Kruger National Park, South Africa

October 3, 2015

It’s been a month since we got back from our vacation, and it has taken a while to assemble this post. Of course, the main reason we came to South Africa was to go on safari; to see rare and exotic animals that you can only see here in Africa. We spent a week inside Kruger and were not disappointed, seeing all of the Big 5. Giraffe, elephant, zebra, buffalo and hippopotamus. We even saw the rarest of all; African Wild Dog.

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We saw many, many elephant. There is currently an overpopulation of elephant in Kruger.

Leopards are elusive and usually spend their days sleeping in trees. We were lucky to have seen three.

We were very lucky and saw over 20 Rhinoceros; including one while we were on a bush hike (with armed rangers).

Even in my previous trip to Africa, I had never see Cheetah in the wild. We saw 5 cheetah; including two that walked just a few feet from our cars. It’s all just dumb luck; being in the right place at the right time.

Kruger National Park is about the size of New Jersey, but when you consider the adjoined parks and private game reserves the actual size doubles. What is different about Kruger than other places in Africa is that you can go on safari on your own; without guides and in your own vehicle (with just your family members). There is a common misconception that people think they should go with a guide because they know where the animals are. While guides are good at spotting animals in the distance, the excitement comes from seeing animals close up.  The truth is that it’s all just plain luck; there is no secret spot where certain animals spend their day. Every day we went out we never knew what we would see; but we always saw something new.

It wasn’t until about 3 days into the park that we saw zebra.

Hyena are nocturnal. So we had to wake up at 5AM to see them as they walked back to their dens. We saw 3 over the course of our week inside the park.

I didn’t realize ostrich were from Africa; until of coarse we saw some.

Buffalo are part of the Big 5; and often travel in huge herds.

Here are some of the miscellaneous animals we also saw.

What is unique about Kruger is that the network of dirt roads allows you to safari on your own.


Blyde River Canyon, South Africa

September 3, 2015
Allegedly the third biggest canyon in the world

Allegedly the third biggest canyon in the world

Our first stop in South Africa was in the north-east where the Great Escarpment drops away into the Lowveld; forming the third largest canyon in the world (according to the South Africans, behind the 4,400 feet drop of the Grand Canyon, and Fish River Canyon). The Canyon’s impressive drop of 2,400 feet happens quickly; one minute we are at river level then a few miles down the road the river lies far below.

The Great Escarpment is where Madagascar and Antarctica broke away from Africa about 200 million years ago. Another famous feature is God’s Window; just south of Blyde River Canyon, along the same panoramic route. If anyone remembers the 80’s comedy “The Gods Must Be Crazy”; this is where the story’s hero comes to throw the Coke bottle off the end of the world.

There are many waterfalls and other geological features in the area. We visited Sudwala caves; while not the biggest caves we’ve seen; they claim to be the oldest; forming over the course of 240 million years. They have been habited by our ancestors for about 1.8 million years.

We drove the Panoramic route in one day; from Sabie in the south to Hoedspruit in the north.  We ended up sleeping in the Bushriver Lodge, which turned out to be my favorite hotel in Africa. We were able to walk freely in their game reserve (no big cats or elephants), and enjoyed the beautiful deck overlooking the Oilifants river (we saw crocs, but no hippos).

TRAVEL WARNING WITH MINORS: Unfortunately, South Africa has very recently (June 2015) changed the rules when traveling with minors under 18 years old. You are required to travel with original, unabridged birth certificate. Because I am divorced the rules also require me to travel with the a court order proving that I have full custody (Because I only have shared custody, Immigration was not supposed to let me travel). And because my custody order is part of my divorce decree; the new rules require me to travel with a complete inventory of all my assets and accounts. These new laws seem like the were drafted by kidnappers and extortionist.


Ezulwini Valley, Swaziland

August 30, 2015

Sandwiched between South Africa and Mozambique is the tiny kingdom of Swaziland. We chose to visit Swaziland because it is much smaller and more traditional than their larger neighbors. We felt very welcomed as individuals. We stayed in the Ezulwini Valley (“Valley of Heaven”) which was peaceful and an important part of Swazi culture.

Wildebeast in the Millwane Game Reserve

Wildebeest in the Millwane Game Reserve

Towering over the heart of the Ezulwini valley is Execution Rock. While no longer in use, it was a constant reminder to be on your best behavior. At the foot of Execution Rock is the Mantenga Cultural Village, which showcases the historical cultural of the nomadic Swazi people. It is made up of a traditional village made of sticks and reeds.

There was also a wonderful Dance presentation featuring traditional Africa drums and dance. It was spectacular, and even my two teenage boys love it.

We also visited the Millwane Game Reserve, which is unique because it allowed us to walk freely among the, without the fear of large predators (except for Crocodile). We did little stumble onto a large Nile Crocodile, but fortunately there were a few small trees between us.

Overall, our visit to Swaziland was a beautiful transition between the European and African portions of our vacation. It is much slower paced than it’s dominant neighbor to the West.


Prague, Czech Republic

August 15, 2015

A long time ago I lived here in Prague. I celebrated the turning of the millennium in Old Town Square in the heart of Prague; in all I spend 1-1/2 years here. Most importantly, my oldest son was born here. He has a Czech birth certificate, of which I can only decipher about 50%. He learned to walk on the uneven cobblestones of 700 year old squares. In a sense, this vacation was my son’s big “homecoming”; returning to the city of his birth for the first time in his memory.

Old Town Square

Old Town Square

Prague is a one of those eternally beautiful cities. The architecture of the town center has changed little since I lived here. Prague served as the capital of the Holy Roman Empire beginning in 1355, and later became tied to the Hapsburgs.

When I lived here I was newly married to my now ex-wife. Now, as I walked around Prague re-telling stories to my two sons; 16 and 14; all the memories were happy. Riding our bikes to a nearby Chateau, the bar across the street from our old apartment that sold beer for 15-cents, the walled gardens hidden behind storefronts. I enjoyed, again, struggling to put together enough Czech words to be (somewhat) understood.

While the main tourist areas; Wensenslaus Square, Old town Square, and Charles Bridge are more overrun than ever by tourists, we did find that stepping away from the main tourist thoroughfare revealed the delightful city that I remembered.

 


Strasbourg, France

August 11, 2015

My uncommon last name has always been difficult for people to pronounce. It’s hard to understand its origin in order to apply the proper linguistic rules. It comes from this region that switches back and forth between France and Germany, depending upon who won the last war. Finally after hundreds of years, my family name returns; if only for two days. Old town Strasbourg is charming and decidedly German.

However, the slightly newer areas have a feel and ambiance of Paris. It wasn’t until later in the day that we realized that we dressed as the French flag.

Of the sights to see, Strasbourg has an amazing cathedral. It is in the top 10 worldwide list of tallest cathedrals. It was so immense that it was not possible to take a complete photo, and my lens was zoomed out so far (to 18mm) that the curvature prevented me from making a collage.

Finally, we ate a traditional French dinner of. Unfortunately, I forgot to take a picture before we ate. Another highlight was the amazing French cheese we bought. While not as elaborate as a Parisian Fromagerie, it greatly surpasses even the finest cheese shop back home in New York. Just a common unpasteurized goats cheese is better than the finest cheese I have every bought in the US.


Grand Canyon, Arizona

April 11, 2015

Logistically tying together Bryce Canyon, Utah and the Grand Canyon’s southern rim into a single trip was a little challenging. It meant driving 5 hours through of some of this country’s most beautifully isolated landscape. We spent the night in Page, Arizona; the only real town for 100 miles in any direction. When I woke up the next morning, I realized that I was 5 miles away from a sight that I have wanted to see for more than 35 years. (click on the picture to see it full-screen)

Horseshoe Bend of Colorado River; just upstream from Grand Canyon

Horseshoe Bend of Colorado River; just upstream from Grand Canyon

Later that morning, we entered the Grand Canyon from the East and drove the 25 miles from the eastern entrance to Grand Canyon Village; stopping at the many view points along the canyon’s rim. The Grand Canyon is one of this countries most touristic parks with nearly 5 millions visitors per year. The crowds grew larger as we neared the village. Even though it is nowhere near peak season, walking along the rim trail I was overwhelmed by the crowds and tour groups. Yet with a little effort, I was able to escape the intense crowds. Hiking down into the canyon on the Kaibab trail to Ooh-Ahh point took just 1 hour. The switchbacks taking you off the rim are nerve-racking, and the views from Ooh-Ahh point are breathtaking.

Overall a smooth and wonderful trip.


Bryce Canyon, Utah

April 9, 2015

I have a mental list of places that I want to take my two sons. Despite that it is one of the lesser known National Parks, Bryce Canyon has always always been high on that list. I remember going when I was 13 years old with my parents; one of my best childhood vacations. For me, hiking amongst the Hoodoos turned out to be an unforgettable experience. I was happy to see that my own sons also enjoyed themselves.

From the rim of Bryce Canyon

From the rim of Bryce Canyon

We hiked down the steep switchbacks into the canyon and walked between the towering walls of red rock. We took the longest trail of 5-1/2 miles, and ended up vertically climbing half mile. It was an exhausting hike, but I am glad to have shared it with my sons.

The expansiveness of Bryce is hard to show without losing the uniqueness of its geological formations. This is truly like no other place on earth.

Bryce Canyon is only a 4-1/2 hour drive from Las Vegas. The challenge was combining it with visiting the Grand Canyon. But as often happens, that challenge meant we got to see one of the most picturesque points along the Colorado River (you have to check back in a few days to see, lol)


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