Mt. Sinai | July 2011

Hiking down Mt. Sinai

The Sinai Peninsula in Egypt is a whole different world from the areas around the Nile.  We found it much more relaxed and less “in your face” than the rest of Egypt.  Likely this is because there are so many tourists visiting the area.

One of the most popular tours in the area is a climb of Mt. Sinai.  After our previous success with Hola Egypt Tours, we booked through them again, though there are literally dozens of places in Dahab where you can do the same (in fact, Hola Egypt Tours simply contracted our tour out to Penguin Village.)

The tour starts at 11pm, with a two hour minivan ride to the base of the mountain.  At around 1am, you’re paired up with a local guide who will be responsible for getting your group up the mountain in the dark.  The trail itself is quite gentle, but slow going, as many people have trouble with the altitude.  The guide calls for many frequent breaks, often right next to vendors selling snacks and drinks.

Easily the most annoying aspect of this hike is the camel owners crowding the trail.  Camels coming down, camels going up, always crowding you to the edge of the trail (and often dangerously near the edge of a steep drop-off.)  There are hundreds of camels on the mountain and every one has an owner shouting at you to either get out of the way or pay for a ride.

Just before sunrise, you arrive at the mountain’s peak.  Groups spread out and try to find a place to sit on the rocks to watch for the first appearance of the sun.  Since Mt. Sinai is a pilgrimage site for many Christians, it’s not uncommon to see or hear a group praying or singing as the sun comes up.  Unfortunately, this peaceful show of respect inevitably has to compete with the Arab and Bedouin vendors in ramshackle huts yelling, “Hot coffee, hot chocolate, hot tea!!”

After the sun has risen, but before the heat of the day comes on, people head back down the mountain at their own pace.  You can, if you choose, visit the Saint Catherine Monestary at the base.  Entrance is free, though there are certain areas (such as the icon museum) which require a fee.  Also, respect for Orthodox traditions is required; both men and women will need to dress appropriately or have to accept a skirt-like wrap from the monks before entering.  The highlight of the self-guided tour is catching a glimpse of Moses’ Burning Bush (supposedly the original one.)

Around 10am, you pile back into your minivans or buses and arrive back in Dahab around noon.  It’s a quick return trip; most everyone sleeps right through it.

Note:  We were comfortable in shorts and a t-shirt during our hike up the mountain, but afterwards learned that was the exception rather than the rule.  Dress warmly (or at least in layers), because any breeze makes the wait for the sunrise exceedingly cold!

Where: Dahab, Egypt
TourHola Egypt Tours (via Penguin Village)
Cost: 89 Egyptian pounds ($15 USD) each
Included: Round-trip transportation from Dahab, entrance to Saint Catherine’s Monastery
Not Included: St. Catherine park fee, 18 Egyptian pounds (about $3 USD) each; also some sections of the monastery may require an extra fee.

Hola Egypt Tours | July 2011

The Pyramids of Giza

Egypt can be a frustrating place to visit.  The hassle-factor of booking a tour – any tour! – is so bad that it makes you question if seeing 4,500-year-old ruins is even worth your time.  We tried to see what kind of deals we could get with the ubiquitous travel agents in our hostels and at the parks (they were so pushy, it was hard to avoid talking to them), and all we ended up with were rip-off “guides” who stayed in the car while we wandered the pyramids or salesmen who promised us “20% lower price than anyone else!” but wouldn’t actually give us a price, even when we asked for one.

I’m happy to say it doesn’t have to be this way!  We were thrilled to find Hola Egypt Tours online.

Normally, we’d be the last to recommend purchasing a package tour online.  Web site prices are almost always higher because they cater to people who would rather just click a “purchase” button than shop around once they get to a foreign country.  But after doing a lot of research on the ground in Egypt, we realized that Hola Egypt’s packages were actually cheaper than we could get if we organized everything piecemeal.  Plus, since they organized all our transportation and sleeping arrangements, too, we saved on opportunity costs, as well.

We easily set up a custom tour (based on their Cairo-Aswan-Luxor by Nile Cruise package) via a series of back-and-forth emails, going so far as to ask for a bus transfer to Dahab at the end of everything.  They were completely accommodating and even lowered their final price, based on the options we requested!  Once the tour was underway, they had an English-speaking guide or driver meet us at every transportation point, wait with us when trains and buses were running late, check us into our hotels and riverboat accommodations, and provide us with guides for some of the larger tourist attractions.  (That last was very welcome as our guides shielded us from all the hustlers and souvenir hawkers that are more annoying than a cloud of biting mosquitoes. With malaria.)

If you’re the kind of person that loves to haggle over the smallest aspect of a transaction, you may end up loving the part of Egypt we hated.  Even so, if you’re looking to see more than a couple sites in the country, I honestly do not think you could come away with a better deal than the ones offered on the Hola Egypt Tours website.  Try out your bargaining skills in Cairo if you must, but do yourself a favor and compare the deals you find with Hola Egypt Tours before you buy!

Where: Egypt
: Hola Egypt Tours
Cost: Depends on package
Included: Depends on package
(Example: $345 USD per person or approximately 2,035 Egyptian Pounds for our custom 5-day/6-night tour which included visits to the following sites (entrance tickets not included): Aswan High Dam, Philae Temple, Abu Simbel, Kom Ombo, Edfu, Luxor Temple, Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens, Colossi of Memnon, Temple of Hatshepsut, and Karnak.  In addition, all transportation was provided, including 1st-class sleeper train tickets from Cairo to Aswan, 2 nights in a 3-star hotel in Aswan, 2 nights on a 5-star Nile cruise (meals included), and a Luxor-Dahab bus ride. )

Rising Sun Dive Center | July 2011


The eastern side of Zanzibar, a large island off the coast of Tanzania, is nothing but endless beaches of bleached-coral sand.  Only at high tide can you swim, because when the water goes out, it retreats hundreds of yards – all the way out to where tall waves crash over an unbroken reef.

If you walk up and down the beach, you’ll find many small lodges and resorts.  Some of these have dive shops in them and they’ll be more than happy to take you past the breakers to dive the deep-water reefs of the Indian Ocean.  After checking out a few such places, we were happy to find the Rising Sun Dive Center, operating out of the Breezes resort north of Bwejuu, as it was easily the most professional looking operation we’d seen.

One lazy Sunday morning (actually, every morning is lazy, or “polepole,” on Zanzibar!) two divemasters and four extra crewmembers took just the two of us out for a two-tank dive on a section of the reef in sight of the resort.  The sun had passed behind some clouds, so the colors were not as brilliant as they could have been, but even so we were amazed by the reef.  The sheer variety of life underwater was like nothing we’d seen.  Everywhere we looked was a different species of fish or a new piece of coral or a differently-shaped shell!

And while it’s not something you can expect to happen every dive, we were fortunate enough to find ourselves in the path of a pod of dolphins during our surface interval.  Four of us quietly slipped into the water, with just masks and fins, to watch them pass by underneath us.  We really appreciated that the captain of the boat didn’t go chasing after them like they do on so many other dolphin “watching” cruises out of Zanzibar.

It goes without saying that our rental equipment worked flawlessly and our divemasters and their crew did all the heavy lifting.  All we had to do was show up and dive!  In fact, one of the things we liked best was the drift nature of both dives.  Once in the water, we descended to about 90ft and let the current carry us where it would.  During our safety stop, one of our divemasters would send up a marker and by the time our 3 minutes were up, the boat would be above waiting for us.  Quite nice considering that, on our first dive, the GPS told us we’d drifted over 3-kilometers; there’s no swimming back to the boat on dive like that!

Where: Zanzibar, Tanzania
: Rising Sun Dive Center (Breezes Beach Club and Spa)
Cost: $160 USD for a two-tank dive
Included: Pickup from nearby lodges, small snack onboard between dives, equipment rental

Elephant-Back Safari | June, 2011

There’s no shortage of things to do around Victoria Falls.  White-water rafting, bungee jumping, wildlife safaris, helicopter or ultralight tours over the falls, sunset cruises… you name it.  We went to Zimbabwe and didn’t do any of those!

Even though Zambia and Zimbabwe are relatively cheap countries to travel through, Victoria Falls is a full-on tourist hotspot and prices are quite a bit higher.  Rather than spend over $160 on a 12-minute flight over the falls, we decided our money would be better spent on a half-day, elephant-back safari.

What a great way to interact with the majestic African elephant!  We worried that the animals wouldn’t be treated well, but one of the employees at Vic Falls Adventure Zone assured us that they were treated quite well.  Any doubts we had vanished when we saw for ourselves.

It only takes 20 minutes to get to the reserve where the elephants are kept.  After a short briefing (and signing of waivers), you get to climb aboard a very well-trained elephant and go on a 45-minute walk.  Don’t expect to see much wildlife – you are, after all, riding on an elephant crashing through the bush – just enjoy the commanding view and learn everything there is to know about African elephants from your guide and handler.

The real treat comes after the safari, when you climb down and spend 10 minutes or so hand-feeding, touching, and posing for pictures with the elephants.

Finally, at the end of the tour, the guides have a platter of food arranged on the table and free soda or beer is available while you watch the video one of the guides shot during your safari.  A nice, mellow end to a far-too-short tour!

Where: Vic Falls, Zimbabwe
TourVic Falls Adventure Zone
Cost: $120 USD per person
Included: Transportation to/from Vic Falls, snacks, drinks
Not Included: Edited DVD of the tour, (delivered to your hotel) is $35 USD

Kruger National Park | May-June, 2011

African Big 5 Safaris is a two-man operation out of Pretoria, South Africa.  Marcel and Retief grew up exploring the African bush and have formed a business that allows them to share their love of the wilderness with others.  Their goal is to offer an experience that’s more akin to going on a weekend safari with friends, rather than the boring old tourist experience.  Believe me; it makes a difference!

Marcel and Retief can guide you through Kruger National Park or take you on a game walk though some of the attached game reserves.  They offer group tours as well as private tours and they’re even looking into offering excursions in Mozambique.

We went with Marcel and Retief on a four-day/three-night private tour of Kruger National Park.  They provided three meals a day – a light breakfast, hearty brunch or lunch, and an excellent dinner cooked on the braai each night.  We stayed in spacious tents with comfortable cots and nice blankets (with clean and functional public bathrooms and showers nearby), but you can also upgrade to a private chalet, if you like.  Each day consisted of at least two drives around the park and the amount of African wildlife we saw each day was staggering!

Give Marcel and Retief at African Big 5 Safaris a try. You won’t be disappointed!

Where: Kruger National Park, South Africa
: African Big 5 Safaris
Cost: 2000 Rand, per person (sharing) per night, or about 6000 Rand (About $850 USD) for a 2-person, 4-day/3-night private safari
Prices come down for group tours: About 4200 Rand (or $600 USD) per person in a group of 8 for the same tour.
Bungalow/Chalet prices start at R1800 (or about $255 USD) per person, per night.
(Many other options are available, check website for details.)
Included: All food and accommodation, park entrance and conservation fees.
Not Included: Transfers to/from Johannesburg or Pretoria or other nearby cites or airports. Prices for transfers from Johannesburg start at 480 Rand ($69 USD) and African Big 5 Safaris can help you arrange them, if needed.

City Sightseeing Cape Town | May 2011

The Predator Tank

A nice way to get a feel for a new city is to take one of its inevitable sightseeing bus tours.  Cape Town has a great one, complete with open-air double-decker buses.  On a sunny day, it’s a relaxing way to get an introduction of everything on offer.  I definitely recommend you do it early in your stay, though.  That way, if you hear about something you want to check out, you’ll still have plenty of time left in your trip.

CitySightSeeing Cape Town has two bus lines: Red and Blue.  The Red City Tour passes mostly through the City Bowl, on up to the Table Mountain Cable Car Station, then along the beach towns of Camps Bay, Clifton, Bantry Bay, Sea Point, and Three Anchor Bay.  The Blue Mini Peninsula Tour cuts quickly through the City Bowl on its way out to the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, the Eagles’ Nest and Groot Constantia vineyards, and the World of Birds and Monkey Jungle before a quick stop in Hout Bay.  After Hout Bay, it runs the same course as the Red line back to the city.

The great thing about these city tours is that they’re hop-on, hop-off.  At any point of the day, you can get off the bus, do a little walking tour or something, and then catch the next bus that comes along.  The brochure they give you has a very easy-to-read schedule, so you can plan your stays accordingly.

Each passenger gets a pair of red headphones (to keep) as they board the bus and every seat has a place where you can jack them in and select your favorite language.  A very slick audio tour accompanies the ride where you learn all sorts of information about the area, from the historical to the trivial.

We paid for a Blue line ticket and hopped off at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens for a walkabout, the Groot Constantia vineyard for a wine tasting, and at the World of Birds and Monkey Jungle for a chance to play with some monkeys.  While we never felt rushed, it was still a full day.  If you want to hit more stops than that, you’ll have to make sure to start with the very first bus at 9am and plan to go to the very last at about 6:30pm!

Where: Cape Town, South Africa
: Red City Bus Tour
Cost: 120 Rand ($18 USD) for either the Red OR Blue line, valid one day only OR
200 Rand ($29.85 USD) for both Red AND Blue line (mix and match) valid for two consecutive days
Included:  Hop-on, hop-off bus ride around Cape Town for one day, plus earbud headphones for the audio tour. Free wine tour at Groot Constantia, tiny 5 Rand discount on entrance fee to the World of Birds and Monkey Jungle.
Not Included: Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens entrance fee (37 Rand or $5.50 USD), Groot Constantia wine tasting – five samples of your choice (30 Rand or $4.50 USD), and World of Birds and Monkey Jungle (70 Rand or $10.50 USD)
Note: If you’re planning to do the Two Oceans Aquarium, Table Mountain Aerial Cableway, and the Red City Bus Tour, consider buying a Go Cape Town ticket for 375 Rand (or about $56 USD), which gives access to all three for a discounted price.  At the very least, the printed Red City Bus Tour ticket gets you a 10 Rand discount on Aquarium tickets!

Table Mountain Cableway | May 2011

On top of Table Mountain

You can’t help but notice Table Mountain when you arrive in Capetown.  It sort of dominates the landscape.  If you pick a good day, it can be a great place for a hike.

The cable car station is located on Tafelberg Road, which is uphill from the city bowl.  A cab from the stadium cost up about 75 Rand, though it should be less from within the city.  Once at the station, you’ll need to decide if you want to buy one-way or round-trip tickets. One-way’ll set you back 95 Rand.

The trip up is fairly quick, maybe 5 minutes.  Make sure you get a spot up against the glass, but don’t worry about claiming an open window.  Once the cable car gets going, they’ll spin the floor so everyone has a chance to point their cameras outside.

At the top station are the requisite gift shop, cafeteria, bathrooms, and coin-op binoculars.  I suspect most people wander no farther than it takes to see the views from all three sides.  Which is a shame, because it doesn’t take long at all to walk the perimeter of Table Mountain.  On our two-hour hike, we saw dozens of small black lizards, a few birds, one giant hissing cockroach, and hear plenty of frogs in the wetlands areas.

We skipped the return tickets and decided to hike down Platteklip Gorge, one of the many trails off the mountain.  (In fact, you could hike UP the same trail, saving money on the cable car tickets, but the few hikers we saw doing this were exhausted and covered in sweat.)  The hike down is harder than it looks, though; roughly 2 hours worth of tall stone steps that left our legs in pain for days!

Where: Capetown, South Africa
: Table Mountain Aerial Cableway
Cost: 95 Rand One-way ($14.50 USD), slight discount for R/T
Included: One ride up the mountain on a spinning cable car
Note: If you’re planning to do the Two Oceans Aquarium, Table Mountain Aerial Cableway, and the Red City Bus Tour, consider buying a Go Cape Town ticket for 375 Rand (or about $56 USD), which gives access to all three for a discounted price.  At the very least, the printed Red City Bus Tour ticket gets you a 10 Rand discount on Aquarium tickets!

Two Oceans Aquarium | May 2011

The Predator Tank

Down on the Waterfront, an aquarium with exhibits of marine life from both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans makes for a decent half-day tour.

Like most aquariums, you get a mixture of small and large tanks with good informational displays posted around them.  Highlights for us were a huge moray eel, a tank which had a center column you could stand up in and be surrounded by hordes of tiny clownfish, a predator tank with sharks, rays, and other assorted big fish, and, of course, penguins.

If you have the opportunity, do a little research ahead of time on the feeding schedules.  We were able to see the Emperor and African (Jackass) penguin feeding, as well as the big fish feeding in the predator tank.  On other days of the week, they hand-feed the rays, turtles, and the sharks(!)

Also, PADI-certified divers take note: You can pay extra for a 30-minute guided dive in the predator tank.

Where: Capetown, South Africa
: Two Oceans Aquarium
Cost: 100 Rand ($15.25 USD)
Included: Free access to roam the Two Oceans Aquarium
Note: If you’re planning to do the Two Oceans Aquarium, Table Mountain Aerial Cableway, and the Red City Bus Tour, consider buying a Go Cape Town ticket for 375 Rand (or about $56 USD), which gives access to all three for a discounted price.  At the very least, the printed Red City Bus Tour ticket gets you a 10 Rand discount on Aquarium tickets!

The Boulders, African Penguin Colony | May 2011

The African Penguin colony

It might cost you upwards of 400 Rand to pay for a guided tour of the African Penguin Colony from Cape Town, but unless you really love parting with your money, there’s no sense doing that. Simply hop on the Southern Suburbs Line of at the local train station and you’ll save a ton of money!

The train takes about an hour and a half to reach Simonstown and costs only 25 Rand for a round-trip ticket. Once you get to Simonstown, you can easily walk the 3kms to Boulder Beach. If you walk past the park entrance and approach the second beach from the parking lot side (look for the signs for parking and a restaurant), you don’t even have to pay the park fee to get right up next to some penguins.

Getting into the protected areas is worth the 40 Rand park fee, however. Far more of the penguins are congregated on the beach there and wooden walkways lead you right up to them. Either way, you won’t have any problems getting close to some of the 3,000 African penguins that make up the Boulders colony.

(But not too close. Nesting penguins aren’t too thrilled about humans in close proximity. Be careful, they WILL bite!)
Where: Simonstown, South Africa
Tour: Boulders, part of Table Mountain National Park
Cost: 40 Rand ($6 USD), plus 3.75 R/T transportation from Cape Town
Included: Free reign of the wooden walkways near the penguin colony, plus access to the second beach

White Shark Projects | May 2011

Great White Shark cage

In Gansbaai, they say May is the off-season for people, but high season for sharks.  What better time to climb into a cage and watch a few Great White Sharks glide by at arm’s reach?

White Shark Projects is one of the original outfits operating near Cape Town; they’ve been in business since 1989.  They’ll take you out to “Shark Alley,” the stretch between Dyer Island and Geyser Rock, made famous by the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week.  There are other places in the world where you can pay for a tour to see Great Whites, but those can take hours or even days at sea to reach the sharks’ hunting grounds.  Geyser Rock, with its tens-of-thousands of fur seals – The “Great White Sharks’ McDonald’s” – is only 20 minutes off the coast of South Africa.

Once at anchor, White Shark Project volunteers start chumming the water to attract the sharks (which almost ALWAYS appear; they usually go out twice a day and last year there were only FOUR days where they didn’t see any Great Whites!)  The cage goes over the side and five people get in.  No diving experience is necessary – everyone wears just a mask and a 7mm wetsuits against the cold.  You simply sit above the waterline until the crew yells, “Shark right, down, down, down!” and under you go!  As they say, “If you can hold your breath for 10 seconds, you can see a shark.”

Our tour was roughly four hours long and about 45 minutes of that was in the cage itself.  Those not in the cage can climb to the top of the boat and get some spectacular views of the sharks below.  Once everyone on the boat has had a turn in the cage, they’ll open it up again for any repeat customers.  I went a second time of course, and was the last one in the water.  Even though we still had a 3.5 meter beauty coming right up to the cage, everyone else got a little too cold.  I had 5 minutes all alone in the cage before the captain said it was time to go…

Where: Gansbaai/Kleinbaai, South Africa
: White Shark Projects
Cost: 1350 Rand (About $195 USD) per person
Included: Buffet breakfast; about 4 hours on the water (45 minutes or so in the cage, depending on the size of the group), wetsuit, mask, snacks and drinks on board; lunch, hot drinks, and hot showers (if desired) upon your return to the WSP office.
Not Included: R/T Transportation from Cape Town if necessary, 300 Rand ($43.50 USD), and a DVD of your tour, 350 Rand (about $50 USD)

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