How many places around the world where civil war or civil unrest has left a crack in society should consider something similar to this – so that true healing can actually begin. It’s a true testament to the Mandela leadership era.

    The Hector Pieterson Museum

    “The Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, situated in Orlando West, Soweto, commemorates the role of the country’s students in the struggle against apartheid and in particular the role played by the school children who took part in the Soweto protests of 1976, many of whom were shot by the apartheid police while protesting against the sub-standard of education in black schools in South Africa.” (Quote from Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum Website)

    Hectar Pierterson famous photo
    The photo seen ’round the world, June 16, 1976

    What I learned and saw here was an incredibly heartbreaking story of the June 16th, 1976 peaceful protest that took the lives of many young and innocent children including 13 year-old Hector Pieterson. Shot point blank while on the sidewalk.

    The extremely graphic photo (shown here) became a symbol for the South African people fighting apartheid and made Hector Pieterson a martyr. Additionally it caused the photographer to flee for his life when the photo went viral around the world. And the young high-school boy carrying the body of Pieterson had to flee South Africa because the police wanted to kill him too. His family never heard from him again. His name was Mbuyisa Makhubo. I write his name here so he is not forgotten. An innocent victim.

    Hectar Pieterson Memorial
    Memorial to Hectar Pieterson and all those who were innocent victims

    What kind of mad crazy world was this? These were children. Horrifying. This is not a story I knew in depth and I was left feeling so sad. Like the Apartheid Museum this museum does a wonderful job bringing the real people who suffered to the forefront of the story.

    Soweto

    Soweto (South West Township) was created in the 1930’s when the whites started forcing the black population out of the city of Johannesburg. Soweto became the largest black township in South Africa, where residents were considered temporary and served as the workforce for white Johannesburg. During apartheid, Soweto experienced civil unrest and violence as the slum people began to rise up against the lack of education, sanitation and civil rights. This unrest culminated on June 16 1976 when students staged a peaceful protest against school being taught in Afrikaans instead of the tribal languages. This protest turned violent when the police killed innocent children. The newsreels of that time was seared on the psyche of people around the world and Soweto became known henceforth as the home of the war against apartheid.

    Welcome to Soweto
    Only a few years ago tourists would never come here
    Soweto
    Inside one of the “informal” townshps in Soweto

    Today, however, Soweto is safe and a visit to Soweto as a tourist is a must. It is however not easy to get around, so having a guide would be advised. Even in Soweto there is a class divide; nicer homes on the outskirts, the “matchbox” houses in the middle and the “informal” villages making up the rest. The informal villages are hammered-together shanty towns, where people who have not been able to get a government issued house live. We toured an informal village and went into a home. It was clean and organized and despite the fact it was made from sheet metal and tarps, you could see the pride the home owner had in her home.

    Children in Soweto
    Inside one of the informal Townships in Soweto

    Unemployment in Soweto is over 70% and and more than 3 million people live here.

    Home in Soweto
    Visiting one of the homes in the informal township

    Final Thoughts

    For someone from a western culture, and particularly someone who is white, it’s a difficult thing to wrap your head around all that has happened here. Unimaginable to most people. But despite the hardships and the continued race divide we met some very nice people, many working for a better life for themselves and their families. The children we met were very healthy and happy and curious about us. Our time seeing Johannesburg South Africa in one day was educational, enlightening, heartbreaking and hopeful.

    Child in Soweto
    The future of South Africa

    Slow progress, but will the races ever be on even ground in South Africa? Time will tell, but likely not in my lifetime.

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    Africa & The Middle East Travel

    That’s a Wrap Mauritius

    Long term stay on Mauritius

    Location: Mauritius Island, Indian Ocean, Africa

    The Great Mauritius Experiment comes to an end, a long term stay on Mauritius. That’s a wrap Mauritius.

    Six weeks staying in one place. In one Airbnb. On one island. The longest we have stayed anywhere. Here is what we learned;

    Me: I didn’t feel island fever -the malady of feeling trapped – but I did feel a loss of purpose. I’m not sure how to explain it but six weeks of doing a lot of nothing was too much for me. Some things about a long term stay on Mauritius I loved; I loved unpacking and sleeping in the same bed and feeling at home…and yet…

    North Beach Mauritius

    When I am at home (in the USA I mean), for three or more months during each year I have tasks. Things that need to be accomplished. And although we might often complain about these things, feeling that sense of accomplishment is a good feeling for me.

    While on Mauritius for six weeks I set goals and created tasks to keep myself feeling accomplished. Even if it was laundry, meal planning, writing the blog, hiking, running or researching our next destinations. This provides me some sense of purpose.

    Sunset Flic en Flac Mauritius

    Don’t get me wrong…I had definite enjoyable days of doing nothing. Even though I can’t spend hours and hours in the sun like I used to, the six weeks here included a lot of relaxing, reading and quiet time. But for me, it was too long.

    My husband: He is much less in need of a sense of purpose. In fact, his life goal is no tasks. I’m not saying he is lazy. Far from it. But he prefers a life without a lot of deadlines or pressure. He was and is the driving force behind us moving forward with a travel lifestyle (although most people believe it was me) and continues to enjoy this quiet life without drama that is inevitable back in the USA.

    Sunrise Flic en Flac Mauritius

    You might also be surprised to learn that it is he who loves the heat. He can spend the entire day reading on a lounge chair in the sun. So a long term stay on Mauritius fit him perfectly.

    Me: Moving forward in our planning I think I would want to stay three or maybe four weeks in a place but not longer. We stayed three weeks in Kenya and it was perfect. We stayed three weeks in Antiparos Greece and it was incredible. Much longer I just get ants in my pants. That said, once we leave here we are on a rollercoaster of movement for more than a month (8 countries) and I know when we stop to take a two-week breather in Cyprus we will be ready, tired and irritable. Finding a balance between these two kinds of travel is my goal.

    Gris Gris Beach South Mauritius

    My husband: He would prefer staying in one place for even longer than six weeks. Schlepping the bags is a pain. Driving is a pain. Changing lodging is a pain. Airports and airplanes are a pain. But, he doesn’t want to be back in the USA for extended periods either. The fact we are going to spend the Christmas holidays in the USA in 2020 is all my doing…he would rather not. He doesn’t like the weather, he doesn’t like the chores associated with the holidays (or the house), he doesn’t like the drama and he definitely doesn’t like how much it costs.

    And so we plunge ahead. We have no plans to stop this travel life. It’s been good for our marriage. It’s been good for our health (physical and mental). It’s been good for our finances. We just continue to refine it as we go along…it’s a constant learning process.

    Ile aux Aigrettes Mauritius

    So where to next? We depart Mauritius February 15th and begin country hopping through six African countries. Two quick days in Johannesburg, six days in the Victoria Falls triangle (Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana) five days in Uganda (Gorilla tour), seven days in Rwanda.

    A rough picture of the next five weeks.

    In early March we say farewell for now to the African continent after two and a half months and head to Israel for 16 days (but in 6 different lodgings) before taking a breather in Cyprus in the end of March. In Cyprus we spend the majority of our time in one Airbnb so it should be relaxing and we will be ready.

    I won’t bore you with the details from there, but I will say there is a lot of countries to come as we move north into Europe as spring and summer arrive, culminating in France for a late June wedding and heading back to the USA June 30th.

    And I’m already planning 2021, using all the knowledge we have acquired in our travels so far. What a fabulous life indeed.

    That’s a wrap Mauritius. Thanks for following along. Read last week’s blog about the wonderful foods on this island.

    Africa & The Middle East Travel  --  Food & Drink

    Exploring the Flavors of Mauritius

    A Melting Pot of Cuisines

    Location: Mauritius Island, Indian Ocean

    Culture Clash

    The flavors of Mauritius come from cuisines far and wide. The Island of Mauritius was uninhabited by humans until the arrival of Arabs in the 12th century. Then the Portuguese and Dutch dropped by and eventually the French and British colonized the island. The Dutch used the island as a stopover port between Madagascar and India and later for harvesting the ebony tree. Slaves were brought from Madagascar to assist in that pursuit.

    Sugarcane occupies 36% of the islands total area

    The French brought more slaves from the African continent in the 1700’s. Those slaves brought with them much of the African cultural foods and spices attributed to the flavors of Mauritius on the island today. French is still the main language of the island.

    Tea for every ailment

    The British claimed the island in 1810 and slavery was abolished in 1835. To maintain the growing sugar cane industry the British secured indentured servants from China and Malaysia and eventually a large number from India. Much of the island today feels more Indian than African and Hinduism is the largest religion.

    Salt from the island

    Today sugarcane remains the top crop of the island. Tea was once a major crop, but has declined over the years, but still is grown. Salt flats also once prolific have dwindled. Most grains are imported and many vegetables come from South Africa.

    Tea tasting and Tea plantation tours are popular activity for visitors

    African Influence

    Today exploring the cultural foods of Mauritius is a colorful collection of the history of slavery, indenture and colonialism. Creole cuisine traces its history directly to those brought from the African nations to work the sugar cane.

    Fish Curry made in our cooking class

    While visiting Mauritius we enjoyed a wide variety of Creole foods, both traditional and Nuevo. Creole is a common cuisine enjoyed on the island and we ate it in several locations as well as took an intensive Creole Cooking Class from a local chef (Diary of a Foodie Lover) who helped us explore the flavors of Mauritius. In our class we learned to make a fish curry, octopus salad, and my favorite, the flat bread known as farata.

    Making farata from scratch with Chef Didier

    Other Creole items we have enjoyed include rougaille – a spicy tomato based stew with chicken or fish – as well as Gaiteau another spicy fried ball made from lentils or chickpeas that you eat almost like popcorn, and hearts of palm salad – one of the most popular dishes on the island. The key to Creole cooking is the spices, very reminiscent of Africa. Many families and chefs create their own secret mixture, with the most popular additions being turmeric, coriander, curry, garlic, ginger, mustard seed, star anise, cloves, cardamom and thyme.

    Piment Crazer

    A spicy condiment called piment crazer is served along side bread in most restaurants. Watch out! Holy cow it is spicy. Made with chilies garlic and lemon it will make your eyes water!

    Smoked marlin salad with hearts of palm

    Prawns and fish are popular, of course, since this is an island. Marlin, not normally something you see on a menu, is favored smoked. You can find smoked marlin salads and sandwiches. Chicken is prolific. Although roti is traditionally an Indian bread, the use of roti as a wrapper for curry in the Creole style is common. Roti stands are abundant along the street and often have a very long line. It’s eaten for all three daily meals.

    Tandori Chicken with fried yams

    If you come to Mauritius we recommend a cooking class with Chef Didier and Mauritian Creole dinner at Creole Shack (casual) and Le Chamarel (fancy). Want to try fish curry at home? Here is a recipe.

    Asian Influence

    The term “coolie” was used in reference to those indentured servants who came from Asian countries, and although smaller in number their impact on the cuisine is still evident. The Asian immigrants are responsible for making rice a major part of every meal in Mauritius even though rice is not grown on the island.

    While visiting we had Chinois food several times. Similar to Chinese and Malaysian dishes we have eaten around the world, except the rice is Basmati. Every rice dish we were served while on the island was Basmati. No Chinese sticky rice like what we are used to. Basmati is a key ingredient in the flavors of Mauritius.

    Street vendor serving boulettes

    As in all Asian cuisines, vegetables, rice and noodles play a big role, with protein more of a garnish. On our street food walking tour with Taste Buddies in the capital city of Port Louis we loved the boulettes, a French word for a Chinese dumpling served throughout the island by street vendors.

    Boulettes in broth

    BBQ pork is also a popular dish – glazed with a cherry-honey mixture, the pork is served with fruit and not the spicy mustard we are used to from the USA.

    BBQ Pork with fruit

    And finally a very popular Chinese dish on the island is called Magic Noodles. It is a layered dish made in a bowl with a fried egg on the bottom, noodles and veg and then turned out onto the plate so the egg is on top. Very popular and very local.

    Magic upside down noodles

    If you come to Mauritius be sure to explore China Town in the capital city of Port Louis. Want to try Boulettes at home? Here is a recipe.

    Indian Influence

    Indo-Mauritians (both Muslim and Hindu) have had a major impact on the island economically, politically, culturally, and certainly in the cuisine. Today’s Indo-Mauritians trace their ancestry to the indentured servants who arrived during the colonial era. Hinduism is the largest religion on the island, and much of the population originates from the Tamil region in South India.

    We found Indian inspired foods everywhere, with some of our favorite flavors of Mauritius coming from street food vendors who prepare delicious roti (flat bread) stuffed with everything from vegetables to octopus, and samosa stuffed with potato and veg. We ate roti several times for breakfast, served hot off the grill at a vendor just down the street.

    Roti three ways; vegetable, chicken and lamb curry

    We learned a lot about this cuisine on our walking tour with Taste Buddies and enjoyed some local favorites like Dholl Puri, a light and delicate tortilla-like bread made from lentils. Sometimes stuffed with curry but often just stuffed with a spicy sambol sauce (sort of like salsa). Dholl Puri in Mauritius is always flat and soft, where in India it can be puffy.

    Dholl Puri – made from lentil flour

    We had a wonderful surprise when our Airbnb host brought us a full homemade meal of Dholl Puri. She made the delicious Dholl Puri herself and served it for us with Chicken Curry with potato and peas and along side some pickled vegetables and sambol. It was by far the best rendition we had on the island.

    Dholl Puri with pickled vegetables and chicken curry

    Our favorite Indian meal was at a restaurant close to our apartment called Zub. The service was excellent and the menu huge. We loved it.

    Our feast at Zub Express Indian Restaurant

    Want to try Dholl Puri at home? Here is a recipe.

    French Influence

    French influence on the cuisine is most evident in the abundant use of delicious baguette and other breads, puddings and desserts as well as bouillon, coq au vin and daube.

    Although Mauritius was a French colony for a much shorter period than when the British held it, the French influence is greater in the culture. The food and the language are French but the British left behind left-hand side driving.

    Entrecote with butter and frites

    We made a point to try French cuisine while on the island. Although many restaurants have menu items that salute the cuisine, we visited one of the highest rated French Restaurants in the town of Black River called Bistrot de la Poste about thirty minutes from where we were staying. The owner, a French man who was raised in Basque Country, chatted with us and welcomed us to his restaurant while we enjoyed a remarkable selection of French food and wine. The menu included canard, foie gras, frites, entrecote, and a lovely selection of French desserts.

    Canard with scalloped potato

    The island also grows its own coffee, and it is often served in the French style – strong and black. We tried three different locally grown coffees, all pretty good. Locals are very proud of their local brew, and you won’t find a Starbucks anywhere on the island. Most cafes we visited also served as a boulangerie and patisserie and included a wide selection of French style desserts and breads.

    Our favorite of the coffees we tried – Dodo Cafe

    The majority of visitors on the island are French, but there are also many guests from other countries around the world from honeymooners to families. This means in addition to the incredible selection of foods mentioned above, you will find pizza, pasta, burgers, sushi and a wide variety of other internationally loved dishes.

    A treat at the Boulangerie down the street from us

    Although we try not to eat out often in our travels (in an effort to stay on budget), we did try all the cultural influenced cuisines at least once during our six week visit. Food is the best way to learn about a place, to meet the locals and experience the culture and Mauritius is a tasty tapestry of delicious history, people and food.

    Just for you – I continue my quest to eat the world. I hope you enjoy!

    Check out our blog about the wildlife preservation efforts on Mauritius.

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    Africa & The Middle East Travel

    The Allure of Oman

    The Safest Country in the Middle East

    Location: Oman

    Once again we have stumbled on a country full of surprises. The allure of Oman includes it’s majestic scenery; captivating history; kind and thoughtful people; delicious food; fascinating traditions. Oman is all of this and more…as well as an up and coming tourist destination.

    Nizwa fort
    The people of Oman

    I’m so grateful to have spent ten days here and hope to return again someday.

    History

    Oman has a long and fascinating history dating well before the ancient silk and spice roads. Oman is the oldest independent Arab state. At one time the Omani Empire stretched from present day Oman down the East Coast of Africa and included the island of Zanzibar.

    Prehistoric findings of the region date back as much as 100,000 years. Over the millenia, Oman has been invaded often by Arab Tribes, Portugal and Britain.

    In the 1800’s the country had several sultans ruling over different parts of the territory. In the 1900’s two strongholds remained and tensions caused conflict between the Sultan in Muscat and the Ibadei Imam in Nizwa.

    Oman Seal
    The Sultan of Oman’s Seal

    When oil was discovered in 1954 the two factions once again went to war, and the British Army sided with the Sultan and assisted in air raids of the Ibadei region, including the bombing of the Tanuf Castle (see below).

    From then until 1970 the Omani people were ruled by Sultan Said bin Taimur who decreed the people could have no luxuries…that included shoes. His medieval and archaic way of thinking bred discord as it was a hard life with no schools, roads, or doctors. Disease was rampant.

    “In the 1970 Omani coup d’étatQaboos bin Said al Said ousted his father, Sa’id bin Taimur, who later died in exile in London. Al Said ruled Oman until his death just last month. As Sultan he confronted insurgency in a country plagued by endemic disease, illiteracy, and poverty. One of the new sultan’s first measures was to abolish many of his father’s harsh restrictions, which had caused thousands of Omanis to leave the country, and to offer amnesty to opponents of the previous régime, many of whom returned to Oman. 1970 also brought the abolition of slavery.

    Sultan of Oman Palace
    At the Sultan’s Palace built in 1971

    Sultan Qaboos also established a modern government structure and launched a major development program to upgrade educational and health facilities, build a modern infrastructure, and develop the country’s natural resources. “(Wikipedia)

    Today

    The allure of Oman can certainly be credited to the Sultan. The remarkable changes in this country in a mere 50 years is astonishing. We have found excellent infrastructure of highways and roads (but no subway or well connected transit system), sparkling clean public parks and beaches; everyone is educated and speaks English.

    With the passing of the beloved Sultan in January, his hand-picked successor (he had no heirs) Haitham bin Tariq became Sultan. It’s not expected much will change immediately.

    Wherever we travel, each country has problems. In Myanmar the question of the Royhinga genocide hung heavy over our visit. In China the protests in Hong Kong kept us from our original itinerary. And of course in my own country of the United States, the political upheaval is embarrassing. And Oman too has problems. Cost of oil has dropped and Oman is looking at ways to diversify, including tourism. There are some who feel human rights are neglected and protestors of any kind towards the monarchy are jailed. A clear hierarchy is in place with Omani people serving in government and leadership roles and most service and labor jobs are done by workers who have come from Pakistan, India, Asia and Africa.

    Fishing at the beach
    Fisherman bring in the catch at Qurum Beach

    Oman sits on the Straight of Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, only 35 miles from Iran. Oman is focused on territorial stability in a volatile region. As a visitor however you feel very safe and welcome. In fact it feels like a paradise.

    The Omani People

    We met some really wonderful people during our visit. Although most people keep pretty much to themsleves, it’s not uncommon to have people stop and ask if they can help you find something or ask where you are going or where you are from.

    The home of an Omani Family
    Our hostess for our dinner in her beautiful home

    The Muslim men all dress in what is known as the dishdashi and the women are in abaya, usually black but sometimes in other colors. Women wear a hijab. Some women cover their face but most do not. Women actually have a lot of rights in Oman, more than some other Arab countries. They vote, drive and hold professional positions such as doctors, airline pilots and more.

    Many people in Oman also dress in “western” clothing, but you will never see shorts or tank tops on locals.

    As a visitor I was careful to be respectful of the culture and I did not wear shorts at all during my visit. Long pants and shirts that always covered my shoulders and often my elbows as well. The only time I had to cover my head was when I visited the mosque. (see title photo).

    I was a little aghast at some young women we saw from Britain dressed very scantily and I felt it was incredibly disrespectful and as if they were flaunting it. Poor taste indeed.

    The Nizwa Souq
    Spice seller at the Nizwa Souq

    Our favorite experience of our visit to Oman was when we went to the home of a distinguished Omani family and had dinner with them in their home. We made this connection through a local business called Zayr whose mission is to connect Omanis with visitors to broaden the understanding of the culture. I am so glad we did this because we really learned a great deal about the daily life of Omanis. The family we visited was a man who is a Omani diplomat, his lovely stay-at-home wife and their five children. We also met a cousin (who works at the US Embassy) and a brother. Another brother is the Omani Ambassador to China. Many of the family members live in a cohabiting way in a large and beautiful house outside of Muscat. We talked about our respective cultures, and how each are so often misrepresented by media accounts of the actions of a few. We ate sitting on the floor in the Omani style and we truly could not have enjoyed this more. We learned about food and traditions such as eating dates in odd numbers, having coffee and dates at every meal and incense burned after the meal to cleanse your palate. It would be my wish that every American could have this experience to understand more about the peaceful and lovely Muslim people.

    Dining in Omani home
    The lovely family we dined with

    Oman, which is about the same size as California, has a population of 4 million, but only 2.5 million of those are Omani. The rest are expats who come to Oman to work, mostly from India, Pakistan, and other surrounding African and Asian nations.

    Beautiful Oman beaches
    Gulf of Oman

    Muscat

    The capitol city of Muscat is the most beautiful in Oman. The allure of Oman is found in this utopian city. Restriction on high rise buildings (no more than nine stories) as well as architectural restrictions that only allow Arab style structures with stucco in white and desert colors makes the city very symmetric and alluring. Hundreds of workers can be seen tending greenery in parks, medians and along roads keeping the capital city pristine.

    Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Oman
    Inside the Sultan Qaboos Mosque

    Muscat’s main attractions include the beautiful Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque (the top sight in Muscat), the stunning Royal Muscat Opera House, and the brand new and amazing National Museum of Oman.

    The opera house in Muscat
    The Royal Muscat Opera House

    You can also enjoy the beautiful Sultan’s Palace from the outside. The area known as Muttrah was one of our favorites, it includes a beautiful harbor (cruise ships dock here almost daily), a promenade with parks and viewpoints as well as the historic Muttrah Souq.

    Historic Muttrah
    Muttrah Souq

    Outside of Muttrah we also spent one day hiking in the beautiful barren mountains that surround this region. We had an outstanding day hiking up the craggy rocks and returning through the wadi (Arabic for valley or river bed) where we worked our way around babbling brooks and standing ponds back to sea level.

    Mountain hiking around Muttrah
    Hiking high above Muttrah

    Nizwa and Balha

    We took one full day to tour the forts in this region, about a two hour drive southwest from Muscat. Many visitors stay one or two nights in Nizwa but we chose to do it as a day trip from Muscat.

    We visited the restored Nizwa Fort, built in the 1600’s and restored in a very high quality way between 1985 and 1995. Today it is one of Oman’s top tourist attractions and we enjoyed it very much. Connecting to the fort is the Nizwa Souq. We hit it on a Saturday and many of the vendors were not open (the weekend is Friday Saturday) but we still enjoyed it and bought some spices and tea and dates.

    Beautiful Nizwa fort
    Nizwa Fort

    We also toured the Balha Fort, which was built in the 1100’s. It is currently being restored but you still can walk around it and enjoy it although there is no interpretive information. Hopefully that will be added when the restoration is done.

    One of my favorite things we did was crawl around the Tanuf Castle ruins. Nothing has been done to this site and it sits as it has since it was bombed by the British during the insurgence battles between Muscat and Nizwa in the 1950s. I really enjoyed this place and wish the government would add some interpretive information here.

    Bahla Fort
    Balha Fort

    Many people also go out into the stunning mountains in this region to hike. However we did not rent a 4WD vehicle, and you can’t get very far without one.

    The ruins of Tanuf Oman
    Tanuf Castle ruins

    Sur and Surrounding

    We spent one day driving south and east from Muscat towards the city of Sur.

    Our first stop was to just admire the amazing view of the ocean on this drive. The gorgeous turquoise blue of the Gulf of Oman will take your breath away.

    Our next stop was at the Bimmah Sinkhole – a super cool hole in the ground that was formed by the collapse of the surface layer of limestone. It is considered a lake but it is slightly salty. Visitors can swim in the crystal clear blue waters and enjoy this area for free.

    It is 50m by 70m and 20m deep. There are a few small fish that live in the hole.

    Clear water at Bimmah Sinkhole
    Bimmah Sinkhole

    Wadi Shab is a very popular hike not far from Sur. Both tourists and locals flock here for the beautiful nature and for a chance to swim in the waterfall cave.

    We went to Wadi Shab just after our visit to the Bimmah Sinkhole. However it had rained really hard the day before and we were quit surprised to find mud and silt all over the parking area several inches deep. We were told hiking to the cave was open but expect it to be slippery, muddy and difficult.

    With that information we reassessed our plans and decided to give the area a couple days to dry-out and return. Which we did. And I am so glad we did. A forty-five minute hike up the Wadi was difficult but fun. Wading through deep water and clambering over boulders made for quite an adventure. If you want to go to the cave at the top it requires swimming for about 100-yards. We did not do this, but even without seeing the cave, it was one of my favorite things in Oman. I highly recommend it. Hiking in any of Oman’s beautiful Wadi’s should be a highlight of any visit to Oman. Check out this great list to learn how many Wadi options are waiting to be explored.

    Wadi Shab

    The town of Sur itself wasn’t all that special. We did visit the lighthouse in the old town of Al Ayhar and walked along the ocean boardwalk. We had a wonderful experience having lunch in a tiny little restaurant here. There wasn’t even a menu! The very nice man just brought us lots of lovely food and it all cost only $10.

    Oman's desert Wahiba Sands
    Wahiba Sands

    The Desert

    I wanted to see “the desert” and most of the area along the coast of Oman is craggy mountains. Though these mountains are really beautiful, being in the Middle East means camels and sand dunes to me! So from Sur we drove two hours southwest to the Wahiba Sands desert. Without a 4WD you can’t drive into the dunes. There are plenty of drivers available and willing to take you out into the sand. Overnight camel treks are also available. But since we had done both of those in Morocco, Egypt and Namibia, here we decided to just enjoy the view from afar.

    Come to Oman

    If you are fearful of the Middle East, Oman is the perfect destination. It is welcoming and beautiful and you can learn a lot about the culture of the Middle East and the Muslim people. Don’t fear it – the allure of Oman is as much about the region as it is about the culture…both full of mystery and history just waiting to be discovered.

    Muslim people and Omanis in particular are kind and welcoming and want to share their culture and country.

    I am so glad we came. Shukran Oman. We feel blessed to know you. Tusahibuk alsalama. Peace be with you.

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