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

Arctic Expedition Part 4 – Copenhagen, Denmark

August – September 2022

After an easy flight, the 28 of us who are on this part of the trip were met at the Copenhagen airport and bussed to the center of town. Once there, we walked to Nyhaven Faergekroen and had lunch of “fruit of the sea” plate and a local beer in an underground restaurant. We then walked around the area of Nyhaven where a canal runs down the middle of the avenue with various boats docked along-side. Hans Christian Andersen lived 3 different times on this street because it was close to the Royal Theater. We then walked along the wharf seeing the Play House Theatre and the Opera House opposite us across the water. We then traveled along the Sankt Anna Plads to our hotel – the Phoenix Copenhagen which was once a Royal Palace.  It has many rooms and our room has a chandelier. We then strolled to the local grocery for some snacks and on to the Royal Gardens where we explored the beautifully manicured grounds.  At the far end of the gardens is Rosenberg Castle which was just closing for the day. In the gardens, we saw locals playing a drinking game with a throwing stick and numbered pins, young adults playing spike ball, and some children playgroups on the ground with bicycles everywhere. From there, we met our guide, got our metro passes, and learned to use to use the local metro transport by going to Tivoli the world’s first amusement park. We arrived in time to see a ballet story in progress and then walked the park admiring the lights and creativity. We stopped for beer and pizza at Mazzolli’s and then took the metro on our own back to the hotel.

Copenhagen Canal Housing
The Royal Gardens
Tivoli Gardens and Ammusment Park

Friday morning began with a walking tour after breakfast where we went to the Odd Fellow Palace across from the hotel to Saint Anne street and the church of the army. Along the way, we noted “stumbling block” embedded in the pavement in commemoration of Jewish people taken from there during WW II. There are 5×5 brass plaques in the sidewalk with people’s names placed in their memory. We explore the local streets and remark at the renaissance architecture with its Dutch gables, and copper  parapets. In the area called Fredericksburg we encounter a bust of Franklin D. Roosevelt who is credited with helping to liberate Denmark, and we pass the Swedish embassy and a house where Hans Christian Anderson once lived. We wander towards the harbor where we find the Amalia Bourg  – an Octagon-shaped square where several Royal palaces are located, including queen Margaret’s and the Crown Prince’s. Princess Beatrice’s home includes a green-doored museum where is kept the world’s first original Fabergè egg. From the waterfront, one can see the Opera House and the famous Marble Church. The harbor water so clean that one can swim in it, as it is considered a recreational harbor only for shallow draft vessels with no industry are allowed here. Strolling along the harbor we see the national bird – the swan – swimming along, along with the historic F352 ship museum – the ship famously remembered as having accidently fired the “oops missile” into a group of summer homes. At the “Point” there is a canon salute fired daily at 7:30am, and in the harbor is docked the Royal yacht, the “Danne Breog”. 

The Royal Copenhagen China Store

The Öresund – the sound of water between Denmark and Sweden – is full of windmills. Along the shore is the massive Maersk building with its white 7-pointed star. At the end of the harbor is the Poseidon Gate and the Gefion Fountain. Beyond this is the “English Church” and the gates to the army citadel with its moat and swans. Beyond the citadel is the “Little Mermaid” which we well come back to visit another day. Heading back from the waterfront, we pass remnants of some of the 44 bunkers from WW II that have been left in public spaces as reminders. We continue back past the Design Museum, the Russian Church and the Marble Church, where we catch the Metro to Gammel  Strand to stroll along the longest pedestrian street in Denmark – 4 miles long. We are also informed that, by  law, no street can have sharp 90 -degree corners because fire engines would not be able to maneuver  around them. From the walk, we can see the underwater sculptures, and the Christiansburg House of Parliament. We decide to explore the National Museum and walk through the history of Denmark from 1600-1800 and especially enjoy the historical toy section. After stopping for a sandwich for lunch, we take the Metro back to hotel. From there, we explore on our own and walk back to Rosenberg Castle and toured the building, especially the throne room and the vault with the Crown Jewels. Then we go across the street to enjoy the Botanical Garden, especially its the pond, the palm greenhouse, and the spectacular butterfly garden. After enjoying a glass of wine there, we return to hotel. That evening, we meet our guide and fellow travelers for a dinner of street food across the bridge at Nordatlantens Brugge to the Granlanske Hendas Placs a street food court alongside the canals with a wide range of choices of drink and food.  We enjoyed gin and tonics and gyros before returning to the hotel for the evening.

Denmark’s Queens Crown Jewels
Copenhagen Butterfly Center

The next morning, we were up early to walk to the local Starbucks before meeting our group to catch the Metro and meet a canal boat for a 1-hour water tour of the harbor. We cruised past Parliament, the National Bank, and the Opera House before heading up some smaller canals where there were many small apartments. We went past Copenhill – the novel waste treatment center, past numerous Navy vessels, the Royal yacht, and back to see the Little Mermaid and the Citadel from the water. After returning to the dock, we walked to the “Bloc” – the Danish Architecture Center where we toured the Space Saga, women in architecture, chairs and rode down the indoor 4-story slide. From there, we walked to Hejbro Plas (an outdoor plaza with restaurant) where we had sandwiches and a beer. We then left the group to explore the city’s LEGO store which contained an awesome display of Lego  creations and numerous kits. Then, it was Metro back to the Marble Church and a short walk back to the waterfront to visit from the shore Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid statue. On the way back to the hotel, we toured the local Design Museum and enjoyed the exhibitions of “what if tomorrow”, “iconic chairs”, and “snuff boxes”, before returning to our room to get ready for dinner. In coming to the lobby to meet for dinner, we are surprised to see couples in ball gowns and formal attire ( military navy and army, tuxedos, and tails) walked through. Down the street at the National Theater was a reception for Queen Margaret – 50 years on the throne. Most of the parades and celebrations had been cancelled due to Queen Elizabeth’s death (her cousin) just days before, however, this private ball for her was still taking place. We all waked to a Vietnamese cafe for a dinner of vegetable rolls and BBQ pork before calling it a night.

Copenhagen Lego Store
Copenhagen Famous Little Mermaid
Queen Anniversary Parade

Sunday morning after breakfast, we all met and took the Metro to Christiana, an area of town famous for art and free expression. The area was originally a military base that was closed in the 1960’s. In the 1970’s, squatters and hippies took over the area and a free spirit, peace and love, and drug culture took over the area. By 1973, an agreement  with the government was put in place for them to use city sewage, but they would be responsible for their own recycling, their own schools, daycare, etc. No one “owns” property there as all property is by free “rent” that includes a “tax” that is paid back to the community, (1,200 DK/month). The Community elected elders decide who can live there and where they can live. They are responsible for their own policing and “soft” drugs are allowed within their limits. They make money off tourists who come to visit the unique social experiment. They follow no Danish rules. “Pusher street” is a green light district which is an open market for marijuana created to make the business less criminal. 

Cristiana – Home of Free Spirits

There are no sales to under 18 years and no photographs are allowed in that area. No hard drugs are ever allowed there and if someone gets caught, they are thrown out or sent to rehab. There are no gangs allowed. Our guide for the area is a former London IT entrepreneur who was a street artist in Paris before settling in Cristiana. He arrived 10 years ago. Christiana is divided into 15 villages where the people decide their personal economy and how they want to live there. It boasts 18 stages (9 indoor and 9 outdoor), supports 90 factory workers, and its total population is 900 people (700 adult and 200 children). It receives ~2 million guests year. Most residents are crafts-people and artists of all kinds – some make it big and some just live there. There are also a number of “social vulnerables” – refugees, mentally ill, homeless – about 1500 hang out there. However, all people are welcomed on equal terms as long as they respect others. 

300 residents work in the downtown area, and those who work on Pusher street selling pot must live within Christiana. The area is  ~2 kilometers long with one entrance and one exit. They encourage gardening and encourage wildlife habitation, currently hosting ~300 animals and a variety of plants.

Christiana community rules:

1- Take care of everyone

2- Democracy – but must talk till all are in agreement (they take no votes) – everything is decided through meetings

3-No one may buy or sell a house or land. There is no cost, but one is required to maintain it by oneself. Children cannot inherit property, but can stay if they already live there.

Limitations: Because it was an old military munitions base, there is no digging, no underground structures, no water sports, no swimming or skiing in the lake. Unless a garden is raised and made with imported dirt, no plants or berries growing on the ground can be eaten. Anyone can call a meeting of the community – time and place is published in the local magazine. Everyone is invited and everyone can have their say. Decisions are by consensus. No private automobiles allowed there. Everything has a “name” including houses, areas and even bicycles. Numerous famous artists and musicians have resided there, and there are some very original structures located there – houses shaped like bananas, diamonds, Japanese, Chinese – all are homemade houses and all built pre-1989. There is a Community bathhouse with sauna, a health house for social vulnerables, and Great Hall for 2000 people that is used for concerts where Bob Dillon, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Metallica have all played. It takes ~2.5 hours to walk to the edge of their town, but it is all very “park-like.

After visiting Christiana, we connected with a different tourist group because we wanted to visit Copenhill. We took the local bus to the opposite shore across the harbor and had lunch at Reffen Koban, a large area of former dock industry and old buildings turned into a huge street food area with playgrounds for children. The area is also seeing new gardens and housing in areas reclaimed from industrial use.  For lunch, we had duck confit and melty cheese with rose sangria. Then we took another local bus to near Copenhill and walked to its entrance. Copenhill is a large waste recycling center with a recreational facility build on-top of it. It boasts the largest climbing wall in Europe at 82-meters high. Rappelling down the block walls is also popular. Only steam and CO2 exit the plant as it recycles the waste from ~95,000 households a day. Copenhill was designed by J. Engels because he could stand on the roof of his house as a child and he wanted to design the building with a useful roof. On the roof, and down the side is a Ski slope made of recycled plastic. The view from the top allows one to see all the way to Sweden, and its Barsebäck nuclear plant. There is also a Cafe on top. Currently, windmills produce 40% energy for Copenhagen.  We took the bus back to the Metro and then the Metro to Magasin Shopping Mall that was once a hotel. Preserved in the back of a store is the original attic where Hans Christian Anderson lived for a year. To get there, one has to take the escalator to 3rd floor and walk to an exit stairwell and through a door to a conference area and then back to a small attic room with the original wood rafters left as if time had stopped. His notes, quill pen, and top hat sit on the shelf. We returned to our hotel, enjoyed a shot of Danish Schnaps, before getting ready for dinner. Tonight, we walked to our restaurant for our last dinner with the group – a lovely steak dinner with deconstructed cheese cake.

Copen Hill
Copen Hill – Recreational Recycling Center Climbing W all

The next morning, we said goodbye to our new friends and travel guides, boarded our plane, and headed for home.

Arctic Expedition Part 3 – The Islands & Wildlife of Svalbard

August – September 2022

On Saturday we arrived at our landing site at Faksevagen. Rocky took a long strenuous hike to the top of the ridge line and then down to the beach and back including a 1200’ assent. Julie took the medium hike along the beach before doing a 300 ft assent to a smaller peak where she saw a herd of reindeer who had already gotten there white winter fur. That filled the morning, and so it was back to the ship for lunch while it sailed ~3.5 hours to Kinnvika, which is on the north side of Murchinsonfjord.  Here the abandoned buildings are from 1956 where the Finns and the Swedes had established a scientific station during the year of the International Geophysical Year 1957-1958. The scientists carried out internationally agreed observations in geophysics, meteorology, northern lights, and earth magnetism. The site was abandoned after the experiments were completed. We went ashore to explore the site. Some of the buildings were open to walk through. The area is a desert of stone and rock with numerous small buildings including bunkhouses, kitchen, a great hall, and a sauna. There was rusty old track vehicle and lots of abandoned rusting implements. The site was temporarily used for experiments briefly again in 2007-2008 by a professor who was looking for organisms that lived in the ice. He lived in the hut with whale bones at its entrance. Then, in 2018 the governor of Svalbard renovated the site for heritage reasons. The area was also populated with a large number of Arctic terns! Arctic terns migrate annually over 93 days and 20,000 miles to Antarctica, but they have the ability to always return to the same spot over their 30-year life-span.

Abandoned Research Center

The next day we again had two hikes to choose from – one 3-hours long and 3 ½ miles up the side of a glacier to a high ridge, and one about 1-mile long to 3 separate viewpoints. Both ended at an old trappers hut named the “Texas Bar”. The hut had a front room for washing up and storage, and the main room slept 3, had an eating area, and a fully stocked bar. Travelers often take a drink, and occasionally leave a bottle. In 1936 a trapper invited his wife from Vienna Switzerland to join him in Svalbard, as well as his trapper friend, Trapper Tina. Her story can be read in a book title “A Woman in the Polar Night”. That afternoon, we took the zodiacs to the ice wall of the Monacobreen glacier where we saw numerous birds and some bearded seals. While there, the glacier calved a number of times – the most ever seen by the crew in our 1.5 hours of sightseeing. The Island in front of glacier was originally found on 1974 but then got covered again when glacier surged forward in 2004. Today, it is visible again. After returning to the ship, we were all invited for a High Tea, and then a charge to “polar plunge” into the swimming pool filled with the Arctic seawater. Rocky and 11 others took the “plunge”, as did about 8 of our guides. This was followed by a celebration with champagne and shots of aquavit followed by a daily wrap-up, dinner and dancing.

Old Hunter Cabin
Zodiac to the Glacier

The next morning we were up early to look for wildlife at Ytre Norskoya, but visibility was poor so we went back to bed. After breakfast, we sat on the observation deck and watched the puffins at the shore. However, because of the strong currents, large ocean swells, and high wind we were unable to land there. Instead, we attended a lecture on permafrost and mercury poisoning. Twenty-eight percent of the entire earth is permanently frozen, and lies in the Arctic which is 90% of the ground. In Alaska, they study permafrost in an old military tunnel that is 60 feet underground. They have found that if they thaw some of the permafrost from 30,000 years ago, some of the bacterium frozen comes back to life. There is natural mercury in the permafrost and it is double the amount found in other ground. 

Peaceful Ice Harbour

Mercury has increased in plants and animals since the industrial revolution and is in nearly everything to some degree. Fisheries are required to measure mercury levels in all large fish, and if mercury levels are high, the fish cannot be sold. After the lectures, we prepared for a zodiac cruise of a small bay where we saw over a 100 Harbour seals sunny themselves on the rocks. They took a quick look at us and then went back to sunny themselves. We then took the zodiacs back to Ytre Norskeya, which had been a safe-haven for whaler’s ships and a good look out location for whales.  Here we walked the sandy beach, saw the processing ovens for whale blubber, and viewed a raised hill where 182 British whalers, who died over the years, were buried. We also saw polar bear footprints leading across the site and a second set of polar bear prints at a 90 degree axis to the first. There were a large number of bird footprints everywhere. There was a relatively recent cabin sitting high against the cliff that is owned by the current deputy governor. Large orange jellyfish with long tentacle’s were all around on the beach. After the excursion, it was back to the ship for lunch and onto the next site. After going ashore, we marveled at the colorful lichens and took pictures of the seals on the rocks. That night, there was a “Birthday Dinner” celebration for Rocky with our newest friends: Cindy & Paul, Heather & Marty, and our guide Andrea. 

Harbour Seals Sunning Themselves
Polar Bear Footprints

Tuesday morning, we were up early to watch the seabirds and admire the many glaciers. However, after breakfast, we were unable to land at Signehamma – a German weather station from WW II – due to morning fog. Instead, we learned about Salomon August Andrée and his failed polar balloon expeditions. He was born in Sweden in 1854 and dreamed of becoming the first to reach the North Pole via a hydrogen balloon. In 1886 he began to assemble a huge balloon with a 3-story-tall basket in Svalbard from 60 Chinese silks that was 20-meters in diameter. His plan was to maneuver to the North Pole releasing homing pigeons along the way, and eventually land in Alaska. The 1896 winds delayed him one year, and then, in 1897 he launched. The balloon moved north, lost some of its ropes and sailed away never to be seen again. However, in 1924 a group sailing to Spitsbergen’s most northern island found the balloon and corpses of the crew still in their sleeping bags. The balloon’s cameras and film were recovered and revealed that the balloon rose too high and then crashed. They had only made it to the 82 degree latitude. The balloon and their bodies were returned to Sweden. After lunch, we arrived in Hamburgbukta where we took zodiacs to shore and were amused by the harbor seals on the rocks. This was the sandiest beach we had yet encountered. After returning to the ship, a couple of the guides told us of their “ski and kite expedition” adventure across Svalbard during the Covid shutdown. They crossed the island south to north, were attacked by a polar bear, and took over a month of surviving on the ice to do it. Then we docked at the town of Ny Alesund which had started as a mine. It was here that in 1926 Roald Amundsen and 15 other men launched the zeppelin “Norge” to successfully reach the North Pole. This followed his failed attempt in 1918 to reach the North Pole by traversing the Northeast Passage on the ship Maud. We walked the gravel streets that house only 30 people in the winter-time but ~200 people in the summer as 10 different countries have research centers here. This is the most northern established town in the world and we visited the zeppelin mast tower, the local museum and the small souvenir shop. That night, we had our farewell dinner on the ship and said farewell to the captain and his wife.

Julie & Rocky in Svalbard
Svalbard Map

The next morning, we returned to Longyearbyen where we visited the Global Seed Vault and watched a large pod of beluga whales cruising up and down the harbor. 

Beluga Whales on the Move

From there, we flew back to Oslo where we had our trip’s official Farewell Dinner. The, early the next morning, we began our trip’s extension with an early morning 3-hour flight to Copenhagen, Denmark. 

Arctic Expedition Part 2 – Introduction to Svalbard

August – September 2022

We began our trip to Svalbard with a private Norwegian flight from Oslo to Longyearbyen. Once there, we began to learn about the islands of Svalbard, of which the most mountainous is Spitsbergen, and whose largest town is Longyearbyen – population 2000. The other two largest towns are Sveagriva – population 500, and  Ny Alesund – population 200. There are no native people to the islands as it was first discovered by Europeans in 1596 by the Dutch sea explorer Willem Barents. From 1610-1850 the Dutch and British used the islands for whaling, before being abandoned to hunters who trapped musk ox while hunting for duck, fox, and seals. In the early 20th century, the islands were used as the jumping off point in the race to the North Pole, including in 1926 when Ronald Amundson tried to reach North Pole by dirigible. In the 1930’s, coal mining  became the only industry, but today there is only one coal mine left and it is scheduled to be shut down in 2025. Today, the islands’ leading industry is tourism including wildlife watching in the summer and snowmobile exploring in the winter. 

Map of Svalbard Islands

The town of Longyearbyen is located on the 78th degree parallel. From the tiny airport, we took a bus to the town’s center which consisted of one street with a dozen shops. On the hillside are the bucket line remnants of the former coal industry. We shopped for souvenirs and had a local beer before boarding our ship and being briefed on the rules of the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO). There are 152 guests on the ship with most being experienced travelers. Dinner that night was lamb followed by cocktails in main bar. The ship had a pool and an exercise center and was outfitted with zodiacs for exploring.

The Town of Longyearbien
Ready to Cruise

The next morning breakfast was interrupted by a Humpback whale in front of the ship. We soon went ashore at Bamsebu via zodiac where there were the remnants of hundreds of beluga whale bones as well as a research hut where 2 women spent the winter of 2019. We hiked 3-miles from the beach to a ridge, then along the ridge across a couple of valleys before returning to the beach .  Along the way, we saw several reindeer who have lifespans of about 10-years. The males are ~150-200 lbs. and the females are 120-150 lbs. in size. They are vegetarian, but will eat almost any plant or root they can find. Some of the males were shedding their velvet from their antlers  while we were there. They mate in October and give birth in May. We were warmed by the hot chocolate that awaited us when we returned to ship at noon.

Reindeer Losing Velvet
Baluga Whale Bones

There were plenty of birds in Svalbard, 234 species, but there are no raptures. The most common bird species are the arctic tern, the barnacle goose, the pink- footed goose, the arctic skua, the ivory gull, the black legged kittiwake, the northern fulmar, (cousin to Albatross), the purple sandpiper , the common eider, the guillemot, the little auk, the rock ptarmigan, and our favorite –the  Puffins – which we could see on the nearby cliffs. While drinking wine on the observation deck we saw our first beluga whales – snowy white with no large dorsal fins and ~15 foot long. That afternoon on our way to Ingeborgfjellet to see one of the islands’ largest (2300 ft) mountain, we saw a polar laying on a ridge nearby. Since we could not safely go ashore, the scouts put all of the zodiacs in the water so we could go view the polar bear from the sea.  The polar bear was a female with a GPS collar around her neck. She wandered down the shore line for several miles as our 17 zodiacs watched her, never getting to close.  Eventually she just sat down on the shore to watch us.  We left her and continue down the coast to view the nearby glacier before returning to ship for the Captains reception and meeting our crew. That night after dinner, we visited the bridge where two staff are always on duty in 4 hour shifts.

Female Polar Bear on Shore

The next morning after breakfast we learned more about the geology of Svalbard. There are no bushes, shrubs or trees on Svalbard’s islands. The oldest rocks are a billion years old with little soil cover over ancient limestone. Later that morning, we took zodiacs and landed at Gnaalodden, walked to the end of the peninsula where we saw Wanny Wolstad’s legendary woman’s trapper cabin. The area was home to many birds and several foxes. It was here we found our first collectable beach glass. After returning to the ship, we saw another pod of Beluga whales including a baby whale. That day for lunch, we had a BBQ of: burgers, sausage, ribs, chicken, swordfish and leg of lamb with a salad bar and a desert bar, all on the rear of deck of the ship next to the pool. In the afternoon, we embarked on the zodiacs for 2.5 hour ride to tour of the Burgerbukta area with its ice caps and glaciers. From the zodiac, we collected a small iceberg to return with us to the ship and then sat quietly to listen to the ice which sounds like a gentle rain.  Suddenly, we heard cracking and a loud “boom” as a piece of the glacier calved off and flipped over.  We sped away to miss the wave that the calving caused and returned to ship for “happy hour” cocktails using the chuck of glacier ice we brought back with us. Dinner that night was salad and duck, followed by a guests $5 gift exchange. Roc ended up a laser pointer  and Julie got well-appreciated hand warmers

One of hundreds of Glaciers

The next morning, Thursday September 1st, we woke to a fogged-in sea. But, by after breakfast, the fog had cleared and we boarded our zodiacs for a trip into Habenichtbukta Bay where we saw a giant sperm whale skull lying on the beach. Upon exiting the bay we came upon a large group of walruses and piles of walrus bones from previous kills in the 1940’s and 1950’s. We then traveled over to the next bay where we saw the remains of a number of trapper huts and a human burial site from the 1750’s. Then, on one of several little islands we came upon a pod of 4 walruses, and further on 20 more, and then 4-6 more walruses swimming in the water near us. We returned to the ship for lunch and a lecture on climate change recapping the findings presented at last international climate change conference. After lunch, a small group of hikers, (12, including Rocky), disembarked for a ravine climb/scramble up Kapp Lee – 1000 feet nearly straight up for 2.5 hours. At the top, they saw reindeer and got an excellent view from the top of the island. Julie went to inspect the trapper huts and shoreline and was able to watch ~100 walruses laying on the beach, occasionally moving into and out of the water. The walruses use their tusks as an extra appendage. They are very social animals with a breeding season in January. There are 2 species of walruses – Atlantic and Pacific, and their whiskers are very powerful and useful as they scour the bottom of the seafloor, vacuum sucking the innards of clams and leaving the clam shell behind. They eat ~175 pounds of clam per day, but only dive for ~5 minutes at a time. Both genders have tusks with the female’s being straight and slender and the male’s being thicker and bigger. Their skin turns pink when they get warm and turns white grey in winter. The families stay together as the females have a 10-month gestation period, and the calves are ~40 lbs. when born. Their lifespan is ~20 years. One of the hazards for the Svalbard wildlife is plastic pollution as 60-80% of the plastic comes from the fishing industry  There is a “Clean up Svalbard” community project in place where all plastic is returned to Longyearbyen if found. Over 20 tons of waste has been removed from beaches so far in this 20-year project. In addition to the walruses, we have seen dozens of glaciers. A glacier is defined as “moving ice” – if the glacier does not move, it is a polar ice cap. Upon returning to the ship, we had a dinner of gnocchi and tuna with Andrea, our trip lead from Argentina. That night, we sailed through a channel to Brasvellbreen.

Walruses on Shore
Curious Walrus Close-Up
Arctic Meadow

The next morning, we arrived at Brasvellbreen – a 100-mile-long glacier wall which is like a giant table 70-90 feet tall going on forever.  Along the way there are several waterfalls and many birds. After a buffet breakfast, we spent some time learning more out our local guides. The all live in Longyearbyen under Norwegian law, but operate independently with their own mayor, and pay no taxes. No permanent residents are allowed in Svalbard, and no one is allowed to be born there or die there – they must return to the Norwegian mainland. In addition, being born in Norway does not confer citizenship – it must be applied for. In the winter, temperatures reach -40 degrees and the town hosts a Polar Studies University with 200 professors. Nearly all the guides arrived in Svalbard via studies at the University but the town has no banks, hosts no weddings, has only a single non-denominational church, and little crime. Actually, because of the threat of weather and polar bears, nearly all residents leave their doors unlocked to allow for emergency sheltering. Lomgyearbyen is also home to the Global Seed Vault where over 1000 species are currently stored, but it can hold 3,500 more. Every resident has an ID cord and each resident is only allowed 24 bottles of beer or 2-liters of hard alcohol per month. Dogs are the only pets allowed. On the average, 2 polar bears are killed per year for attacks on people in and around the town. The Svalbard Treaty allows no military presence on the island, although they have one of the largest defense satellite setups in the world. A series of above ground hot water pipes provide heating and keep the water lines from freezing, and the town is actually too far north to see the Aurora Borealis. All waste and trash is brought back to the mainland and there is no landfill allowed in Svalbard.

Rock & Julie at Glacier Ice Wall
Global Seed Vault in Svalbard

 We continued north to the Nord Ausrlande area and the Maybrean glacier and icecap. This island is covered by a single glacier, part of the ~7700 billion tons of ice in Svalbard. In the past 10-years, the Svalbard glaciers have lost an average of 1.5 feet, as the age of the ice from one side to the other is billions of years old. That morning, because of the number of icebergs in the water, we were unable to make a zodiac landing at Vibebukta. However, after lunch we cruised on to Torellneset.and made a landing there. This area was a polar desert with walruses laying on a beach of stones. We saw one female that was nursing her young, and soon the beach filled with 10 others. On the way to this beach we spotted a Minke whale in the bay and a second Minke whale deep in the same bay where we were watching the walrus. After strolling and exploring the beach, we went back on-board for a lecture on whales, cocktail hour, and dinner. The next morning, there would be two optional hikes at Faksevagen – one would be of medium difficulty and about one hour long and the other would be ~3-miles, more difficult, but would afford a great view.  

Polar Waters