Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Ignorance is Bliss

Christmas 2004 is usually remembered for the Boxing Day Tsunami which killed over 230,0000 people around the Indian Ocean rim. I remember it for a much more pleasant reason. My wife and I had booked a week's stay at Muchenje Lodge in Botswana's Chobe National Park. We flew from Sydney on Christmas Eve and having spent a night in a Johannesburg airport hotel we continued on up to Victoria Falls on Christmas Day. From Victoria Falls it's a couple of hours drive to Muchenje and there's often plenty of wildlife to see on the way. So it was around lunchtime that we finally pulled up at the lodge and were led to the reception area by our driver.

We were utterly stunned to be met by the lodge manager - our former next door neighbour Sandy. We were speechless. We'd lived next door to Sandy in Perth, Western Australia for several years. When we left there in 1997 we lost touch with Sandy who was working for an African safari company in those days. She knew we were coming because we she had the guest list of course, but we had no clue about the impending reunion.

She'd married Peter - a white Zimbabwean game ranger and now here they were running this lovely little lodge near Chobe National Park. What an incredibly small world. It was our first visit to Chobe and I have to tell you that it is a truly magnificent place. The bird life is incredible and you can barely turn around without tripping over an elephant. The most popular and accessible part of the national park is based around the Chobe River floodplain not far from the town of Kasane.  The Chobe River is wide and slow-flowing here as it winds it's way to join the mighty Zambezi at Kazungula.  The northern bank of the river is the Caprivi Strip, a pan-handle shaped part of Namibia.  It is possible to see Chobe on a day trip from Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe or Livingstone in Zambia.  However, I don't recommend that unless you are really short of time.  Try to spend at least two - preferably three nights in one of the lodges in or close to the park.  That is the only way to get a really good look at the place.  Many of the lodges offer extended boat trips on the river - half a day or even a full day.  These are well worth doing as you not only get a good look at the many waterbirds, hippos and crocs, but you also get a totally different point of view of many of the land based animals too.  It was on a boat cruise that we saw a lion catch his lunch in the form of a warthog at the river's edge.

Muchenje Lodge is wonderfully located just outside the National Park on a ridge overlooking the floodplain.
From the comfort of the bar you can watch the sun setting over the river while sipping your Amarula Cream on ice and admiring the elephants as they gather by the waterhole for their sundowner drink.  The lodge is small - only 11 rooms.  The food is excellent, the ambiance is relaxed and the service is perfection.

One of the rare treats you can expect in Chobe National Park is a sighting of the endangered sable antelope of which Chobe has one of Africa's few remaining large herds. Visitors can also expect to see lions, buffaloes, giraffes and spotted hyenas, and if you are lucky leopards and wild dogs too, not to mention elephants by the truck load.  And so we had a happy and memorable Christmas and the Muchenje residents remained blissfully unaware of the death and devastation wreaked by the tsunami until New Year's Eve when a British couple arrived from Victoria Falls where they have TV, radio and newspapers.  Sometimes ignorance truly is bliss.

For more information on Muchenje Lodge or Chobe National Park please call me - Peter Emery on 0419 689 447 or email me at  Alternatively call Ucango Travel on 1300 822 646.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Kidneys & Rice

First of all may I wish my readers, clients, friends and colleagues a very merry Christmas and a happy, prosperous and travel filled new year.

Last week I posed the polite question "Where the !@#* is Ouagadougou?" Well, the answer is that it is the capital city of Burkina Faso - a fairly large land-locked country wedged between Ghana, Togo, Benin, Niger, Mali and Ivory Coast. It's former name was Upper Volta. When I visited Burkina Faso in 1985 it was officially the world's poorest country and the life expectancy was just twenty eight years. In other words if I were born there I could have expected to have died 24 years ago. Instead, I moved to Tamworth, New South Wales which amounts to the same thing. Just kidding.

Why was I in Burkina Faso? Good question. I was participating in a Guerba overland camping trip from Lome in Togo to Tunis and I have to say that Burkina Faso was not one of the highlights. On the whole it's a flat, scrubby region of the Sahel. It's hot as Hades. In May, the month in which I was there the noon temperature was around 46 degrees centigrade and being just before the wet season it was humid too. Great towering thunderheads would build up in the afternoon and dissipate frustratingly without releasing any of their cooling rain. Nothing grew but dust and camel thorns and the cattle were nothing but leather stretched over a few bones. The human population were faring little better. Only the goats seemed to be thriving.

So it was with enormous anticipation that we drove into Ouagadougou. We were to have lunch at a good hotel and would have access to their swimming pool. What utter bliss! Having had the most deliciously cool swim I settled down to enjoy my lunch. Unfortunately my brain must have been addled by the heat and I ordered kidney's and rice. I ask you! Kidneys and rice in 46 degrees centigrade! What was I thinking? Is that asking for trouble or what? I don't even like kidneys - never have. Needless to say I spent the next three days rushing into the scrub every hour clutching my stomach, a shovel and a rapidly diminishing toilet roll. That, my friends is my enduring memory of Ouagadougou.

On a far more pleasant note my colleague Rosemary has put together a brilliant, fully escorted tour of Kenya to celebrate her 50th birthday. The tour commences in Nairobi on 27 June 2011.

It is a lodge safari visiting Amboseli, Mount Kenya National Park, Samburu, Sweetwaters, Lake Nakuru and of course the amazing Maasai Mara. There is also a fascinating three night Zanzibar extension. The basic 11 night fully escorted tour costs $4150 per person twin share land only, $3995 triple share per person land only and the single supplement is $1150.

To register your interest in the above tour or to obtain further details please contact Rosemary at Ucango Travel on 07 5451 8600, or drop her an email

Monday, December 13, 2010

Where the #@*% is Ouagadougou?

Firstly here's a reminder that anyone wishing to join the Maasai Culture and Wildlife Safari group leaving on 7th March 2011 must pay their $1000 per person deposit by 31 December 2010. Don't miss out! If this coming March doesn't suit you but you'd still like to be part of this wonderful experience Sianga and I are seeking expressions of interest for a second departure in early October 2011. Please call either myself - Peter Emery on 0419 689 447 or Ucango Travel on 07 5451 8600.

This week I'd like to give you a few pointers on the various ways of reaching Africa from Brisbane. This of course depends upon whereabouts in Africa you wish to travel to, and no, there are no direct flights from Brisbane to Ouagadougou or even Ouazarzate. In fact there are no direct flights from Brisbane to anywhere in Africa, so here are your basic options.

Qantas. Brisbane-Sydney-Johannesburg.
South African Airlines. Brisbane-Perth-Johannesburg.
Singapore Airlines. Brisbane-Singapore-Johannesburg.
Malaysia Airlines. Brisbane-Kuala Lumpur-Johannesburg.
V Australia. Brisbane-Melbourne-Johannesburg. (But only until February 2011)
Qantas have the most direct (and usually most expensive) route but they arrive late in the afternoon so it can be hard to get an onward connecting flight. The good news is that most of their engines seem to make the trip in one piece.
There are numerous other options too. Via Mauritius for example.

South African Airlines. Brisbane-Perth-Johannesburg-Nairobi
Thai Airways/Kenyan Airlines. Brisbane-Bangkok-Nairobi.
Emirates. Brisbane-Dubai-Nairobi.
Singapore Airlines/Qatar Airlines. Brisbane-Singapore-Doha-Nairobi.
If you want to combine Egypt and Kenya then Egypt Air and Malaysia Airlines have a combination. Brisbane-Kuala Lumpur-Cairo-Nairobi.

Singapore Airlines. Brisbane-Singapore-Cairo.
Etihad Airlines. Brisbane-Singapore-Abu Dhabi-Cairo.
Malaysia Airlines. Brisbane-Kuala Lumpur-Cairo.
Malaysia Airlines/Egypt Air. Brisbane-Kuala Lumpur-Egypt Air. (Please note that it is no longer compulsory to smoke on Egypt Air.)
Again there are many other options. Thai Airways and Turkish Airlines for example will take you Brisbane-Bangkok-Istanbul-Cairo. Quite an interesting combination isn't it?

Other popular destinations are reached via larger gateways. For example............
Victoria Falls - via Johannesburg.
Windhoek (Namibia) - via Johannesburg.
Arusha (Tanzania for Serengeti/Ngorogoro etc) - via Nairobi or Dar Es Salaam.
Maun (Botswana for Okavango Delta) - via Johannesberg.

I hope this helps. In any case, it doesn't really matter how you get there. You're certain to have the time of your life when you arrive and that's what counts.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Bert Newton's Double

I apologise for leaving you blog-less last week. I was chasing wild orang utans around deepest, darkest Borneo. Okay, so it wasn't Africa, but I must own up to enjoying myself thoroughly. A change is as good as a holiday as they say. It was a 6 night wildlife adventure operated by Borneo Eco Tours. The first 3 nights are spent in Kota Kinabalu in the 3 star Shangri La Downtown Hotel - a comfortable joint with a couple of interesting little quirks. For example, whenever they had a buffet there would be a sign on the table telling you that you were welcome to eat all you like but that there was a five ringget (about two Aussie dollars) charge for every thirty grams of waste food left on your plate. I'm not quite sure how they administered this, but on the face of it it seems like a good idea. Anyway from this hotel we did a few tours, including a day trip to nearby Gaya and Manukan Island for a spot of jungle trekking and snorkeling and then to Mount Kinabalu and Poring Hot Springs.

Mount Kinabalu is spectacular in anyone's language. At 4095 metres it is the highest mountain in South East Asia. I climbed it a few years ago when I was younger and even sillier and I can tell you that it is a hard climb. There's no technical climbing but because the ascent is so steep once you get above 3000 metres the effect of altitude starts to kick in. Seen from it's base it is quite intimidating with it's bare rock summit glistening wet and slippery in the morning sun.

The next day we flew to Sandakan and immediately transferred by boat out to Selingan Island - a one hour speedboat ride across the Sulu Sea to within sight of nearby islands of the Philippines. Here we stayed in a comfortable chalet and witnessed a green turtle coming ashore to lay her eggs. The rangers take her eggs immediately and bury them in a protected hatchery to preserve them from the predation of birds and monitor lizards. We watched as the turtle deposited ninety four slimy pingpong balls into a hole she had dug and then filled in the hole, unaware that her eggs were already gone. Later that evening the rangers released a large batch of recently hatched baby turtles. We watched as they scuttled off to the sea and wondered how many would survive the night, let alone reach adulthood.

The next part of the trip was the highlight for me. We were transferred by boat along the chocolate brown Kinabatangan River to Sukau Rainforest Lodge. It was along this broad river that I caught up with my wild orang utan. It was a big moon-faced male (looking remarkably like Bert Newton) high in one of the tall trees that line the bank. There were also pig-taied macaques, long-tailed macaques, proboscis monkeys, gibbons and some beautiful birds, especially kingfishers and hornbills.

The area also has pygmy elephants, though we kept missing them. We saw their tracks on numerous occasions but never found the animals themselves. The Sukau Rainforest Lodge was very comfortable and run in a similar manner to an African safari lodge, except that the game viewing activities were carried out by boat rather than in a 4x4vehicle. There were two cruises of a couple of hours per day in small boats powered by almost silent electric motors. It really was great! There was also an optional night cruise to be had and it was on one of these that we were charged by a four metre crocodile. He took exception to our guide shining the torch into his eyes. (Fair enough too.) He slipped silently off the bank into the murky water and disappeared momentarily before surfacing a few metres from us and charging towards us like a big scaly torpedo - man he was scary! Our guide gunned the engine and we shot away just in time. He was a little more circumspect with where he shone his torch after that. Had the croc rammed us there was little doubt that we would have joined him in the river - not the best outcome. My heart was pumping blood to parts of my body I never new I had.

It was a superb experience nevertheless and was topped off by a visit to the very moving Australian War Memorial at Sandakan. Anyone interested in visiting the incredible jungle along the Kinabatangan River in Sabah, Borneo should call Ucango Travel on 1300 822 646.