Category Archives: history

Starting Our Own Voyage of Discovery

Location: Maryland -> San Salvador, El Salvador -> Guayaquil, Ecuador

In 1831 Charles Darwin set sail on the HMS Beagle to explore the Galapagos Islands. No one would know at the time just how big an impact this journey would have on our understanding of nature, and the world at large. During his five year trip, later named “Darwin’s Voyage of Discovery” that he would take notes and drawings of various species and the varying geology of the differing islands of the archipelago. The archipelago is about 700 miles from South America on the equator, and mostly cut off from the rest of the world. Each of the islands have their own special micro environments and can even be effectively isolated from one another, which causes the species on those islands to adapt to the circumstances.

In 1859, Darwin would publish “On the Origins of Species” which laid the foundation of evolutionary biology.

In 1959, Ecuador established the islands are a living museum and national park set to preserve the islands to as much as possible while still allowing scientists and other visitors a chance to see the wildlife in their natural habitats.

In July 2015, we booked a week long cruise to visit the islands in 27 months time. While this trip is a bucket list item for many people, we wanted to do this while we were still young and it so that we could really enjoy the trip. The cruise is on the Celebrity Xpedition, a ship which holds less than 100 passengers, so we had to book early to get a room (and a better rate).

We choose to visit in September because it was the best month to see Galapagos penguins. We choose the “inner loop” option for the same reason. Ideally we would have preferred to do it earlier in the month, but we also new that we had the 2017 eclipse trip planned for around the same time. So we decided to do it later in the month to spread out the trips a little bit.

On this day in 2017, we started off on our own voyage of discovery to the Galapagos Islands. We have no disillusion that this vacation will revolutionize modern science! But we plan to snorkel with penguins, look at boobies, lay on the beach with seals and sea lions, hike up volcanoes, and try to spot the elusive Phillie Phanatic (pics of his visit home).

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We woke up this morning, and after some brief packing, made our way to the airport. It would take Darwin a little over a year to sail from England to the Galapagos. It would take us about 27 hours on three flights to get there.

Our first flight took us from Dulles to San Salvador, El Salvador. Even though we had a 6.5 hour layover here, the remoteness of the airport relative to anything of interest left us little time to explore the local area. Instead we spent that time, relaxing in the lounge and working on this blog post.

The next flight took us from San Salvador to Guayaquil, Ecuador. We cleared customs easily enough and left the airport to overnight in a nearby hotel for a brief sleep.

Tomorrow we head back to the airport and fly to the Galapagos. In the afternoon we’ll go on our first tour of the island as we explore the bay near Puerto Ayora.

Total flights: 2

Total countries: 3 (US, El Salvador, Ecuador)

Total continents: 2 (North America, South America)

Total hemispheres: 2 (NW, SW)

Total timezones: 3

Total wildlife species seen: none worth mentioning

Total phanatic encounters: 0

Total Steps: 7454

Post script: The most prevalent questions we got from friends after our return last month was “When’s your next trip and when are you going?” Lots of surprise when we replied, the Galapagos in a couple weeks!

Post post script: Our fitbit charger is MIA, so we may not be able to count our steps too much longer.

 

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Dinosaur Day

Location: Vernal, Utah -> Fruita, Colorado -> Moab, Utah

Map of today’s travel, Click for a higher resolution image

Today was mostly about dinosaurs. Our first stop was Dinosaur National Monument, about 30 minutes from Vernal, Utah. The highlight of this monument is a structure built into the side of a hill which houses a wall of dinosaur fossils from the Jurassic era. 150 million years ago, this area was fairy wet and had a river. Occasionally a heavy drought would occur, dinosaurs would die near the dry riverbed, rains would pick up again and wash the bones downstream. The heavier bones ended up buried here.

Dinosaur fossils were first discovered here in 1909 by Earl Douglass, working for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.  Most of the hill was removed to gain access to thousands of fossils. Most were removed. But Douglass wanted a some of the fossils to remain in a wall and put on display as a national monument. President Wilson established it as a national monument. Today’s it’s a bit of a tourist draw, and even a nearby town in Colorado was renamed “Dinosaur”.

The fossil wall contains many species of dinosaurs and other creatures. Some of the notable species include Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Allosaurus.

The rock wall enclosed in the building.

We spent about an hour and a half here. Next we had a 2.5 hour drive to get to Colorado National Monument in Fruita, Colorado. The journey itself varied between long flats stretches and tight switchbacks along scenic mountains.

Rachel: What’s the speed limit on this road?
Ryan: I don’t know, but my speedometer says 160 mph.
Rachel: But this is a Kia.
Ryan: Oh right, 95 mph I guess.

Colorado National Monument is a modest sized national park that overlooks Fruita and Grand Junction. It offers scenic views of red sandstone canyons. Ryan white knuckled the drive through the park and Rachel got some great pictures.

Balanced rock

We watched thunderstorms pop up all day around us.

Rachel: This would be a much nicer picture without the trees.
Ryan: You are such a geologist.

We should point out that while Colorado National Monument doesn’t have any direct dinosaur fossils, many fossils were found in the towns nearby and there are some dinosaur museums. We didn’t stop in those.

Our destination for the day was Moab, Utah. But before we made it into town we stopped at three dinosaur tracks north of town as recommended by discovermoab.com. The first stop was to Copper Ridge Dinosaur Tracksite. This was a relatively easy off road drive and 500 ft uphill hike to arrive at footprints of (presumed) Allosaurus and Apatosaurus.

Ryan’s shadow pointing to 2 very large footprints.
Ryan’s foot for scale.

The next stop took us to the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Bone Trail. We meant to go to the tracksite, but must’ve followed the wrong directions. It all worked out okay though, since we got to see more dinosaur fossils still in rock walls. The drive out to this site was a little difficult as our rental car sedan had to deal with some dry sandy riverbeds. The fossil walk was about a quarter mile hike with lots of informational signs every 20-100 feet.

Ryan pointing to dinosaur fossils in the rock.

The last track stop was to see the Willow Springs Dinosaur Tracksite. This was a loooonnnnggg offroad drive, which contrary to the website, shouldn’t be driven with a sedan. We somehow got our rented mule to the end of the trail and back again without damaging the car. On the plus side, the dinosaur tracks were located immediately next to the “parking lot” of the trail.

Hmmm… these are cool but not sure if it was worth that drive.
Rachel’s foot for scale.

We made to the hotel and checked in without incident. As we were unpacking, a hard rainstorm passed through town leaving wet side walks and a double rainbow in its wake.

The view from our hotel room.

Tomorrow we are going to explore Arches National Park.

Total steps: 13,134

Total miles driven: 296

Total national park passport stamps: 4 (somehow missed a bunch of national historic trail stamps)

 

 

 

Riding Along the Oregon Trail

Location: Jackson, Wyoming -> Vernal, Utah

Click for a higher resolution image of today’s travel

Today was a travel day meant to transition from the mountain climate portion of the trip  to the desert climate.  And some of this journey took place on the Oregon National Historic Trail.

We didn’t beat our alarms for the first day of this trip, and actually hit the snooze bar a few times. So we got a later start than expected. We weren’t on a tight schedule so it didn’t really matter.

We left our comfortable hotel and made our way to Fossil Butte National Monument. It rained during most of this trip, so we didn’t get many good pictures of the landscape along the way.

The world’s largest elkhorn arch.

Along the way we shortly dipped in Idaho one last time, and then joined up with the modern Oregon historic trail.

We made it to Fossil Butte without any issues. The website for this park hasn’t been updated in a while so we came in with pretty low expectations. But the site museum and surrounding area has been updated recently so we were pleasantly surprised with what we found. On the road leading up to the visitor center were sign posts showing the evolution of life and geology on earth since its creation. The signage was proportionally spaced along with the respective passage of time. Rachel had flashbacks from her college classes and gave Ryan plenty of geology lessons for the day.

Inside the visitor center we were treated with well-preserved fossils of fish, plants, and other animals that had been preserved in a massive lake that once occupied the area about 50 million years ago. It was all presented very elegantly in a tight museum.

From there we got back on the road, again following the Oregon historic trail. Our next destination was Fort Bridger Historic State Park.

Along the way, we joined another wagon train to avoid some rough trails.

We did not die of dysentery along the way.  Somewhere along the trail, “Ryan has exhaustion”, and we lost two oxen while trying to cross the river.

Look at this awesome photo Ryan took of Fort Bridger today!
And this is the photo Rachel took.

The historic location has gone through a lot of changes since it was just an out of the way trading post along the Oregon, Mormon, and California trails. Today it’s a museum. We spent about an hour here.

We got back on the road and made our way south towards Vernal, Utah. Along the way we passed through the scenic Ashley National Forest and the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area. We pulled along the side of the road to get some great scenic shots of the landscape.

Flaming Gorge

Along the road, the forest service set up short informational signs that explained the geologic history and formation of the varied terrain along the road and through the road cuts.

Scenery on the drive.

In the late afternoon we arrived at the hotel. Ryan took a nap and Rachel worked on editing some eclipse photos.

Tomorrow we will start the day by visiting Dinosaur National Monument, a midday stop at Colorado National Monument, and looking at dinosaur footprints north of Moab, Utah.

Total steps: 6,960

Total miles driven: 323

Total national park passport stamps: 10

 

San Gervasio Mayan Ruins

Location: Cozumel, Mexico

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Today we are back in Cozumel, Mexico. We were here last year and took a tour of the Chitzen Itza ruins in Yucatan. Today we set out to explore the San Gervasio ruins here on Isla Cozumel.

These ruins were dedicated to the Mayan goddess of the moon and fertility. Leigh and Becky, who did not join us on the tour, were very happy to hear about the latter. 😉

It was hard to appreciate the meaning behind many of the ruins. Luckily our guide Cesar was able to give everyone the necessary background on Mayan mythology and numerology to understand the architecture and symbolism of the sites.

The ruins were more modest than what we toured last year. We saw the temple dedicated to moon goddess…

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and another to both the sun and moon.

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We also saw the gates and road to the city.

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After the visiting the ruins our tour took us to a beach on the Caribbean side of the island. We spent about 90 min here relaxing in the cove and occasionally lying in the hammocks.

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The evening show was the Broadway Intimate Cabaret. The ship’s singers sang a variety of Broadway hits.

Tonight, we also joined Becky and Leigh for dinner in Murano, the ship’s French specialty restaurant. The food was delicious.

We overnight in Cozumel tonight. And tomorrow we go on tour of an underground river cenote on the mainland.

Total steps: 9670

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The Atlantic Locks of the Panama Canal

Location: Colon, Panama

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Last night we posted the blog and tried to go to bed early for our early morning excursion to transit the Panama Canal. But things didn’t quite go as expected. Soon after uploading last night’s post we got notification that the ferry that is used for the excursion to transit the canal was down for repairs, and that our excursion was cancelled. Because it was so last minute, we were only given three options as a replacement:

  1. Going to a shopping mall in Panama City
  2. Visiting Portobelo, Panama which according to the tour description “is severely affected by poverty, the facilities are substandard”
  3. Visiting the Gatun and Agua Clara Locks of the Panama Canal

Regardless of disappointment we booked the locks tour late last night. Our tour would limit us to one ocean, one continent, and no water transportation.

This morning Ryan was in a mood. But we still got breakfast and boarded a tour bus that first drove to Gatun locks area. Along the way we learned that there are no traffic laws in the Colon Province (this is actually true), and that most of the countries economy comes from the Colon province, but all of that money gets reinvested into the Pacific coast side of the country. And it really showed while driving through Colon.

We started our tour of the locks at the new (one year old) Agua Clara locks visitor center. These are the newest locks of the canal and are about 60% bigger, but use 60% less fresh water than the previous locks.

Agua Clara Locks
Agua Clara Locks

But because they are so much bigger they are also slower. We were at the visitor center for about 1.5 hours and only managed to see one larger super-carrier make it though 1 of the 3 locks.

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After that we went to the older Gatun locks.  We were there for about 45 minutes and saw a couple ships pass through the locks.

Driving over the Agua Clara Locks. That is the same container ship from the previous pictures.
Driving over the Agua Clara Locks. That is the same container ship from the previous pictures.

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Ryan, Rachel, Becky, and Leigh
Ryan, Rachel, Becky, and Leigh

We also got to see the use of the mule trains which help move the ships through the locks.

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And play engineer on a model mule near the entrance.

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Overall it was a pretty neat tour. It’s still upsetting that we couldn’t transit the canal on this trip as planned. But we suppose it prevents us from doing it twice if/when we come back again to do a proper cruise ship canal transit.

We made it back to the ship in time for lunch. One “advantage” to having out tour cancelled and rebooking a different one was that we could take advantage of the “in-port” prices for a massage. A relaxing massage ensued later that afternoon.

In the evening we saw the production show Elysium. It was entertaining as always.

Today also marked the southern most part of the trip at (9.3 N).

Tomorrow we make port in Puerto Limon, Costa Rica, where we’ll go on a tour of the rain forest.

Total Oceans: 1 (North Atlantic)

Total Continents: 2 (South America – on foot, and North America by sight)

Free purell squirts: 6

Total steps: 8,779

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Yukon Do It

“But under it all they were men, penetrating the land of desolation and mockery and silence, puny adventurers bent on colossal adventure, pitting themselves against the might of a world as remote and alien and pulseless as the abysses of space. ”
― Jack London, The Call of the Wild

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Location: Skagway, Alaska and Carcross, Yukon Territory

We made port this morning in the historic Alaskan port town of Skagway. This was one of the major ports of entry into Alaska (and the nearby Yukon Territory) during the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s. Would be miners would make port here, expecting that gold was nearby, only to discover that they had to go another 150 miles north to Dawson City, Yukon. But first they’d have to get themselves, and 2,000 pounds of Canadian required gear over the nearby mountains. On foot! Some people overused animal labor to aid the passage. They had two paths, the longer White Pass, and the Chilkoot Trail. These long hard journey’s became the basis for a couple Jack London novels.

Today we explored the White Pass, because it’s where the road (and railway) is located. Unlike the rest of the Alaskan Inner Passage, Skagway is connected to the rest of North America via roads. Our guide today was James of Chilkoot Charters, someone who comes in from Arizona for the tourist season.  He provided excellent background and narration during the tour.

We started the tour by going up the White Pass, stopping occasionally for pictures of waterfalls and other scenic shots. Initially, conditions were foggy and rainy/snowy which made for bad pictures.

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But sure enough, as soon as we crossed the border in British Columbia, Canada, the sun came out, and the rain and wind stopped. This made for much better pictures. No one lived on the road we traveled upon and we rarely saw other vehicles. So we stopped at many of the scenic overlooks along the way, being treated to raw natural beauty.

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We weren’t in British Columbia for long. We soon entered the Yukon Territory.

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It was also a beautiful day for seeing wildlife. Apparently, black bears love to eat dandelions. So we were on the lookout for bears along the drive. Luckily we encountered a mother and two young cubs. She was mostly focused on eating flowers.

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While the cubs we focused on rolling down hills, climbing trees, generally being cute to humans and annoyance to mommy.

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We soon made it to the small Canadian town of Carcross. This was another major stop for gold rushers back in the day. After making it over the mountains, the miners would construct boats nearby  to transport their gear and paddle along the many lakes and rivers until they made it to Dawson.

Carcross
Carcross

Today, its a tourist stop. Our major stop here was the Caribou Crossing Trading Post. We had lunch there, explored the Mountie and Taxidermy Museum, and got to play with huskie puppies!

Puppies!

Puppies!

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We also stopped by to visit the Carcross Desert, the smallest desert in the world, only 1 sq mi in size. It’s not a true desert because it’s too humid. The sand dunes were deposited by glaciers during the last glacial period.

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We also stopped by to view the nearby Emerald Lake.

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On our way back to the ship, we were treated with seeing a different black bear and cubs eating along the side of the road.

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In the evening we attended the premier showing of “City of Dreams” put on by the ship’s singers and dancers. It was an entertaining production show, with amazing choreography and great singing. It included a lot of music, from pop to broadway. And Ryan was surprised and delighted to hear the Diva Plavalaguna live.

Tomorrow we make port in Icy Strait, Alaska. We don’t have any excursions booked here, so we’ll just walk the nature trail on our own.

Today’s weather High 58, Low 43, Partly Sunny

Sunrise: 4:48am, Sunset 11:05pm

Total Countries: 2, US and Canada

Total States equivalent: 3, Alaska, British Columbia, Yukon Terrirorty

Total Steps: 9,209

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The Lost City of Chichen Itza

Location: Cozumel and Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico

Today was the long awaited day where we got to tour ancient Mayan ruins. The excursion to see the city of Chichen Itza was the entire reason we booked this cruise itinerary.

The excursion itself is very long. Those on this tour are the first people to leave the ship, and usually the last ones back aboard. We left the ship a little after 930, walked along the dock until we boarded a ferry boat to Playa del Carmen. It was a large and comfortable ferry, and the excursion people on the Freedom told us that the weather was great. Sadly nobody bothered to tell that to the surf.

We had read that the ferry ride can be rough. So we took dramamine pills and wore wrist bands to help control the sea sickness. We boarded the ferry to and tried to stay in the back so even further reduce the motion. But we and everyone else on our tour moved to the fore of the ship to expedite our egress upon arrival.  After about 20 min of waiting the crew then boarded several dozen 15-16 year old girls on quinceanera. It was a loud trip across the channel. And very rough too! The ships bounced on the waves and swayed back and forth, no one was happy with the ride, and many people couldn’t keep breakfast down. The pills and bracelets helped us maintain our composure.

After we docked in Playa, we were transferred to a tour bus. Then we went on a 2.5 hr drive on a highway through the jungle. We were given a small snack to eat during the drive. Our tour guide Luis spent most the time telling us about the area and Mayan history.

After a while we made it to the ruins of Chichen Itza. It took some time for everyone to get off the bus and for us to make it through the long lines to get into the site. By the time everything was done, we would have only 45 min on site. Not nearly enough time. We were also given bottled water to drink in the park.

We got to see the El Castillo, the giant ancient Mayan pyramid. Another tour guide, Armando, explained the significance of the pyramid and how it was used a giant solar calendar. He also demonstrated how sounds bounced off all of the structures in interesting ways. For instance the sound of clap coming off El Castillo sounded like a chirping bird.

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El Castillo
El Castillo
El Castillo

We also got to see the Temple of the Warriors, where sacrifices occurred, the Venus Temple, and the great ballcourt. Everything was built with an astronomical purpose in mind.

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Temple of the Warriors

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The latter of which is the largest ball arena in the Americas. The playing field is over 550×230 ft. We were told that the games were played every 4 years, only on the leap day, and that it was the captain of the winning team who was sacrificed. Because only the blood of the victor would be worthy.

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Great Ball Arena

All too soon we were herded outside of the park and back onto the bus. We had to get back to the ship in time. We were given a box lunch and soda to eat on the way back. The 2.5 hour drive went by without note. We also had to take the ferry again back to the ship. This time, we sat in the back and the seas were calmer.

Tomorrow is our last full day on the ship. It is an “at sea” day. We plan to spend it relaxing by the pool.

Total steps: 10,072

Total complimentary purell squirts: 6

Victoria Falls

Location: Victoria Falls (Zambia and Zimbabwe)

Today was perhaps the busiest tour day we’ve have in all of our travels together. We woke up at around 7:15, got breakfast, then hit the road to get an early start on seeing Victoria Falls.

Yesterday we had a tour of the falls from the Zambia side. Today we decided to freestyle view the falls on the Zimbabwe side. To do so, we had to walk from our hotel  (Zambezi Sun) to the Zambia border control station near the Victoria Falls Bridge. Leaving Zambia was easy enough. Once we cleared the station and entered the no mans land of the bridge we were followed by some very persistent locals trying to sell their wares. They weren’t rude, nor did they appear threatening, but they didn’t take ‘no thanks’ for an answer. This continued until we got to the midpoint of the bridge and crossed into Zimbabwe.

View from the bridge.
View from the bridge.

Things were uneventful until we got to the Zimbabwe border control station. After our passports were stamped, we ran into Aaron, our guide from yesterday. He assisted us through the rest of the process, saving us some time. It helps to be good tippers. He had to go to another committement, so we broke off on our own towards the Zimbabwe park for the falls. Along the way, we encountered some more people trying to sell us knick-knacks. They were marginally less aggressive than those on the Zambian side.

All told, it took about 45 minutes to walk from our hotel to the Zimbabwe national park entrance. We didn’t have much time to spend here, because we had to get back to our hotel for another tour in about 2.5 hours. But 90 minutes in the park was  enough time to see the various views of Victoria Falls. The Zimbabwe side was much more active, with tremendous amounts of water flowing over the sides of the cliffs.

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The falls generated a lot of mist. Which forced us to have to wipe off or glasses and lenses numerous times.

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The mist also created a miccro-climate rainforest. The hike through this area was even more startling a contrast compared to our hike yesterday. It was the most rainforesty rainforest we had ever vistited.

As we walked along the trail, we got to see Livingstone island and the Devil’s Pool up close from across the gorge.

After more hiking we made it to the end of the Zimbabwe side of the falls. By this point, the falls were dry. So we got some pictures of the cliff-face.

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We then walked back to the hotel, passing through both countries border control stations once again. We encountered the same hucksters again, this time they eventually took ‘no thanks’ for an answer.

Back at the hotel, we quickly changed into swimclothes then set off for our first tour of the day. We took a golf cart shuttle to the Royal Livingstone Hotel next door, and then boarded a small boat to go to Livingstone Island. This location is where Dr. Livingstone became the first European to view the falls. Interestingly, one can almost walk to the island without getting wet several months of the year when the water level is low (such as now). During the wet months when the water level is higher, it becomes a true island.

Our guides gave us a very brief tour of the island, then they took us to the highlight of the island, the Devil’s Pool. This natural deep pool of water has a high wall, trapping all but a few centimeters of water from falling over the edge. It makes for some great photo opportunities.

On our way to the Devil's Pool.
On our way to the Devil’s Pool.

Before, one can make it to the pool, you have to walk through some water (with very weak currents) to make it the section of the island with the pool. And walking on hot and coarse rocks is required both near the pool and on the main island before getting into the water. Watershoes or sandles are highly recommended.

We weren’t allowed to jump or dive into Devil’s Pool. Instead we have to slide down into it. There are several great areas for photos inside, including “the jacuzzi” where you face towards the edge of the falls

In the 'Jacuzzi'
In the ‘Jacuzzi’

and the overhang itself. The guides have done this all before and know the best places and poses to have photographs. They’ve taken photos with all sorts of cameras and no how to operate all of them. They took some great pics and video of us at the overhang.

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Ryan used the gopro to take some selfies and underwater shots, and over the falls shots to get a better idea of how Devil’s Pool works.

Double rainbow... only seen when looking over the edge.
Double rainbow… only seen when looking over the edge.
Selfie in Devil’s Pool

After about 10 minutes, it was the next groups turn and we had to get out. The last part of the tour was a nice Zambian style lunch. Great food. After lunch, we took a boat back to the hotel.

We had just enough time to change to get ready for our last tour of the day. We had a sundowner river cruise along the Mighty Zambezi River.

We boarded the African Princess several kilometers upstream of the falls. We had a 2 hours cruise along the Mighty Zambezi River. We were served unlimited drinks and had a small dinner. The highlight though was that it also served as a river safari. We criss-crossed the river many times, and slowly traveled along the banks to see various kinds of wildlife, including hippos, elephants, baboons, and many kinds of birds.

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These birds live in the holes in the rock.
These birds live in the holes in the rock.
Hippos
Hippos
Elephants
Elephants

Despite hearing stories and warning about baboons the whole trip, we only encountered them for the first time today.

Baboons near the hotel.
Baboons near the hotel.
Not the best picture... but look closely and you can see a baby on its mother's back.
Not the best picture… but look closely and you can see a baby on its mother’s back.

As the name suggests, we got to see sundown on the Mighty Zambesi River.

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This was our last full day of the trip. Tomorrow morning we plan to get in a little R&R near the pool before leaving for the airport to go home.

Total Countries: 2 (Zambia, Zimbabwe)

Total Watercraft: 3

Total Steps: 22,593 (second only to our day at Disney Land)

 

The Cape of Good Hope

Location: Cape Town, South Africa

We awoke early this morning after a good nights sleep, very nearly in the correct time zone. We got a big breakfast at the hotel and made our way to the lobby to meet Wayne, who was our tour guide for the next two days.  Today’s destination was the famous Cape of Good Hope. Prior to the opening of the Suez Canal nearly all maritime traffic between Asia and Europe had to pass around this Cape. It can be a rough sail, as different currents and winds wreak havoc on those sailing around during the wrong time of year. The European “discoverer” first wanted to call it the “Cape of Storms”, but the King of Portugal was much better at marketing and elected to call it the Cape of Good Hope to encourage ships to sail around it. The justification for the name is that if you make it around, you are halfway to Asia and the hard part is over.

The weather was very fortunate today, with sunny skies and a light wind. Ordinarily it is very windy, which could make some of the hiking later in the day along the mountainous coast less pleasant.

We started by exiting town and driving along the western edge of the Table Mountains. This was largely a scenic drive with very informative narration by our guide. We learned that the main mountain (Table) has a flat top which is frequently blanket by clouds which are thought of as a tablecloth. It’s also surrounded by about 18 peaks, which one former colonial governor referred to as the 12 Apostles. The name stuck. This strange numbering convention and marketing ploy reminded of us our trip to see the Twelve Apostles in Australia.

Table Mountain with a "tablecloth."
Table Mountain with a “tablecloth.”

Before continuing to the Cape we went to the Gourmet Market in Hout Bay. Everything looked great, and we sort of regretted eating breakfast first, because their were lots of tasty things we could have gorged ourselves on. We were somewhat good and shared a small nutella gelato. Ryan also picked up some dried game meat to have later in the trip after workouts.

We continued along down Chapman’s Peak Drive, which was built by a and early 19th century English governor so that he could drive his car along a scenic path. We, along with countless other locals and tourist have since enjoyed the beautiful views ourselves. It reminded us of both the Great Ocean Road and the Amalfi Coast.

The view!
The view!

After the scenic drive we made it to the park which contains the Cape of Good Hope. Soon after entering we saw our first wildlife of the trip, an ostrich.

All he wanted to show us was his butt.
All he wanted to show us was his butt.

Our first stop took us to the aptly named “Flying Dutchman” funicular which took us up to see the Cape Point Lighthouse. But first Wayne took us down a side path to get a better, and much less crowded view of Cape Point and some nest cormorants.

Cape Point
Cape Point
Cormorants
Cormorants

Then we made our way up the lighthouse itself. The lighthouse is no longer functional, but it serves as a decent look out point and tourist marker.

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Following that, we made our way back down the hill for lunch. Surprisingly, despite the popularity, the park is not very developed as a tourist trap. There were very few shops and restaurants, nor are there guardrails along the paths. They wanted to have a more natural look to the park, creating a view that we generally enjoyed. We had an excellent seafood lunch at Two Oceans Restaurant on site. Ryan went for shrimp and calamari, while Rachel had the first (of many?) sushi meal in Cape Town.

After lunch we took a scenic trail down to Cape of Good Hope itself. We took our time and plenty of pictures as we walked along the narrow boardwalk. At one point Ryan took a side path down to the beach, while Rachel smartly decided not to have to climb back up 300ft and continued onward until Ryan rejoined. Eventually we made it to the top of the hill and got more great pictures. The climb back down the other side of the hill to the other parking lot was a bit of a challenge at times, but we made it back.

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At the top of the Cape of Good Hope!
At the top of the Cape of Good Hope!

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Our last stop of the tour took us to the Boulder Bay penguin colony! This enclosed beach house over a thousand African Penguins, which were previously called jack-ass penguins because their call sounds like a donkey. This species is very endangered and the numbers are still plummeting.

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Ain't no party like a penguin party!
Ain’t no party like a penguin party!

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Ryan became his usual giddy self in the presence of penguins. We spent about an hour here.

PENGUINS!
PENGUINS!

Wayne then drove us back to the hotel on the eastern side of the table mountains, giving a different view than earlier in the day. After returning to the hotel we planned to go back out again and have dinner at the Waterfront. But we were exhausted from the hiking and still a little jet-lagged so we decided to eat a small dinner at the hotel and make it an early night.

Tomorrow, we have an early day when we travel several hours to the actual southernmost point of Africa, Cape Aghulas.

Total steps: 13,473

Total penguins species observed: 1 (African)

 

Iceland’s Golden Circle and Northern Lights

Location: Northeast of Reykjavik

We awoke this morning after a very long nights sleep. We had a quick breakfast then got on a van for today´s tour. Our destination was to visit Iceland´s Golden Circle of parks and try to see the northern lights.

Our first stop was þingvellir National Park. The park itself features some part of the North American-European continental rift, some waterfalls, and the site of Iceland´s first parliament. We began atop a ridge and walked down into the park through a chasm down into the valley. We then walked down a trail where we got to see a small waterfall and braided streams. We also saw what archaeologists believe was the site of the first parliament.

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Our next stop took us for a snack at a tomato farm. We saw how tomatoes are grown in sustainable Icelandic greenhouses. While there, we were served fresh tomato soup and delicious bread.

Then we went to geysir park, home to several hot springs and geysers. There was one active geyser named Stokkur, which erupts every 5 minutes or so. It can reach heights of around 30 m, which is a little under the height Old Faithful regularly achieves. Nearby was     Geysir, the geyser for which all other geysers get its name. It´s not active now.

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Stokkur

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Geysir
Geysir

We then visited the impressive Gulfross Waterfall. A huge amount of glacial meltwater flows down this waterfall. It narrowly avoided becoming  a hydro-power station a few years ago. It was windy and cold up there, but it was well worth the effort. Gulfoss was also the northernmost point of the trip, and the northern most point either of us had ever ventured. We made it to 64°19´34″N.

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We had time for another snack, so this time the tour took us to an Iceland cow farm. We saw some cows, and then sampled skyr and yummy ice cream. Skyr is kinda like yogurt, but it´s fat free and nearly all protein. They served it with cream.

Our next stop took us to a thermal bath for a relaxing dip, because… Iceland. Our guide told us that all Icelanders know how to swim, but in Iceland swimming is defined as sitting in a warm body of water. We spent an hour here in the naturally heated pools. Ryan was brave (read: foolish) and went for a quick swim in the very cold, ice-covered lake nearby (along with our tour guide and a couple other people) …and then quickly went back into the hot pool!

We had dinner at a restaurant nearby. Ryan and the guide exchanged notes on the cloud and aurora forecasts. The aurora forecast was for a dissapointing kp=2. But luckily the weather was good by Icelandic standards so the guide made the decision to make the attempt to try to spot the northern lights. We are glad he did.

We got in the van and drove south hoping to find clearer skies. Once we started seeing a lot of stars he pulled over and asked everyone to take long exposures on their cameras. Often times, the camera can spot a budding aurora before a human. We spent a few minutes at this spot seemingly without success. But as everyone started to pack up, he asked Rachel to take a picture of a seemingly dim but empty part of the sky. His hunch was right, because her picture showed a dim green arc. This was our first sight of the aurora from the ground! We stayed around hoping it would get brighter, but soon the clouds moved in and blocked our view.

Our first aurora sighting!
Our first aurora sighting!

He drove us all to another spot not far from þingvellir park. We were going to aim for the same spot as before, but he saw something else in the sky. To us it sort of looked like the light from the moon behind the clouds. But the moon wasn´t out and he knew better. Rachel took another photo. Hidden behind the clouds was a bright arc of green and red northern lights. We spent about 30 min here waiting for the clouds to pass and to better enjoy the light show. We stayed until that arc started to diminish.

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We had one last stop this evening. Here we saw another dim arc of northern lights. But it wasn´t as active, and it was partially hidden by clouds. It was cold and very windy. It was worse than Elephant Island. So we spent less than 10 min and made our way back to town. Everyone was very happy for the opportunity to see the aurora!

Tomorrow we tour the south Iceland coast. Where we get to see more cool geology, waterfalls, glaciers, and the infamous Eyjafjatlajökull. In the evening, we make another attempt to see the northern lights.

Total steps: 11,461

Total aurora colors seen: 2 (red and green)

Farthest point north: Gullfoss Falls (64°19´34″N)