Monthly Archives: April 2015
For our first trip out of Africa we went to visit Tim and Martina in Georgia. We had already failed to visit Tim in the Solomon Islands and also failed to catch up with Martina in Ethiopia as she was leaving when we were arriving in Kenya, so with the two of them finally in one country, it was time to head over. It’s not far from Kenya so we decided on a week with a public holiday in Georgia so Tim also had some time off.
No visas were required for either of us (you get one for free on arrival for 30 days) and Tim and Martina sent us professional itinerary options we could chose from. One skype call to discuss options and some horrible overnight hours spent in the Maharaba lounge in Dubai (don’t ever spent your money on this lounge!) and then we landed at Tbilisi airport. It all looked spanking new, police zoomed around on Segways, luggage came out quickly and after 10 minutes (including customs) we were already heading to the exit.
Tim and Martina were there to pick us up, later we learned that this is one of the perks of having diplomatic plates: you can leave your car at the airport pick up and drop off zones! And within half an hour we are being introduced to our new love: Georgian food!
Oh my goodness. If you have never heard of Georgian food, if you have never tasted Georgian food you haven’t lived! If you are a foodie, I suggest you book your flight to Tbilisi immediately as there don’t seem to be many options yet outside Georgia to indulge. Make sure you try it at least once, I am sure you’ll fall in love with it too!
From the moment we arrived to the time we left we enjoyed Georgian cuisine for lunch, dinner and sometimes even for breakfast! We couldn’t get enough of it and certainly the first few times we over-indulged, ending up in a bit of a food stupor and making mental notes to go on a diet as soon as we are back in Kenya…
Anyway, we didn’t just go to Georgia to eat. Straight after our gastronomic introduction to Georgia we headed out to the Lower Caucasus. To Borjomi, where the famous fizzy mineral water is bottled. Tim had arranged a home-stay with Giorgi (the most common male name in Georgia, Nino being the most popular female name) before we would head out into Borjom-Kharagauli National Park the next day.
We picked up snowshoes and great maps from the helpful Gaga in the National Park’s office and drove the car to the head of the trail. In Georgia you can leave your car with belongings safely anywhere, how nice! Soon we were on our way, snowshoes strapped to the packs, heading into the beautiful pine forest. We had a bit of rain and then hail and snow on the way up, donned our snowshoes when the snow became deep and spent a beautiful day hiking to our destination for the night: the ranger’s hut.
After a quick clean up we settled in for the night, had a fantastic home cooked meal from Martina and played cards enjoying the warming fire whilst it gently snowed outside.
The next morning we continued our hike, checked out another hut before descending via the next valley. A quick call to Gaga who arranged a taxi to pick us up and before we knew it we were back at the car and heading to our home-stay again.
This time we ate out and Jon was introduced to kinkali, the Georgian version of the dumpling. Tim and Jon managed a very respectable 10 kinkalis each, but I am not sure I’d recommend ordering that many…as usual the other food was delicious too, and whilst we were trying not to end up in a food stupor again, Tim introduced us to another Georgian tradition: the toast master or Tamada in Georgian. He makes sure conversation AND wine keeps flowing during a dinner and many traditional toasts are made throughout the night.
I might not have mentioned the Georgian wines yet… but they are as good as the food and with about 400 grape varieties growing in Georgia, most of those you would have never heard off, any wine lover is in for a treat! Although not yet very known / popular in the western world, it has been exported all over the Russian empire for years. They do beers quite well too, but wine is definitely the favourite drink here. Or maybe it comes a close second after the local spirit called chacha… Any Georgian family makes this stuff, and the one we tasted was pretty damn good, as well as pretty damn lethal if you are toasting with it all night!
We also explored the ancient cave city Vardzia, occupied by monks for 850 years, a historic fort at Akhaltsikhe and tasted the handmade cheeses and chocolate at the remote Pokha nunnery. Unfortunately the Paravani Pass was still closed with about 2m of snow covering the road so we had to make a u-turn and head back the way we had come, adding a few hours to the home journey.
The rest of the week we explored the old town of Tbilisi and the hill behind it, ate more Georgian food, went to the arts and crafts market in Tbilisi, drank some more Georgian wine, had a bath and scrub in the natural hot springs in Tbilisi, ate some more Georgian goodies, visited the Stalin museum at his birthplace in Gori, tried some Georgian chacha, took a guided tour of the cathedral in the old capital Mtsketa (reputedly containing remnants of the actual Cross), ate some more Georgian delicacies, were blown away (literally) at the old cave temples and city of Uplistsikhe, tasted the Georgian ambers (wines), went skiing in Gudauri on a perfectly clear and mostly sunny day and simply enjoyed time spent with friends, of course accompanied by more food and more wine…
After only 3 hours of sleep on the last night, Tim drove us to the airport (at 2.30AM – bonus stars on Trip Advisor for this absurd hour!) and we quickly went through check-in and customs. A few hours later we arrived at Dubai airport where we were yet again picked up, this time by Roger, a good uni mate from Jon who now lives in Dubai with Joanne and their 2 boys. Whilst there were no diplomatic plates, the Porsche 4WD did compensate. In the short time we were there we managed to see Josh win some running races at his school’s sports day, checked out the world’s biggest cricket bat, had a tour of the estate where they live, enjoyed a cuppa with his parents who were visiting too, met Ollie and his hamster, tested the scooters and indulged in an amazing lunch at the local Ernie Els golf course. Our stopover was short, but very sweet and before we knew it we were back at the airport (dropped off again, we’re getting used to these luxuries!), sitting in the lounge, relishing all the memories of a fantastic week of R&R.
Kenya is blessed with a large number of national parks and we feel it is our duty to try them all during the time we are privileged to be living here. Now that we have both been granted resident status, we have an added bonus of very affordable entry fees.
We used a few of our long weekends to explore some of the parks that are a bit further away: Tsavo East and Amboseli NP. Three days off gives you enough time to drive that little bit further from Nairobi. The first long weekend we decided to go to Tsavo East. Kenya’s largest national park is located about 350km from Nairobi, just off the road to Mombasa. In fact, the road to Mombasa cuts Tsavo into Tsavo East and Tsavo West.
That distance should only take about 3-4 hours driving, but unfortunately that is not the case on Mombasa Rd. Traffic on Mombasa Rd is diabolical with many, many trucks transporting everything that arrives into the country at the port of Mombasa to the rest of the country and beyond into the rest of East Africa. Some of these trucks reach a top speed of 10km an hour on the hills (due to overloading, sometimes 4 times the allowed weight limit) and overtaking is not easy as it is just a single lane going both ways… It doesn’t help that some of the buses (obviously in a hurry) overtake without checking if the road is clear… Mombasa Rd is quite an experience, requiring nerves of steel.
We planned accordingly as people had warned us about traffic, so on Saturday morning we hit the road at 4.30AM. This meant we arrived at the park entrance just before lunchtime. The plan was to cruise slowly to our camp and have lunch there once we arrived. And we hadn’t even driven 2 km when we spotted our first cat: a lioness sitting in front of some scrubs. It was a good omen for the rest of the weekend and we ended up seeing a lot of (unusual) animals.
Our camp was amazing (Satao, meaning giraffe in the local language), the best we have seen anywhere. It only has a relatively small number of tents, is not fenced off, has a fantastic waterhole with some resident hippos, a small lookout tower and a good restaurant with great views also over the waterhole. At night there is always a guard to escort you to and from your tent to make sure you are safe. A herd of impalas makes the central area home at night, realising they are quite safe there from lions as they rarely make an appearance with humans and guards around. Giraffes and hippos also venture into the central area regularly. We almost had to push one giraffe out of the way on returning from dinner as he was blocking the entrance of our tent whilst eating from the acacia next to our tented bedroom.
When we say tent, don’t think of a small tent with inflatable mattresses on the floor and a sleeping bag. These are luxury tents that come with their own 4 poster bed and even a full ensuite bathroom. From our bed we could see the waterhole and all the animals coming in for a drink, including the 3 lions who came for a middle of the night drink (the guards woke us up for this, as requested!).
Tsavo East is absolutely vast and even over the 3 days we didn’t manage to see everything. And we were only able to visit the southern half of the park, as the northern section is not open to the public (our blog on Umani Springs explains why). One of the things Tsavo is particularly famous for is its red elephants. They love to cover themselves in mud and dust for protection from the sun and insects, and such is the colour of the soil here the elephants appear to be red.
The other thing Tsavo is well-known for are the maneless male lions, also known as the man-eaters from Tsavo. If you are interested you can read the book ‘The Man-Eaters of Tsavo’ from John Henry Patterson (1907). It recounts his experiences while overseeing the construction of a railroad bridge in what would become Kenya. It is most widely known for recounting the story of a pair of lions that he killed, known as the Tsavo man-eaters. It has also been made into a movie called ‘The Ghost and the Darkness’ with Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas (1996).
Tsavo really is Africa personified: huge open plains full of wild animals of every description. We’ll be going back here for sure.
Another long weekend was spent in Amboseli NP, together with Jon’s colleague Rob. Again the distance to the park (about 230km) doesn’t convey how long the drive really takes (about 4-4.5hrs), but an early start again made sure we were there on time for lunch (after entering through the gate it still takes a few hours to slowly drive to our camp).
Amboseli NP is famous for 2 things: its elephants (not red this time) and the impressive backdrop of Kilimanjaro just across the border in Tanzania. The first day we didn’t manage to see Kili as it was covered in cloud, but the next 2 days we had some good views in the morning before the clouds moved in later in the day.
The elephants here love the swampy areas and we spotted one small herd near the road. It is a beautiful sight. Only the backs of these huge animals are visible as they slowly move through the swamp, taking huge mouth-fulls of the water plants. They must love it, being cool in the water with so much food around all at mouth height. Fantastic! The babies have a bit of a tougher job in the swamp as it is quite deep, so we were very lucky that one mum decided to stroll out of the swamp right in front of us to feed her precious baby boy before leading them back into the swamp again. We watched them for hours!
After a fantastic 3 days here, we had fallen in love with this national park too. And with each park being beautiful and unique we will definitely be going back in the future. Just let us know which one you want to ‘do’ when you get here! (we’ll write about other parks too once we have visited them).