Namibia and South Africa 2023

Exploring the Winter Deserts

Part 5: Relaxing in South Africa’s Western Cape

Tuesday morning, we awoke to a dreary view as it had rained during the night. Lucky for us, we have a fully stocked kitchen for breakfast and got familiar with what would be “our space” for the next week. The management restocks basics daily, (including eggs, bacon, and all condiments), and also delivers fresh baguettes and croissants to our door promptly at 7:30am. After breakfast, we did a load of laundry, made a meager grocery list, and walked to the local grocery to plan a lamb chop dinner, before exploring the nearby beach, all in spite of the rain. That afternoon, we drove to the nearest liquor/wine store to top-off our stock, (Camp’s Bay does not allow packaged alcohol sales, so we needed to head along the beach to the next town, Sea Point).

View northwest along Camps Bay Beach in Cape Town South Africa
Beach Sculpture at Camps Bay

The next morning, after breakfast, we drove to Stellenbosch – wine country – as we hoped to visit a few wineries that day. We started with Warwick Estates – set in a group of old, white-washed buildings.  This is an historic farm with a coffee house and restaurant, as well as daily wine tastings. There are no crowds, as it is winter in the southern hemisphere.  Here we decided to taste the “First Lady” line of wines. We started with a sparkling rose, (the “Cape Classic”), which was very nice, then a dry Rose wine, a Sauvignon Blanc, a Chardonnay, and a Pintotage (developed from hybrid grafting a Pinot Noir vine with a Hermitage vine). Pintotage wines are now a preferred blend from this area of South Africa and it was very nice. Finally, we finished with a Cabernet Sauvignon.   As were tasting we were told the legend of “The Wedding Cup” which revolves around the beautiful princess, Kunigunde.  She was the daughter of the King and Queen of old Nuremberg, whose hand was promised in marriage to a prince from a faraway kingdom. However, the princess wanted to marry a local, so he was challenged to build a wedding cup for her that they could both drink from at the same time.  He successfully constructed one thus winning her father over and allowing her to marry her love.  As we were leaving we met two women who were in the wine courier business, and who recommended we next go the Muratie Wine Estate and try their port. 

So, based upon their recommendation, we visited the Muratie Wine Estate next and ordered a cheese plate. Soon, the 2 women who recommended we come here for the port showed up and joined us. However, the port had apparently become so popular that it had been removed from the tasting list. But, because these women were wine couriers, we were all promised a tasting. Muratie Wine Estate is a very old winery which has windows full of ancient, preserved cobwebs, which have been there for years.   Even with the generational change in owners, the spider webs and old calendars on the wall have been left “as is”. Finally, we decided on the Premium Tasting options that included the “Lady Alice” (a sparkling Pinot Noir which was very nice), the “Lauren’s Camphor” (a white blend), the “Isabella” (a Chardonnay), the Mr. May (a Grenache Noir), the “Martin Merck” (a Cabernet Sauvignon), and lastly the port which we were promised, and which was quite lovely.

After this lunch, we drove to Beyerskloof which is considered “the home” of Pinotage wines. It is a young winery (only about 30 years old) and was not far from Muratie. After a tasting of a few Pinotage, including the Pinotage Rose, Pinotage 2021, Cabernet Sauvignon, and a Reserve Pinotage, we chose our favorite and carried on to the next vineyard. Next, we went to Simonsig – the home of sparkling wines.  Rocky tasted several whites (Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and a Chardonnay), and a couple of reds (a Pinotage, and Cabernet Sauvignon), while Julie tasted several sparkling wines (a Cuvée, a Vonkel Brut, a Brut Rose, a Satin Néctar and a Satin Néctar Rose). After Simonsig, it was late afternoon and we moved on to Rust en Vrede Vineyards, which was recommended to us by some other travelers. It was a very old vineyard that had been modernized in the 1970’s with white washed buildings and a wonderful view. Here we did a tasting of the Estate Syrah, the Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Estate 2020.  This vineyard actually has solar panels on their roofs which supply 40% of their power, which is useful in a country that has rolling power rationing. Upon returning to Camps Bay it was time for a light dinner and a relaxing evening.

Stellenbosch Vineyard

The next morning, we had breakfast before setting off northwest along the coastal road 2-hours to the village of Paternoster. Along the route, as we left the city behind, we saw farms and several nature reserves as well as the West Coast National Park.  Across the landscape, we saw impalas, dik-diks, ostriches, and a few zebras.  There was also an Air Force Base, sheep and cattle farms, and a massive windmill farm. Here, the landscape was green, with only a few sandy-colored dunes. Paternoster is on the ocean on a large, secluded bay, and consists of a small village of white washed cottages with blue shutters and roofs. It is often described as South Africa’s most beautiful village.  It has a long wide isolated beach with large rocks at each end for protection from the surf.  Paternoster means “Our Father” and was named such by shipwrecked Portuguese sailors.  Hundreds of ships have shipwrecked in South Africa’s dangerous West Coast coastline over the years.

When we arrived at the beach, we were greeted by boys trying to sell us fresh mussels.  We walked the long, secluded, pristine beach, past mussel-covered rocks and enjoyed the quiet and peacefulness.  There was no trash and only a few mussel shells on the shore. As it was winter, there were very few people out and about.  However, there was a red-roofed building on the beach, which you could see from everywhere. It is the Voorstrand Restaurant.  There we met a man throwing his dog a ball and as we spent time talking, the dog kept bringing Rocky his ball to throw. He told us that the restaurant would be open later for lunch. We returned to our car and drove around the village. As it was winter-time, a lot of businesses were closed or renovating, or were on holiday.  It was chilly out, but the sun was shining and the people were friendly and hospitable. We checked the local hotel to see its famous “panty bar”, but the bar was not open. The local art galleries were also closed but a few souvenir shops were open and we visited and shopped.  The town started to come to life around 2pm, and we went back to the Voorstrand Restaurant for lunch.  It was not a big place but they have a large, covered patio on the beach with a great view, so we ordered gumbo, a hake fish plate, and a snack plate with mussels, prawns, samosas, calamari, and oysters. It was a feast, the food was delicious, and the atmosphere was the best. By the time we left, the restaurant was full of guests – a very enjoyable lunch. Eventually, we headed back to Camps Bay. 

Beach at Paternoster
Table Mountain above Cape Town

Once back to Camps Bay we walked along the beach and then enjoyed sundowners at the hotel’s pool deck.  The night’s special drink was a “Plumosa” (tequila, grapefruit/lemon juice and sparkly wine) which was very refreshing.  The pool was heated but since it was winter, no one was swimming.

Camps Bay beach and 12 Apostles (mountain peaks) looking southeast

The next day we drove the Beach Road to The Victoria and Albert Waterfront, specifically to the V&A Wharf Shopping Center. It is a three-story mall with parking underground, with a major grocery store on the ground level, and retail stores above. We window-shopped for a while before heading out onto the wharf.  Along the wharf, we walked among old warehouses that had been converted to shops. There were also sightseeing boats that one could book, and lots of restaurants. But this is also a working wharf with drydocks and marine yards scattered among the tourists, with boats going to Robbin Island, boats being repaired, and with wharf improvements all taking place.  We went to the clock tower, and saw seals swimming in the dock area near the ferries. We finally stopped at Quay 4 for lunch having gumbo and the best fish and chips ever! Rocky ordered a Castle beer and received the beer with a scratch off card for a “beer lottery” chance! However, his card said “Sorry”!  We eventually found some souvenirs before heading back along the Beach Road to our place at Camps Bay. Later that afternoon, we took a walk on the beach looking for beach glass and watching the local youth team practice their rugby skills.

Working shipyard at the Victoria and Albert Waterfront
Painted Rhino art for sale

Saturday morning, after breakfast, we decided to drive around Table Mountain to the Boulders Penguin Colony located about an hour away on the East Coast of South Africa. This colony of African Penguins live in a sheltered cove of massive boulders and within a dense thicket of mangroves in a  residential area south of Simon’s Town. The African Penguin once numbered 1.5 million (in 1910) but was down to just 2-breeding pairs by 1982.  The uncontrolled harvesting of penguin eggs and commercial fishing nearly drove them to extinction.  However, once pelagic trawling was eliminated in False Bay, an increase in the pilchards (herring) and anchovies supply helped the penguin population recover. The penguins are now part of Table Mountain National Park and the area is full of thick brush for nesting and recent estimates put the population of penguins at 2200-2500 – significantly larger than our during our last visit here 13-years ago. We saw penguins nesting in holes and under bushes, sheltering their downy newborns. There were also young juveniles – the “blue” baby blues – so named because when they lose their baby down, it is replaced with an initial waterproof, dark blue-grey plumage. There were large groups of penguins on the dunes and other groups in and out of the water. There were many swimming to a large flat top rock offshore and then hopping to the top of the rock for a little sun before coming back to shore. One of their biggest enemies is the Kelp Gull, which likes to steal the eggs and attack very young chicks. We walked the boardwalks at Foxy Beach watching enjoying the penguins’ antics.  We also climbed some of the large Boulders at Boulders Beach. Afterwards, we drove the beach road south to Miller’s Point where we spotted a whale out in the surf, occasionally surfacing – just like we had seen during our visit here 13 years ago. Our drive back to Camps Bay took us along the beach road through Simone’s Town then Houk Bay before crossing over and around the edge of Table Mountain. Once in Camps Bay we headed to a restaurant named “Primi” for a late lunch of zucchini sticks, pizza, and wine. 

African penguins at The Boulders Colony
The Boulders Penguin Colony near Simons Town

Sunday morning after breakfast, we decided to take a leisurely drive and head to a very historic area called “Constantia”, where there were lots of older residences with a bit of land, as well as a few local wineries. We went to see the “Groot Constantia Wine Estate” which was founded in 1685 by Jan van Riebeeck who had been sent here to establish a “replenishment station” for ships heading to the Far East.  Instead, he started a vineyard. Fast forward to 1792 when the first restoration took place, and then to 1885 when the estate was sold in public auction to the government.  In 1925 there was another major restoration due to a fire, and this time it was meticulously restored. Finally, the government turned over the farm/estate (~170 hectares) to a private trust in 1993. Since then it has been run as a profit-making business with the grounds open to the public.  As we entered the gates we saw people walking and jogging among the vineyard groves, as well as numerous people heading to the two different restaurants on the grounds for Sunday coffee, hot chocolate, donuts, or a full breakfast. There were children in the yards playing ball and families feeding the ducks in the ponds.  The buildings (the Manor House, the Vineyards, the Cellars, and Gift Shop) were all open and busy.  We heading to the tasting room, which was very quiet at this early hour, and settled on a 5 wine tasting, including a Sauvignon Blanc, a Rose, and several reds. We really enjoyed the Cabernet Sauvignon 2020, and the Gouverneur’s Reserve (red) 2019.  We had an excellent wine guide, Abram, who was a delight to converse with and very knowledgeable and curious.   We also had the  opportunity to taste the Grand Constance 2018, a lovely sweet but smooth desert wine. We finished the morning purchasing the desert wine and parting with 2 wine glasses as a gift and memory of the day.

Monday would be our last day in South Africa and we started with a leisurely breakfast. Our suite has a 2-burner stove, an oven/microwave, a fridge, and freezer, with the fridge being fully stocked daily, (eggs, bacon, salmon, cheese, fruits, OJ, almond milk, yogurt, granola, etc.), plus fresh croissants and baguettes. We have gotten very spoiled. We completed our final packing and loaded the luggage into the car’s boot. We checked out of our accommodations and said “goodbye” to Camps Bay – still one of our most favorite places to visit.  We have a few hours, so we head to the world-renown “Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens”. It is probably one of the most spacious and beautiful gardens we have visited as it encompasses many different types of gardens, many of which are built into the eastern slopes of Table Mountain. They even boast a yellow version of the “bird-of-paradise” plant that was developed in honor of Nelson Mandela. After 2 1/2 hours visiting the conservatory, many, many gardens, and even an elevated canopy tree walk, it was time to head to the airport where we turned in the car and ran into teams of rugby players, teams of net ball players (as the Netball World Cup is going on in Cape Town), and other foreign travelers from England, Saudi Arabia, and the USA.  

The Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens
The yellow bird-of-paradise hybrid in honor of Nelson Mandella

Our long flight home is uneventful as we return from another great African adventure.. 

Namibia and South Africa 2023

Exploring the Winter Deserts

Part 4: Etosha National Park

We were welcomed at the Gröotberg Lodge and were shown to our stone cabin located on the hillside. Unfortunately, the cabins had no way to be heated or had any electricity, phone, or Wi-Fi. After returning to the reception area, we found a “charging room” near the dining hall where we could charge our devices and where limited Wi-Fi was operating. There were sofas, chairs, and blankets since this area was also not heated and it really was the only place to gather and relax. We drank hot tea, charged our electronics, and ordered a bottle of red Shiraz for warmth and for dinner. Dinner was eaten while we were bundled in our coats, but consisted of an excellent steak with yams, rice, and peach gingerbread pudding. The chef came and talked to everyone and then we went off to bed for a well-deserved rest while the winds continued to howl!

After snuggling under the covers in our warm beds all night to hold off the cold on the mountain, we were up early breakfast, and then we started down the mountain to go to Etosha National Park. The roads remained gravel for a ways, but travel was easy. Along the way, we saw giraffes and springboks, and since we arrived early, we decided to drive past our lodge and travel straight into the southern entrance of the National Park at the Anderson Gate. Soon we were among herds of giraffes, blue wildebeests, springboks, zebras, ostriches, oryx, and elephants. We found ourselves having to stop often for animals crossing the road. At the Aus waterhole, we saw 12 elephants, red hartebeests, black-faced impala, zebra, and a dik-dik. Then, along came another herd of elephants and some kudu at Oilfantsbad water hole.  Lastly we stopped at the Gemsbokvlakte water hole to see more black-faced impalas, springboks, ostriches, and blue wildebeests. Throughout the day, the weather improved considerably, and by afternoon it had warmed up to nearly 70 degrees F.

Lone giraffe near Anderson Gate entering Etosha National Park
Elephant family getting water at Etosha National Park

Finally, at 3pm we made our way back to the Anderson Gate park entrance. To exit we had to show our day’s pass and allow our vehicle to be inspected for any contraband or smuggling!  While in the Park, no one is permitted to exit their vehicle except in very controlled, designated spots.  We later learned that one of the items that the park is searching for is red meat and that no one is allowed to leave the park with such items. 

We went to our lodge where we would be staying for the next 2 nights – the Etosha Oberland – located a short ways outside of the southern park gate. The drive through the property’s entrance gate and through its reserve included 22 speed bumps created by placing 4-inch thick ship rope across the ground. The lodge was comprised of 20 chalets each with its own view of the reserve and totally private. Our chalet was spectacular and consisted of 3 large rooms: a bedroom, a sitting room/bar area, and a bathroom, all overlooking the game reserve with sliding glass doors in every room. Since strict privacy is ensured, there is also an outdoor shower for those who wish to shower with nature. After settling in and unpacking, we went to the lodge for sunset drinks, taking our binoculars to watch the springboks, the blue wildebeests, the birds, and the kudos all coming to enjoy the local watering hole. The lodge/reserve reports that they have 6 rhinos on the property and we hope to eventually see one. Then, it was time for dinner, nightcaps, and a comfortable bed.

Our tented chalet at the Etosha Oberland Lodge

Thursday morning started with a lovely made-to-order breakfast while overlooking the lodge’s two watering holes. After breakfast, we drove ourselves back to Etosha Park’s entrance to explore areas further east in the park. Once back into the park, we saw zebras, springboks, ostriches, and several giraffe before reaching the Homob waterhole. Here we saw large herds of springboks, wildebeest, and zebra.  We then drove along Rhino Drive, but saw no wildlife there. Once back to the main road, we continued east to the Noniams waterhole, but again saw no animals.  However, this part of the park was much hillier and boasted many more trees. Adventure awaits those who seek it and we proceeded to the Goas waterhole.  Here there were herds of black-faced impala, springboks, zebras, & oryx.  Since we were driving a large loop we eventually turned back toward the park entrance and stopped at the Nuamses water hole to observe 2 lonely impala.  Then, while heading towards the Etosha Lookout we saw a Honey Badger digging under a tree looking for insects to eat. At the Etosha Lookout the road runs out into an enormous pan where one has a 270-degree view across the pan.  From here, one can see animal tracks along a vista that goes on as far as one can see.  Once we returned to the main road, we came across a cheetah stalking something from under a tree. There were very large herds of zebras, wildebeests, and springboks in this area.  Then, along the side of the road, we came across two zebra fighting and a couple of dozen ostriches.  At the Rieffontein waterhole, there were more zebra herds, impala, and oryx hanging out.  We proceeded to the Salvadoran waterhole where there were more springboks and lots of birds, including the bronze wing courser. The following 2 waterholes that we visited, (Charitsaub and Sueda), were filled with springboks.  Back on the main road we saw ostriches and then several Kori Bustards – a very large brown bird. Then, a family of elephants appeared and we stopped to watch as they crossed the road right in front of us. It was getting late, and we headed back to Anderson Gate, where we had a final sighting of another oryx before reaching the lodge.

Elephant herd crossing the road at Etosha National Park

Back at the lodge, we enjoyed sundowners, watched animals visit the watering hole, and left to return to our room to shower for dinner. On the way back to our room, we startled a group of wildebeest who were grazing near the walkway. Their snorting told us that they were not happy we were there. The night we enjoyed a lamb dinner while watching kudu and springboks visit the waterhole before heading off to bed.

The next morning, we checked out of Oberland Lodge after a lovely breakfast while over-looking the water hole.  The drive to our next lodge will take us east from Etosha’s Anderson Gate across the park to the Namutoni Gate located at the far eastern end of the park. As we start our drive springboks and kudos run in front of our car, and then, as we travel across the park we see more springboks, giraffes, zebras, wildebeest herds, ostriches, and an eagle in the tree.  A short distance later, we came upon a huge Black Rhino grazing off on the side of the road. As we stopped and watched, he made his way close to our vehicle, until he crossed in front of us and continued on his way. The drive this morning is an endless parade of animals with more black-faced antelopes, wildebeest herds, and red hartebeest herds. Then, we spot 3 large bull elephants on the move, eating grass along the way when they too decide to cross the road in front of us. Next, giraffes and Kori Bustards are sighted.  We route ourselves to the Springbokfontein, Batia, Ngobib, and Kawkheuwel watering holes and see plenty of wildebeests, springboks, zebras, black-faced impalas, and a Southern Yellow-billed hornbill. Driving on we saw a Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk, several families of giraffe, and at the Chudop watering hole, we saw kudus and warthogs.

Black Rhino at Etosha National Park
Elephant matron crossing the road in Etosha National Park

At the park’s eastern gate is located Fort Namutoni, now a national monument that was originally built in 1896 as a German Police Post and a veterinary control point.  Later, the fort was used by the Germans to hold English prisoners during World War 1. Leaving Namutoni Gate, we head to the Klein Namutoni waterhole where we see kudu, impala, wildebeest,  zebra, red hartebeest, and guinea fowl being stalked by a jackal.On final road to Onguma Camp we see wildebeest and zebra and a Bradfield Hornbill.

Upon arriving at our next lodge/reserve – the Onguma Lodge – located immediately adjacent to the park, we received a welcome drink and orientation talk. We are assigned tent #1 with a great view of the watering hole which is only a few yards away. We can even observe the watering hole from our bed. The Onguma Tented Camp was originally built in 2006, and includes 5 other camps on the reserve of ~32,000 hectares of land and desert. There are only 7 tents in this camp.  “Onguma” in the local Herero language means “the place you don’t want to leave”.  The reserve’s 36,000 hectares were purchased in 1994 and has several accommodation locations on the reserve, each with their own waterhole. In 2001, 6 rhinos (white & black) were gifted to the reserve. There are also elephants and lions, at least one leopard, and herds of common impala on the reserve. Being located next to the park, it is impossible to constrain many animals, including rhinos, elephants, lions, and leopards, to stay within their designated areas. There are also palm trees on the property, although they are not indigenous. It is likely that the seeds were carried by animals from Angola located to the north. Palm trees are popular for vulture nests, (they lay only 1 egg which then the parents incubates for 48 days).  

In the late afternoon we headed out for a game drive with the lodge’s guide. Yesterday, there had been a lion kill of a baby giraffe and now the lions (a pride of 9) are laying under a tree resting and protecting their kill laying nearby.  We watch the lions which include one large male, 5 females, and 3 younger male siblings. Eventually, they stretch and start strolling around.  However, it is getting dark and near time for sundowners, and it is not safe to be out among the pride at night.  We need to find a place away from the lions before watching the sunset and enjoying our gin & tonics, but first we must encourage the lions laying in front of our vehicle to get up and move.

Young male lion at Onguma Reserve

Due to the camp’s remoteness and the proximity to dangerous animals, everyone is required to have an escort after sundown to and from their tents, and we gladly are escorted from our tent to the lobby/dining area. After a 4-course dinner we had a nightcap at the camp fire site with the camp photographers (who were from the Netherlands). Then, it was to bed to be ready for an early morning Etosha game drive. That night, we were kept awake for hours by lions located nearby roaring and calling each other – seemingly very close. 

Saturday morning was a quick and early breakfast so we could leave for an early morning game drive. We started on the Onguma Reserve, spotting 3 lions hunting wildebeest – however, they were somewhat lazy and were not close to success.  Then the young male lions decided to stalk a springbok – also without success. We then drove into Etosha Park, where giraffes had taken over the road. After they moved on, we saw a cheetah sunning herself on the warm gravel limestone. We then observed a lion alone at a waterhole. Further along, we spotted a brown hyena limping across the pan with a family of 3 giraffe watching warily. Finally off in the distance, we spotted a White Rhino crossing the pan towards a brushy “island” outcrop.  While driving to the opposite side of the pan to see the rhino, we came across a brindled gnu and a banded mongoose. We also saw a dik-dik, numerous giraffes, zebras, springboks, impalas, and wildebeest in abundance. 

Lone lion stops for a drink or water near the Fort Namutoni Gate
Young Cheetah at the eastern end of Etosha National Park
Herd of zebra at the watering hole in Etosha National Park

After the game drive, we returned to camp to enjoy the view over the waterhole from our deck and to relax. The  impala and warthogs made their appearances there before we went to the restaurant and had a light lunch. After lunch, we relaxed for a short time until it was time for a sunset game drive through the Onguma Reserve. There we spot a bull elephant wandering along and then 2 lions (a male and female) laying under a tree napping. After watching them slumber, we came across kudus, oryx, warthogs, dik-diks, a Kori Bustard, and a grey heron all at different watering holes. We then saw a vulture nest in a palm tree (with a vulture feeding a baby in it), an owl (juvenile and then his mother) in another palm tree. He was pale and light colored while she was big and powerful. Then, it was time to find our sundowner spot for drinks and nibbles before heading back to camp for a delicious dinner overlooking the waterhole which was calm and quiet. Once we were in bed, the lion’s roars began again, but this night, they were far away.

Warthogs at our camp at Onguma Tented Camp watering hole
Sunset at Onguma Reserve

Sunday, we were packed and ready to drive the 6 hours south, back to Windhoek. But, before leaving, we enjoyed a dish of Royal Eggs Benedict  for breakfast. Once leaving the reserve and getting back to the highway, the rest of the journey was on paved asphalt roads and we made good progress, only stopping twice for diesel fuel. Our GPS was working and we had written instructions that got us to the car depot around 2pm where we met by Marc who took possession of the vehicle and drove us to the Omaanda Lodge for our last night in Namibia. Omaanda Lodge is located on top of a hill outside of Windhoek, in an animal reserve of 9000 hectares, with no other ranches or houses in sight, and fairly close to the Windhoek airport. Our hut is a concrete round massive bedroom with a balcony overlooking the reserve where we can see a water hole in the distance that has impala surrounding it. Our room has a large bath with a fireplace between the bedroom and the tub. We watched the sun set from the pool bar, before having a dinner of Oryx steak with a delicious jus, grilled vegetables, and potato cake – absolutely the best oryx dish we have ever had! Then we returned to our toasty-warm room, where a fire in the fireplace had been lit, and relaxed for the night.

Our cabin at the Omaanda Lodge in Windhoek

Monday morning, we had a poached egg breakfast, checked out of the lodge, and were transported to the airport where we caught a plane to Cape Town, South Africa. We had lunch aboard the plane before arriving in Cape Town in the late afternoon, where we picked up another rental car and made our way to Camps Bay South Beach –  the location of our hotel. The traffic was terrible and we arrived at the hotel, which was located across the street from the beach, after dark. After checking into our lovely apartment with a view of the beach, we cooked a light snack and relaxed for the rest of the evening.

Our beachside accomodations at South Beach, Camps Bay, South Africa

Namibia and South Africa 2023

Exploring the Winter Deserts

Part 3: The Skeleton Coast

On Sunday, July 9th, we left Swakopmund early and began our trip north along the Skeleton Coast. The first ~250km through the Durob National Park were on relatively good gravel roads. Along the way, there were numerous shipwrecks and salt and diamond mining operations. One large ship, the Zeila, was wrecked on the shore of Henties Bay as recently as in 2008. We saw  an old, rusty, derelict oil rig, and many abandoned operations. Halfway along, we officially entered the Skeleton Coast National Park at Ugab River Gate, where, according to the log book, the last road traveler to enter this way had been over a week before! Once we made it to the final town of Torra Bay, the roads deteriorated significantly and we left all vestiges of civilization – no cell phone service, no towns, no homes, no other roads, and no people! Meanwhile, the wind was still fierce, but blowing from the east off of the Atlantic Ocean. The temperature was in the mid 40’s Fahrenheit, and once we passed Terrace Bay (where we filled up with diesel), we never saw another vehicle for the last ~100km. The road is rarely traveled as most people traveling to this region opt to fly-in on small planes. However, today’s weather would have made flying impossible. When we reached the “end of the road”, at Möwe Bay, there was an abandoned gate, a small block-house, and a colony of over 500,000 seals. We parked to await the arrival of our transport to the lodge and used the time to explore the beach. When our guide/driver arrived, we shared drinks and nibbles while making introductions and getting oriented. Before continuing our drive with 4-wheel drive the additional 45 km north to Shipwreck Lodge, we visited the seal colony and were lucky enough to meet and visit with Dr. Philip Stander, an eco-biologist studying the desert lions of the Skeleton Coast. He has been tracking and studying over 80 desert lions for over 20-years using GPS collars and game cameras. By the 1990’s, the Skeleton Coast’s desert lions had almost been eliminated from the area, but they have returned and are re-adapting to the extreme environment, including hunting seals. Dr. Stander let us know that a female had recently returned to the area near the lodge, but the lodge area covers over 145,000 hectares. Dr. Stander then gave us a DVD documentary of the chronology of one of the desert lion prides.

Map of Namibia’s shipwrecks along the Skeleton Coast
The ship Zeila, lies wrecked on the shore of Henties Bay from 2008
The Skeleton Coast National Parks southern entrance at Ugab Gate
The Möwe Bay seal colony

Driving north to Shipwreck Lodge, we encountered numerous whale bones along the beach. It was low tide, so we could navigate partly on the beach and partly on the dunes to get to the lodge. The lodge is located near the mouth of the Hoarusib River and has a 25-year lease with the government, including a clause to eventually return the land as if no lodge was ever there. It opened in 2018, relies completely on solar power with a small backup generator. It is built into sand dunes, and there is no noise pollution. The view is stunning with breathtaking vistas of desert, sky, and ocean for as far as one can see. After arrival and orientation, we settled in our room and then did a sundowner drive to the beach for drinks. This area of the beach had lots of drift wood and high winds that were now coming from out of the south with 24-foot waves. Because of the high winds and salt mist and sand in the air, the sunset was unusual.  We actually had to back the vehicle off the sand ridge as the tides were coming in and almost washed away our drink table. That evening, we had a lovely oryx steak and fish dinner and a great conversation with the other 12 guest that were there. Later that night, we returned to our room where a fire had been lit for us in our cast iron stove, warming the room.

Shipwreck Lodge cabin nestled amond the sand dunes
Sunset on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast

Monday morning, we were up for coffee and a leisurely breakfast. The weather had improved significantly as the front had passed and the wind had died. However, some of the camp’s raised wooden walkways had become buried by the night’s moving sands and, reminiscent of analog snowstorms in the northern USA, staff were busy shoveling them out.  After breakfast, we met our guide for riding 4×4’s over the sand dunes, exploring the area, and looking for signs of local animals. We were out among the dunes for about 2-hours – spotting oryx and springboks, finding hyena tracks, and trekking across an other-worldly landscape more akin to the moon or a distant planet. We even learned to “walk” our 4×4’s down the steepest face of the dunes, surfing downhill on a controlled landslide.

Four-wheeling over the Skeleton Coast sand dunes
Namibia’s Skeleton Coast sand dunes as far as the eye can see

After returning to the lodge for a hot tea, we decided to take advantage of the good weather and embarked on a ~1-mile, one-way, self-hike from the lodge to the ocean over a series of small dunes. Along the way, we saw springboks, picked up a jaw bone of a zebra, and unsuccessfully looked for diamonds on the beach. There were lots of animal tracks on the dunes (brown hyaena, oryx, springbok, jackal, rabbit, and lots of birds).  Nearer the ocean, we encountered reeds and succulents and lots of drift wood from the ocean, which was much calmer than it had been the day before. We then had to hike back to the lodge, as our walkie-talkie radio did not work, and our “Uber” pick-up never arrived!

A lunch of stuffed mushrooms and lamb chops was lovely, and after a refreshing shower, we relaxed in the lounge for a few hours before meeting our guide again for a scenic drive up the Hoarusib River Valley, which was dry for the first few miles from the coast. Eventually, small signs of groundwater started to appear with greenery that attracted wildlife. Small herds of Springboks and Oryx appeared and elephant dung and baboon tracks were prevalent. The river valley deepened into small canyons which had green reeds and other greenery and, eventually, some small watering holes, We headed up the sides of the river canyon to rejoin the dunes and mountains and to climb to the top of a series of granite boulders at the top. From this vantage point, the view was one of sand, rocks, and desolation – like a moonscapes with massive canyons, Two hours later we’re heading back where we encountered a large, single male oryx in the lodge’s parking lot. We enjoyed our afternoon sundowners and met the new arrivals (4 who flew in from London). Dinner was mussels and fish with eclairs for desert. After dinner we sat and talked with Ozzie, the camp’s contracted engineer, who had assembled a collection of quartzite and calcite, which he insisted on sharing a few pieces from with us. Then, it was back to our room for a fire, night-cap and packing.

The dry Hoarusib River Valley near the seashore
The inland Hoarusib River Valley where some greenery exists
A lonely Oryx among the Skeleton Coast dunes

Tuesday morning we awoke to a howling sandstorm. The wind was now at 45-60 mph blowing the sands east from the dunes out towards the ocean. We fought our way from our cabin to the lodge where we had breakfast, and then were to be ferried back to our vehicle, Pauline. Unfortunately, the visibility was so low that the landmarks that the driver would have used to guide him back to our vehicle were not visible, and he got lost amongst the dunes and blowing sand. After backtracking numerous times and climbing down some impressive descents, we finally made it back to Pauline having turned a 45-minute trip into one of over 90-minutes.

The Shipwreck Lodge cabins in a vicious sandstorm

As we began our journey south down the Skeleton Coast, the winds increased and the visibility decreased. The wind pelted the left side of the truck with sand and rocks and the dust was so thick it hurt your throat. One could not see the hood of the vehicle, but, traveling at less than 10-mph with Julie looking down at the ground on the left side, and with Rocky looking down at the ground on the right side, the gravel road’s berms could barely be identified and slow progress could be made. Luckly, no other vehicles we encountered, but a breakdown could have stranded us for days. After over 3-hours of intense operating in this manner, we finally reached Terrance Bay hoping to stop for relief and diesel, but the petrol station was deserted and locked up tight. We continued our journey to the town of Torra Bay where we would find a paved road that would take us east into the sand storm. Although we now turned into the storm, we soon left the sand dunes of the west coast and the visibility improved significantly. After traveling ~30km we came to the Skeleton Coast National Park’s Springbok (East) Gate, which had been blown down and was blocking the road and our exit from the park. After showing our Park Permit papers, and complementing the Park’s Ranger, Rocky & 4 others lifted and moved the iron gate out of the way (to the cheering of other waiting vehicles). From the park, we continued east towards the Damaraland area and to our accommodation for the night at Gröotberg Lodge. Visibility had improved, but our left-side window were left pitted and barely transparent, and a smog-like haze of fine dust continued to hang over everything.

The Skeleton Coast National Park’s Springbok (East) Iron Gate blown down by the sandstorm

Finally in the countryside cloud, we see a giraffe, and then a 2nd one. We continued driving until, in the middle of nowhere, we spotted the sign for the lodge and started a treacherous climb up a narrow one car track that is so steep that one cannot see the road in front of the vehicle. When we finally reach the top of Gröotberg mountain, we are at a lodge built out over a steep ravine for a spectacular view of the valley below. Unfortunately, the air is so full of dust that we cannot see more than 100 feet. It has taken us 8 grueling hours to get here and the winds are still howling at hurricane force, and the temperatures are very cold – a few degrees above freezing.

Giraffes eating at Acacia Tree
Gröotberg Lodge on the top of Gröotberg mountain embedded in dust and sand

Namibia and South Africa 2023

Exploring the Winter Deserts

Part 2: Exploring the Namib Desert

After filling our vehicle with diesel at Bette, we headed north to the Serium Gate of the Namib Taukluft National Park. Soon after, we arrived at the park’s Dead Valley Lodge just in time for lunch. At the park, we have reserved a tented chalet for one night. After settling in, we headed for an afternoon scenic drive to the Sossusvlei Pan and the Namib Desert’s red dunes. The Namib Desert is the oldest desert in the world, and this area of it is a UNESCO world heritage site with a dedication monument in the park. We drove 50-plus kilometers passing hundreds of enormous sand dunes that are named and numbered. On the west side of the valley, the dunes were yellow-gray, but on the east side they were red! We stopped at Dune 45 for pictures and then climbed the dune at Deadlvei claypan. Here, 900-years ago, the dunes migrated across the local river and cut off its flow, leaving a small pan of forested ground to dry up. The areas of dead forests remain there, frozen in time. In order to see the “Dead Valley”, we walked over a mile before climbing a large red dune. The dunes here are over 125 meters tall. After returning to the vehicle, we then drove to the Sossusvlei area of the desert among the giant red dunes to watch the sunset and enjoy gin and tonics and nibbles. Jonas was our guide and on the return to the hotel we saw an oryx, springbok, and a jackal, entering the park just as the Park’s gates closed for the night. Back at the lodge, we had grilled eland and grilled lamb ribs for dinner. Then we went to our tented chalet to prepare for our 5am hot air balloon ride in the morning.

Dead Valley Lodge in Namib Taukluft National Park
Some of the hundreds of dunes in the Namib Taukluft National Park
A dead river valley where sand dunes cut-off a river route
Sundowners at Dead Valley in Namib Taukluft National Park

Saturday morning we rose at 4:00am to pack and travel 35km to the site for our hot air balloon launch. Unfortunately, the camp had suffered a power failure during the night and we accomplished this in the dark with only cell phone lighting. We left our luggage there since we would be returning later to check-out, and we then drove to exit the park. However, the park’s gates were closed until 6:00am, and we needed to honk our horn to wake the guard to be able to leave. We traveled in the dark to a sign by the roadside that indicated where to turn, and we arrived at Namib Sky Balloon Safaris, where 56 of us gathered to ride on 4 balloons set to take-off at sunrise. We were ferried to a flat, open field where the balloons were assembled and inflated, before boarding the basket and rising above the earth. It was a quiet, gentle ride where the topography looked other-worldly.  Below, we could see ostriches and springboks. Our pilot would adjust our direction by changing the height of the balloon and entering different air currents that move in different directions as a function of altitude. The ballooning company owns considerable areas adjoining the park, but the intent is always to land the balloon on or near a road to make recovery earlier and to minimize offroad vehicular travel. Our pilot, Paul, does one better and lands the balloon’s basket on the trailer of the balloon recovery vehicle. Simply amazing. Our balloon ride is followed by a champagne breakfast in the desert, including: coffee, tea, and champagne, home-made breads ,jams, muffins , and croissants, eggs, yogurt, and even zebra meat and game sausage. While eating breakfast, a curious jackal, and even a few springboks, came to see what was going on.

Filling the balloon with hot air
Hot air balloon ride over the Sossusvlei Pan with Namib Sky Balloon Safaris
Hot air balloon landing near road and recovery crew

We returned to our car, headed to the park gate to pay our park fees, and check out of the hotel before we start 360+ kilometers on gravel roads, (some good and some very, very bad), through the National park to the coastal town of Swakopmund, a small, old German fishing town. Just before Swakopmund at the town of Walvis, we passed some local brine estuaries that were filled with pink flamingoes. But, on the way there, a weather front came through and a driving sand-storm impacted the last 30km of our trip. Finally, we checked into a small guesthouse located just 2-blocks from downtown and from the ocean. From there, we bundled-up and walked downtown to do some window shopping. We then walked to the beach, where it was high tide with high waves and high winds. The temperature was rapidly dropping as we stopped at “The Tug” for dinner. The Tug is an old tug boat that has been turned into a bar and restaurant at the beach-end of the town’s pier. The bar had personality and the food was delicious. After dinner, we headed back to the guesthouse to get ready for tomorrow’s 400+km drive to the remotest destination on the Skeleton Coast – Shipwreck Lodge in the Skeleton Coast National Park.

Pink Flamingos at the town on Walvis
The pier at the coastal town of Swakopmund
Tug’s Restaurant at the base of Swakopmund’s pier

Namibia and South Africa 2023

Exploring the Winter Deserts

Part 1: From the USA to the Kalahari Desert

Over a decade earlier, we had completed almost 5-years of living in Africa, and had had the wonderful opportunity to participate in over a dozen safari’s within 9 different sub-Sahara countries. However, Namibia had been one of those countries that we had never made it to, although plans had been made in 2011 that were subsequently cancelled for severe flooding. Now, after a dozen years of relative drought conditions there, we finally made the commitment to see this beautiful country. We planned our trip through our historic Africa planners (Go2Africa), and decided to rent a car and move from one game lodge to another that were all reserved in advance. Our intent was to experience different parts of the country and have the flexibility to explore along the way. Namibia is a safe country to travel in, and with a population of only ~2.5 million, is the 2nd least population dense country in the world!

When planning a safari with a desire to see animals, it is best to travel in the winter (dry season) as the animals will group-up near the isolated watering holes, making finding them much easier.  Therefore, we planned to leave Washington, D.C. in early July (winter in the southern hemisphere) to spend two weeks traveling around Namibia. And, since we were already close-by, we tacked-on an additional week in one of our favorite places on the globe – Cape Town, South Africa – at the end of our trip.

Air flight path – 15 hours

From Washington, Dulles, we took a short flight to Newark to board our 15-hour-plus flight directly to Cape Town. After a plane “cargo balancing” delay, we  finally left Newark and arrived in Cape Town in the evening only 1-hour late. That night, we stayed in a near-by airport hotel, (Hotel Verde), before resuming our journey to Windhoek, Namibia with a short flight the next morning. We were met at the airport by our car-rental company, oriented to the area, and given our vehicle – “Pauline” – a 4 door pickup with a covered back to hold our luggage and 2 spare tires. With the help of GPS we headed to our first game-park lodging, having to stop along the way for a herd of baboons, a flock of Guinea fowl, and herds of sheep and goats crossing the road.  Along the way, we passed Namibia’s Hero Monument build to recognize the countries historic heroes, and then passed south of the Tropic of Capricorn.

Julie with our vehicle – Pauline

283 kilometers later we arrived at the Kalahari Anib Lodge, where we unpacked before taking a short walk on a desert trail. That afternoon, we took a guided game drive where we saw eland, the largest antelope (males can up to 2000 pounds), guinea fowl, red hartebeest, ground squirrels, and ostriches. Ostriches can lay 10-18 eggs each at one time, and they can also join their nests into a communal nesting area that can hold upwards of 60 eggs that are jointly cared for. This helps to protect against the jackals that like to scavenge their eggs. As darkness approached, we stopped to watch the sun set and enjoyed sundowner drinks and nibbles before returning to our room.

Eland in the Kalahari Desert

Back at the hotel we were moved to another room due to lack of hot water, and after dinner we celebrated the 4th of July with champagne around the campfire. 

The next morning after breakfast, we began the 3-hour drive from the Kalahari Anib to the Zannier Hotel Sonop, on the edge of the Namib Desert in Sonop, Namibia. Along the way, we stopped to explore the Duwisib Castle – a grand medieval looking building atop the hills in the Southern Namib region. It was built in 1909 as the residence of Hans Heinrich von Wolf, a German military officer. It was built so that could withstand a siege, as was taught in Von Wolf’s military training. After the German wars in the south Africa region, Von Wolf and his American bride settled there on over 55,000 hectares. They operated the property as a stud farm for English and Australian thoroughbred horses. However, when World War I broke out in 1914, they returned to Germany where Van Wolf was killed in battle and his wife gave-up the castle. After that, it changed hands many times until the Namibian Government took ownership in 1979 and refurbished it in 1991. Today it operates as a resort and still serves as home to wild horses that descended from the Von Wolf herd.

Ostriches on the side of the road near Duwisib Castle

After passing flocks of ostriches beside the road, we entered a large valley and traveled a series of dirt and  gravel  roads before arrival at the entry headquarters of the lodge. We were transported another few miles with our luggage to a large outcrop of boulders where the resort sits atop. It consists of 10 cabin tents with a dining area, pool, and gym – all mounted upon giant boulders with panoramic views of the surrounding pan and the Tiras mountains.  After a 2-year drought, few animals remain in the area with the exception of oryx – the national animal of Namibia. That evening, we took a scenic drive with Floyd – a local renown guide that was spectacular.  His knowledge of the area and animals was exceptional and we started by visiting a colony of weaver birds who make giant communal nests holding 400-600 hundred birds.  These nests can become so big that they can eventually topple the tree. Small single weaver nests could also be observed. We inspected a Quiver Tree, which is a type of Aloe Vera tree with beautiful yellow flowers on the top and the bark was used by local tribes to make quivers for their arrows.  All of the trees have medicinal properties.  Floyd also showed us the African Moringa tree, it too is medicinal. We ended the drive at the top of the large dune where we had drinks and watched the sunset.  This magic moment led to discussions of family aspirations and of life growing  up in Namibia.  Floyd demonstrated the iron richness of the dunes by extracting iron from the sand magnetically.  Time ran away, and on the way back in the dark we encountered an oryx crossing the road. Then, it was into a golf cart for the climb to the top of the boulder pile and for an eland steak dinner before retiring for the night.

The Zannier Sonop Lodge located ontop of boulder field
Underside of Community Weaver bird nest with nest entries
A flowering Quiver Tree
The night time ramp to the top of the Zannier Sonop Lodge

Thursday morning we watched the sunrise from our tent’s balcony before an early coffee and meeting Floyd for a 3-mile ride on electric fat tire bikes to the horse stables. There, we met Austin to go horseback riding on 2 beautiful horses – Angie and Jessica.  We rode for about 2-hours towards the mountains, then to the entrance gate, and finally back to the stables, taking lots of pictures. Una then drove us back to the lodge for a late breakfast of omelet and Eggs Benedict. Then, we went to the pool for a cool, relaxing late morning. After floating around, having lunch and a bottle of champagne, we returned to our room for showers before heading to the lobby for afternoon drinks and meeting another guide, Lazarus, for a hike to the Bushman’s cave that was historically used as temporary lodging by local tribe members when they were away from their village out on a hunt. While hiking, we stopped to examine various cactuses and plants, and came upon springboks and eland grazing about. At the Bushman’s communal cave, we saw the remnants of ostrich egg shell pieces that had been fashioned into jewelry, stone implements for grinding, pottery shards, and drawing on stones and the cave walls.

Horseback riding in the Namib Desert

We then celebrated with gin and tonics while having a conversation about cultures and family before returning to camp in time for dinner. That night we dined on pork medallions while having conversations with the day’s newly arrived guests, before heading off to bed.

Sunset from Zannier Sonop Lodge

Friday morning, we were up at sunrise to take the fat tire e-bikes for a spin around Zannier Hotel Sonop 5000 hectares by ourselves.  Shortly after leaving the lodge and heading towards the mountains we saw a large male oryx, then a pair of oryx, then 7 oryx, then 9 oryx, and then 3 different herds of 20-40 oryx each.  We rode the bikes for 90-minutes, enjoying the peace and quiet of the area and going where we wanted.  We returned in time for breakfast, after which we checked out and started our drive to the “town” of Bette to fill our vehicle with fresh diesel, and continue our journey.  

Lone Oryx on the Sonop Lodge property

Around the Arabian Peninsula – Amman to Dubai 2022 Part 5

United Arab Emirates


In the morning, we arrive in Dubai. After breakfast, we turn in our room keys, pick up our passports, and disembark the ship to pass through immigration and board a bus for a city tour. The United Arab Emirates are made up of 7 Emirates that joined together in 1971. Before that, the area was a British Protectorate. (The country’s 51st birthday was yesterday!) Dubai is ruled by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (Sheik Mohammed) and he also serves as the Vice-President of the UAE. (Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, is, in fact, the emir of Abu Dhabi, and the president of the UAE.) The country of UAE is only ~84,000 sq. Kilometers and its population is ~9.6 million with only 11% being native, and ~89% being Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshis, Iranian, and Philippine. The country’s economy does not run on oil, but runs instead on direct foreign investment. Dubai is made up on ~40 “investment cities” that each depend on one particular business: the Internet City, the Health City, etc. Most government jobs are reserved for native citizens, but the entire government is paperless. The government provides school, health, housing, and a marriage fund. Nearly all government employees and expats have servants. The city has an extensive monorail system and a series of spectacular architecturally wonderful buildings, (e.g., “The Frame” – a building that looks like a picture frame but is an observation deck with a glass floor; and the “Burj al Arab” – a sailboat-shaped hotel more than a 1,000 feet tall). We pass walled areas that are Royal Family Palaces before we head to the “Palm Island” or “Palm Jumeirah”, as it is called. This entire island looks like palms from the air and was artificially build into the sea. Over 100,000 people live here and the island host the “Atlantis Resort” – a near duplicate to the one in Nassau, Bahamas. The Palm Island #2 is under construction, but has no homes there, yet. Construction on the Palm Island #3 was stopped because of the recent downturn I the economy, and is planned to be re-branded as “Dubai island”. The islands are connected via tunnels – the longest of which is 750 meters in length. The city of Dubai is very “high tech”, and there are too many skyscrapers to count.

Cayan Tower in Dubai – Eye-catching Helical Shape
The Jumeirah Emirates Towers in Dubai
Unique Residential Towers in Dubai
Commercial – Residential Tower Complex in Dubai
The Sail – The Burj Al Arab Building in Dubai
Damac Towers in Dubai
The Dubai Frame – Largest Frame in the World – an Observatory & Museum

After, the quick bus tour, we exited and climbed aboard the monorail for a ride from the Palm Island entrance to Atlantis and enjoyed the view along the way. Then we traveled to Souk Madinat Jumeirah for lunch on our own and a great view of Burj Khalifa – the tallest building in the world. We ate salads at a restaurant called “Ushna – The Dancing Elephant” before shopping for souvenirs. We then rode the bus back to our hotel – “The Paramount” – whose entire theme is inspired by the rich history of the Paramount movie studio with Hollywood-themed rooms and modern California cuisine. Our room is very high tech with all electronic controls located at bedside, and the television located inside the mirror opposite the bed. The hotel is part of a 4-tower complex of residential condos, each 25 floors high, with a grocery store on site as well as 2 pools and spa and is located 10 miles from the airport.

Atlantis at Palm Island

Dinner that night was at a restaurant in the Souk Al Bahar where we enjoyed Lebanese food at “Abd El Wahab“, consisting of many small plates of appetizers and salads,  followed with meats & BBQ, and then fruit and rice panna cotta desert. Every 30-minutes, the Dubai Mall fountains (which are between the Souk and the Mall) dance to music like a smaller version of the fountains at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. The area also offers boat rides in the fountain’s waters, as the fountain pool is 900 feet long with 6,600 lights and 50 color projectors. Water shoots up 150 feet to contemporary Arabic music, and the Burj al Khalifa in the background, (the world’s tallest building at a height of 2,722 feet – just over a half mile tall), is lit-up with dancing lights all along its side. After dinner, we returned by bus back to the Paramount Hotel.

The next morning, we enjoyed breakfast at the hotel before traveling by bus to the Burj Khalifa Tower. There is an underground walk to get to the entrance and the building’s security. The tower contains 154-floor with 9-floors dedicated strictly for infrastructure and building maintenance. The rest of the floors are offices, residences, restaurants, lobbies, and a hotel. There are 2 subterranean floors for parking and mechanical systems. Every 30 floors is a floor dedicated to building services. The tower has 57 elevators, is 829 meters (2722 feet) high – over twice the height of the Empire State Building. Its construction was began in 2004 and completed in 2009. The building opened in 2010. We rode the high-speed elevator to the 124 floor observation deck and then walked to 125th floor taking lots of pictures. There is a Sky-level bar and observation deck at the 148th floor which charges a hefty fee to enter.  On a clear day at low tide you can see all the way to Iran, located 95 miles away. Unfortunately, today is not that clear. After completing our tour of the building, we have time to visit Dubai Mall where there are over 1200 shops, the Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo (33,000 aquatic animals), the Dancing Fountains, (which we saw the previous night), the Dubai Ice Rink, The Waterfall Wall, the Star Atrium, and Burg Khalifa, We explore nearly all of it before we head back to the hotel at ~4:00pm.

The Emaar Building from atop the Burj Khalifa
Julie with Wings atop Burj Khalifa
Sharks and Rays at the Dubai Mall
The Wall of Water & Sculptures at Dubai Mall

That night, we have dinner on our own, and since this will be our last night on the trip, we head out to the pool-deck bar afterwards to watch World Cup soccer live. We have great seats, a lite dinner and drinks in the cool evening air while enjoying the games taking place only a short distance away in Qatar. At 10:30pm we board a shuttle to the airport as our plane is scheduled to depart at 1:50am to Frankfurt, before we connect back to Washington, Dulles. A great trip!

Around the Arabian Peninsula – Amman to Dubai 2022 Part 4



Thursday morning we enjoy breakfast as we begin to make our way into port. Making it into port and clearing everyone’s entry will take all morning, so we enjoy a lecture about the region’s history with oil “Black Gold”!  After fieldwork and drilling wells in the Zagros regions in western Iran, George Bernard Reynolds discovered the first oil in the Middle East in 1908. The British Petroleum Company then began to operate in the region. Then, in 1938, an American-owned oil well in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, drilled into what would become the largest source of petroleum in the world. The discovery radically changed the physical, human, and political geography of Saudi Arabia, the Middle East, and the world. Before the discovery (made by the company that would eventually become Chevron), Saudi Arabians were largely nomadic. The country’s economy was based on tourism revenue from observant Muslims’ pilgrimages to the holy city of Mecca. After the discovery, Saudis established strong infrastructure dotted with wells, pipelines, refineries, and ports. Today, oil accounts for roughly 92% of the Saudi budget. In 1941, during World War II, Britain and the USSR invaded countries in the Middle East to preserve their oil supply. After WWII, many of the countries nationalized all or parts of their oil industry beginning a long series of conflicts and political meddling in the region. Commercial oil was discovered in Oman in 1964 and was first exported in 1967. Subsequently the production and export of petroleum rapidly came to dominate the country’s economy. Today, Oman’s oil economy is rapidly shrinking, and the economy is focused on improving other sectors.

Entrance to Muscat Harbour
The Sultanate of Oman

After lunch we were finally able to disembark the ship in Port Sultan Qaboos in Muscat Oman. Here, we met our local guide, Akmed, who took us on a quick tour of the city. Today, Oman is one of only two countries in the world with a Sultan, the other being Brunei. It is a country of 4.8 million people with approximately half of them being expatriates. Oman has 11 regions with 63 cities and speaks fluent Arabic and English. 

Outside & Inside of the Royal Opera House Muscat

Its land are is only 309,000 sq. kilometers  with most of it mountainous desert. We first visit the Bait Al Zubair Museum and gift shop which chronicles the history and customs of Omani clothing, jewelry, and weapons, and outlines the linage of its sultans. We then stop for photos at the Qasr Al Alam Royal Palace, which is located beachside in the city. There are two palaces in Muscat and four additional ones in the rest of country. The giant “ball” dominating the city’s skyline is for burning incense, principally frankincense. Then we head to the souk for a bit of shopping, where we find deals on frankincense, myrrh, pashminas, and other things. After an hour of shopping, we return to the ship for dinner. Tonight is our new friends’ 50th wedding anniversary and we celebrate at the Captain’s Table with them.

The Qasr Al Alam Royal Palace
Shopping at the Muscat Souk
Rocky as an Omani Local

That evening, there is a short talk about the next day’s activities where we will visit an Omani city located just on the border with the United Arab Emirates (UAE).


After breakfast, we head into the port city of Khasab. Khasab is on northern Oman’s Musandam Peninsula. Khasab Fort has crenellated stone turrets, model wooden boats and a museum with handicrafts and archaeological finds. From Khasab Harbor, we board wooden boats to cruise some of the Strait of Hormuz’ fjords, which offering rugged coastal views and an opportunity for dolphin sightings. Our wooden boat travels south, past small mountain villages and modestly green valleys, past Jabal Hareem peak which is known as a rich source of marine fossils. There are ~30,000 people living in the area, mostly fishermen and wealthy individuals. There is no reportable crime in the area although Iran is only located ~65 kilometers away. The port boast the fastest ferry in the world requiring only ~3.5 hours to get to Muscat. Since Iran is so close, their shepherds and herders bring their goats and sheep to the docks here in Oman so they get taken to market. They then take their money back to Iran. The first 30 minutes of our cruise to takes us past 5 small villages of 45 to 100 people each. Most people here have 5-10 goats living in the house with them, as is tradition. We head to Telegraph Island which is where the British had once set up telegraph wires, but is now deserted. Along the way, we spot a pair of humpback dolphins.  We set anchor on the far side of Telegraph Island and jump into the water to snorkel the local coral.  While Rocky was snorkeling, another boat cut our boat’s anchor line and we drifted away to the middle f the channel, stranding him for a short while. After returning and picking up Rocky and the other snorkelers, we sailed in and out of the many fjords before heading back to the dock as the sun was setting.

Our Boats for Local Cruise in Khasab
Relaxing on the Boat’s Lower Deck in Khasab
Corals While Snorkling in Fiords of Khasab
Khasab Starfish among the Seafloor Creatures & Corals

From there, we reboard our ship, prepared for dinner, and headed back into the Arab Gulf to pass through the Straights of Hormuz and into the Persian Gulf. 

Around the Arabian Peninsula – Amman to Dubai 2022 Part 3

Sailing the Red & Arabian Seas

South on the Red Sea

Our journey to Oman will begin by heading south in the Red Sea past Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Eritrea. The ship has opened the pool and the hot tubs, and the sauna and exercise machines are all now up and working. That afternoon we have our first at-sea talk by our Cruise Director, Amani, reviewing our upcoming itinerary, while appetizers and wine are served. Dinner was at 7pm and, because today is Thanksgiving, a turkey, chicken, and duck feast is served. That night, they show the movie “Death on the Nile” in the lounge along with free popcorn, and that evening, we check out the hot tubs on deck with a well-deserved nightcap.

The next morning, we rise early for a quick workout in the gym. Despite the rocking of the boat, the treadmills are all working fine. After a quick visit to the sauna and it’s showers, we head for coffee, and a light breakfast before a morning talk by our sociologist/historian, David, who talks about “How a Humble Canal Sunk an Empire!”. 

The Suez Canal

The 19th century was the “age of the canal”, with the building of the Erie Canal, the Panama Canal, and the Suez Canal. The Suez Canal was originally conceived and began by the Frenchman, de Lesseps, and it was anticipated to be economically transformative, as it would save 5,000 miles of shipping travel between Asia and Europe. Early in its history, the British tried to sabotage its construction by the French, but the French persevered. The canal was built principally by slave labor and Egyptian peasants and it opened in 1869. At the time, it was seen as an equivalent of placing a man on the moon today. The opening was marked by a grand procession of boat parades through the canal. However, the canal did not bring riches to the area and, instead, the Egyptian economy failed, leading to unrest and protests. Eventually, in order to preserve its use, the canal area was declared a neutral zone by the British, which soon led to the British to build settlements in Africa and then in the Middle East. At one time, Winston Churchill even sent tanks to the area to protect the Canal.  Eventually, Egypt’s leader, Nasser, nationalized the canal and declared it the property of Egypt. This led to the1956 crisis where the British and the French bomb the canal fighting for control it. Finally, the British backed-down and control of the canal went to the Egyptians. This was a massive geopolitical moment as the humiliation to the Western European powers likely encouraged the Soviet Union to invade Hungary that same year. Today, there are two 2 parallel canal sets of locks and the canal has ~$9Billion impact daily.

After the morning lecture, we had a light lunch before taking a tour of the ship’s bridge. The ship is driven by diesel generators powering electric motors. Steering is all controlled by hi- tech toggles and joysticks with no traditional wheel. The ship was received from China on Oct 21, 2022 and was brought straight to our group after a quick stop in the Philippines to board staff. The bridge keeps two people on watch at all times; and while we were there, it was Ronald, the safety officer, and Dan, the watch officer, who were on duty.

Bridge Crew on Watch

After the Bridge Tour, we took the occasion to go relax in the hot tub, as the pool was closed due to the dangerous “sloshing” of the water. At 4pm, we went to the ship’s Library for the daily high tea which included cakes, sandwiches, nibbles and bits, served with a variety of teas.

Daily Tea Time – Sweets & Cakes

At 5:30pm, we headed to the Lounge for cocktail hour and our 6:30pm talk which reminded us of the need to change the time on our clocks tonight, We were also informed that 2+ guests had tested positive for Covid and would be quarantined in isolation in their cabin for the next 5-days. We were also told that before we exit the Red Sea, pass Djibouti, and enter the Gulf of Aden, we would come alongside of a floating “Security Station” where we would pick-up 4 Security Guards for the ship to travel the “pirate area in the seas between Somalia and Yemen. This has now become an insurance requirement for shipping in the region. These Security Guards will stay aboard until we leave the coast of Yemen and enter Omani waters and the Arabian Sea.

Saturday morning, we have breakfast and relax before meeting in the lounge for our morning lecture with David. Today’s topic is “Difficult Erections: The Curious Case of the Moving Obelisks.” Many of the world’s famous obelisks were “appropriated” from Egypt, and few people are fully aware of how their movement came to be.

Egyptian Obelisks

In Paris, at the Place de La Concorde where once a statue of their king stood, and which was replaced by a guillotine for public executions, stands an obelisk today. This particular obelisk is the right-hand-side one of the pair of Luxor Obelisks which were carved from a single piece of red granite in dedication to Ramses II to stand on either side of the portal of the Luxor Temple. It is 75 ft. high and was taken from Egypt in the 1830’s as a gift/reward to the French in recognition of Napoleon’s successful war with Egypt. It weighs 230 tons and took 7 years to move there. The “gift” originally included both obelisks, however, in 1981, President Mitterrand renounced possession of the second obelisk which remains at Luxor.

England had originally been promised the Luxor Obelisks but accepted the offer instead of one of Cleopatra’s Needles. These obelisks were made in Heliopolis (Cairo) during the 18th and 19th Dynasties, from the time of Ramses II and stood in Alexandria until one was toppled in ~1303AD. The toppled Needle was alternatively offered as a gift to the British in 1819 in commemoration of Lord Nelson in the Battle of the Nile. However, the British would not pay for its shipping until 1877, nearly 60 years later, when Sir William James Erasmus paid for its transportation to London from its space in the sand in Alexandria. It was erected on the Victoria Embankment which had just been built in 1870. Today, the obelisk is flanked by 2 fake sphinx which are facing the wrong direction. The site had been bombed during WW2, but the needle survived.

At the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Egypt’s ruler, Isma’il Pasha, gifted the USA the second of Cleopatra’s Needle obelisk from Alexandra in appreciation of the USA having remained neutral during the French-British conflicts there, and as their commemorative gift from the opening the Suez Canal. The Needle was moved to New York City by the US Navy and was erected in 1881 in Central Park just west of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

All Egyptian obelisks are four-sided stone pillars with a pyramid-shaped top, carved from a single piece of stone, usually red granite. The obelisk symbolizes rebirth and was believed to attract the rays of the sun. They were commonly placed at sun temples in commemoration of the gods and to mark the entrance to the temple. There are 29 ancient Egyptian obelisks left in the world today. Nine are in Egypt, and eleven in Italy (eight of which are in Rome, having been pilfered by the Romans after Augustus defeated Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BCE, thereby conquering Egypt). Others are scattered around the world, often gifted to countries, including Lebanon, Turkey, and Poland. The largest obelisk outside of Egypt is in Rome at Piazza San Giovanni from the Temple of Karnak, and the Vatican Obelisk taken by the Romans from Heliopolis at St. Peter’s Square is the second largest.

After the lecture, we laid out on deck and enjoyed the sunny day. After lunch, the Security Force of 4-men came onboard. They brought with them many large cases of weapons and military gear, which they are not allowed to have in any Middle Eastern country, but which they can possess at their floating base in international waters located on the high sea.

That afternoon, we took a Cooking Class and learned from Chef Indra how to make “Mandy Chicken” – a light chicken curry, and from Chef Richard how to make “Tabouli“. Both dishes were quick and tasty! Then, it was “Hot tub time” again before showering and heading off to daily tea-time.

Before dinner, we all met with our new Security Force for a “Security Briefing”. The Security Team, part of “Ambrey Maritime Security” are all ex-military with multiple years of training and fighting experience. They reported that there had been no attacks on passengers ships this year, and that they stay on watch 24-hours a day with ship officers on the bridge. They will let us know if we need to raise the alarm. If an alarm is raised, there will be an announcement – “Pirate Attack, Pirate Attack, Pirate Attack.“ If such an alarm occurs, we were instructed to walk out of our cabins into the corridor, and to sit down with one’s back to the bulkhead, and not near the door, (for maximum protection from bullets). We are to move quickly and not pause to brush one’s hair or teeth. This Team usually works protecting commercial vessels and not passengers vessels, but the highest risk area has recently changed from the previous Egypt to India routes, to the Yemen to Oman routes, principally due to Somalia pirates.

Captain with Anti-Pirate Security Force Team

Tonight, we are in the southern area of the Red Sea. In the Red Sea there are two routes for shipping referred to as the International Recommended Transit Corridors (IRTC). For security, the Japanese do flyovers all day long looking for small vessels that are out of ordinary. The last attack in this area was in December 2021 on a vessel with Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs). However, no attack has ever succeeded with Ambrey Security aboard. They will stay aboard for ~4-days until we are past Yemen and off the coast of Oman.

After dinner, we played a game of “Liar, Liar” with staff members Steve, Thyss, and David. It was Hilarious!! The night was concluded with dancing and great socializing.

The Story of Cleopatra

Sunday morning was quiet with a lecture after breakfast about “Making Egypt Great – Again”.” This was “Part 1” of the story of the real Cleopatra – Cleopatra VII, the last pharaoh of Egypt and a great historical and political figure of glamour and myth. Cleopatra was from Alexandria and was well educated and spoke 9 languages. She grew up in a time when Alexandria was home to many Greek elite, and it was common among her culture to marry siblings and children. At this time, the Roman Republic was the great power in the land and Egypt was a heavily taxed region. Cleopatra sought an alliance with Rome and an audience with Caesar, and when she was 21-years-old, she had herself wrapped in a rug and smuggled into his presence in Rome.  At 57-years-old, Caesar was smitten by her boldness and beauty and began a romantic relationship with her that lasted many years. Meanwhile, Cleopatra returns to Egypt with promises and concessions, marries her 12-year-old brother and successfully rules Egypt with him. She maintains her relationship with Caesar for many years.

The story takes a break for lunch and an afternoon of swimming, hot tubs, and high tea. Dinner is followed by the movie “Top Gun Maverick” with drinks and popcorn.

The next morning after breakfast, everyone assembles for the rest of the story of Cleopatra – “Making Egypt Great – Again! – Part 2.” Her story resumes with Cleopatra killing her brother/mate and ruling Egypt as the sole pharaoh. During her reign, she builds up Alexandria and begins a new relationship and alliance with Marc Anthony by meeting with him in Taurus, and plotting against their other Roman foes, including Octavia. Marc Anthony returns to Egypt with Cleopatra where she gives birth to twins, Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios. She and Marc plot to take over the world, but their forces lose at the Battle of Actium, and Cleopatra returns to Egypt and barricades herself in her mausoleum. In defeat, Marc Anthony kills himself, and upon hearing the news, Cleopatra also kills herself. Octavia thus becomes the ruler of the Roman Empire including all of Egypt. Cleopatra’s children were taken to Rome where her son, the heir to the throne of Egypt, died and her lineage disappeared. Today, Cleopatra’s tomb may have been recently discovered outside of Alexandria.

Our morning story was followed by wine-tasting, and, by lunch time, we had each had 6 glasses of wine! After lunch, it was back to the hot tubs for conversations with fellow travelers before showers, high tea, and a competition with a battery of “tricky questions.” The winning team was rewarded with sparkling wine. This was followed by what was supposed to be a “port talk”, but we were informed instead that the ship was not traveling as fast as been predicted, and that we would not reach our planned Port of Salalah in Oman tomorrow, as the itinerary had indicated. Designated transit corridors, winds, and current were all put to blame, plus, we still needed to drop off our Security Force. A change in plans were proposed and effort began to arrange an additional port stop in the Omani city of Muscat, after our stop in Sur.

At dinner, the conversation focused on the uncertainty of where would next make land and what changes to plans would have to be made. This was especially true for some of the ship’s staff who had made arrangements for embarking and/or disembarking in Salalah.

The British East India Company

Tuesday morning we were still at sea  and, after a stint in the gym, we went to breakfast late. Today’s morning lecture was by David Kampfer Part 1 about “Pirates or Gentleman – the strange tale of the British East India Company” The British had been in India for over 92 years. In fact, the Powis Castle in Wales has one of the largest collection of Indian artifacts and relics – larger than in the Delhi Museum in India. 

The British East India Company had begun with a small office and 35 employees in the 1590’s as a company given permission by the British Government to loot and pirate passing ships of foreign countries. Up until then, the Spanish and Portuguese had a monopoly on the spice trade to Europe. The East Indies, (Indonesia today), was the source of spices and riches to Europe, and the BEIC could plunder competitors at will, to the British Crown’s benefit. The company met with opposition from the Dutch in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and the Portuguese. The Dutch virtually excluded company members from the East Indies after the Amboyna Massacre in 1623 (an incident in which English, Japanese, and Portuguese traders were executed by Dutch authorities), but the BEIT Company’s defeat of the Portuguese in India (1612) by Lord Clive won them trading concessions from the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam. The company settled down to a trade in cotton and silk piece goods, indigo, and saltpeter, with spices from South India. It extended its activities to the Persian Gulf, Southeast Asia, and East Asia. Soon, the British East India Company (BEIC) was given permission to take tax control of the 3 richest regions of India, and subsequently, the British took control of the highly profitable cotton mills and began to move them to Manchester – soon known as “Cottonopolis“. Manchester remained the textile capitol of the world until America took over that role many years later. 

Lunch was followed by the showing of the original movie of “Cleopatra”, daily tea time, and an update concerning our extended time at sea. We would not only miss stopping at Salalah, but we might miss our stop at Sur, as well. The growing disappointment and frustration was softened by an accompanying open bar declaration with free drinks and appetizers. This was followed by a surprising change that came as a result of our suggestion a few days earlier – the crew has arranged an open-deck evening BBQ for us for dinner! Deck 8 at sunset was the site of the food – a suckling pig, burgers, and ribs, with all of the associated salads and side-dishes, and a pastry assortment of pies and cakes. Because of the darkness, the crew and chefs used their phone flashlights to highlight the food and help the guests to their deck-side tables. This was all accompanied by a DJ and followed by on-deck dancing. A truly great evening!

On-deck BBQ with Suckling Pig

Than evening, after dark, we pulled-up near the floating Ambrey ship-base where we were met by a large zodiac that the Ambrey Security Forces exited our ship onto. From here, they plan to board a cargo ship heading in the opposite direction.

Security Force Disembarking our Ship

That night, my cell phone livestream coverage provided a play-by-play for the World Cup match of USA vs Iran, a 1-0 USA win. Our ship still does not have satellite access, and the World Cup is only shown on pay-per-view in this part of the world anyways, so we considered ourselves lucky to have gotten even this coverage.

The next morning, still at-sea, breakfast is followed by part 2 of our lecture on “Pirates or Gentleman – the strange tale of the British East India Company.” With the endorsement of the British government, the BEIT began using slave labor and transporting enslaved people to its facilities in Southeast Asia and India. Although some of those enslaved by the company came from Indonesia and West Africa, the majority came from East Africa—from Mozambique or especially from Madagascar—and were primarily transported to the company’s holdings in India and Indonesia. Large-scale transportation of slaves by the company was prevalent from the 1730s to the early 1750s and ended in the 1770s. Beginning in the early 19th century, the company financed the tea trade with illegal opium exports to China. Chinese opposition to that trade precipitated the first Opium War (1839–42), which resulted in a Chinese defeat and the expansion of British trading privileges. The company gradually lost both commercial and political control, and its commercial monopoly was broken in 1813. After 1834 it was merely a managing agency for the British government of India, and it was removed from that role after the Indian Mutiny (1857), and it ceased to exist as a legal entity in 1873. During its run, other trading companies for investors were set up, including the Royal Africa Trading Company, the Hudson Bay Trading Company, and the Muscovy Russia Trading Company.

After our lecture, the ship’s chefs gave another cooking lesson in the lounge making Caesar Salad with homemade dressing and Shrimp Fried rice. After lunch, deck time and tea time, we finally had a Port talk indicating that we would definitely not be able to go to Sur, Oman due to lack of tenders to ferry us to shore. However, the crew had successfully arranged for us to go to port in Muscat tomorrow, instead. Muscat is known for its good beaches, with no high-rises; and good schools – often referred to as “the Switzerland of the Middle East”. Sultan Haitham bin Tariq rules the country, which was founded 900 years ago, and is an oasis of greenery, cleanliness, and order. It is characterized by a modern road network and advanced organized services, with a very high standard of living. We are told about the excellent shopping there and the basics of “haggling”. Frankincense is a popular item for tourists and should cost in the $5-10 range for a packet. At dinner, everyone is excited to have a chance to exit the ship tomorrow, and the evening is uneventful.

Around the Arabian Peninsula – Amman to Dubai 2022 Part 2



Tuesday morning – Happy Birthday – our ship is 1-month old today! Our ship arrives at the Egyptian Port of Hurghada in the Red Sea. A pilot boat with Customs and Port Officials arrives and it takes about 90 minutes to get clearance for us to leave the ship. These types of official procedures are rather untested since no tourist ships have been landing for over two years. Finally, we exit the ship with only a small overnight size bag and board buses for the overland journey to The Valley of the Kings. Along the way, we travel with our local guide, Hoda, an Egyptian woman educated in Egyptology. The Port of Hurghada is not crowded. It is on the edge of the desert on the Red Sea and serves as a resort area with good schools and hospitals, and 360 days of sunshine. In Egypt, school mandatory until the 9th grade. The plan was to be on the buses by 7am, but we are running ~2-hours late. Normally, the bus trip would take ~3-4 hours to get to the Valley of the Kings, followed by lunch and a visit to the Luxor Temple. However, increase traffic and multiple police checkpoints slow our progress and the trip takes ~5.5-hours. Along the way we crossed the Red Sea mountains and miles of desert before arriving into the Nile Basin which is green and a huge agricultural area. At the “green” Nile area, there is no rain and all crops are grown with hand-dug irrigation canals from the Nile. Here, they grow large crops of sugar cane & bananas. Luxor is the lower part of Upper Egypt. In this part of Egypt, women go to school to learn to read & write through 9th grade before 50% of them go into the fields to work. Twenty years ago, there were no women with a higher or university education. We finally reach our hotel which is located a short distance from the Nile River in the middle of town.

Railroad Track being built across the Desert

For local shopping in Egypt, one needs to use Egyptian pounds, and luck for us there was an ATM outside the entrance of the hotel. $1= 25 Egyptian pounds.

After freshening up, we met again for a short trip to the Luxor Temple which was built as part of the “New Kingdom”. We explored the Temple on our own before walking part of the “Avenue of the Sphinx” which is still being uncovered and excavated. The 1.7 mile avenue is lined by over 1000 sphinx’ that connect the Luxor Temple to the Temple of Karnak, It was then back to the hotel for dinner and a toast to having made it here after a long day of travel. A toast of “Cheers” is “ Fe Sahetek” in Egyptian.

Luxor Temple at Dusk
In Front of Remaining Ramses II Statue at Luxor Temple
Avenue of the Sphnix at Night
Divine Boats to Carry God Statues between Temples

Ancient Egyptian History


The New Stone Age:  The Ancient Egyptians discovered the use of copper tools & started to move closer to the banks of the river Nile. There, they cultivated the land & become farmers, fishermen, and shepherds as they domesticated animals and were no longer just hunters. 


The provinces (nomes) of the Egypt’s Nile Delta area of the North united and formed the “Kingdom of Lower Egypt”. Meanwhile, the provinces of the South along the Nile Valley unified and formed the “Kingdom of Upper Egypt”.


This marks the unification of Upper & Lower Egypt by a King known as “Mena”. Mena was the King of Upper Egypt and he defeated the Lower Kingdom Egyptians and founded the first capital of a united Egypt in Memphis, which is considered by historians as the beginning of the Ancient Egyptian History.  At the same time, the making of paper out of papyrus plant was discovered. The next ~3000 years of Ancient Egyptian History was divided into 30 Dynasties which were later grouped into periods. The periods of unity and power with a centralized government are called Kingdoms and there were three of them:

  • ➢The Old Kingdom:( Known as the “Age of Pyramids”) 3rd-6th Dynasties 2686-2181 BC
  • ➢The Middle Kingdom:(The Agricultural Period) 11th &12th Dynasties 2033-1786BC
  • ➢The New Kingdom:(the “Egyptian Empire”) 18th-20th Dynasties 1567-1080 BC

The intervening periods of disorder that caused the collapse of these different kingdoms were principally due to either foreign occupation or because of civil wars. These were known as “Intermediate Periods” and there were 3 of them – the 1st, 2nd, & 3rd Intermediate Periods.

The pyramid-shape was important to ancient Egypt as it was believed that enabled the dead to journey to sun and everlasting paradise. This was the path to immortality. The Old Kingdom was marked by very large pyramids reserved for pharaohs and their queens, where the Middle Kingdom was marked by many smaller pyramids that included a larger cross-section of society’s nobility. Most pyramids and tombs were eventually robbed leaving only those that were never found intact. During the New Kingdom, most tombs were moved to the area in the south including Egypt and Sudan. After the ancient Kingdoms, Egypt fell under a series of foreign rulers and religious influences.

332BC (Greek Rule-Hellenistic Period)

Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and founded Alexandria City to serve as a new maritime capital of Egypt. After his death, his general, Ptolemy, and his successors ruled the country for the following 300 years, ending with the death of Cleopatra VII.

30 BC (Roman Rule)

Mark Anthony & Cleopatra VII were defeated by Octavian at the battle of Actium and both committed suicide. Subsequently, Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire. 

58AD (Christianity)

Christianity entered Egypt through the work of St. Mark, the evangelist. 

641 AD ( Islam)

Moslem armies led by Amir Ibn El As conquered Egypt, which began the Arabic & Islamic Period.

Valley of the Kings

Wednesday, we were up for breakfast and took a 30-minute trip across the Nile to its West Bank side and to the Valley of the Kings. Today, there are more than 90 tombs already discovered in this area. We acquired ticked that allowed us to visit any three open tombs.

Dawn Balloon Rides over the Nile
Valley of the Kings Tombs

Before using our tickets, we first visited the tomb of Ramses IX that is built during the 20th Dynasty under a pyramid-shaped mountain with a shaft entrance from the side. This was believed to have been done to help disguise its location and hinder any tomb robbing. Unfortunately, any records indicating where these tombs were located were not kept, and other subsequent tombs often ran into previous chambers when being dug, and the diggers would simply turn and continue to dig. This is what happened in this tomb and there is a sealed off wall and a turn along the entryway. The tomb’s owner is always inscribed with a cartouche in the front that also tells which kingdom he ruled. Ramses IX ruled both the North and South Kingdoms. This tomb had been opened since antiquity and has a large pit in the floor of the burial chamber. The hieroglyphs on the passageways include the Book of the Earth, the Book of the Day, the Book of the Night, and the Book of the Dead which depict the deceased’s journey to the afterlife.

Tomb Inscriptions for Deceased Journey

We made our first choice and visited the tomb of Ramses III also built during the 20th Dynasty and also open since antiquity times. This tomb has a long, straight passage and a series of rooms with two pairs of animal-headed pilasters at its entrance. It also was shifted during construction because of running into another tomb during construction. These walls are decorated with the similar scenes and hieroglyphs as that of Ramses IX.

Next, we visited the famous tomb of Tutankhamen, which required a special ticket and enforced a limited number of entrees. Tutankhamen reigned for 10 years from 1333 to 1323 before he died at the age of 19. An existing tomb was hastily adapted for him and remained undiscovered until 1922, when 5-years of searching by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon resulted in success. Today, only the mummy of the king, the outermost of his three nested coffins, and the stone sarcophagus and its lid remain in the tomb, and all other objects found there are removed to museums in Cairo, including the solid gold inner-most coffin. This tomb makes clear the preserved vivid colors of the wall decorations and the impressive artistic ability of its creators.

For our second choice, we visited the tomb of Ramses V/VI, another 20th Dynasty tomb that had been open since antiquity times. This tomb was begun for Ramses V but was taken over and completed for Ramses VI and includes a pit in the floor of the sarcophagus chamber. The wall decorations here are in remarkably good condition.

Entry to Ramses V-VI Tomb

Finally, for our third choice of tombs, we entered the tomb of Merenptah from the 19th Dynasty. The upper chamber had been open since antiquity, however, the lower corridors and chambers were discovered and cleared by Howard Carter in 1903-1904. This tomb used four sarcophagi and had extensive and beautiful wall decorations and the outer sarcophagus in place.

Temple of Queen Hatshepsut

After some quick shopping, we made the very short trip to the elegant funeral and mortuary temple at Deir al-Bahri of Queen Hatshepsut who ruled Egypt as its most successful female pharaoh. The temple is carved into a rock cliff and is flanked by symmetrical, colonnaded wings and a long, terraced, processional walkway. Hatshepsut was Egypt longest reigning Queen and ruled over one of the most peaceful and prosperous periods of Egypt’s history. Queen married her half-brother; however, she allowed him to have a concubine who had a son, The Queen hid the child and ran the land as a King for 20 years.  When she died, her husband removed all her cartouches and hid her burial temple as part of a walled garden. But history documented her reign.

Queen Hatshepsut Temple

After leaving the temple, we traveled another short distance before stopping at the Colossi of Memnon and Temple of Amenhotep III, which was undergoing conservation and preservation. These colossal statues are 60 ft. tall and are impressive guardians of the surrounding area.

Colossi of Memnon

Then, after examining the Colossi, we headed back to city of Luxor, and stopped at the Georgina Nile River Restaurant – a barge turned restaurant docked on the side of the Nile river where we had lunch overlooking the graceful traditional Dahabiya (2 sails) and Feluccas (1 sail) sailing boats. After lunch, we returned to the hotel for an afternoon of rest followed by drinks at the poolside veranda before leaving for an evening sound and light show at the Karnak Temple.

Evening Sail on the Nile

Temple of Karnak

The Karnak Temple is at the other end of the Avenue of Sphinx’ and was built with huge stones dragged there to build the 145 columns and obelisks. The Karnak Temple is considered one of the most beautiful Egyptian temples. The nighttime light show walks one through the temple section-by-section telling the story of Amman through time up to the reign of Tutankhamen. After the show, we traveled by bus to the nearby New Hamees Papyrus shop where they still create papyrus sheets by hand using traditional methods. Their stable of local artists create unique art with them, and we purchased a painting to add to our collection. Then, it was time to head back to the hotel for a late dinner before packing for our early departure in the morning.

Temple of Karnak Entry
Temple of Karnak Avenue
Karnak Obelisk at Sunset

The next morning, Thursday November 24th, our trip back to the ship is quicker and we arrive at a different port – the city of Safaga. This is principally a commercial shipping port, but has aspirations of becoming a resort one day. Currently, the area is supported by phosphate mining, but the area’s 360 days of sunshine per year could make it a therapeutic area for spa treatments, skin therapy, and arthritis remedies.

We board the ship at 1pm just in time for lunch, and the ship immediately sets sail for the 5-day trip to Oman.

Around the Arabian Peninsula – Amman to Dubai 2022 Part 1



In November of 2022, we found ourselves with a unique opportunity to make an excursion on a brand new ship’s maiden voyage from Jordan to Dubai. Since many of our family had other Thanksgiving holiday plans, and neither of us had ever visited Petra in Jordan, and Julie had a strong desire to visit and shop in Dubai, the trip seemed ideal for us. Therefore, on November 17th, 2022 we flew from Washington, D.C. to Amman, Jordan where we met by our guide who cleared Immigration Control for us and transported us the 45-minutes to the Four Seasons Hotel where we had a spectacular view over the city on the 14th floor.

The city of Amman hosts over 40% of the country’s population, (~4 million out of 10 million people) as most of the country is desert and it is only the size of South Carolina. The area surrounding Amman has a good underground aquifer that supplies water for growing corn, strawberries, and other agriculture crops. Most of the food is grown in the winter when the weather is at its best. Amman is 3000 ft above sea level and is located ~40 minutes away from the Dead Sea which is at 1300 ft below sea level. 

The City of Amman Jordan

That afternoon, we took it easy, checked out the hotel’s amenities, and dined on a dinner of salads, veggies, beef, lamb and chicken dishes with an assortment of beautiful pastry desserts.

The next morning, after breakfast, we assembled for an orientation talk with our guide, an Egyptian Historian named Maged (pronounced “Mage – ed”), and learned about the history of the region. We did paperwork and divided into 3 smaller groups (~25-30 each) to be ready to board buses to travel into the city center to explore and have lunch. Our bus was led by a local guide, Hazim, who was a bit of a comedian, but with a degree in Physics! 

At 11:30am, we boarded buses and traveled to our restaurant, The Tahaween Al Hawa, for lunch which consisted of an array of traditional dishes that included starters of puffed bread, salads, hummus, and vegetables. Then the main dishes of grilled beef, grilled chicken and grilled sausages were brought out, followed by fruit and sweets. It was difficult to maintain the resolve to not fill-up on any of the delicious early dishes, and the amount of food exceeded any hope our table had of finishing it.

After lunch, we traveled a short distance to the Castle of Amman located atop a hill that overlooked the city’s center to learn about its history.  Nearby were open air ruins and a small museum about mankind’s early history in the area. The name “Amman” derives from the word “aman” for “white”, and was referenced to the fact that the city was built with white limestone. The people of Amman live on a typical Mediterranean diet of vegetables, olive oil, and chicken. Most locals eat a large lunch at 4:00pm and then a light, late dinner at around 8-9pm, and this suits the climate and the Islamic religion that dominates the region. Twenty percent of Jordan’s population is made up of refugees, mostly from Egypt and Syria. The old town Citadel (part of the Castle) contains the remains of many different historic cultures. This museum was Jordan’s first and had collected items from all over Jorden, even examples of the Dead Sea scrolls, (which have since been turned over to Israel.) The first structure was a 300 BC temple located at the top of Citadel which was built by the Romans. Then, the Byzantines ruled, followed by the Greeks with their biblical history and the building of churches throughout the region. Between the 4th and 7th centuries, over 4000 churches were built because of the freedom to worship that existed then. However, in the 8th century when Muslims came to rule the greater region, Jordan became the place where all refugees of any religion, and, from many other places came to live. Today, 90% of the population of Jordan are Muslim and 10% are Christian. We bused back down the hill and walked through the local open market, full of souvenir shops, clothes, and household items. We then toured an ancient Roman amphitheater built in the 2nd century. Finally, we ended up at a local Gold Market where gold is mostly sold for jewelry and dowries, (dowries are given by the groom and are typically $5000 and up.) After some free shopping time, we boarded the bus and headed back to the hotel were we cleaned-up and relaxed before assembling for a 6:00pm lecture followed by dinner and a bottle of wine.

Amman Citadel
2nd Century Roman Theatre in Amman
Temple of Hercules in Amman


At the lecture, we learned about the people and their lives in Jordan. Jordan still has a significant number of Bedouin, but their numbers are decreasing. “Bedouin” in Arabic means “desert dwellers”. They typically follow the water or grass with their animals – either sheep & goats, or camels. Whatever they can raise or produce from their animals, they sell to survive . They live in tents made from goat hair that allows for warmth in the winter and air flow during the summer. In the tents, the women live on left side where the kitchen is located, and the men live on the right side. The women do most of the domestic work and the men are responsible for the animals. Most Bedouin wear head coverings to reduce heat and most women wear loose-fitting black in the desert because it does not allow UV light through and this keeps the air cooler inside. The only time one would see colors would be for a special occasion. Jordanians love coffee and have a tradition about drinking 3 cups:

First cup to drink because your throat is dry.

Second cup to savor the taste.

Third cup to get ready to fight, if necessary.

Most of the coffee in Jordan comes from Yemen. When the British were there, they brought tea. When coffee or tea is served, it is always served by the father of the household, and always with the right hand. When one finished the drink a shake of the cup indicates that you finished. After the coffee is finished, the Bedouin dig a hole outside their tent to bury the coffee grounds. They eat lightly and only eat meat occasionally. Their most common dish is “Mensa: – made with rice, meat, and milk or rice, meat, and yogurt, and sometimes nuts. They cook a thin bread on top of metal dome over fire, or make naan (a thick bread) in the oven.

Camels can travel 25 miles a day carrying 1,000 lbs, but most desert travel is at night. Women have the role of being the head of household, and they make the tent from hides, and they make the cushions, the food, etc. Men train the children how to fight, how to find water, and how to tend and protect the animals. In Jordan today there are only 40,000 Bedouins left as most young people are going to school and college, as they want an iPhone and a house. Today, 95% of Bedouins are still in farming & wandering the desert, and only 5% have settled into a single place, to have a car, and to shop in the city. Bedouin families very tight-knit and look after other family members. A camel is worth $2,000 for a male and $3,000 for a female. However, a good racing camel can fetch over a million U.S. dollars! The Jordanian government is pressuring the Bedouins to settle so that they can be taxed. The typical life expectancy of men is 74 years and for women is 72 years. In Jordan, the same rules and laws apply equally to men and women and it is considered one of he more liberal and progressive Islamic countries.


Sunday morning we arose early, had breakfast at the hotel, checked-out and left on a set of buses for the trip along Highway 15 through the desert to Petra. Along the way we learned a little bit more about the country of Jordan. The previous King, King Hussein had 4 wives with Queen Noor (an American) being the last one. She was a strong proponent for women’s education and job opportunities, and for equal pay. She also was a great patron of Jordanian mosaic crafts. When King Hussein came to the Mayo Clinic in the USA to be treated, his brother temporarily took over as King of Jordan. However, when King Hussein returned, he named his son Abdullah II the new king. Abdullah II has been king for 23 years and is now ~60 years old. Currently he has named his son, Prince Hussein, as the Crown Prince in line for the throne. Currently, Queen Noor lives in the US.

Jordanian schools are free and quite good for grades 1-12. However, university education must be paid for. Most of Jordan is desert with very few trees, and except for the Bedouins, most people live in a few cities – principally in Amman. Inside the city, a 3-bedroom apartment would cost ~$70,000, but outside of the city, it would cost ~$500,000. Many of the country’s major industries are foreign owned with phosphate mining owned by Brunei, water and airports owned by the French, and UAE owning the ports. Citizen taxes are typically charges on any income over $14,000, but there is social security payments for men over 60 and women over 55 years of age. There is 3-month Maternity Leave with full pay for all women. Today, there are no longer arranged marriages, but there is matchmaking where a gentleman, his friends and/or family go to meet in a “coffee ceremony” with a girl’s friends and family. Impressing the other’s social circle is an important first step. Then there is a marriage contract, religious requirements, and dowries to arrange. If they divorce, there must be financial compensation and any children always stay with the mother. The current divorce rate in Jordan is 12%. The marriage ceremony is planned by family and typically includes ~2500 people attending – the cost burden of which is all on the groom. The average number children in a family is 3 today where it had been 4 in the early 2000’s – in the 1990’s it was 7.

Approaching Petra, we turn onto “Queens Way”, and the sand changes color to a darker shade due to the increase in volcanic rock and hills. The area is populated with huge solar panel fields and windmill farms on both sides of the road. We climb in altitude to over 5500 feet and travel through a pass that is buried in snow in the winter. Up here, the temperature moderates and there are green trees and family gardens Finally, we head down the mountain-side to the ancient city of Petra. We arrived at Petra at ~11:30 am and have a lunch buffet of salads, beef, chicken and fish with desserts before setting off to explore at our own pace.

The walk into Petra is about 1+ mile through a breathtaking slot-canyon to the famous Treasury Building with its assortment of donkey-cart and camel rides available. Then we continue along further to the other side of the canyon walk and exit onto a Colonnade pathway leading to the Grand Temple. All along the way, the sides of the valley are carved with magnificent temple fronts and the sides are peppered with hollowed out caves that once served as accommodations for ancient Petra visitors. We then turned around and headed back to entrance, shopping at local vendors along the way. When we returned to the main entrance, we stopped for a cold local beer (Carakale) at the local bar/restaurant and waited for the return of the rest of our party. We left Petra at 4pm to headed to the Port of Aqaba where we would meet our ship.

Slot Canyon on way to Petra
The Treasury at Petra
Royal Tombs at Petra
The Siq – Canyon leading to the City of Petra


We headed down to sea level on our buses and arrived in Aqaba at ~6pm. The Ports of Aqaba are shared among Jordan, Israel, and Egypt, and the ship’s entire crew lined-up to greet us. Our cabins were ready and we had a lovely veranda with a generous size cabin, king bed and sofa, with a desk and large bathroom.

Port of Aqaba in Jordan

It turns out that the ship is brand new and had just arrived after leaving the ship yard in China, and Stopping to pick up its entire crew in the Philippines. We would be the first passengers to ever sail on the ship: ~100 of us! We did our required Muster Drill and then met briefly with our Cruise Director, Amani, who is also from Egypt. It was then time for a dinner of roasted rack of lamb before taking time to explore the ships outer decks and inner amenities. Having our first drink at one of the ship’s 4 bars, it was clear that the ship was not fully stocked, yet, and many common alcohols and mixers were not yet available. We returned to our cabin to unpack and put away our belongings and to check if we could pick up any news on the opening matches of the 2022 World Cup taking place in nearby Qatar, when we realized that the television system on the ship was not active, yet.

Our ship, the Vantage Odyssey, was built as a sister ship to the Vantage Ocean Explorer. This class of ship is suitable for polar exploration and Vantage is building 4 more just like the first two. The ship offers breakfast, lunch, tea time, and dinner daily. Tonight, we would sail only a very short distance to the Israeli port at Aqaba and requiring a one-hour time change.

Our Expedition Ship – The Ocean Odyssey


This morning, we are in the Israeli city of Eilat. We rise early to use the ships gym, but neither the treadmills not the stationary bicycles appear to have power, yet. We notify the ship’s stewards, take showers and arrive at the early breakfast for coffee, pastries and juices. Soon, we are cleared to go ashore and we choose to travel to Dolphin Reef Beach where we can swim, snorkel and visit with the wild dolphins which are trained to visit throughout the day. Our local British guide, Chrissy, takes us on a short bus ride to a small rustic beach resort where they are excited to greet us as their first major group of foreign visitors after the pandemic and provide us with free beach towels and one drink. The beach is a small pebble beach with ample chairs and shade, and an area to swim with a small reef for snorkeling; and an area for scuba and wild dolphin encounters. We snorkeled and saw parrot fish, green bump head fish, several small reef fish, mullet, Red Sea puffer fish, and live coral heads, including brain coral. We also walked out on the dock to watch the dolphins come up to us to play and splash.  After a morning at the beach, we headed back to the ship for a lunch buffet and an itinerary review while the ship sets sail south into the Red Sea. That night after dinner, we watch a movie about the Valley of the Kings in Egypt where we will be heading.

Reef Fish at Dolphin Beach in Israel
Dolphin at Dolphin Beach