Jackson is a unique and famous city. The area, collectively referred to as Jackson Hole, is like a bubble of flat land surrounded 360° by forests, mountains and national parks. The high elevation keeps the entire region cold at night year round and thanks to the rugged yet scenic terrain, the area is also famous for skiing. However there is much more to do in and around Jackson than just that!
Jackson is entirely surrounded by the Grand Teton National Park and National Elk Refuge. Outdoor adventures abound! There are many great land- and water-based activities to be had nearby. Hiking. Wildlife. River-rafting. Fishing. Hot springs. There are countless day-trip adventures to be had -- or better yet check out Jackson Hole cabin rentals to spend an authentic night under the stars but without the work that comes with camping ;)
Whatever you end up doing in and around Jackson, don't miss these unique and offbeat activities:
Old Faithful isn't Wyoming's only time-based water attraction, just its most famous. That reliable hot water geyser has been Wyoming's claim to fame since the late 1800's. However the state also has a cold water feature that operates intermittently, hence the name -- Intermittent Spring. Also known as Periodic Spring, this natural occurance is the largest in rythmic spring in the world.
At Intermittent Spring, the water flows in 18 minute cycles. 18 minutes on, 18 minutes off.
Why the river flows like this is not as much of a mystery as one might first thing. There is a widly accepted as true scientific theory behind Intermittent Spring. Basically, cold spring water collects in underground cave and begins slowly filling up a narrow shaft that leads to the surface. Eventually water pressure builds up too great, forms a funnel and all the water gets sucked out. Incoming air then closes the waterway until water pressure builds up again.
Think of it like flushing a toilet. The funnel sucks the entire basin down a narrow tube in a flash. Only at Intermittent Spring, you get to watch the toilet water coming out, instead of filling back up.
Growing up in Texas, I'm used to shooting and comfortable around firearms. But if you are not, consider checking out the Jackson Hole Shooting Experience. Here you can not only learn to shoot but also take a firearm education class and understand why so many people support gun ownership. Maybe even begin to grow a little more appreciative of them yourself.
Beginners can learn the basics about gun safety and go for their first shoot. Rather than just pick any random gun, an expert will pair a first-time shooting with the most appropriate gun. Already know how to shoot? Browse the massive arsenal and pick something new.
Those already familiar with handling various firearms at close range can improve their long range skills or learn a new one, such as mastering the shotgun or taking a tactical defense class. JH Shooting Experience even offers ladies-only classes and other specific courses, such as improving your hunting skills.
Still in doubt? Leave all of your precoceived notations and judgements at the door and come try for yourself. As a wise man once said, "Don't knock it until you try it."
Everyone always talks about how great Yellowstone National Park is -- don't get me wrong, it is beyond great. It's stunning. Absolutely breathtaking. No trip to Wyoming is complete without a visit to the world-famous Yellowstone National Park. This obligatory stop sometimes referred to as "the first and still the best" is on every traveler's bucket list. There's a reason why America's first national park -- and the first in the entire world -- attracts over four million visitors per year. However what most people fail to mention is the unique, offbeat and out of place Smith Mansion, otherwise known as the Abandon Mansion of Yellowstone.
This handmade wooden structure tells the story of a man who loved a lady, but seemily loved carpentry more. In 1970 Lee Smith began making a house for his wife. After the first floor was complete, Lee kept building, kept adding on new floors, new balconies, and eventually even giant elaborate exterior staircases. He never stopped. After the divorce he kept building. It was not until his death in 1992 that construction ceased. Lee was only 48 when a strong gust of wind blew him off the roof while he was (you guessed it!) working on his house. He fell twelve feet and passed away from his injuries.
The Smith Mansion is truly one-of-a-kind. There are no blueprints. Everything came from Lee's mind. Unfortunately after he died the house became neglated and began rotting. Efforts are currently underway to preserve and repair the mansion by Lee's daughter, Sunny, and her husband. Although public tours are not regularly scheduled due to the disrepair the house has fallen into, the family is trying to raise funds to help pay for the preservation. Give them a shout and perhaps you can score a private tour.
It is impossible to miss the Smith Mansion if you are entering Yellowstone from the the eastern entrance. It is less than hour drive from Yellowstone Lake, and regardless of which entrance you used, definitely worth the drive just for the photos. Read more about the history of Smith Mansion.
Colorado is one of the best states in the USA to visit. Not only is it beautiful and historic, but it is also full of some of the nicest people in America. Although I still call Asia home, If I ever move back to America it would be somewhere in Colorado. Never been? Colorado is amazing, you have to visit! Here are seven unique and offbeat travel destinations to help get your Colorado vacation started:
$10-20/person depending kid/senior/adult
Official Web Site
With history dating back to the 1870s, the Old Hundred Gold Mine hit pay dirt just after the turn of the century when they began supplying gold bars to the Denver Mint for use in coining. However the ever-increasing yields from the mine were the begin of the end and before long it was officially "mined out".
All-in-all the tour lasts almost an hour. After getting loaded up (and bundled up, it is a little chilly underground) you board the railcars and proceed underground. There we explored a couple of the original veins with a guide who gave us a firsthand history lesson of both the mine and mining processes. But the scenery does not stop there; even outside of the mine shafts the backdrop of the local mountains is breathtaking. One neat part of the tour includes a view of the original miners' cabin, which if I remember correctly dates back to 1904. The thing is perched way up on the mountain and just barely is hanging on. As a matter-of-fact, when they first built the cabin they had to secure it to the nearby rock face with metal cables to prevent it from falling down the mountain. Wild!
And of course no tour of a gold mine would be complete without a stop at a real-life sluice box where you can take your turn at panning for gold, silver, and other semi-precious stones just like the gold-panners of the past did. And, yes, no worries: you get to keep whatever you.
Due to the local weather this tour only operates during the warm season, from May to October. And, as with any decent tour, there is also a gift shop selling all sorts of related souvenirs and trinkets as well as snacks and drinks. Check the official web site for more information on directions, rates, and operating hours.
$19-25/person depending kid/senior/adult
Official Web Site
Wow, where to start. Think amusement park combined with natural wonder and you might be headed in the right direction. Covering 360 acres and featuring nearly two dozen rides, shows, and attractions to keep you amused, it is hard to get in and out of this place in less than a couple hours -- but then again, why would you want to rush it.
The prime attraction and namesake of this park is the Royal Gorge and its sky high suspension bridge, one of the highest in the world. It was built in 1929 for only $350,000 but the cost today would exceed $15,000,000. You can walk or drive across it but I definitely recommend walking, as that allows you to better enjoy the scenery as well as take some fantastic pictures using the 360° view. There is also an aerial tram that is apparently the world's longest single-span tram.
After enjoying the view from above, you can also admire it from below by riding down the 45° incline railway. Seeing it from this angle really puts it all in perspective; the towering bridge you just walked across is nothing more than a thing string stretching across the canyon like the tight-wire of a circus performer.
But the sights don't stop there! You can explore the gorgeous countryside by taking a mule rule ride through the pines and evergreens or strolling the Wapiti Western Wildlife Park. There is one of those free-fall skycoasters and a plaza theatre, a Mountain Man Trading Post (not sure what that is actually, I skipped it), and even a mountaintop lodge for those wanting to stay overnight.
The park is open year-round but some of the attractions may be seasonal or weather-permitting. I'm sure the official web site provide you with up to date information.
$10/person, $5/kids ≤12 yrs
Official Web Site
Located just 30 miles northeast of Denver and covering a grand total of 720 acres and sheltering around 300 lions, tigers, leopards, mountain lions, bears, wolves, and other large carnivores, the Wild Animal Sanctuary of Colorado is the first sanctuary of its kind to create large acreage species-specific habitats for its rescued animals. Since 1980 the Wild Animal Sanctuary has responded to nearly 1,000 requests from private citizens and government agencies to rescue animals from across the United States and even in Mexico.
After breaking free of the Welcome Center & Gift Shop, with a guide book in hand, you'll be set free to wander. They have huge closed-off habitats surrounding the main complex but by far the best thing is the observation ramps and decks that stretch over the animals in the center of the park. Walking up ramps and along observation decks suspending above the animals you can get a birds-eye view of some of nature's most impressive and majestic mammals.
Each of the main observation decks was thoughtfully designed with picnic tables and chairs, as does the small garden area at the foot of the main ramp. Visitors are encouraged to bring a picnic lunch, or if all else fails the gift shop does also sell a few drinks and snacks.
This is a great family expedition, absolutely perfect for the kiddos.
Beer? I like beer.
Fort Collins, Longmont, Boulder, Golden, & others
Colorado Brewers Guild
Craft beer is something that every real man should appreciate. It is something to be proud of, unlike that mass-produced swill that relies on a multi-million dollar advertising compaign to get you to buy their crap. It is said that pairing beer and cheese is akin to holding hands, whereas wine and cheese is like arm wrestling. If you are drinking a good craft beer then that is so very true. And if you are like me you'll be happy to learn that Colorado has a lot of microbrews, good microbrews. Colorado is one of the best states for craft beer lovers. As a matter-of-fact they have more breweries per capita than any other state in the USA. And for those that like the [ugh] mass-market beer, you probably already know that Colorado is where Coors proudly calls home. They even offer tours. I didn't go on one. Nothing fany about mass production. Craft breweries however are always cool and quirky!
Almost all of the larger cities have breweries. If in doubt just inquire in a local bar. I even found a restaurant in downtown Colorado Springs that has a glass-encased brewery right in its main dining room. The food was good and the beer was better. If you are in the area, definitely look up Phantom Canyon Brewing Company.
Have you been to any of the breweries in Colorado or tried any of the local beers? Share your thoughts and/or recommendations at the end of the article!
Entrees @ $15 - $20
Official Web Site
Forever immortalized by an episode of South Park, Casa Bonita offers an eating experience unlike any other and I just had to check it out for myself. True to the episode, this restaurant actually features shoot-em up gunfights, cliff divers, strolling mariachis, puppet shows, magicians, games, prizes, and more.
via Rob Lee
The restaurant is huge, covering over 50,000 sq ft and seating well over 1,000. Hell it has a 30-foot indoor waterfall. You pay for the show though with the cost of the food. Casa Bonita specializes in Mexican cuisine, but their menu is very limited and stereotypical. Everything except the kids meals is over-priced and none of what we ordered stood out or overly impressed us. But the sights, now that was a different story!
Kids will never want to leave this place, but even for adults it is worth at least one visit. Just one though.
Official Web Site
How can you beat free? You can't! So why not visit the Denver location of the US Mint and learn a little bit about the coin and currency we Americans use every single day.
Tours are fairly short, only about thirty minutes, but the the guides are very knowledgeable in all aspects of the Mint from the gold rush days up to its present day production of coins. There wasn't too much crazy stuff to see as far as the machinery that actually produces the coins, but there are some interesting displays and videos. And of course the mandatory gift shop.
via Ken Lund
However, there are a few warnings: first off, you must make a reservation online first or you will not be allowed entry. Additionally, don't plan on taking any pictures for obvious security reasons. And as security is just as tight as at the airport, don't bring with you what you do not need. Finally, there is no public parking. Not a big deal but noteworthy nonetheless.
Colorado has 54 "Fourteeners," otherwise known as mountains with peaks over 14,000 feet above sea level. One of the most well-known however is Pike's Peak. With a 19-mile paved road that winds and stretches all the way up to its 14,110 foot summit, it is no wonder this is the most visited mountain in North America.
Pike's Peak National Park is open year round, weather permitting. You can see it in the picture above (the red rocks in the picture are the Garden Of The Gods). Be warned, in addition to extreme winds, the temperatures at the 14,110 summit can easily be 40°F less than at the base, which is only at around 8,000 feet elevation. The road to the summit, although just recently fully paved (apparently the last stretch used to be gravel), still features on a couple guardrails, sheer drops, breathtaking views, and scenic view spots you can pull over to park and take pictures.
A wildlife tourism trip is always exciting and adventurous. I have covered various Tiger resevres in my previous journeys and an encounter with tiger has always been thrilling but this time I had planned a different jungle safari and intended to cover the Asiatic Lions at Gir Gujarat, the only place in the world to see the Asiatic lions in the wild.
Gir is located in the southwest portion of Gujarat and can be reached by road or air. (The nearest airport is Jamnagar / Ahmedabad.) The nearest city is Veraval in south and Junagarh in North. But in all cases to reach the wildlife you have to take the car route and SH (state highway) is the only available option.
Gir forest is spread over 1000 sq km and has various animals in it. Mainly it is the home of Asiatic lions a breed different from the African lions. You can also spot deers, wild buffalo, peacock, barrasingha, monkeys etc.
The forest department allows two daily safaris, one in the morning and other in the evening. It is difficult to spot the lion and for that reason you should always keep a margin for your second or third round. In our case we were quite lucky to spot the wild cats entire family at two different locations. The encounter with the wild cats were amazing when the cats were moving with their cubs.
The Asiatic Lions are really amazing creatures, sometimes I doubt why they are called the king. Then a second thought and realize why they are King of the Jungle. Humorously they have lot many servants working for them. Actually they live in a family where the major work is done by the lioness and the lion does not like to work. To be frank I was amazed when I saw the forest Guard moving with the lion family like they are their pet cats and was so near to them pushing them with sticks. It was amazing, it seem that he was the shepherd and the wild cats were it sheep.
Well overall an amazing experience in the Gir Forest and an equally amazing experience was the Tribal dance which we had attended later in the night at our hotel. They are the tribe people who perform there dances and customs to promote tourism. Well done by the tribe, I shall happily say.
The dance was really very amazing and interesting, there performance was terrific specially the breaking of the coconut shell by there head. It will always be a memorable performance for me to remember. Not to be missed while at Gir Gujarat. If your hotel is not arranging one, you can ask local guide for organizing such event for you.
Formerly known as Southern Rhodesia, Zimbabwe is renowned as one of Africa’s most beautiful countries. Sadly it has been neglected by tourists for many years, since the introduction of President Mugabe’s Land Reform programme in 2000. The country’s tourism industry and economy suffered terribly as a result but lately the country is staging a comeback.
As a tourist destination Zimbabwe boasts many great reasons to pay a visit, whether it’s to experience one of the world’s best climates, the diverse wildlife and scenery or to delve into the country’s ancient history, Zimbabwe has a lot to give. To discover more about what the country has to offer we have created a list of the most interesting and beautiful places in Zimbabwe:
One of Zimbabwe’s most famous features is the thundering Victoria Falls; the largest curtain of falling water on the planet. With so much to do in the surrounding area you’ll be hard pressed to find yourself bored. Bungee jump from the Victoria Falls Bridge or get an even closer look at the raging Zambezi River with a spot of white water rafting; tackling the grade 5 rapids. For easier pursuits there are microlight and helicopter rides high above the spray or, if you are staying nearby during a full moon, watch out for a moonbow: a rainbow at night. You could also hop across to the Zambian side of the Falls and experience the Devil’s Pool. The pool is naturally formed and sits at the very edge of the Falls allowing you to look down into the smoky abyss below.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is marked by history. Zimbabwe is littered with numerous ruins of ancient civilisations, however, those known as The Great Zimbabwe Ruins are the most prominent among them. Built in a unique and distinctive dry stone style these ruins were once the royal palace for the monarchs of the day and would have been home to around 18,000 people. The city flourished for over 300 years thanks to trade with those sailing down the Mozambique coast. The high stone walls are perhaps the ruins’ most distinctive feature, stretching over 5 metres high. The ruins can be found in Masvingo with a nearby museum displaying recovered artefacts.
Experience wildlife like never before and find yourself up close to elephants, hippos and crocodiles as well as a range of other animals. The word ‘Mana’ means four in Shona and is used in the Park’s title to allude to the four main pools found along this stretch of the Zambezi River: Main, Chine, Long and Chisambuk. They are remnants of channels that stopped flowing long ago. You can explore these water ways on the Mana Canoe Trail. Glide downriver and drink in a mixture of floodplains, grassland and the mountains of the Rift Valley as well as Africa’s largest population of hippo.
The Matobo Hills are a great place for those wishing to combine a love of nature and history. The fascinating granite rock formations found here have been formed over millions of years and range from balancing rock formations to spires to domes. Also found in the area is the highest concentration of rock art found in Southern Africa and dates back as far as 13,000 years. If you’re interested in uncovering the day to day in the lives of these ancient people, a picture speaks a thousand words and the paintings allow you access to a world now long since passed.
To discover the best wildlife viewing Zimbabwe has to offer Hwange National Park delivers the goods. It is the country’s largest national park and possesses 100’s of different mammal species and almost 400 species of bird, including the southern carmine bee-eater in the summer months and the Kori Bustard. The park is also home to an incredibly strong elephant and buffalo population, with huge herds roaming across the Kalahari sandveld that comprises the majority of the park. The diverse abundance of wildlife is reflected in the varied scenery with grasslands, saltpans and mopane woodlands adding to the overall beauty of the park.
Packed to the brim with so much to explore, Zimbabwe lays waiting to be discovered. To learn more about the country and how to make a trip a reality, check out Mahlatini Luxury Travel for details or follow them on Twitter for more Africa travel information.
Three months travel in Africa created endless ‘great experience’ opportunities and one of the most memorable was a walk – in fact, two walks! After six weeks travelling through Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi I arrived in Zambia with the new addiction of admiring the African wildlife in their natural habitat. And the adrenalin from seeing lions up close and personal surpassed all others.
So imagine my excitement when I arrived at Livingstone, the adventure capital of Zambia, and discovered there was more on offer than just bungee jumping and white water rafting to get your blood rushing. It was also possible to go for a walk – a walk with a cat – a walk with a big cat – in fact, a walk with TWO big cats...and these big cats were LIONS!
African lions are now on the “vulnerable list” as their population is decreasing at an alarming rate and a Rehabilitation and Release Program in Livingstone is one of a number of ALERT supported programs in Africa trying to combat this impending tragedy. To help fund the program and educate people about the lion’s plight, the centre offers a ‘Lion Encounter’ which delivers exactly what the name suggests – an encounter with a lion.
Upon arrival at the centre we received a safety briefing, watched a short ALERT presentation and then eagerly walked into the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park to join two ten month old cubs for their daily walk, which is one of the first steps of the program designed to get them ready for release into the wild.
I was quite excited to hear we were walking cubs and instantly had visions of cuddling cute little lions not much bigger than over-fed domestic cats. They were only ten months old, how big could they be?
At ten months old the cubs already reached above my knees and despite being accompanied by an armed guide, knowing these walks were a daily occurrence and not having read anything in the news about tourists being mauled alive whilst on a lion walk, I was a little nervous. My fantasy of cuddling a little lion was very short-lived.
They might be cubs but they were still lions!
I was a little amused to be given a stick to carry before we set off – yes a stick. I still suspect it was to help us move branches out of our way rather than intimidate a potentially aggressive lion cub and I’m relieved we never had the opportunity to find out what impact the stick had on an angry ten month old lion cub.
The cubs were in a playful mood and after entertaining us with some good natured wrestling (with each other, not with us) they decided they were ready for a walk. If strolling alongside them wasn’t surreal enough, we were allowed to grab hold of their surprisingly strong tales which effectively changed the scenario into one where the lion was walking us. At times the cubs decided to stop and rest, providing us with a unique photo opportunity and if whilst posing you forgot the reality of the situation you only had to turn around and look at the cub’s eyes to be reminded these were still wild animals.
It was a truly magical experience.
A month later I had the opportunity to repeat the experience – with a twist – at the Tenikwa Rehabilitation Centre near Tsitsikamma in South Africa. This time, instead of walking lion cubs, I had the opportunity to join two of the centre’s cheetahs on their daily walk.
There was no stick this time, but the cheetahs were put on a long (and strong) leash as we led them through the nearby bush. The cheetah is such a serene, beautiful creature and as I held the leash of one of them as she gracefully loped along I was so caught up in the moment I forgot where I was and imagined I was walking my parent’s dog Misha along the road. My lapse in concentration didn’t last long as the cheetah changed direction, signalling who was in charge, and reminded me that although it was surreal to be walking a cat on a leash, this particular cat could probably eat poor Misha in one mouthful!
My initial discomfort at a big cat being put on a leash was short-lived when one of the cheetahs decided it was ready for a run and simply took off – the leash was clearly nothing more than a decoration. It was a sad reality that these particular cheetahs would not survive in the wild and whilst the centre ran a Rehabilitation and Release Program, these two would see their days out in a form of comfortable captivity. It was a timely reminder how important it is that the human race protects the freedom of these magnificent creatures.
It’s unlikely you will fly all the way to Africa just to walk with a big cat, so it’s usually part of a greater African travel adventure. Southern Africa, where I did both my big cat walks, is accessible to all types of travellers and there are a number of international airports. Whilst Johannesburg in South Africa provides the most international connections, it is possible fly directly to Livingstone for example.
Southern African countries tend to be a little more developed than their Eastern neighbours and the wider range of accommodation and transport options mean there are more options for different travel personalities. There are also better transport options which make a Southern African short holiday a viable option if you are short of time. Adding a Big Cat walk to your African itinerary is as simple as researching the Rehabilitation Centre you want to visit and making a booking. These days everything is possible over the internet but these organisations still use that old-fashioned communication called a telephone if you are not internet savvy.
If you are on an organised tour, like the overland trip I did with Intrepid Travel, you may visit somewhere like Livingstone in Zambia where the Lion Encounter is offered as an optional activity. If you are part of a tour that doesn’t offer this activity but you know the opportunity exists in an area you are visiting, ask your tour guide about it. This is how I ended up walking with cheetahs at Tenikwa.
If you are travelling independently simply contact the Rehabilitation Centre and make a booking. Many of them offer transport to and from your hotel/campsite as part of the fee.
Some organisations, like the one I visited in Zambia, will only let you join the lion walk if you are taller than 5 feet. But don’t be deterred if you have children with you, there are child-friendly activities offered as well.
It was difficult to see African wildlife enclosed in a Centre after the magical sight of lions and cheetah in their natural habitat throughout my trip, and it was a sombre reminder that the future of these big cats is less than certain. Whilst these ‘walks’ provided me with two unforgettable experiences, the money I paid for the privilege is being used to run an organisation that hopes to contribute to getting the African Lion off the ‘vulnerable list’ once and for all, eliminating the need for such programs. I hope they are successful - these animals belong in the wild.
flickr // virtualwayfarer
3 hours earlier. I was standing under a tree outside the headquarters of Parc National des Volcanos, having just been introduced to our local guide for the day, a handful of specially trained gorilla trackers and seven other travellers. Nearby, seven other groups were being formed as we all prepared for what we hoped would be the experience of a lifetime.
I felt a growing feeling of excitement as our guide talked about the gorilla family we were heading towards, gave us some information about the area we were trekking in and shared some interesting facts about the endangered mountain gorillas that lived there. This excitement was slightly offset by my nervousness of starting what I had heard could be a simple two hour hike or an eight hour intense trek, depending on where the gorillas were currently located. I was hoping that my comfortable North Face hiking shoes, waterproof jacket, cargo trousers, bandanna and small backpack disguised my poor fitness levels and presented me as a confident and experienced trekker.
We jumped into a small mini-van and drove the short distance to our starting point, the edge of the 160km² national park that protects Rwanda’s section of the Virunga Mountains which is a range of six extinct and three active volcanos crossing the intersection of the Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo border and home to the endangered mountain gorilla.
There are less than 800 mountain gorillas left in the world and half of them live in the Virunga Mountains, a region famous for the studies of Dian Fossey and infamous for the on-going human conflicts and poaching that have contributed to the gorilla population decline. There are currently eight gorilla families living in the region and each group was trekking towards a different one.
A few months earlier I had paid $500 for my trekking permit in what seemed an expensive fee. But already I realised it was money well spent as I learned more about the conservation efforts employed by the Park as they not only worked to avoid a further decline in the mountain gorilla population but aimed for future growth and sustainability.
As we started our trek I forgot the gorillas for a moment as I was mesmerised by the stunning Rwandan landscape. Endless green, lush mountains surrounded me with the occasional splash of colour from the clothing of local farmers brightening the landscape. The bright sun warmed my face as my jacket protected me from the bitter wind and after twenty minutes of a steady but comfortable walk across the relatively flat ground, I took my first step into the tree-filled forest and began to climb up towards an impending meeting with a mountain gorilla.
The guide and trackers kept my mind off my aching knees as they shared facts and antidotes about the gorillas and the local farmers. Information about the alpha-male role of a silverback in a gorilla family was amusingly followed by a tale of farm bosses placing a bottle of vodka at the end of a field as incentive for their staff to work harder and faster. The trackers often ran ahead or communicated with their colleagues on their radios to ensure we were heading in the right direction and as we grew closer they reminded us of the ‘rules’ of gorilla trekking, designed to protect the great animals:
Viewing time is limited to one hour
Always keep a distance of at least 7 metres between yourself and the gorilla
Keep your voice low
Do not make any rapid movements
If you are charged by a silverback stand still, look away and make no eye contact
And the one rule above all others: follow the direction of your guide. After all, they carry the rifle!
A couple of hours into the trek, I was enjoying a chat with the local guide as I learned about his lifestyle, listened to the passionate description of his job and reflected on his interesting view that poachers should be given jobs in the Park rather than sent to jail “to teach them to love, respect and protect the mountain gorillas”. It was an interesting conversation but one that ended abruptly as we looked ahead to see one of the trackers calling out to us.
We were no longer heading towards the mountain gorillas – they were heading towards us! We followed our guide’s instructions and placed our backpacks on the ground, got our cameras out and stood waiting for the majestic animals. Within a few minutes I heard the rustling of leaves and thought I was prepared for my first sighting of the gorilla family.
Within seconds of seeing our first mountain gorilla many of us broke one of the gorilla trekking rules (keep your voice low) as we unintentionally called out variations of “oh wow”!
Our first viewing was of a mother and her small child and as magical as it was, it didn’t compare to the surreal arrival of the alpha male of the group, the silverback. His arrival caused the second rule break of the day but this time it was the silverback breaking the rule instead of us. We all understood that keeping a distance of seven metres was for the protection of the gorilla as human germs do not always mix well with gorilla DNA, but when a large silverback walks towards you and other gorillas in the family are behind you, you aren’t going anywhere!
I had heard stories of a silverback charging trekkers to stamp his authority on his territory but this one seemed indifferent to our existence. He sat down with his back to us for a few minutes giving us all an opportunity for the obligatory ‘near a mountain gorilla’ moment before climbing a tree to rest. The sight of a large silverback climbing a tree with speed and ease is one I will not forget and when the mother and child we had first seen followed him I was a bit alarmed that our one hour viewing would be reduced to ten minutes.
But it didn’t take long for the rest of the family to arrive and we were treated to an incredible hour of being up close and personal with these mountain gorillas. Like the silverback, they seemed indifferent to our presence and lazily chewed leaves, wandered around, scratched their backs and used their bush toilets! The similarity of their behaviour to that of human beings is both extraordinary and entertaining.
The hour seemed to fly by and we reluctantly started to make our way back, leaving the mountain gorillas behind. In just a few hours I had experienced one of the most memorable and uplifting experiences of my life and felt like I was skipping back to the park’s headquarters, such was my excitement at what I had just seen.
There have been moments in my life when I have had a sudden awareness of both the insignificance of the human race in the bigger scheme of things and the importance of the human race playing our part in the bigger scheme things. This was one of those moments.
Rwanda is accessible to all types of travellers but when visiting any developing country I encourage you to do your research so that you are supporting local businesses and people as much as you can.
Those who are short of time, not suited to long and sometimes bumpy overland rides or not interested in long queues at overland border crossings will be relieved to learn there is an international airport 10km east of Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. There are direct flights from Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Bujumbura (Burundi), Entebbe (Uganda), Nairobi (Kenya), Johannesburg (South Africa) and Brussels (Belgium).
There are land border crossings into Rwanda from Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Uganda for the more adventurous traveller but you should always check the security situation first, especially in the often volatile regions near Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo. The Foreign Offices in both Australia and UK have great websites with updated information that I always check before I visit a country.
One of the most common ways to visit Rwanda is on an overland tour and these are designed for those ‘in between’ travellers (or those I refer to as All Rounders in my What is Your Travel Personality article) who want to travel independently without the bureaucratic red tape and security concerns that sometimes accompany travel in Africa. I spent three incredible months in East and Southern Africa in 2009 and visited Rwanda as part of an overland tour with Intrepid Travel.
The most common base for visitors is the town of Ruhengeri. As there is no public transport from the town to the Park’s headquarters the most common way to organise your trek is through a pre-booked tour. This may be part of a longer overland tour, a tour specific to Rwanda or a pre-booked day for gorilla trekking. This is the easiest way to organise your trek as the tour company will organise the permit that must be obtained before you arrive and your transport to/from the Park. When I visited the Park, permit fees were $500 but these have recently been increased to $750.
In an effort to protect the already endangered gorillas trekking groups are limited to eight people and there are only eight treks a day. Don’t arrive at the Park expecting to purchase a permit and book yourself on a trek that day – it simply will not happen.
You may experience both sunshine and rain in the same day so it’s best to dress in layers with a long-sleeved t-shirt and thin waterproof jacket. You will be trekking through trees and bush so long sleeved shirts and trousers are ideal and of course you will need comfortable hiking shoes (my North Face Hedgehog GTX XCR shoes were my best friend during my round-the-world trip).
Remember that your guides know best and the ‘rules’ exist for a reason. We are a visitor in the mountain gorilla’s home and their survival relies on us learning to co-exist with each other. If you have a contagious illness or even the flu or a cold, you won’t be allowed to join the trek.
Also remember that the National Park is not a zoo and the gorillas are not waiting in cages for us to come and look at them. You need to trek to reach them and you cannot predict the length or level of difficulty of the trek. I was quite luck in that my trek was only a couple of hours and relatively easy but to be honest I would have felt a little short-changed if it was anything less than that. Reaching the gorillas felt so much more satisfying knowing I had made the effort and worked up a sweat to get there. Of course some people do have limitations and letting the guides know this at the start will make it a more enjoyable day for you.
I have never come across anyone who has trekked to mountain gorillas in Rwanda and regretted it. It is an incredible experience that you will never forget and you can enhance this experience by visiting some other areas of Rwanda. Don’t let Rwanda’s traumatic history deter you – this is a country in recovery, a country that is relatively safe for tourists and a country full of beautiful people. Almost all Rwandans I met begged me to ‘spread the word’ about how beautiful their country is and to encourage my friends to visit. They recognise the value of tourism to their country and they are proud of their landscape, culture and wildlife.
The genocide and historical civil unrest in Rwanda is like a cloud in an otherwise blue sky and Rwandans believe a clear blue sky awaits them – they need the rest of the world to believe the same.
Want more Rwanda? 5 "Must-Have" Experiences in Rwanda
The Jungle Book tour in Goa, India, truly is one of a kind. With so many new activities and experiences that the average tourist would never normally encounter this is, for many, a one off opportunity! I will tell you about it now. We were collected from our hotel in the resort in the morning and after picking up all of the other tourists we drove for around 2 hours to the spice plantation.
The spice plantation was just as expected -- an area where they grew lots of spices! They gave us a talk about how each spice grows and we got to smell/taste them. They showed us a particularly small and innocent looking chilli that in reality turned out to be aggressively hot! When offered, a bulshy, over-confident middle aged British man (as much as I hate to admit it these types of tourists always seem to be British!) said he would taste this exotic chilli, and much to my, and others’ amusement was rather taken back from the strong spice! ‘Serves you right’ I thought! We all laughed as he jumped around screaming from the spice!
While at the spice plantation they demonstrated how many of the spices are collected. As some of the are very high up in the trees an Indian local showed us how they would climb to the top, collect what they needed and then encourage the tree to sway from side to side until it reached close enough to the next tree for the man to climb over. It all seemed very skilled, but also very unsafe! This is something you would never see in England!
After all the excitement of seeing the spices we were given some lunch where we were able to sample some of them. Lunch was mushed up combination of soggy rice, salad (which I was a bit dubious about eating in India) and some sort of fish in breadcrumbs, or perhaps it was chicken? I wasn’t quite sure! All of this was served on a banana leaf, and we were expected to eat in the traditional style-with our hands!! Well, with the lack of soap and mushy food-I went on a search for a fork, and was very glad when I found one!
After a somewhat interesting meal, we continued on our journey towards the jungle. We drove for around another hour before we arrived. We were staying in the thick of the jungle. There were huts made from elephant dung that were arranged in a circle around the outside of the clearing. In the middle was a camp-fire and a bar/eating area (OK so the bar is not very authentic but clearly going to be a money earner with the tourists!).
Wandering around the clearing were elephants. It was incredible to have them freely roaming around you in such a way. And they were beautiful! There was also various other nature as expected in the jungle-HUGE spiders, leeches, cockroaches and a very large amount of mosquitos included!
I expected the accommodation to be basic-but this was actually beyond basic! Inside the hut was a double bed with a mosquito net. There was also a basic wooden open wardrobe. Inside the bathroom was a western toilet, a shower and a bath. The shower was cold and only a dribble of water, with ants and various other small creatures crawling all over the surrounding floor area and walls. The bath was a concrete box that you actually couldn’t have paid me to bathe in. But hey, were not here for luxuries-were here for the experience!
Soon after checking into our huts we were taken on a walk to an ‘authentic’ local village. We walked through the village to see the traditional houses the jungle people lived in and the people. We got to walk through the chief’s house to see how the most important person in the village lived. We then got to meet the children. We were told to teach the children some nursery rhymes. We tried things such as twinkle twinkle little star, Jack and Jill and many other, but the kids knew them all word for word-not bad for people that don’t speak a word of English!?
I knew then that this was not as authentic as they made out! I guess the children will see tourists coming through their village every day like this. And the flat screen TV I saw through the window of one of the huts gave me the impression they weren’t quite as poor as they made out too! Having been studying sustainability in tourism at the time as well, I was rather sceptical and not fooled-like the rest of the naive tourists! But this is not a discussion of authenticity.
After our walk to the village we were taken for a ride in the local means of transport -- the BMW! This was basically just a cart pulled by a cow/bull type animal. Were taken for a 5 minute ride which was a little bit of a disappointment as it was literally to the end of the road and back, but again it was an interesting and amusing experience!
Next we went for a trek on an elephant! This was by far one of the highlights of the tour. We had to climb up some stairs and onto a platform to get onto the elephant because it was so high. Then we sat on the top and were taken for a trek through the thick of the jungle. It was great fun! Our elephant was 40 years old and was the oldest elephant they had there. It seemed so happy and healthy looking which was lovely. And it was great to think they had the freedom to wander around the area most of the time, which is sadly not the reality for many elephants used in tourism in India. The ride was great fun and a great experience!
The evening in the camp was an interesting one. We had some curry dinner and then all sat around the campfire watching the traditional Indian dancing and drum playing. I even treated myself to a well-deserved couple of G & T’s! They also put on a show with the elephants where the dressed them up and we got to feed them-it was very cute!
I retired to bed relatively early as it was quite cold round the campfire and I had had enough traditional dancing for one night! Unfortunately it was not a comfortable nights sleep! Before getting into bed I spotted a huge leech on the floor next to the bed! I was too scared to attempt to move it so left it there-although I was worried about it all night! I was also worried about what ever other bugs there were around me! The mosquito net had bugs on the top of it that freaked me out too! Eventually though I did manage to get to sleep, and was glad to wake up and find that I hadn’t been attacked by giant leeches or any other jungle bugs in the night!
It was nice in the night though to lay there listening to the sounds of the jungle. You could hear the elephants outside and the owls and various other animals making their own noises. It was very calming and peaceful, like one of those CD’s you play to help you to get back to sleep!
So we rose at 5am ready for the trek through the jungle to the waterfall. When we set off it was pitch black. It was adventure to trek through the thick jungle with only a torch light to lead the way, and it was beautiful to watch the sun slowly rise. It was quite a challaging up hill walk-but I was ready for it! The only problem was my lack of sensible footwear- jellies didn’t suffice very well at all!!
The trek took us through thick bush to the top of a hill, it was very steep at times and a I was very tired and out of breath by the time I reached the top. However the view from the top made it all more than worth it. We all sat down to admire the beautiful clearly in the jungle, whereby in the middle was a lovely waterfall. I always have been a bit of a sucker for waterfalls too.
After a few minutes rest we began the decent back down, this was even more tricky than the climb! We had to walk along a very picturesque pebbled stream at the bottom of the waterfall, it was lovely but I wasn’t getting on too well with the jelly shoes keep slipping off! But nevertheless I reached the end and completed the trek.
By this time it was about 10am and we greeted with a little clearing housing a small temple. Here we had a go at doing some Indian yoga. It was the perfect setting for yoga; a clearing in the Indian jungle, at the bottom of a waterfall, in the morning when the heat was just right, in front of a temple. It was incredibly tranquil. India is the birthplace of yoga too; making it even more perfect.
The only thing that wasn’t perfect, was actually me! I wasn’t terribly enthused at the time as I hadn’t yet developed my passion for yoga. And me and my friend did giggle quite a lot. However, how many people can say their first attempt at yoga was in such a location? Not many!
The last part of the tour was by far the highlight! We were taken in the bus down to a local waterhole where we spent half an hour or so chilling in the water and sunbathing. Then the fun began! We were met by a stampede of over excited elephants running into the water, playing and splashing around! It was absolutely amazing to watch. The elephants looked like they were having so much fun!
After watching them play for around half an hour, one cam walking towards me. When it got towards the water’s edge I got up and stepped back cautiously. Then to my surprise, the elephant pointed its trunk straight at me and squirted me with water!! Everybody there was watching and they were all laughing in hysterics at me. It was absolutely hilarious and I didn’t stop laughing for ages! I don’t know what drew that elephant to me that day-but it certainly was funny!
Once the elephants had calmed down and were a bit less playful we had the chance to wash them. We got to get into the water with them and scrub them-and you could see that they clearly loved this! It was an amazing experience that I shouldn’t think I will get the opportunity to do too many times in my life! You also had the opportunity to sit on the elephants back in the water and have the squirt you, which most people did and it looked like so much fun! However I was all ‘squirted out’ so decided just to watch this part.
So this was then the end of the tour and the begin of the journey back to the coast. What a fantastic couple of days!! We got to see and do so much-its was incredible! But one of the nicest things for me, was to see how healthy and well treated the elephants were. Many wild elephants in Asia are killed as they are a nuisance to farmers etc and many are abused through tourism and badly treated. Knowing this, it was such a pleasure to see how well looked after these elephants clearly were. So although it was a tour, and it was a little inauthentic in places, this trip enabled me to have some incredible experiences- and I would certainly recommend it!
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Rishikesh a small town located on the banks of Ganges River is the most sought after destination for white river rafting. The town is very small and is marked by lots of hotels and resorts, though all very basic in nature some will give standards but luxury here is ruled out. Option of camping near the river banks is also possible, only you should have booked it before.
Rishikesh is located near Haridwar and is approx 240 kms from Delhi airport, though the nearest airport is Dehradun, I opted Delhi for the sake of convenience. You can further take a cab/taxi (not self driven) to reach the small town. It is the gateway to the Himalayan range.
I have visited Rishikesh twice once in my childhood and once again now in 2011. The place has changed a lot and river rafting has come fast as a good option for adventure lovers. Camping near the river is a great fun that I really enjoyed a lot, in my recent trip. Camping cost would be for $ 20-60 per night per person, I took it for $30 and it was really an amazing experience that could really not be overwritten by my memories of other travel destinations. I will definitely return back when my kid grows up.
White river rafting was the main reason why I had opt for this place, it's really an amazing experience. I will say just go and do it rather using words to elobrate the fun and experience you have while doing it.
The town has a wildlife sanctuary nearby (approx 17 kms) it where you can spot animals like leopard etc. The Rajaji wildlife sanctuary is one of the largest park in the Himalayan region.
Meditation is also something one can opt for here. There are various ashrams and temples to do the same. There are many yoga classes taken by group and individual instructor. The pleasing environment of the place makes it a favourite destination among the meditators. I took one and it refreshed me not only mentally but also physically.
For lodging we preferred the government operated hotel which is on the banks of the Ganges river, a nice basic hotel with one of the best locations.