Posted by: Dave | January 3, 2012

Mt. Rainier: “The Best Thing I’ve Ever Done”

My first mountaineering adventure ever – a climb of Mount Rainier in August 2011.  In the planning stages from late 2010, the attempt at the summit of this 14,411′ mountain was a fantastic goal and driver to get fit.

Mt Rainier... as seen from Paradise

Mount Rainier is located about 55 miles southeast of Seattle and is an active volcano that sits on many lists as one of the most “threatening” volcanoes in the world.  While it hasn’t seen an eruption since the early 1800s, an eruption similar to nearby Mt. St. Helens’ 1981 blast would cause significant damage to a highly populated area.  Funny how the guide services don’t make much mention of Rainier’s “active” status in their marketing materials!

We planned our summit attempt with the guide service Rainier Mountaineering, Inc (, the largest and most experienced of the professional guide services at Rainier. Some of the most famous American mountain climbers are affiliated and work with RMI, including Ed Viesturs, who has summitted all of the 8,000 meter peaks in the world without the use of supplemental oxygen. Maybe you’ve seen him in your magazines in Rolex ads.

We were incredibly lucky with the lead guide that was assigned to us, another mountain celebrity of immense proportions, Dave Hahn.  Dave has summitted Everest more than any westerner – 13 times. Only two sherpas have reached the summit of the world’s tallest peak more times than Dave Hahn.  I could list more of Dave’s amazing accomplishments, but that would be pointless. You can just read his Wikipedia page to read about his 29 summits of Vinson (Antarctica’s tallest peak) and 400+ Rainier summits (he stopped counting).   Dave led only 3 trips on Rainier this summer, so our luck was exceptional. Imagine showing up for guitar class and having Carlos Santana or Eddie Van Halen as your instructor … that’s what we’re talking about here.  His experience was comforting and provided confidence, and his stories about Everest, Denali and Vinson were enthralling.

The overview our 4-day summit attempt was:

  • Friday night: meet the guides, rent/prepare equipment
  • Saturday: mountaineering training
  • Sunday:  Hike from Paradise Lodge (5,400′) to Camp Muir (10,000′), 4.5 miles
  • Monday: Climb from Camp Muir to summit (14,411′) and return to Paradise, approx. 10 miles.

The hike from Paradise to Camp Muir took about 6 hours as we crossed the Muir Snowfield, sometimes in white-out conditions. Although the temperature was decent.  Muir Snowfield is a 3-mile long seemingly endless sea of snow.

Climbers emerge from white-out conditions on Muir Snowfield.

At the top of the Muir Snowfield is Camp Muir, sitting at 10,000′.  There are a couple of huts here, and RMI runs one of them, so this was our bunkhouse for the next few hours. Yes… hours. We arrived at Camp Muir at about 4pm, ate dinner (freeze-dried meals) at around 6pm and tried to go to sleep almost immediately. Why?  Because our summit attempt was planned to start around 1am!  By leaving Camp Muir at 1am, we could do the bulk of the ascent to the summit during the night, when the snow was still frozen and safest to walk on.

So at 1am, we roped together in teams of 4 and set off for the summit via the Disappointment Cleaver route.  The route crosses glaciers and under seracs (hanging ice blocks) but in the middle of the night you don’t see any of that.  As light broke at 7am, we were resting at 13,500′ with the most amazing view.

The view from 13,500' as the sun comes up. 7am-ish. Not far from the summit!

The final push to the summit was in perfect weather, although upon getting to the crater I had the realization that it was 10 degrees and there were 50 mph winds. That’s cold!  The altitude didn’t affect me too much, other than a little bit of a loss of appetite. No headaches or nausea!  We reached the crater around 8:30am, and spent an hour or so crossing the crater, signing the guest book(!), and taking a pic or two on the true summit.  It was absolutely incredible to be on the summit … looking down on the clouds.

View of the crater from the summit.

Signing into the guest book at the summit!

Walking along the summit ridge. 10 degrees and 50 mph winds!

During the descent from the summit back to Paradise we crossed the crevasses and walked under the seracs that we couldn’t see on the way up in the middle of the night.  It’s a very humbling experience to look down into the icy black abyss of a crevasse that has no bottom or to look up at the precariously perched face of a glacier that’s waiting to tumble.  After more than 15 hours of climbing and descending, we finished the climb with weary legs, mental fatigue and a strong desire for Total Domination – an Oregon-brewed IPA that was on tap back at RMI’s base camp in Ashford, WA. The perfect beer to capture the feeling of reaching the summit of Rainier.

Crossing Emmons Glacier

Climbers crossing the Emmons Glacier. That should give some idea of the scale and expanse. (Note the climbers in the middle right of the photo - 2 black dots.)

I don’t really know how to explain my feelings about this experience.   When we were just about finished with the descent, my buddy Craig asked me what I thought of the whole climb and such. I couldn’t come up with anything other than that it was the “best thing I’ve ever done.” I actually said that to Craig. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”  I don’t really know what that means – nor does it short-sell any of the absolutely incredible experiences I’ve had in  my lifetime. It just was that perfect combination of challenge, beauty, fear, achievement, shared experience, raw nature, and who knows what else.  And as I write this almost 5 months later, I still feel that way.

A special thanks to RMI and the guides for that incredible experience. Dave Hahn, Levi Kepsel and Mike Tomlinson were fantastic professionals and if you’re thinking about climbing Rainier there is no reason to consider anyone other than RMI to lead you.

At the summit with mountaineering legend Dave Hahn

The  original plan when I was signing up and training for this experience was to satisfy my mountaineering desires. But it has only fueled them. I don’t have the urge to go into the Death Zone (26,000′ and up), so Everest and some of the more famous peaks aren’t of interest.  But I’d love to do more mountaineering, including Denali (Alaska – 20,320′),  Aconcagua (Argentina – 22,841′) and Kilimanjaro (Africa 19,340) someday soon. Add that to the ever-growing bucket list!

Summit Photo: 14,411'. Brett Dombrova, Ally Johnson-Moore, Craig Friedman, Sara Ray, Kristin Shaff, Joy from Minnesota, and me. "Do not turn around or you WILL get frostbite" ~ Dave Hahn

Posted by: Dave | December 28, 2011

Long Overdue

It has been over a year since I updated the site.  Time for not only an update, but also a major renovation. Over the next few weeks,  I will update this site and work on integration with my photography site (which also will see some updating).  Since my last post in summer of 2010 about the excellence of South Africa, I’ve done a plenty that’s fits well into this blog. So look for updates on:

Mountaineering:  Climbing Mt. Rainier
Working in Active Travel:  My Time in the Canyons
(Photo-) Exploring Arizona
Spotting the World’s Largest Animal: Blue Whale Migration

Exploring the Narrows. Zion National Park, Utah. September 2011.

Snow-capped Four Peaks Mountains. Near Phoenix, AZ, Dec 2011.

Posted by: Dave | June 27, 2010

A week on the Western Cape

*Warning 1:  This is going to be long. It covers over a week of very full travel days – and lots of soccer.

*Warning 2: At the risk of losing some readers, I’m starting this blog with World Cup talk. Again, I’ll (try to) leave the analysis to other people, but since I last posted there has been a lot of soccer in my life. If you want to read about my visit to South Africa’s wine country, the Great White Shark diving or my thoughts on Cape Town, then you’ll have to read through the World Cup stuff… or skip right over it.

World Cup

I’m going to cover the important stuff here… the USA’s last couple of World Cup games.   Last night I watched the knockout match against Ghana with Americans, Brits, South Africans, Uruguayans and Koreans in a bar that overlooks the Indian Ocean in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth.  Quite an atmosphere.

With Ghana being the lone team remaining in the tournament from the African continent, the usually pro-American South Africans were all behind their African “neighbor”.  It’s really interesting to see this continental loyalty. Every African supporter, regardless of nationality, has been blinding supporting every other African nation. Can you imagine Argentinian fans supporting Brazil because they’re “South American” … or the (fantastically) eliminated French or Italians rallying behind the English or Germans to save European face in this World Cup? Not a chance.  Everywhere we’re been, the South Africans have been supporting their country, all of the other African countries (except maybe Algeria) and the United States.   African unity – and South African solidarity – may require a totally separate blog post altogether.
Ghana outplayed our boys last night. And although I’m completely bummed that we’ve been eliminated, it was probably deserved on the night (why, why must we always give up goals in the first 5 minutes?!) – and it was certainly great for this continent.  Hopefully Ghana can get past Uruguay in the quarterfinal.  An African country has never been in the semifinal of the World Cup, and this it a great opportunity for the best soccer nation on the dark continent.

Celebrating our last minute win over Algeria.

While I’ve been to five matches now, some of my favorite World Cup experiences have been watching games in bars around the country. We’ve watched games while on safari, in small towns and big cities, and by ourselves and with hundreds of people. The World Cup is everywhere.  In Cape Town we caught the important USA-Algeria match at a restaurant in the V&A Waterfront area. It was the prefect place to watch the critical last stage of the first round. There were hundreds of American and English fans there to watch the two matches. Celebrating our last minute win – which put us through to the next round is certainly one of the most memorable soccer-related experiences I’ll ever have.  Americans from all over the country were buying each other shots and singing and dancing in a city halfway around the world from home.

The most shocking revelation for me during this tournament has been the English fans.  I know the US is generally disliked in sporting circles around the world, but in soccer we have earned a little bit of respect for being a hard-working team.  But the English fans I know personally (this applies to some of you reading this) and to the ones I’ve met in the last few weeks have been so ridiculous about the US soccer team.  I think the English media and supporters expected an easy run in the group stage, and with 5 months of anticipation of the US-England opening match, there was a lot of time to think “we’d better beat the USA.”  And of course they didn’t. Sure we were a bit lucky in that match, but that’s why we play the games… and we were unlucky in our two others.  I received emails, texts and other words from English friends that suggested we wouldn’t get another point (i.e. we wouldn’t beat or even tie Slovenia and Algeria). Of course we did, and we won the group, but the insufferable England fans seem to think we’re an insignificant team.   I don’t get it… maybe they’re scared we’ll take over the sport they think they’re good at. They’re right.  I love the English Premier League, and some of the England players, but I think I will now always support whomever is playing England.

South Africa (non-soccer)

I’m still in love with this country.  This place has so much more to offer than the bad-news stories that I was warned of by so  many people before coming here. Sure, this place has a long way to go to feel as comfortable as the US, but they’re not as far as most Americans believe.  There’s a real feeling of unity here – which is demonstrated by all (including the white) South Africans of embracing the African heritage.  White people only make up 20% of the population of South Africa, have much of the money, and were instrumental in the atrocious behavior of the apartheid era. But as a tourist I neither see or feel any lingering resentment from the apartheid era. I’m sure it’s there… and there certainly is significant impact from apartheid in the economic situation of many non-white South Africans, but the resentment isn’t so apparent.

Typical vista in wine country in western South Africa

So what have I been up to over the last week besides soccer? Everything.  After leaving the Johannesburg area, we (me, Ceara, Mackerer, Wode and Brody) headed to Cape Town – and then immediately drove 20 miles to South Africa’s wine country.  Brody came through huge at this stage. His buddy Andre – a South African who was in Brody’s b-school class at Columbia – is in the wine industry here in SA and gave us a private VIP tour of a few vinyards. He was apologetic, as it was a Sunday and some of the vineyards were closed, but it was a phenomenal visit nonetheless… ending at Andre’s family “house” in the vineyards for a true South African braai (read: BBQ) and some of his family’s wine.  Perfect, perfect way to enjoy South African wine country.

Outside our the last vineyard we visited in Franschoek

The next day we hit two more vineyards then headed to the south coast town of Hermanus, which is the best place in the world for seeing whales from land. But we didn’t see any – which was ok because our main purpose for being there was the next day’s cage diving with Great White Sharks in nearby Gaansbai.

Yeah... we jumped in the cage and before they could close the lid, the sharks were there.

We went out with Brian Mcfarlane’s company. You may have seen Brian on Discovery Channel’s Shark Week – he’s the guy who created the cage diving industry in South Africa.  There are only 8 companies licensed to run cage diving excursions in Great White waters, and the industry is closely regulated to ensure that the sharks don’t become overly, um, interested in humans.   We rode out 20 minutes to Dyer Island (also of Discovery Channel fame) and Ceara, Brody, Keith Gorman, Cory Arberg and I were the first ones in line to get underwater to see these animals.  Seeing 12-15 foot Great Whites cruise by within a few feet of my face is one of the coolest experiences I’ve had.  While against the rules, I even reached out as one swam by and ran my hand across its side fin. I still have both arms and all fingers.

With Keith and Brody before entering the cage.

I didn’t take the camera underwater, but I had an underwater video camera. I’ll edit and post stuff from that as soon as I get home and have more time/computer power.  Overall we saw about 12 different sharks come through… including one massive one that easily was 15 feet long (and around 1 ton, according to Mcfarlane). This was top of my bucket list… and I don’t think I’m done with it yet.  There are 3-day Great White Shark diving trips from Baja that go way out into the Pacific… that’s on the list now.

Top of the food chain

Now back to Cape Town, which is like San Francisco and San Diego smashed together…. with the super-awesome Table Mountain looming over the city.  Table Mountain is over 3000 feet high and isn’t more than 3 miles from the water’s edge.

Table Mountain - as seen from our apartment off Long Street

We rented an apartment in the middle of the city and had a phenomenal view of “The Mountain,” as the locals refer to it.   Then we made the decision to hike The Mountain.  I don’t think any of us expected 1300+ steps up, but we did it. Not easy to ascend about 2000 feet in an hour and a half, but we did, and the views from the top are phenomenal. Of course you can take a gondola up there if you don’t want the Buns-of-Steel hike, but we were all glad that we made the effort to hike The Mountain.  Any burned off calories were replaced later that day as we put down a few (dozen) pints of Castle – South Africa’s outstanding national lager.  The V&A Waterfront is Cape Town’s posh restaurant area, and it’s the most densely concentrated World Cup area that we’ve seen. The new stadium in Cape Town is 1km away, and all of the restaurants and bars are indoor/outdoor – which is perfect winter in Cape Town. (Cape Town is 33 degrees south latitude – Phoenix is 33 degrees north latitude. The winters are similar.)   We didn’t have enough time in Cape Town.  I think Cape Town and the surrounding area is worth well over a week.  We did make it down to the Cape of Good Hope – the bottom of the African continent, and we got to see the penguins in Simon’s Town, but we could’ve given all of it more time.  The word on the street is that Cape Town will be a serious contender to host the 2020 Olympics. If you can’t get to Cape Town beforehand, the 2020 Olympics should be your excuse to get there.

Table Mountain

This cub took a special liking to the zipper on my jacket. So cute though.

I’m now in Port Elizabeth… watching Germany wrap up their clinical elimination of England (see above. I love it.). Before catching the Uruguay-Korea match yesterday, we went to a local “lion park” with one sole purpose.  The Seaview Lion Park is kind of a breeding center for lions and rescue for some other animals. But we were there for the lions. We had had a few excellent lion experiences in Kruger and Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, but Ceara wanted to pet some cubs.. and this was the place to do that, not with the wild lions of the national parks.  And so we did… we got to spend some time with 4 lion cubs, who couldn’t have been any cuter.  And then we got the nerve to go in the pen with some 12+ month old males (with two staff members).  Petting an almost full-grown male lion might have been more exhilarating than the Great White encounter – and the 12,000 volt jolt when my butt grazed the electric fence in the lion pen.  These animals are huge and untameable.  And they are so beautiful and magestic.

Side story from the lion park:  There are some pens where the more mature lions hang out until they’re shipped off to game parks or zoos around the world. You can get close to the lions, albeit on the other side of an electric fence.  Some lionesses were enjoying the afternoon sun, and I chose to lay down and take some pics through the fence, and one of the lions took a slight issue with that and decided to run at me. I have no idea what she was thinking, whether she was being playful or, um, hungry… but it was scary – even through the electric fence. I got one “pre-charge” pic, and then somehow took one during the episode. See below.

Checking me out from afar...

... and coming closer (quickly). This can't be good.

Today was our second to last day in South Africa. Ceara and I checked out the famous surf beach Jeffrey’s Bay, which is considered one of the 10 best surf spots in the world, but the weather was uncooperative and the winds blew out any swell that might’ve existed.  Tomorrow morning we head to Durban to catch Holland-Slovakia, then head home the following day. I’ll write more about South Africa when I get home. Just know that this place is incredible and not as bad as people say it is.  And there’s little reason to visit Johannesburg. More to come on that.

Thanks for checking in!  See you soon.

Posted by: Dave | June 19, 2010

2 Days in Johannesburg

I only planned for 2 days in Johannesburg for a reason. It has a nasty crime reputation and as the largest city in a country that generally lacks order you can imagine the transportation situation. And, it’s been an interesting two days to say the least.

One of the “things to do” in Joburg, is visit nearby Soweto – the Southwest Township – which is the area developed under Apartheid to house those who didn’t meet the race specifications on the white, controlling government.  I can’t even write about Apartheid without sounding completely blunt and shocking you, so it’s probably best if you do some research separately.  Try here and here . Let’s just point out that 80% of this country is non-white, and for most of the 20th century the whites controlled everything and developed a formal system of segregation that makes the segregation in the US seem amateur. And one of the most shocking elements is that it was just finding its feet as our segregation was ending.  Apartheid lasted INTO THE 1990s! Although most South Africans have really embraced to mutli-racial, multi-cultural society, there are still many, many lingering effects of a long-lasting system of oppression that only ended 14 years ago or so.

Greeted by some kids as we walk into a Soweto community

Soweto is now a “city” of 3 million, and although it has a mall, several millionaires and some nicer neighborhoods, it is not safe for tourists who don’t know what they’re doing.  We arranged for a guide to meet us at the airport and take us to Soweto and to the Apartheid Museum (which was modeled after the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC).   Our first stop in Soweto was not Mandela’s birthplace, or Reverend Tutu’s current home, but rather the shantytowns that we’ve seen on tv and in photos. Just in the middle of everything, right off of a bustling street, is one of many collections of corrugated iron, salvaged wood, and many other miscellaneous items that people use to create their homes.  I thought I was prepared for it. I’ve seen poverty in other parts of the world.  But this was far heavier than I expected.

A local guide met us to take us safely into the “neighborhood” of 20,000, and we were met by beautiful smiling children and immense poverty.  We weren’t in an area that is entirely untouched by tourists – we saw 2 other groups like us while we were there – but these people live in a way that certainly isn’t supported by tourism. One woman showed us her home – a rectangular shack no bigger than 10×15 with one bed and a kerosene burner. And this is what she shares with her husband and 2 kids.    Here are a few pics:

A face of Soweto

Kids love cameras

We were told not to give money to the kids because it teaches them not to beg. So hard to resist, but we had to.

Home for four people

Doing what can be done to make for a "comfortable" home


I’m still trying to fully absorb that visit to the township.

As I mentioned, we also visited the Apartheid Museum in Soweto, which is extremely well done and immense. We spent about 3.5 hours in the museum and needed more time (another day?) to really absorb it. If you’ve been to the Holocaust Museum in DC then you know that feeling.  Seeing video from the 60s, 70s and 80s and hearing the words of the Afrikaner government is a sickening feeling.

Other than that, we spent an evening in a swanky shopping district called Melrose Arch, where we ate steak and watched the World Cup on a giant screen with a few hundred people from just about every nation in the World Cup (and probably more).  Melrose Arch might as well be in Scottsdale or DC or Seattle or anywhere in the US – shiny and new… and safe.

Oh… did I mention that it’s ZERO degrees celcius here?  For us non-metric Americans, that’s 32 degrees farenheit. Not exactly comfortable. It’s winter of course, but freezing temps are relatively uncharacteristic for Joburg and this area of the country.

World Cup

But the main reason we’re in Johannesburg was to go to the USA-Slovenia match last night. What a fantastic experience and it’s exactly what’s great about the World Cup, soccer as the world’s sport, and also just the experiences of traveling.

Heading to the game, we had a group of 10… which included 2 random Slovenian guys who are staying at the same guest house as me.  For those of you keeping score at home, the 6 other friends were Wodey and Mackerer (who we can’t seem to shake), W&M soccer legend Brody and his friend Aaron (who both flew down from Abu Dhabi), and Keith Gorman and his wife Cory.  Awesome to get together with a great group of friends halfway around the globe.

Beers 4 Kids!

On our walk from the parking area to the stadium, we were enticed into a schoolyard where the teachers were hosting a fundraiser for the school. Beers, brats and loud soccer fans. How can you possibly beat a “Beers 4 Kids” pre-game?! Yeah… not sure why I blurted that out, but it stuck.  I bought 8 beers for R120… which is about $15.  We ended up rercruiting many, many people for the school, and I think they’ll be happy with the Americans’ “Beers 4 Kids” marketing strategy (including “Drink more beer, create more opportunities!”). We talked to Americans from around the country, South Africans who were coming to check out the World Cup, and Slovenian fans who were riding high from their 1-0 win over Algeria the other day. With a Castle Lager in hand, it was a great afternoon.

Not sure why our team likes to scare the bejesus out of us and dig a hole in every game, but Slovenia looked great in the first half and a 2-0 lead looked insurmountable.  Where else can a country of 2 million people take it to a country of 300 million?   That’s what’s great about soccer – and the World Cup. Any team can take on any team. This World Cup has been no exception. North Korea fought bravely with mighty Brazil, Switzerland beat World Cup favorites Spain (who have now only lost to the Swiss and Americans IN THE LAST 48 games), and Algeria drew with England. I love it.

Slovenia deserved their lead against us last night.  But we deserved the 2 (3, actually) goals that we got in the second half. What a game. The crowd was overwhelmingly American, and the neutral South African supporters around us all seemed to be behind the US too.  It’s funny… i think this is the first country I’ve been to where I feel like the USA is a fan favorite.


It’s also awesome to see genuine pride in the red, white and blue. Seeing our awesome flag EVERYWHERE is a great feeling… and there were people dressed as the Statue of Liberty, Captain America, Uncle Sam and just about every collection of stars and stripes outfits you can imagine.  You probably won’t see a scene like that anywhere but a USA World Cup game. I hope some of that was captured by ESPN and shown back at home.

I’m not going to get into an assessment of the match. As long as we beat Algeria on the 23rd, we’re through to the next round, and that’s all that matters. Controlling their own destiny is all any team can ask for.
We’re off to nearby Pretoria (the national capital city) tonight to see Cameroon-Denmark, then to Cape Town tomorrow. Can’t wait to get back to the warmer temps of the coastal cities.  I think I did the right thing by limiting time in Joburg. I’m ready to head out of here.

Thanks for checking in. Go USA (and Australia and South Africa).

Posted by: Dave | June 16, 2010

Wildlife and Vuvuzelas

Ok… at the risk of falling behind too far, I’ll get this blog post done! I’m skipping a much needed nap in order to finally get this finished.

Sleepy lions don't update their blogs often either.

I’m sitting in our cabin at the Hilltop Camp in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, which is about 2 hours north of Durban. Just over one week into this South African adventure and I think I finally may be able to put some words to the experiences of a safari. While I didn’t really have time or access to update the blog, the main reason that this is my first post is that I don’t think I could have put words to the experience of seeing rhinos, lions, elephants, giraffes, etc in the true wild. And then add the World Cup to the mix, and it’s sort of “experience overload” in my head. I don’t even know where to start with this. I’ll try to keep it coherent and concise. I also have over 1000 photos so far.

It seems like it was just yesterday that I had the 16 hour flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg, but since then has been 5 days in and around Kruger National Park, 2 days in Durban and 2 days in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park.

Kruger National Park is world famous for it’s expanse and the wildlife within. Tourists can drive themselves around the park, staying on paved and unpaved roads as they look for the animals. In the private game reserves around Kruger (there are no fences to keep the animals in one place or another) there are no restrictions to where to you can go, but you must be on an organized safari with a ranger. There are advantages to both. There’s something to be said for looking for the animals on your own. It’s kind of fun to “discover” that elephant that’s 50 feet off the side of the road – and to have to adjust your own behavior as a driver to stay at a safe distance. And it’s fun to roll up to a car who is waving you down to tell you about the lions 2 kilometers up the road.

Photo taken from the safety of a tiny Hyundai!

The drawback is that you’re at the mercy of the animals and the mapmaker. The animals could be right by the road, a feet hundred yards off in the distance, or miles away from the tourist roads. With the guided safari, the rangers can track the animals and get much, much closer. Hluhluwe is much like Kruger with regard to staying on the roads, but it was in both of these two parks that we got to see the rare sight of lions feasting on a recent kill. I’m not sure I could even come close to describing those sounds and smells. Last night we watched a lion feasting on a water buffalo and the lion had its head inside the dead animal, tearing and chewing. It was such a raw and real scene.

That’s what’s most impressive on me in these parks: these animals are completely wild and this is their territory. Most of us have seen a rhino in the zoo or somewhere like that. We all recognize them as somewhat surreal and prehistoric. But when you see a rhino – especially a baby one – in the wild, and watch it walk and eat and live, you realize that this is a very real being. I’m not sure those words capture this revelation. In a nutshell, an animal that’s just a weird oddity in a zoo easily becomes the essence of wilderness and the incongruity of nature.

It’s probably clear that despite seeing lions feasting, lion cubs playing, elephants bathing, baboons carrying babies and all of the other strange things that happen out here, seeing truly wild rhinos is my favorite experience so far.

Our first wild rhinos... mom and baby. Love them!

On safari you’ll often hear about “the Big Five” which are the lion, elephant, water buffalo, rhinoceros and leopard. There are many more animals out there, but these are the ones that have the best agents, I guess. We haven’t seen the most elusive of the Big Five, the leopard. They’re the least in number of the bunch (only about 950 in the entire Kruger area) and they are solitary. We saw a ton of everything else though: lions, elephants, water buffalo, rhinos, giraffes, baboons, vervet monkeys, warthogs, impalas, kudus, hippos and more.

Hippos deserve a special mention, I guess. After the mosquito (carrier of Malaria), the hippo kills more people than any other animal on the African continent. That’s right, the hippo kills more people than are killed by lions or Great White sharks. Hippos can run up to 32mph (Usain Bolt maybe can run that fast). Actually, as one of our guides pointed out, humans are the slowest land mammal. So hippos come out of the water at night to eat grasses and things, and people often have accidental run-ins with them that turn out to be not-so-good. (Side note: one Argentinian tourist in our group asked the guide which animal was the most dangerous. The guide replied, “the one that catches you.” Probably the number one lesson of the trip so far.)

I had a minor incident with a hippo the other night, but at least I saw him and avoided him. At our lodge outside of Kruger, near the town of Hazyview, there was a hippo warning sign and our host instructed us to be wary if the hippos are in the yard, “which the sometimes are.” He also expressed that it doesn’t happen that often, but the Warning: Hippos sign in the garden is a good reminder. The other night I ran cautiously down from the main house to our cabin to grab something… and no hippos. When I returned 2 minutes later, there was a 2 ton hippos standing 30 feet from the door, directly where I needed to go. i have no idea where he came from, but he must have been close when I went by. Yikes. Needless to say, I took a much longer route back to the main house. No camera with me at the time, unfortunately. And I’m not sure I had the guts to try to capture that on film anyway.

OK. That’s a enough of nature commentary for now. I know it’s the pics that are the most interesting for everyone anyway.

Zebras on the plains of Kruger NP

Interesting fact: Elephant tusks are in no way indicative of the age of the elephant. The size of the tusks is a genetic trait!

Lions on the road in Kruger.

Giraffes have the same number of vertebrae as humans!

Lion cubs!

Many, many more pics to come. It’s hard to manage the pics while traveling and on this tiny netbook.

The World Cup

The South African people are so excited about the tournament and seem to be genuinely excited that people have come from around the world to their country. I don’t have the time or space to explain the subtlety of what their country means… but as recently as 20 years ago this was not a nation that represented its population. Black or white skin, Afrikaans or English language – this is their chance to show off for the world. If you’ve seen Invictus you’ll understand the unifying effect that sport has on this country. If you haven’t seen it, check it out.

I need to comment on the vuvuzelas: the horns that you hear in the background if you’re watching a game. I hear that there are a lot of people in the US that don’t like it. I say, “they’re awesome!”  These horns (US$3 or so) are a part of the sporting culture in South Africa, and this is a South African World Cup… so they belong here. Sure it’s annoying when the person sitting behind you blows for no reason, but there’s something awesome about hearing the vuvuzelas from cars in the street, or from the kids in the park. It may stand for South African soccer more than anything else…. and we should all laugh and enjoy it while we can. Ok… that’s my stance on it. If it bothers you so much, just mute the TV and enjoy the match at 50% of the experience.

Back to the update:

This Irish guy was one of many who joined in supporting the USA against England.

We arrived in Durban on Saturday afternoon and were picked up by my buddies Wodey and Mackerer. After dropping up our stuff and picking up my 6 sets of World Cup tickets at the Ticket Centre, we headed to a bar in the Umhlanga area of Durban to watch the US-England game. Of course we picked the bar with the most English fans and we planted ourselves right in the middle of everything. It’s always fun to get under the skin of Brits who think that they’re entitled to be World Cup champions. The USA got a bit lucky, but sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good…and a 1-1 result is a perfectly acceptable start to the World Cup when considering that England was the opponent. We’ve got to win against Slovenia though.

Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban.

On Sunday, we went to our first of (at least) six matches: Germany vs Australia here in Durban. The stadium in Durban is brand new and has been made from almost entirely locally produced materials – and is a “green” stadium. And it’s huge and beautiful. The match was beautiful only for the Germans, as a mostly useless Australian team unraveled quickly and lost 4-0. The Aussie sports fans are some of the best … they’re fun, vocal and very proud to be Australian. The atmosphere at the match was fun from the start, but Germany’s early goal took the voice from the Socceroos’ supporters (but not the Germans of course). Great to see fantastic soccer from Germany though. Based on their display last night, I expect them to to do well at this World Cup.

Despite the busy schedule, we’ve been able to catch most of the games on TV. With the games on locally at 1:30, 4:00 and 8:30 it’s pretty easy to incorporate 2 of them into the day. We usually end up talking to someone who can’t believe we “came from America to see football.” Football of course being the appropriate name for soccer. South Africans, Germans, English, Dutch, Swiss, Argentinian, Mexican, etc… they’re all here.

You’ll probably notice that there isn’t one note in here about feeling unsafe (other than the hippo) or being in an uncomfortable environment. The people have been amazing, and as long as we continue to be smart travelers, it should remain the same. Granted, we haven’t been to Johannesburg yet, but so far all of the South African people have been fantastic. We just got back to Durban (I couldn’t upload this at Hluhluwe), and we head to Johannesburg early tomorrow morning for the USA-Slovenia match on Friday.

Thanks for checking in. More to come soon … and I’ll try to post more often

Road closed!

Posted by: Dave | June 4, 2010

South Africa Trip Preparations

Malaria medication? Check.
Cold weather clothes? Check.
Electronics? Check. Check. Check.

I love everything about getting ready for a trip except for one thing. Packing. For whatever reason. I am completely terrible about efficiently and confidently picking clothes and putting them in a bag. No idea why. But I just put the last t-shirt in the North Face duffel and I’m ready to get up at 4:30 and head to the airport.

I can’t believe the how many cables and wires and batteries (and the things that need them) are going on this trip with me. How did people travel 20 years ago?! Here’s my list of items that plug into the wall and I’m sure I’m forgetting stuff…

  • DSLR camera w/ 2 lenses (including my super-awesome new 70-300 zoom telephoto)
  • Point-and-shoot camera and extra battery
  • Kodak Playsport video camera (underwater model – bring on the sharks)
  • Netbook (primarily for photo backup, but will make it a bit easier to maintain the blog)
  • iPod
  • Unlocked Blackberry for use with South African SIM card.
  • Binoculars (ok, maybe there’s no cable and charger for this one)

Yes mom, it’s all insured.

This trip is A LOT more planned out than I normally would want it to be, but the World Cup schedule and the number of travelers it brings to South Africa (not to mention the questionable security and other safety concerns) demand for that sort of preparation. Some of the cities that are hosting World Cup matches aren’t used to this volume of tourism, and they don’t have the accommodation to support an influx of hundreds of thousands of (mostly) Americans and Europeans. That made it essential to book the entire trip in advance… which has not been easy.  I didn’t make it any easier on myself as I arranged a crazy itinerary to try to see a lot of the country in the 23 days we’re there. Here’s the snapshot of our whirlwind tour of South Africa.

June 6 – arrive Johannesburg
June 7 – 12   Kruger National Park area
June 12-14   Durban (Germany v Australia)
June 14-16   Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve
June 16-17  Durban (maybe Spain-Switzerland)
June 17-19   Johannesburg (USA-Slovenia)
June 19-20  Pretoria (Denmark-Cameroon)
June 20-21   Stellenbosch – SA’s wine country
June 21-22   Hermanus (Great White Shark cage diving)
June 22-25   Cape Town (Holland-Cameroon)
June 25-28   Port Elizabeth (2nd Round:  A1 v B2)
June 28-29   Durban (2nd Round:  E1 v F2)
June 29-30   travel home.

Looking at that now, I’m kind of intimidated at the pace. But for those of you scoring at home that’s at least 6 World Cup matches, 6 domestic flights, 5+ days on safari, 1 run-in underwater with apex predators and some wine. And much more.

But it’s all about the Beautiful Game. Maybe you have World Cup fever, maybe you don’t…. but ESPN is rightly (and finally) treating this World Cup like the Great White Shark of sporting events – top of the pyramid.  Since I don’t have any fun photos to share today, here’s a link to an ESPN promo spot that perfectly captures what the World Cup is all about.

Now the fun part:  Pick a team. Well, pick a second team – as we should all be supporting our guys.  But pick another team. It doesn’t matter what the reason… maybe you like Argentinian wine, or Australian shepherds, or Ivory Coast’s orange uniforms, or you’re perplexed by North Korea’s bizarre America-hating/Americana-loving leader, or curious about Slovenia and its population of only 2 million.  It’s fun to learn the stories of the teams and athletes from parts of the world that we’re not familiar with.

I have to get on the record with some miscellaneous World Cup predictions:

  • Mexico will make the semifinal.
  • North Korea will indeed win 1 game in the Group of Death.
  • US will finish second in the group, win in the Round of 16 and lose to Argentina in the quarterfinal due to questionable officiating.
  • Brazil will take home the trophy. Again.

I’ll check in after a few days in Kruger Park. Thanks for reading!

Posted by: Dave | May 26, 2010

Reminder: Arizona is awesome

I leave in less than 2 weeks for South Africa.  That means a lot of things… including the need to finally update this blog with the cool stuff I’ve done in Arizona over the past 12 months.  If you haven’t been out to the American southwest, I’ll plead with you to move it to the top of your vacation-planning list. (We all have one of those, right? Only a few of us are dorky enough to have an actual spreadsheet though.)

With my 3-week trip to South Africa (World Cup, safari, great white shark diving!) coming up quickly, I need to get back into the swing of things… and I really want to share Arizona with all of you.  Well, we can share the scenery, not the politics.

Most people know Arizona for its cacti and the Grand Canyon. But while the saguaro cactus is majestic and the Grand Canyon defies words, there is so much more.

Not smart to stand 1000 feet straight above the Colorado River and try to be creative. See that white thing in the river on the right side? That's a boat and its wake.

The best way to tee up the incredible landscapes of northern Arizona is for me to share a story.  While standing on the edge of a cliff at Horseshoe Bend (see photo at right… stupid), which is technically the beginning of the Grand Canyon, I struck up a conversation with a French tourist.  He told me that he has been all over the world – Africa, South America, China, Australia and of course all over Europe.  He said to me that there is nothing in the world like the American southwest and its incredible geologic formations, its vast open spaces and its true solitude.  That was quite an impression on me. The American southwest is my backyard… and Arizona in particular offers such amazing places as Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon, the red rocks of Sedona, the slot canyons near Lake Powell, not to mention the amazing things that can be found on the lands of the Hopi and Navajo.

I’m going to take you on a quick photo tour of some of the things I saw in the last half of 2009 and first half of 2010… and it’s all here in Arizona. Where to start?

You’ve seen Monument Valley before. It’s in countless car commercials and country westerns.  I think I remember it in Forrest Gump and National Lampoon’s Vacation too.  It’s right at the Utah border, and lies in Najavo Nation… which makes up for most of the northeast corner of Arizona.  There’s not much here… just a small hotel and visitor center that the Navajo operates, and a dirt road that takes you on a 13 miles loop of the “monuments”.  But it’s still amazing.  You can see forever, and these red rock formations dominate the vast landscape.  And I was there for full moon, which made the place even more special.

Monument Valley

Monument Valley - as seen in western movies and US Marine Corps commercials!

Full moon over Monument Valley

A petrified tree trunk in the middle of the desert. Who would've thought?!

If you’ve ever driven across the country on Interstate 40, you’ve passed through Petrified Forest National Park, which is located in the Painted Desert. This place has trees that were turned to stone (I’ll leave the science to you and Google) over 200-million years ago.  That’s even before my dad’s time!   Unfortunately, as the west was being settled, a lot of the petrified wood was stolen/looted and sold back east … often as coffee tables or paper weights.

The Petrified Forest is still fascinating, but it’s incredible to think about this land full of fallen trees that are made of stone. Oh… did I mention that the stone is rainbow colored?

The Grand Canyon. You might have figured out (because I’ve told you) that the Grand Canyon is my favorite place on the planet. It was only a couple of years ago that I saw my first photo of the Grand Canyon covered in snow. It blew my mind. I had no idea that it snowed there and it was incredibly beautiful.  I learned that it’s not easy to see the Grand Canyon when it’s snow covered, so that was priority #1 this past winter. I needed to make sure there was enough snow and that I had a vehicle to deal with potentially uncleared roads in the National Park.  There wasn’t much snow inside the canyon, but at the rim there was about 6 feet. There were also some spectacular cloud formations inside the canyon. I’ll let a couple of pics try to do justice to this massive crack in the earth.

Magical conditions in a magical place

Above the clouds... and on the rim of the Grand Canyon

Note the people at the top right for some scale. Chocolate Falls is taller than Niagara Falls.

And there’s the even more unexpected and unknown Arizona too.  On Navajo land, just 30 miles or so from Flagstaff, there’s a turnoff onto a dirt road that seemingly goes to nowhere.  15 miles down this dirt road, in the middle of the Painted Desert is a place known casually as Chocolate Falls. Its real name is Grand Falls, and it’s in the middle of the Little Colorado River, which meets up with the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.  Chocolate Falls flows during the snow melt, and creates a waterfall that’s taller than Niagara Falls (admittedly with way less water flow). The water is a deep brown color, which gives the falls its name.  The Navajo haven’t done anything to commercialize the falls. There’s no sign telling you where to turn. There’s no stand selling water or even Native American handcrafts.  It’s really in the middle of nowhere with nothing around. Except maybe 2 dozen wanderers like me who somehow knew about it.

Like the snow-covered Grand Canyon, I had been wanting to go to Chocolate Falls since I first learned about it. There are only those couple of spring months when it’s worthwhile, and I hadn’t made it in the last few years.  With all of the rain and snow that we got this past winter (Flagstaff had the 2nd highest snowfall of any city in the lower 48 this year!), I knew Chocolate Falls would be great, so I made sure not to miss it. I’m so glad I went, for a few reason … not the least of which is that I think the picture below may be my best photo I’ve ever taken.  Maybe.

The beautiful muddy Little Colorado River flowing over Chocolate Falls.

Bell Rock. Sedona, AZ.

Sedona is known for its red rocks and spiritual vibes. You’ll find resorts, spas and plenty of shops selling every type of crystal that you could want.  And it’s incredibly beautiful.  The drive into Sedona leads you past Bell Rock (right) into town. There are some beautiful hiking trails around Sedona, that let you explore the red rocks and the high elevation is a great escape from the hotter temperatures of the Phoenix valley.

Central and southern Arizona have their share of southwest awesomeness too.  Kartchner Caverns, located just south of Tucson and about 50 miles from the Mexico border, are one of the newest complex cave discoveries in the world, having only been discovered by amateur cavers in the mid-1970s. They weren’t even open to the public until 1999. Amazing science has gone into preserving the caves, and the number of daily visitors is limited and there’s a complex entry process that involves multiple sealed doors and misting systems to control the lint on your clothing. Unfortunately photos aren’t allowed (light is controlled to keep mosses from growing on the cave formations), but it was worth sharing.

While driving to Kartchner Caverns, we did a quick drive-through of Saguaro National Park, which flanks Tucson. It was quick for two reasons: darkness and a rainstorm!  Sunset provided some brief light in the middle of the storm, which captured the drama of the desert.

Saguaro National Park with a desert monsoon rolling in...

And even here in the Phoenix area there is amazing and beautiful scenery.  Like most of the country, we had a ton of rain this past winter, so the desert was in full bloom all spring (downside: allergies).  We’re lucky to have great trails all over the Phoenix area, and this one is just about 3 miles from my house in Scottsdale in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

The beautiful Ceara Harpley hiking on the Sunrise Trail in Scottsdale.

So that’s (part of) Arizona.  Plan your vacation out west asap!

Thanks for reading my blog – or at least looking at the pictures. There’ll be a lot more coming in the next month or so as I travel around South Africa!  I have started another website that’s more of a simple collection of my photography. You can see more pics there.  It’s a work in progress… so don’t judge the website design.

Arizona Saguaro & Sunset

Posted by: Dave | May 5, 2010

I haven’t posted anything in a year?!

I’m so embarrassed that my last post was in late May 2009.  I’m working on a new one that plays catch-up for the 12 months since then.  I’ll have it online soon. Check back early and often….

Full moon over Monument Valley

Photos coming soon from:

  • Monument Valley
  • Horseshoe Bend
  • Grand Canyon in the snow
  • Saguaro National Park
  • Chocolate Falls
  • Petrified Forest National Park
  • and more…

Bookmark now.

Posted by: Dave | May 27, 2009

More Costa Rica

Note: I apologize in advance if the images take a while to load. I didn’t resize many of them, so they’re large files. I thought they’d be better to show off the colors.

I’m now back from my week in Costa Rica. This trip (in combination with my, um, free time) has given me the best tan I’ve had in 10+ years.   Costa Rica was great. It’s definitely a place that I will recommend as a travel destination, and I plan on going back to do more exploring. It’s so easy to get to from the States. From Phoenix it was a 3 hour flight to Dallas and then a 3.5 hour flight to San Jose, CR. Not bad at all.

And it’s all worth it even if you only see one tree-full of Scarlet Macaws. They are among the world’s most beautiful birds. We were lucky enough to have an almond tree near our hotel where the birds hung out on Sunday and Monday. With my non-professional camera equipment it wasn’t easy to get clean, clear shots; they like to hang inside the tree, so there’s little light, and shooting from the ground makes for weird angles. I got a few good ones, I think. Monday there were 16 in the tree at once.

Scarlet Macaws in Playa Hermosa

Scarlet Macaws in Playa Hermosa


Scarlet Macaws take flight

Incoming Scarlet Macaw

Incoming Scarlet Macaw

A little better look at the bright colors...

A little better look at the bright colors...

They're so hard to capture in all their color. You really have to be above them somehow to see all the yellow and blue.

They're so hard to capture in all their color. You really have to be above them somehow to see all the yellow and blue.

Scarlet Macaws mate for life and travel with their partner. There were 16 macaws in the tree on Monday. Pretty amazing to see so many at once.

Scarlet Macaws mate for life and travel with their partner. There were 16 macaws in the tree on Monday. Pretty amazing to see so many at once.

And a macaw in an almond tree.

... and a macaw in an almond tree.

Surf:   The surf wasn’t especially cooperative while we were there. It was big, but closed out often and otherwise wasn’t especially fun. Particularly for me.. as I haven’t surfed in 5 years or so. Too much paddling!

It's deceptive, but this wave closes out quickly after the guy dropped in. The still shot certainly makes it look like a great wave though. Pretty big and clean that day, but closing out.

It's deceptive, but this wave closes out quickly after the guy dropped in. The still shot certainly makes it look like a great wave though. Pretty big and clean that day, but closing out.

Boca Barranca... home of the 3rd longest left in the world. On the right day, you can ride 1 wave for over 1km. The drift and paddling here was a bitch, but it was a fun place to surf. At the mouth of a river, the rainy season brings a lot of mud (and who knows what else - crocs?) down to the break... but you can't really think about that.

Boca Barranca... home of the 3rd longest left in the world. On the best days, you can ride 1 wave for over 1km. The drift and paddling here was a bitch, but it was a fun place to surf. At the mouth of a river, the rainy season brings a lot of mud (and who knows what else - crocs?) down to the break... but you can't really think about that.

Playa Hermosa

Playa Hermosa

Savvy tourism PR has labeled the summer the “Green” season, as opposed to the rainy season. From what I understand, the green/rainy season is roughly May-October. We didn’t have much rain, other than an afternoon shower once or twice and one heavy overnight rain, but from what I understand it gets really wet. That rain makes the rainforest/jungle incredibly dense and lush.  Jay and I checked out another National Park near Playa Hermosa, Carara National Park, and some of those pics show the density of the rainforest.

The trail in Carara National Park. You can (sort of) see Jay on the trail...

The trail in Carara National Park. You can (sort of) see Jay on the trail...

Almost stepped on this guy. I'm still trying to figure out what kind of snake it is, but I'm pretty sure he's not poisonous.

Almost stepped on this guy. I'm still trying to figure out what kind of snake it is, but I'm pretty sure he's not poisonous, although he was easily 6 feet long. I also learned that wild snakes are not easy to photograph. Hard to catch their good side!

Big ants doing some work. There were so many lines of ants carrying these leaves from the trees. I'm not sure why they go all the way up the highest trees to get these leaves, but they would carry them down the 100-ft. tree trunks and down into the ground. So interesting...

Big ants doing some work. I'm not sure why they go all the way up the highest trees to get these leaves, but they would carry them down the 100-ft. tree trunks and down into the ground. So interesting...

The gratuitous pic of me. Mom's orders.  This is in a stream in Carara National Park...the main reason for standing in the water was to soothe the pain from the ant bites I got while taking pics of the ants. Serves me right for wearing flip-flops, I guess.

The gratuitous pic of me. Mom's orders. The main reason for standing in the water was to soothe the pain from the ant bites I got while taking pics of the ants. Serves me right for wearing flip-flops, I guess.

Overall it was a great trip. The surf could’ve been a little more cooperative, but still good to run the toes in the sand and ocean and see such amazing biodiversity. I’ll be heading back to Costa Rica again for sure… so much more to explore: volcanos, rainforest canopy, more beaches, etc.

Thanks for stopping into my blog. Who knows where I’ll end up next … but hopefully it’s soon.

The curious iguana says thanks for checking out the blog...

The curious iguana says thanks for checking out the blog...

Posted by: Dave | May 22, 2009

Oh yeah… humidity! I forgot about you.

Playa Hermosa is on the Pacific Ocean about halfway down the coast of Costa Rica… and the wireless is sketchy so I’m going to post pics while I can and not write too much. It’s just beautiful and hot and humid. I think today (Friday) was 95 degrees with 100% humidity.  The sand here is black… and after it heats up it is impossible to walk on it. After getting out of the surf today I’m guessing the sand was 150-ish. Not exaggerating. Ok.. here are some pics from the last 3 days.

Playa Hermosa

Playa Hermosa

Jay checking out the morning surf on Wednesday.

Jay checking out the morning surf on Wednesday.

Not anyone I know... but shows the Wednesday (and Thursday) surf...

Not anyone I know... but shows the Wednesday (and Thursday) surf...

White Faced Monkey in Manuel Antonion National Park

White Faced Monkey in Manuel Antonio National Park

This White Faced Monkey tried to grab my hat after I took his pic. (True). Then he tried to sell me some chiclets. (Not true).

This White Faced Monkey tried to grab my hat after I took his pic. (True). But I'm too fast for him. (Maybe true).

This bird has some serious cojones to stand in the middle of 4 crocs.

This bird has some serious cojones to stand in the middle of 4 crocs.

Friday's surf. Big... but closing out.

Friday's surf. Big... but closing out.

I’ll post more pics as they come… but wanted to get some of them online.

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