Thursday, February 28, 2013

It's Not Easy to See, But It's Worth It...The Skeleton Coast

Some places just beg to be visited.  Some of them you visit because of the beauty.  Some you visit because of the fun or the activities.  Some you visit because of historical significance.  Some places you simply visit because you have to see it.  I think that best describes Namibia's Skeleton Coast.
Historically, the Skeleton Coast covered hundreds of miles of Namibia's extraordinary desert coast, but now it's largely been contained inside a National Park.  You can enter the park through the frightening looking skeleton gates, but that's not going to allow you to go to the best parts.
This is one of those rare occasions where I will tell you to book a safari with a recognized tour company who has access to the restricted areas of the Skeleton Coast.  It's the best way to see what you really want to see.

That said, let me tell you that the rest will be an adventure.  The best and only way to get to see all of the shipwrecks along the coast, is to fly in and out in small planes with guides.  These trips are so sophisticated that they come with picnic lunches and specially outfitted Land Rovers with drivers who know where vehicles are allowed to drive.  All you have to do is go along for the ride and bring your camera.  This place is one giant photo op.
It's not just the desert that makes this place so treacherous for ships.  The Benguela Current flows in the area, and brings cold water from the Atlantic to the shores of the Namibian Coast here, making fog, and in effect, causing shipwrecks.  There are many stories about seafaring men who ran ashore and spent days looking for life in the desert.  It's a scary combination of desert and crushing currents offshore.
The land along the Skeleton Coast is full of shipwrecks and whale bones.  Reportedly, there are also some human bones wasting away in the sand of long ago tragedies never solved.
Namibia's desert is a fascinating place to visit.  As usual, I wouldn't tell you to go all the way to the most remote shoreline of Africa just to see some rotting old ships, fascinating though they are.
Cape Fur Seals inhabit the coastline, and even set up house inside the wrecked ships.  It's nature's way of making use of a tragedy, I suppose.  The seals fish directly off shore and sun themselves on the beach.  There are hundreds of seals in the colonies and they are quite something to see.

When you safari to the Skeleton Coast, you will most likely stay at a camp.  These camps are quite civilized, and you will find that you are as comfortable in one of these camps as you would be in a hotel.  They have wonderful meals and comfortable shower facilities.  The beds aren't bad either.
But you can go to more than one came and see more than one area while you are in Namibia.

Do you like dunes?  Along the coast of Namibia, you have some whoppers.  There are the Sossusvlei Dunes which are possibly the highest in the world.  They are surreal and glow red.  When on a safari, guides will drive you around them in Land Rovers and walk to the top of some if you wish.  The sand looks soft, but in many places it is walkable.
There are also the Roaring Dunes.  These babies are very red, and there's reason.  They're largely garnets.  Part of the sand along the Skeleton Coast is made of semiprecious gemstones, ground into sand.  It gives it a particularly shiny and colorful appearance, and the structure of these dunes makes them vibrate in a way that makes it seem as though they are roaring as you go down them.  It's an amazingly odd experience, that you won't want to miss.

If you go on a safari with a tour company, you will most likely get an opportunity to visit local tribes such as the Himba.  These are a nomadic people who have lived along the edges of the desert for centuries.  You will have a chance to meet them and see a little bit of their lifestyle.

And then there are the animals.  There are desert elephants here, who have adapted to this harsh terrain and live here quite comfortably.  You will also see Hyenas, Zebras, Turtles, many birds and so much more, including the seals.  The wildlife abounds in the harsh place, which is amazing, but there are a great variety of animals in the Western Namib Desert lands.
You will have the opportunity to take a boat on the Kunene River and see clay castles on the hilltops and Crocodiles in the water.  Once again, the camps will keep you comfortable and well fed.
This is a multi faceted adventure, and you will find something interesting and fascinating at every turn.  There are caves with archaic drawings in them.  There are oases, and canyons, and gemstones, and shipwrecks.  The Skeleton Coast and the surrounding area have something for anyone.  The best part is that you can go and still have a comfortable vacation.  It's certainly something that will give you impressions that you've never gotten anywhere else.  It will give you a new perspective on the rest of the world.
The world is old in Namibia, whether it be the old rotting ships in the sand, or the pipe-like rocks leftover from the volcanic times, or the dunes that rise unbelievably high against the coast.  Traditions are old here, just like everything else, and you should experience it before the conservationists decide to restrict it even more.  Make a reservation, and let someone else do the thinking on this one.  Just go along for the ride.


Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Most Amazing Little Island...Madeira

It's old world meets new world.  It's nature meets civilization.  It's where water meets the ocean.  This is Madeira.  I was attracted to this location just because of the Lava Pools of Porto Moniz.  These are amazing.  They are naturally formed by volcanoes, right next to the ocean.  The locals have made them into natural swimming pools.
These massive pools are accentuated with ladders, Roman style steps, and partial containment walls to guard the massive surf from the Atlantic Ocean on the outside.  This is a swimming destination like you've never seen before.  They may be closed due to harsh surf in the dead of winter, but due to the island's sub tropical climate, they are open most of the year.  They are a scenic and peaceful place to take a dip.  They are the only place quite like this in the world.  Make sure that you and your family are safe when swimming here though.  Just because it's a monitored and maintained place, doesn't mean that there aren't safety hazards.  If your children can't swim, be very careful taking them into any natural pool.  The floors remain natural and therefore uneven.  That can be a hazard to little ones that don't really swim.  There are lifeguards at the pools for the public safety.  They do have operating hours, and charge a small fee for entry, so check the current details before you go.
Now, the lava pools were great.  To me it was reason enough to visit Madeira.  Then I heard about the cable cars.  The most famous one is from Funchal to Monte.  It goes from one town to another, because it's easier than a train or a car.  I'm not joking.  The mountain that separates these two towns is steep, so they built a cable car.  The result was a great tourist attraction that has incredible views of a good portion of the coast of the island.  It's amazing.  Once again, a great view is reason enough to visit a locale, but there was more.

The Monte Palace Gardens are some of the most amazing gardens I have ever seen.  There are water gardens, Asian gardens, bird sanctuaries, Orchid gardens, and tailored gardens of all kinds including some that showcase the enormous variety of local plants and trees.  You could easily spend all day here, taking in the beauty of the place.

Now, Madeira is not a country.  It's an island in the Atlantic, not far from Morocco.  That may be a little vague, but just look at a map and figure it out.  It's owned by Portugal.  There's an old world nature about a lot of the island.  This is something else that makes this a worthwhile trip.  There are beautiful old world looking towns all over the island.  There are wineries in the hills that make wine sought after the world over.  There are wonderful traditions.
One such wonderful tradition is the Monte Toboggan Ride.  What is it?  Well, it's the quickest way to come back from Monte to Funchal.  There are these traditionally dressed guys at the top in Monte.  They wear white clothes.  They have wicker toboggans that are made somewhat like sleighs.  They will put you in that sleigh and run you down the hill to Funchal.  I'm not kidding.  It's one of the oldest traditional rides on the island, starting somewhere in the mid 1800's.  The ride lasts about 10 minutes until you get to a suburb of Funchal on the bottom.  The sleighs can go up to 48 km per hour.  It's a thrill and a great ride in the old world.

Now, Madeira has many wonderful things to offer.  There is a model of the Santa Maria that you can take a cruise on.  They have a theme park and a water park for more traditional family fun.  They have great shopping, beautiful architecture and a great fireworks display on New Year's Eve.

Another thing that they have in Madeira is the old north coast road.  This thing goes from Sao Vicinte 16 km to Porto Moniz.  The scenery is amazing.  The cliffs are astounding.  The tunnels are really something to behold.  It's a great way to spend some time in the afternoon, and you can top it off with a swim when you get to Porto Moniz.
Is that enough?  Well, there's something else.  In the old days, they had to figure out how to get fresh water to the growing coastal towns.  The solution was to make a canal or Levada to let the water meander its way down from the mountains to the towns along the coast.
Now, you can go for a trek along them.  There are several tour companies that will help you plan your walk along some or all of the 2500 km of Levadas.  They have been around since the 1600's and they have tremendous views.  It's an amazing way to spend your walking in nature time.
So, let me just say that if you like the old world with a twist, you'll love Madeira.  It has everything and something for everyone.  It's got great Portuguese food too.  Beat that.  So, if you think that you would like to drive along a coastal cliff drive, see great mountain views from a cable car or while hiking along a Levada, if you would like to swim in a pool created by volcanoes, or go screaming down a mountain on a toboggan after walking amazing gardens, then this place is for you.  It seems as though it would be a million miles away, but it's just in the Atlantic Ocean not far from southern Europe.  It's something truly exotic that's not that far away.
There are some things that you should know.  Like the Azores, you will probably want to allow the time to fly through Portugal on layover to get there.  It's way cheaper.  Also, it does get cooler in the winter months even though it is still warm by most standards.  This means that there are short periods where the pools and some other attractions may not be open.  Be prepared to wrestle with the language.  English is not so widely spoken there and Portuguese is the native tongue.  However, there is barely any crime on this tiny island, and the people are old world friendly.
Take a chance on a small island, take a step back into the old world.


Thursday, February 14, 2013

Borneo...Take a Walk in the Rainforest

This is the latest way to experience a rainforest.  As time goes on and more people want to have that experience, the people who live there are trying to find easier ways for people to do just that.  A couple of decades ago, it would have been almost impossible for the average Joe to go to a rainforest in Borneo and see the views up close and personal.  The idea of just walking around and seeing rare birds and Orangutans was something that only the richest people in the world with personal guides and fancy equipment could do.
Not any more.  This is the canopy walkway at the Discovery Center just outside of Sandakan, Borneo.  It may be a little bit of a wild drive to get the 24 km to the Center, since the roads are not necessarily what you would expect in America.  The roads are dirt, and subject to the weather.  It isn't always an easy drive, but the payoff is well worth it.

There are observation towers here in the middle of the rainforest.  Instead of taking ropes and clips with a guide and camping can just walk along and look for yourself.  You don't have to be a wilderness buff.  You don't have to be an adrenaline junkie.  You can just do it.
Now, I don't mean to say that this is handicap accessible or anything.  You do have to be in moderately good shape to take this walk.  The walkway itself is up to 100 meters high in the canopy.  There are inclines and stairs along the way.  But the views are amazing.

You might even see some of these guys.  That's right, the local residents are Orangutans.  These wonderful primates are becoming more and more rare and are currently listed on the endangered species lists.  In Borneo, not far from the Discovery Center, there is the Danum Valley Conservation Area.  Here the Orangutan is protected, so that they can live and prosper.  The conservation area is another fabulous stop on this tour, so don't miss that either.  There are programs to take part in to learn more about these animals.  There are guided tours there, and much else.

Now this is the Borneo Rainforest Lodge.  This is the place to stay if you want to spend some time in the area and see the wildlife up close and personal.  They have many activities to keep you occupied and teach you about the area.  They also have their own walkway in the rainforest.  It rises up to 26 meters above the rainforest floor and goes for about 300 meters through the canopy.

There are some other activities at the lodge that are worth checking into such as the natural jacuzzi, the nature trails, ancient coffins with skeletons in them, a safari drive, night walks and so on.  You can even go innertubing on the river.  It's a wonderful way to commune with nature.  It's a wonderful way to see the rainforest.  It's a great way to learn about the local community.
And the lodge is one of the greenest places to stay on Earth too.  They are well aware that we need to be aware of our waste and keep the rainforests as well as the rest of the planet in mind as we go to live our lives with all of our luxuries.  The lodge is solar powered and fairly self contained.  The staff is nice too.

So, if you want to see the rainforest up close and personal, come to the Rainforest Discovery Center in the Danum Valley in Borneo.

Come stay at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, so you can take the time to investigate the valley area.  There are Pygmy Elephants, Orangutans, monkeys, and rare and beautiful birds here to see.  There are trees so large that it takes a ring of ten people to encircle them.  It's amazing, it's beautiful, and it's waiting to be visited.

Come and experience this wonderful idea of walking through the rainforest canopy before it gets out.  Right now it is quiet and comfortable.  In the future as more rainforest areas develop these kinds of attractions, such as the one in Queensland, Australia that has already gone up, the crowds will thicken.  Get there ahead of the crowds.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Do You Find Hobbits Interesting?

If you like the Lord of the Rings, you'll recognize this.  If you love the Lord of the Rings, you'll need to go here.  This is Hobbiton.  That's right, that set from the movies, most recently, The Hobbit.  It's now a tourist attraction near Matamata, New Zealand.  It's summer down there right now, or at least the weather is summer like.  All of this lies only about two hours south of Aukland.

You just don't see this everywhere.  Most of the time, movies, even the really big blockbusters, take away their sets when the movie is finished.  It's very rare that something like this is left to be used for a tourist attraction.  The only other one that I know of on this scale is the one from Star Wars in Tunisia.  This is a special opportunity to see a little bit of movie history.

You don't see things like this just anywhere.  And what a great thing for Tolkien enthusiasts.  A real trip to a Hobbiton in Middle Earth.  It's a sci-fi Mecca.

Now, don't forget, there are about a million things to see in New Zealand.  This would just be the crowning glory to a really great trip.  New Zealand has some of the most amazing scenery found anywhere in the world.  It has mountains, beaches, farmland, cities, Maori culture, vineyards, and some of the friendliest people on Earth or from Middle Earth.  There are some crazy things to do like flying down mountains on a monorail in a tube, or inside of a padded inflatable ball.  You can go surfing on sand there, and hiking on glaciers.  It's a truly amazing place.
It's called Schweeb, and it's a real thrill ride down the side of a mountain.  You'll find it in Rotura.

Cape Reinga is a beautiful spot near Northland.  The beach here is full of dunes, and sandboarding is the sport here.  It's crazy and fun, and something different.
This is Zorb in Rotura.  If you ever wanted to go bouncing down a hillside inside of a plastic ball, this one's for you.
Kiwi's love their off beat and thrilling activities.  That's what I'm told and what I read in the brochures.  This is the land of the avid bungee jumper, hiker, rock climber, sea kayaker, hang gliding enthusiast, skydiver, scuba diver, and so on.  So, you will never run out of things to do.

And in Middle Earth, you'll never run out of amazing views.
So, in the middle of winter, think about visiting Middle Earth in New Zealand.  Hobbiton is there and waiting for you to come and take a walk on the fantasy side.  Take a walk through a movie and feel like you've walked into your favorite novels. Zealand

Hobbiton is a place you'll never forget, and never quite believe really even exists.