Sunday, September 27, 2009

HARRA Cross-Country Relay

For at least a few weeks now, I've been able to run again. I am enjoying it as much as ever. With nothing more strenuous than a half-marathon as the goal (mid Jan 2010) means that training can be fun and even relaxing. No need to get up at 0500A on a Saturday morning for a long long run. Ten miles is about the longest distance I've tackled in many weeks. And that is at a leisurely pace (no Garmin involved) after reading the paper, having breakfast and enjoying a large mug of rooibos herbal tea. The closest I have come to marathoning since April this year, is wearing my Boston Marathon running cap.

Kathleen and I have been running together at least twice and mostly three times per week, including most Saturday and Sunday mornings. Every Thursday we do a track workout at Reagan High School with the Houston Striders. It is a great excuse to then go on to Field of Greens for one of the best sandwiches in town, a vegan BBQ Sandwich with some of the best french fries you can buy anywhere. They also serve large slices (we sometimes share one) of a killer vegan chocolate cake, from Whole Foods. Friendly waitstaff, and lots of other vegan and vegetarian options and even some (real) Salmon if you absolutely have to have something with a face or a mother.

Yesterday I was part of a 4 person Striders team running the 4 X 2-mile HARRA Cross-Country Relay, along some undulating terrain on the banks of Buffalo Bayou, just east of Shepherd Street and adjacent to Memorial Drive. Despite some cooler weather earlier in the week, Saturday dawned hot and humid and then some, so by 500p when the race got underway, we were running in typical Houston summer sauna-like conditions. Which means that after 1.5 miles of running hard and negotiating at least a couple of nasty sharp uphills, you are done. It was good to see some people that I had not bumped into for many weeks, and to make some new running friends in the persons of Mark Gonzales and Victor Curo, who made up the team with Jose Castaneda (we ran the Texas Independence Relay together in 2007) and myself. It was nice meeting you and thanks for coming out guys!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Elephants and Tiger Fish in the Lower Zambezi NP

August 20

Late this morning, we were our way to the Lower Zambezi for a quick 2-night stay at Chiawa and Chongwe River Camp. Our flight in a Cessna Caravan to the Lower Zambezi National Park took about 1 hr 40 minutes; our pilot dropped off some passengers for a different camp (Sausage Tree) at Jeki Airport and then continued on to Royal Zambezi Airstrip, where we were collected by a Chiawa driver. From the airstrip, it was a short drive to the Zambezi riverfront, where we walked down to a dock and took a pleasant (cool) boat trip of just under 20 minutes to Chiawa Camp. This tented camp consists of 7 tents, and it is situated on a sandy bank overlooking the Zambezi River. The tents are very luxuriously appointed with lots of nice touches, including a superb Victorian style bathtub, inside and outside shower, large bathroom area with his and hers vanities, two desks with mirrors, plenty of hanging/storage space, and 24-hr electricity with good lighting. The only slight blemish was not having hot water in the morning.

Approaching the airstrip along the Zambezi River

Not long before landing, with flaps in the down position

En route to the camp, we came across this Zambezi River equivalent of an RV towing a small car: a catamaran towing a couple of canoes.

Typical Lower Zambezi scenery with thick bush and massive trees lining the banks of the Zambezi

Interior of our very elegant room at Chiawa Camp

A quiet corner to catch up on the trip journal - does anyone still send postcards?

The bathroom at Chiawa with tub in the background

The front of the rooms is not covered at night, so in the early morning the gauze cover allows a lot of natural light to light up the room. By now, our body clocks were in synch with the day and night, so it was perfect to wake up to an African dawn. Chiawa was all about elephants. On our arrival there were a couple of elephants in camp and in fact we could not use the regular walkway to the tents, had to take a roundabout way to get to the room. Later on, during tea-time, there were several elephants right around the river dock and in front of camp, making for some exciting moments for guests trying to get to the dining area.

A part of the lounge at Chiawa Camp

The Chiawa bar with some African artifacts

There were elephants in camp pretty much the entire time we were at Chiawa

Drifting down the Zambezi

Sundowners in about as nice a spot as you can imagine

After tea four of us took a boat cruise along the Zambezi which was a really pleasant and relaxing experience, definitely a nice change of pace from all the game drives we had done to date. Just drifting down the Zambezi was a new and yet very satisfying safari activity. We had some great views of elephant, quite a variety of birds, and some far-off but nonetheless good views of a couple of Eland on the Zimbabwe side of the river.

A couple of ellies as seen from the boat, on an afternoon river cruise

A slightly closer up look

Here is a photo of a photographer trying to get a photo of an elephant in front on Chiawa Camp

More attempts at getting a photo of the photographer getting a photo...

From the water, one can approach the elephants quite close up, without them taking much notice

This one just continued to feed, using its trunk quite effectively to pluck a tasty morsel

I would not want to be this close to an elephant on foot

They can be docile one moment, and very intimidating the next

This one put up quite a show for us

Continuously feeding, not surprising as elephants devour about 300 to 600 pounds of plant material a day

We also drifted quite close to this beautiful saddlebilled stork

On this afternoon we just could not get away from all the elephants...

But there were plenty of hippos as well, such as this individual who was surprised by our approach

Plunging headlong into a safe haven to escape our attention

Success! Kathleen with the 5lb Tiger Fish which she caught

Nice one!

No fish for the guys but it wasn't for a lack of trying

That evening, we enjoyed one of the best dinners of the entire trip. After a delicious soup, we had potato fritters with onions, and a choice of beef fillet with mushroom sauce, a stuffed pork chop or vegetable kebabs with an intriguing sauce, served with rice. Dessert for yours truly was an apple crumble with a custard prepared with soy milk, while the other guests enjoyed a rich chocolate mousse. We had a most enjoyable after-dinner conversation with Grant Cumings, owner of Chiawa and its sister property, Old Mondoro, a bush camp in slightly different terrain about 1 hr away, by road.

August 21

After breakfast, three of us departed on a fishing trip on the Zambezi with our guide Isaac. Being out on the water was a great experience, even if the fishing itself was initially a bit slow. Things took a turn for the better when Kathleen hooked and landed a magnificent Zambezi Tiger fish of 5 lbs, a very respectable size. She was so excited that we are likely to try some more fishing later today at Chongwe River Lodge, where we will be staying for the last night of our safari. Both myself and Jay, a guest from San Francisco who was fishing with us, lost fish but we agreed that it was a fun experience which we recommend very highly.

More elephants in camp

Checking out the fireplace it seems

And then coming to see us off at the dock

By the time it got this close, our boats-man start to move downstream

Ready to depart from the dock, we had front row seats of all the elephant traffic on the river's edge

After yet another delightful brunch, we were boated the few kilometers upstream on the Zambezi to Chongwe River Lodge, a perfectly located lodge at the confluence of the Chongwe and Zambezi Rivers. The lodge definitely has the best of both worlds: fantastic views over the Zambezi River, the Chongwe River in front of camp and also to the left, the Zambezi Escarpment. Before it became a safari camp, Chongwe was a private family camp ground, and it is easy to see why this particular spot was chosen.

Fittingly our room – the Cassia Suite - was hands down the best of any we stayed in on the trip. It was truly magnificent with a massive central (screened) room with private plunge pool, patio and huge outdoor bathroom with shower and bathtub. Our own private butler/chef Martin was there to attend to anything we might need. We opted to have dinner with the other lodge guests that night, but had we stayed any longer, we most definitely would have opted for a private dinner. The suite was just the right place for it.

A view over the Chongwe River, from camp

And a small craft passing by

The mostly open air lounge area at Chongwe River Camp

The bar at Chongwe

A portion of the camp grounds with the dock and room # 1 in the background

The camp grounds are dominated by several huge trees, including several Winterthorns, much loved by especially elephant at this time of year when their seed pods drop

Our afternoon activity consisted of yet another fishing outing on the Zambezi, but despite our guide’s best efforts we did not hook another Tiger Fish. It was fun and very relaxing, just what we needed to really slow down the pace and enjoy the tranquility of our environment. Our last African sunset – at least for a while – was quite stunning and there was little to be said as we watched the light slowly fade away.

Our very last dinner on safari turned out to be a vegetarian meal – the main course being a fabulous curry stew with all kinds of other veggies, salads and of course excellent fresh bread. One more time, we fell asleep in an ocean of silence, with nothing other than a few hippo grunts, some frog noises and the distant hooting of an owl to disturb us.

Outside view of one of the standard tents at Chongwe River Camp

Interior view of one of the standard rooms at Chongwe River Camp

Part of the outdoor bathroom in a standard room at Chongwe

The shower in a standard room at Chongwe River Camp

The pool at Chongwe River Camp

Something nice and sweet that was served with afternoon tea in our suite

The outdoor bath in the Cassia Suite. Nature sounds included at no extra cost.

Another view of the bathroom in the Cassia Suite

Part of the interior of our room at Chongwe River Camp

The entire room is one gigantic mosquito net, so no need to worry about mozzies at night

Chongwe House as seen from the Chongwe River

August 22

This morning, we had a last glimpse of a couple of lions en route to the airstrip. It would be a day of lions by morning, transatlantic flight by night. It was a short flight by Caravan back to Lusaka, about 2 hours on an SAA Boeing 737 to Jo’burg and then the monster transatlantic crossing on Delta’s B-777, just a few minutes shy of 16 hours all the way to Atlanta. Just after midday on August 23, we were home in Houston. Al always, I was much less affected by the westward flight. One or two nights fighting off fatigue and you’re back on schedule! In an earlier blog entry I wrote, “In summary, the [Zambia] trip was everything we had anticipated and more: remote, fantastic camps, excellent guiding, great views of a dizzying variety of mammals, birds and other wildlife, amazing scenic beauty, generally light tourism traffic except around Mfuwe, first class food and drink and seamless transfers between camps and national parks. I think the photographs which I have used to illustrate these various entries underscore the conclusion. Zambia is a safari destination right up there with the best of them. Right now much of it reminds me of what Botswana was like 20 or so years ago. So go before the rest of the world discovers it.