The Monkey’s Tail

How many types of birds do you typically see in your back yard? I’ve counted maybe a dozen at different times – blue jays, cardinals, wrens, robins, pigeons… – the usual urban North American coterie.

In the Amazon rainforest there are 1,300 species and counting.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, of all the known species of creatures on the earth, 1 in 10 are found in the Amazon basin – “40,000 plant species, 3,000 freshwater fish species, and more than 370 types of reptiles. Over 2,000 new species of plants and vertebrates, including a monkey that purrs like a cat, have been described since 1999.” It’s mind-boggling.

The first thing you notice walking through the Amazon Jungle is a battle for life – layers and layers of plant life climbing on top of each other, growing on each other, feeding on each other. Jostling for every nutrient they can wring out of their complex environment.

Parasitic vines will eventually choke the life out of a tree

You look up through layers of green to catch a glimpse of the sky, or downward to a dense layer of new, old and decaying growth littering the ground. Nothing goes to waste in a rainforest.

Layers upon layers cover the forest floor

The jungle is home to myriad creatures as well – carpenter ants carting massive pieces of leaves like banners, spiders clinging to tree trunks, huge butterflies flitting in and out, secretive capuchin monkeys clustered on branches.

A black tarantula ventures a couple of legs out from its burrow near the top right

To celebrate World Rainforest Day this week on June 22, this blog is kicking off a Peru travel series with a peek at exploring that very jungle.

In Peru, typically visitors access the jungle along one of the Amazon’s tributaries, flying from Cusco to one of the jungle’s great frontier towns, Puerto Maldonado. From the Andes mountains your plane swoops down over masses of dense green-ness, sadly patched with barren brown pieces of denuded land, to a murky river snaking through the thick jungle growth.

How fantastic it must have been for the first intrepid explorers to be faced with the undisturbed masses of vegetation, and how daunting to explore for months slowly moving through unknown and difficult terrain.

We arrived at the beginning of the rainy season, easily, landing in muddy, ramshackle, colourful Puerto Maldonado, where any useful supplies for a trip into the jungle can be bought and loaded onto your transportation to the river dock.

Once at the bare-bones wooden dock, we boarded a long motorized canoe that zipped along the Madre de Dios river for just an hour and a half, past steep banks dotted with wrecked wooden canoes and the odd small cabin, residents cruising by in their own motorboats bringing supplies back home from the town, and people using illegal gold-dredging methods that destroy the river ecosystem.

Transferring to our motorized canoe in Puerto Maldonado

The river banks look the same, I imagine, as they must have for the early adventurers, but the river traffic is a modern concoction. The river is wide and flanked by tall green walls of trees – palm, wild papaya and mango, and many other kinds that we didn’t recognize.

Illegal river mining

Eventually we were brought gently up to a jetty peeking out of a clearing in the green wall – the access point to our comfortably rustic lodge, the Eco Amazonia. No hacking our way through the jungle – porters collected our baggage and led the way on raised walkways to the main lodge to check in. Had we arrived a few weeks later, the river would have risen right up to those walkways – the lodge even thoughtfully provides racks of loaner rubber boots for its guests.

Arriving at the lodge

The lodge wasn’t one of the luxury versions, but I loved its green-meshed and wood-sided buildings strewn amongst the brilliant red- and pink-flowered ginger plants with vivid green leaves.

Colourful meals were served in the large dining room – our first lunch led off with a fresh avocado salad, followed by a mysterious banana leaf-wrapped packet that, once we untied the string, revealed a delicious chicken and vegetable rice pilaf.

Our raised cabins were ranged in rows along the grounds, past brilliant green lizards, little brown agouti and parrots lurking in the palm trees. Here we finally heard all the sounds you expect to find, from insects and birds and monkeys in the jungle that surrounded the lodge property, just a short bridge-walk away.

A small agouti roams across the grounds

The accommodations were basic but quite comfortable, straddling the line between civilized and adventurous. Steps lead up to a screened porch, then a large sleeping area with several twin beds, and a dimly-lit bathroom that intermittently had warm water in the shower. At night we could hear the preliminary light rains spattering down on the corrugated tin roofs, and the insects humming safely outside the walls.

There are a lot of things to do in the jungle after a meal and a cup of the thick, dark, concentrated Peruvian coffee that has to be thinned with water to be drinkable.

On our first afternoon we were taken across the river to the lodge’s Monkey Island, a sanctuary for primates rescued from the pet trade. There are golden and brown capuchins, and a particularly cheeky female spider monkey who loves to pluck plastic water bottles from visitors and bite off the caps. I was standing next to a small feeding platform, taking a few photos, when she decided to run across, climb my shoulder and sit on my head, wrapping her long prehensile tail around my neck for balance so tightly that I had to wiggle my finger in between to keep from choking. I could hear cameras going off furiously while I tried to see past a screen of black fur. After a minute or so she’d had enough of her perch on my head and uncoiled herself to see who else looked interesting.

Our spider monkey visitor

As evening fell and we made our way back to the canoe, we could see the deep tracks of a caiman in the cracked dry earth of the river’s edge. Some of us took the opportunity to do a night canoe ride by paddle on the river in the hopes of spotting a black caiman or two along the banks, their eyes gleaming in the darkness. It was eerie and silent, gliding softly through the water under hundreds of stars – that was when I felt closest to the early explorers.

Our long hike through the jungle itself was led by a genuine Amazonian native, Marco, who’d grown up in one of the traditional villages and knew the forest like the back of his hand. He showed us some of the many plants that the villagers have used for a long time to promote fertility, heal maladies, even to send messages – one of the trees makes such a loud, carrying sound when it’s hit with a piece of wood that people would use it as a locator signal.

This tree holds the source of extracts for both male virility (the purplish protrusions) and female fertility (the green vine winding up the trunk)

We ducked under fallen trees, crossed weed-choked streams, took photos of each other dwarfed by just the roots of towering jungle trees. And yes, you can actually swing on the vines.

Our guide demonstrating the proper vine swing technique

Our main destination was an oxbow lake well-hidden by wild papaya trees. There’s a tall viewing platform that some people climbed, but we chose to be paddled around the small lake in a canoe, watching ducks swim along the fringes and a black-collared hawk look for prey from its perch on an old branch. Back on shore, butterflies of all kinds flitted around us and landed on our gear. We felt miles away from anywhere.

In the evenings after dinner everyone congregated in the bar and explored the many intriguing cocktails created by the staff. I believe I sampled an Anaconda and perhaps even a Jaguar, perfect after a day in the jungle.

Our three-week adventure to Peru and Bolivia included just two days in the rainforest, so we weren’t able to catch sight of the area’s most famous residents, like the elusive jaguar or the giant river otters, but it was a window into a mysterious green world that forms one of the greatest natural wonders of our planet. Even today we know so little about it, a place with over 16,000 species of trees alone, and a staggering estimated 2.5 million species of insects!

The sight of a big, bright blue Morpho butterfly landing delicately on a leaf in front of you is a magical thing.

There are numerous rainforests around the world, all rapidly dwindling because of our greed. To learn more about these biodiversity hotspots and how you can help save as much as possible, check out the Rainforest Rescue website.

All photos by Erica Jurus and rights reserved.

How to have a road trip that doesn’t drive you crazy

I’m sure that, at some point on my childhood travels with my family, I must have annoyed my parents. I remember passing the time by playing road games with my brother in the back seat – things like spotting Volkswagen Beetles (very popular at the time), or all the red cars, or red barns, or any other countable item we could think of.

Midway picnics were a welcome break. I also remember having reluctant naps that interfered with my trying to see everything new and interesting. Nevertheless, no doubt at some point we got impatient to reach the end of the journey. Highway scenery can only amuse so much – and that’ just as true for adults as for children.

A good road trip requires:

  • A road-worthy vehicle
  • Some planning around pit-stops, rest breaks and food, and places to stay overnight on multi-day transitions from your point of origin to your ultimate destination
  • Ways for your travellers to keep occupied on lengthy drives, and to stay comfortable
  • A sense of humour
  • A good navigator who’ll stay calm when something inevitably goes wrong

Road trips are special adventures. They feel so much more relaxed, even if you’re flying to another destination to hit the road. There’s freedom in wandering about a countryside that reminds me of the early explorers – getting your bearings with a map or a GPS instead of a sea chart and astrolabe, eating food at interesting ‘ports of call’. We have a cousin in Tennessee, and every time we drive down for a visit we always stop overnight in Polaris, Ohio so that we can have a cozy, delicious meal at our favourite on-the-road restaurant, the Polaris Grill.

Seeing a place from your road-ship is a much more intimate experience – you get to see everyday life, not just the highlights.

At special sites, like museums and historic places, you can build in time to explore at your leisure. Last year we visited Gettysburg, and spent a day-and-a-half following the battle trail with the aid of a DVD guide that we bought locally. The site is huge and so well-preserved that it was easy to envision the different parts of the battle. We also had time to play a round of golf, have Easter Brunch, see some wildlife and take part in a night-time ghost hunt.

Road prep

  • If driving your own vehicle, unless it’s brand new, check it out thoroughly before you leave. While a breakdown on the road isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world, it will take up valuable time that’s better spent doing fun things, and will cost you.

    Sometimes accidents just happen, though, and you just have to make the best of them. On a high, narrow mountain road in Ireland another tourist car passing us in the opposite direction cut into our lane, forcing my hubby over onto the rocky shoulder on our side. We bounced off a rock and damaged both the undercarriage and a tire. We tried to limp back down the mountain, but the tire completely flattened out before we got more than a mile or so. We found a safe spot to pull over, and put on the spare. The next morning we were able to get everything repaired, at a reasonable price, and we continued on our way without too much disruption.
  • Depending on the bladder-capacity of your travellers, it’s a good idea to look at your route and plan for stops. In North America there are generally plenty of roadside stops, well-marked in advance. Things can become problematic if any of your party have special requirements like gluten-free meals, but there are ways to accommodate different needs.

    Picnic lunches are really fun to do, but here are some pointers:
    • Buy a nice blanket to sit on. That way, you can find cool places to enjoy your meal, like a big rock under maples and pines in the autumn sun.
    • Make food that will keep well, and is easy to transport and eat without making a mess. I like sandwiches, and they don’t have to be fancy. For one of our fall trips, I made fried egg and bacon on baguettes. Just about anything is delicious in the open air. My indulgence was some rather decadent pumpkin whoopie pies with marshmallow buttercream filling. Together with a thermos of hot tea, it was a perfect fall picnic.
    • Have a secure container to transport everything in, some paper towel for small cleanups, cups and plates, even some nice paper napkins if you want the atmosphere. Personally I prefer to pack food that doesn’t require utensils – remember that everything you use will need to be washed at some point on your journey, so keep the mess to a minimum.
  • Comfort is important on long drives. I like to take a lap blanket and small pillow – my hubby prefers to keep the temperature inside the vehicle on the cooler side, so the blanket is perfect to keep myself warm, and I can take short naps if I get sleepy riding along. (He likes to do the driving – finds it boring to be the passenger, although I can easily take over if he gets tired – and I’m a great navigator.)

    Have a pouch handy with bottled water (the air gets dry inside a vehicle), a couple of rolls of toilet paper (for roadside bathrooms that may have run out), some snacks in case it takes a while to find somewhere to eat, and napkins/paper towels/wet-naps to quickly clean fingers coated in potato chip salt or Cheezies dust.

    Traffic jams or spots of bad weather – I can’t tell you how many times we’ve run into unexpected fogs/rainstorms/short blizzards, and if you’re heading south to Williamsburg VA avoid the vicinity of Washington DC unless you want to be stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic for hours  – can be wearing on the nerves. We’ve found it really helps to distract your mind a little from worrying by listening either to an audio book or a radio play.
  • Common sense prevails – don’t do anything you wouldn’t do at home. Keep your baggage out of sight while you’re stopped, doors locked, don’t flash large amounts of cash, keep an eye on the people around you. One of the last things you want to be is victim of a crime. We’ve always had good encounters on our trips, but that’s at least partly due to not being an easy target.
  • Be a good guest. Don’t litter, be polite and friendly, obey the rules. When we were driving around New Zealand we’d often not see any other vehicle for the better part of an hour, so the radar warnings on the GPS seemed a bit pointless, until we saw someone pulled over for speeding quite literally in the middle of nowhere.
  • Don’t overpack, but do have gear for different types of weather. I know it may be tempting to just throw stuff in the back of your vehicle, but remember that what goes in must be sorted through while on the trip and then taken back out at the end of it. Also, you’ll want to leave some room for whatever you buy on the trip. Do have clothing handy that you can layer in case of a storm or change in temperature. And footwear that will be comfortable during hours seated inside a moving vehicle.
  • If you’re travelling during peak season, book accommodations ahead of time. We’ve seen people show up unannounced at hotels that we already had a room at and watched them panic when there wasn’t any space to be had. After hours of driving, it’s great to know that you have a place to lay your weary head.

A great sense of humour and ability to not panic will be your secret weapons on any road trip, because things rarely go completely according to plan.

Keep an eye on news and weather reports. No matter how much you prepare in advance, Nature can still surprise you.

When we drove down to Virginia a couple of years ago to see explore the area around Williamsburg, we got a real bombshell. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, on our second day there, after we finished our first round of golf we were chatting with one fellow where we turned in our cart and he asked how we liked the course and if we were going to play again. We said we thought we’d do another round in a couple of days, which he advised might not exactly be possible because of the impending hurricane.

The what, now? Usually you start hearing about a hurricane days ahead of time while it’s still a tropical depression, but this one popped up out of nowhere. By the time we returned to our hotel after dinner it was all over the news, already bearing down heavily on Florida and due to head our way in less than two days while still Category Three.

We’ve been in worse, but with more shelter than we had at our hotel in Williamsburg. Luckily we were staying inland as opposed to out along the coast. That evening we did some rejigging to our touring plans for the week and kept an eye on the storm’s progress. Since tornadoes were also in the projected path, I also downloaded the Red Cross app to my phone so we could receive alerts. We made it through safe and sound, and still had an enjoyable trip.

Make a general itinerary but leave room for flexibility

Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens

Often the unplanned things you encounter become highlights of your trip. It’s essential to know opening and closing times of the important things you want to see, and then enjoy time in between for impromptu exploring.

We love to go to upstate New York along the Hudson River Valley in the fall, and we’ve had so much fun meandering around small towns and farm markets, where we’ve had amazing chocolate milk, pumpkin butter, baked goods and great ambience on a beautiful fall day. On a golfing road trip through Alabama, we had fabulous barbecue and southern food based on recommendations from golf course staff.

Based on years of our own road trips, those are my tips to make your own version really enjoyable. Beyond that, safety and comfort are the solid underpinnings, and a little research and planning, plus some common sense on the journey, will go a long way. If you have your own tips or insights, please share as well.

The Return of the Road Trip Vacation?

Views from the road on the western side of Ireland

I retired from full-time work last week, and at an online celebration for me a lot of my co-workers all asked me the same question: Where do you plan to travel to next, now that you’re retiring?

I didn’t have an answer for them. I know that after years of hearing about my escapades in foreign countries with my hubby, they were hoping for something wild and wonderful, but no one knows what the future is going to hold in terms of possibilities.

There are still quite a few places on my bucket list – Antarctica (our 7th and final continent), seeing Petra in Jordan, more of Africa – and I’m sure they’ll become available again at some point in time. What the conditions will be is a whole other story. My hubby and I love to get out from our hotel or resort and explore the local landscape, poke around local shops and bargain for treasures to bring home, chat with people. In Tahiti we went to one of the Food Truck nights along the waterfront in Papeete. It was pouring rain so not very busy, but the trucks all had awnings up to shelter diners, and we sampled all kinds of fabulous food. At one pirate-themed venture all the staff came out – in their pirate hats and striped t-shirts – and chatted with us for about half an hour – thank goodness my rusty French was up to the challenge!

Will those types of intimate interactions be possible in the future? It’s hard to say, but in the meantime, I think the type of trips that my parents used to take my brother and me on when we were kids are going to make a reappearance: the Road Trip.

My parents met in Canada after the Second World War, and, typical for the time, they didn’t have much money. Nor did many people, and road trips comprised the standard vacation for many families. Driving along Ontario’s highways and byways, shady pull-off spots with picnic tables were a common sight, along with some better-or-worse roadside diners and a variety of basic motels to rest weary heads for a few hours.

Our family friends moved up to northern Ontario when I was around four years old, and for the next dozen years we made an annual summer trip to visit them on their farm. There weren’t any high-speed roads north of Toronto for many years, so the journey was an all-day adventure.

The northern Ontario roads that were once gravel are now paved

Even in those days the traffic around Toronto was awful, so my parents would rouse us from our dubious sleep around three in the morning, bundle us and all the baggage into the car, and in the still of the night we would clandestinely slip off to parts far away.

I was always so excited to begin these trips – a feeling that has stayed with me throughout my life. That building sense of anticipation for days in advance, packing up clothes for the trip, my mother making sandwiches and a thermos of coffee for our mid-trip break, and then the hushed setting out on the actual journey with who knew what might lie ahead!

Setting off before daybreak, 2013

(My first exotic trip, to Egypt with my hubby for our 10th anniversary, was so amazing to me that I was bouncing off the walls from the moment we paid the deposit on the tour. I suspect I drove my co-workers crazy for the next seven months, and possibly my hubby as well.)

My dad was usually rather uptight until we safely made it out of the Golden Horseshoe. The first hurdle was a god-awful highway cloverleaf around Hamilton with very poor visibility – drivers took their lives in their hands trying to traverse it, and thankfully it was removed several decades ago. Next I remember my father trying to find his way past all the crazed interchanges on the outskirts of Toronto, with only some unimpressive road signs and a map bought at the gas station to help him navigate.

Pumpkin whoopie pies on a fall picnic at French River a few years ago

The sun would be up by the time we got to a place called French River, where we always stopped for a break and something to eat. Hot coffee and Spam sandwiches sitting in the fresh morning air on a picnic table overlooking the river were the best things in the world in those moments. My parents would always give us a little time to walk around and explore, and I still remember one wet day when I discovered a fairy pond – a tiny gap no larger than a lunch plate in some moss on top of the granite undersurface where rain water had collected. I was enchanted.

After a quick ‘constitutional’ in the woods – no handy toilets – with full tummies and empty bladders we were on our way again.

Northern Ontario was pretty wild and untamed back then, except for Sudbury, with its factories and mines belching smoke into the air. From Sudbury we turned due west along the TransCanada highway, along deep blue rivers and towns selling things like smoked whitefish, until we got to Iron Bridge and left paved roads behind. The farm communities north of Iron Bridge were strung out along dirt and gravel roads that undulated and curved with the rolling landscape, edged by wildflowers and grey split-rail fences.

Split rail fences still in use

The first time we drove up there I remember arriving after darkness had fallen and a thick fog filled all the dips in the road. There were no roadside lights and we had only the car’s headlights to pierce the complete and utter blackness. Thinking back, I marvel at my dad’s fortitude in cresting each hill and driving down into a well of fog which could have been bottomless for all we could tell from the top. Finally, in the distance we could see the welcome glow of the lights in our friends’ farmhouse, and they would usher us into the warmth of their kitchen, safe and sound, amongst the gleaming fireflies that flitted through the fir trees around their yard and the lonely calling of loons somewhere in the distance.

My hubby and I have taken many road trips together, and it’s still one of our favourite things to do. There’s a timeless feel of adventure in hitting the open road. Sometimes I’ve packed a picnic, sometimes we just stop at places that look interesting.

On the road, South Island, New Zealand

We visited New Zealand by road trip, and it was a grand and intimate way to see the country. We rented a car in Auckland, and I’d bought a guest pass to the Top 10 group of holiday parks, where visitors can stay in anything from their own campervan to some pretty nice rooms with all the facilities. It was off-season, so we didn’t prebook anything – just followed the itinerary I’d mapped out and pulled up at the nearest Top 10 for the night (or two). We saw jade-green rivers, gold-dusted mountains, smoking volcanoes, iron-gray ocean waves and vivid turquoise lakes. We hiked to see Mt Aoraki, where Edmund Hillary practised his mountain climbing before attempting Mt Everest, and had tea in the Mountaineer Café he created.

You can road-trip almost anywhere – one of our favourite places is upstate New York in the autumn – and since it’s only you and your companions in a vehicle, staying in hotels or motels that can be disinfected and perhaps having tailgate-style meals in a restaurant parking lot, I think this style of laidback, carefree travel may make a comeback. Next week we’ll look at some tips on how to have a great road trip!

Loving the unpredictable

What kind of personality type are you?

Do you like everything planned out, in sequential steps and in every detail? Are you more of a free spirit who  prefers to wing it all or most of the time, embracing life as it comes along? Likely you’re some place in the middle, and you recognize there are situations that work better with some planning while others are more enjoyable in their spontaneity.

There are a variety of personality-typing systems to help you understand that your preferences aren’t an anomaly or a personal quirk – that there are in fact all kinds of people in the world just like you in how you handle life.

In my work at a local college for many years, I had access to analysis several times. If you know yourself fairly well, generally the results won’t surprise you, but they’re interesting to read. They also help you understand people around you and how you can interact with someone without pushing too many of their buttons.

One of the simplest personality profiles is the True Colour system. I’m very Green – both analytical and intuitive. I always want to know why something needs to be done, for example – the reasoning behind it. It helps me understand a task and give it my best effort. However, I imagine it was a challenge for my parents, teachers and managers at my different jobs 😊

There’s a part of me that really enjoys planning, but another side that loves the adventure of spontaneity. The result is that I tend to think like a mind map – central concepts with spokes all over the place as related ideas pop into my head, and then ways that those ideas hook up with others.

My husband used to be very Gold – very structured, hated surprises. He joked that he enjoyed ‘planned spontaneity’. I planned a surprise party for his 30th birthday before I understood personality types well, and you can imagine how that turned out – I had a stiff neck for days both before and after!

During our journey through life together, we’ve balanced each other out well; he keeps me on track, and I’ve cajoled him into all kinds of crazy adventures that he’s grown accustomed to. (Truth be told, they make the best stories!)

More than that, we’re very good at handling the unexpected and thinking on our feet, which has been a great asset in the past couple of months.

As the world moves forward into the unknown future, things are going to change. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – there are many reports of lessening air pollution and wildlife rebounds as a result of decreased human impact.

For the past couple of decades, people have been absorbed in thinking about themselves and the next exciting thing to come along, instead of the long-term effects of materialism and endless self-promo on social media. Life has for too long largely been about the next quick fix.

But that doesn’t help you grow as a person. It doesn’t teach you anything about resilience when a major shift comes along.

It’s time to develop the skills that will carry us through whatever the ‘new normal’ may turn out to be. Everyone in the world has suddenly been ejected right out of their comfort zone, and those with tiny, restricted comfort zones have fared the worst, I think.

What skills are going to serve you well in the future?

Adaptability – it’s critical to get comfortable with change, and to understand that the best laid plans are not always going to work out. It’s a given on adventure travel, and we rather like that sense of not knowing entirely what’s around the corner. One of my favourite mantras is from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Keep calm and don’t panic. Be flexible. View the unexpected as an intriguing fork in the road, not a dead end.

Willingness to learn new things – you may need to learn some new skills for your résumé so that you can be available for types of employment you haven’t done before. When I used to help university students put together their job-hunting packages, I always advised them to develop as broad a skill-base as possible. These days, you never know what may become useful. You’re never too old to learn – you’re only too close-minded if you decide to stop.

Embracing a shift in thinking – there’s always a different way to look at life, something which has fascinated my hubby and I on our travels. If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll have had a taste of life in other parts of the world and how much fun it is to explore the differences! In the near future, we may all need new ways to find fulfillment, in how we work, how we play, what really means something to us.

This past weekend, my hubby and I took an impromptu walk along the Welland Canal, which happens to be not too far from where we live. People come from all over the world to see the Canal system, watching the big Laker ships pass through the lock system that raises or lowers them between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. I’ve even spent a day on one of the ships as part of my work. We drive by it a lot but rarely stop because it’s been a part of our lives for decades.

It wasn’t the nicest day – the sky was filled with clouds, tinting the canal waters a steely blue, and rain was threatening, but we were able to get in a nice walk. There were a few people out, carefully distancing. We watched Canada geese parents hiss at walkers who got too close to their fluffy younglings, and I started taking photos for a series I’ve been thinking of doing about the Garden City Skyway that dominates our skyline. We walked below one of the lift bridges and got a closer look at the structure (we’re both construction geeks). I found a solitary buttercup, a flower that used to line every sidewalk when we were kids – we would pick them and hold them under our chins to tint our skin yellow — but for some reason have all but disappeared now.

As raindrops started to fall, we crossed the Canal to a local country diner that’s been a fixture for years here. They were still serving only through a takeout window, so as my hubby waited for our order – a chili cheese dog for me, a Whistle Dog and onion rings for him – I took some photos of the blossoming fruit trees as well.

We took our food treasures back home to eat in warmer surroundings. It was a relaxing, fun afternoon – a very off-the-cuff exploration of our own ‘backyard’. There’s value in small things these days, in things that we thought we were too busy for before. My hubby, who doesn’t actually like walking so much as a pastime (now put a golf fairway under his feet and it’s an entirely different story), remarked that he’d really enjoyed himself. There’s still a whole world out there; we just need to adjust our perspective a bit.

Armchair travel: Celebrating England

Here in Canada we’re coming up on the Victoria Day weekend, which is a big deal for several reasons: another long weekend (always a good thing), the lead-up to summer (although you wouldn’t know it from the unexpected snow we just had the other day, making my waiting pots of tulips look rather frosty), and the weekend when most people in Southern Ontario at least start planting their gardens. The weather this weekend looks like it will actually live up to my area’s nickname of the Banana Belt, so the tulips can be planted after all.

Victoria Day also makes me think of England, so inextricably linked with Canadian history, but also one of our favourite places to visit. While some people may be firing up their backyard grills on the annual Monday holiday, I’ll be roasting a juicy prime rib as well as plump Yorkshire Puddings to puddle with gravy, and finishing with a very British Pineapple and Cherry Upside Down Sandwich Cake.

The imposing Houses of Parliament on the Thames

My hubby and I first visited London together after our planned getaway to Mexico with some friends got literally washed into the Gulf of Mexico by a fall hurricane. We all got refunds (thank you, travel insurance!), and our friends decided to postpone their travel until their honeymoon a few months away, but my hubby suggested that we go to London for a week. It would be in early November, and at first I thought he was joking, but he was indeed serious. He’d passed through London very briefly at the tail end of a high school trip and had always wanted to go back to see more. At that point I’d never been abroad and quickly realized that this opportunity was not to be wasted.

We had a blast! We did the full-on British detective thing, layering up with tweedy pants and warm sweaters under trench coats. I still remember how excited I was just to fly into Heathrow, and then to see Big Ben, and Buckingham Palace, and pubs, and the little crowns on top of sign posts in the parks. We saw Cats and Chess at the theatre, went to a medieval banquet at Hatfield House, posed next to the wax figures at Mme. Tussaud’s, and explored all the layers and layers of history in one of the truly great cities of the world.

We also bravely rented a car and did a couple of day trips to Stonehenge and Bath, and to Oxford, where we toured parts of the university, discovered my favourite bookshop in the world, Blackwell’s. We bought little Oxford rugby shirts as Christmas gifts for all of our nieces and nephews, and wandered down dark alleys in order to eat outside by a coal brazier with gloves on in the yard of 600-year old Turf Tavern.

We had our first proper English tea in the town of Windsor, and I instantly fell in love. It had been a damp, chilly day — we chatted with some of the ladies-in-waiting at Windsor Castle and even they remarked on the weather, after which they steered us toward a small place on one of the streets out front of the castle. Having never had anything better than Red Rose back home at the time, we thought we’d try the Afternoon Tea — seemed perfect on such a day.

The waiter brought out this wonderfully rich amber liquid, along with scones and clotted cream and fruit preserves. It was all a revelation, and I was so fascinated by the experience that I bought a book about tea in one of the shops.

I’ve spent all the years since learning about tea — its history and culture, how to make it properly, and all the intriguing variations as we’ve travelled around the world. In the meantime tea has made a home in North American culture and I’m often asked to do tea talks and tastings for our local organizations.

Should you be in the mood to settle in for a round of one of the many great British mystery series on television, and a little armchair travel while you’re at it, you can easily put together a quick afternoon tea for yourself.

Here’s what I made — all of it gluten-free by the way, for those of you who might need to eat the same way:

  • Cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches — a classic. I used soft spreadable cream cheese mixed with fresh chives and topped with thinly-sliced English cucumber
  • Egg salad with curly endive — well-minced hardboiled eggs, finely sliced celery, minced shallot, freshly ground black pepper and Sir Kensington mayonnaise, and topped with a sprig of curly endive (also called chicory)
  • Salmon spread — I saw this on an Agatha Christie mystery, I think. The murder had been committed by adding poison to a pot of salmon spread bought in a village shop and served for tea. You can omit the poison and just take a can of skinless, boneless wild-caught salmon, mince it into fine flakes with a fork, mix in finely minced shallot and fresh dill, and just enough mayonnaise to hold it together (the idea is to let the flavour of the salmon shine through)
  • Ham and cheddar with chutney — a couple of thin slices of roast ham, with a sturdy cheddar and a dollop of mango chutney
  • Freshly-made scones topped with creme fraiche and a jam of your choice — I used a gluten-free scone mix by Namaste, which was fairly easy to make. The scones spread out a fair bit in my oven and ended up looking like large fat cookies, but the taste and texture were perfect, so I cut them into wedges, sliced off the top and served them open-faced
  • A nice cake — here’s the recipe I used for a delicious Southern Pecan Pound Cake. I made it with gluten-free flour, and it turned out very well, if not quite as high as it would with regular flour.

I’ve also put together a great itinerary for 4 days in London, with some insider tips gleaned from many visits. Here’s the introduction and the schedule for the first day.

More will become available in the online Adventure Travel 101 course that I’m putting together and hope to make available in the next couple of months. For I believe that travel will always be a part of our lives. The world has seen many plagues and disasters for as far back as history records, and even before that in legends passed down through generations, and we continue to explore it in each new iteration.

How is a visit to London part of adventure travel? Well, my first trip was certainly a grand adventure for me, and we often recommend it to friends and family who are just getting started with international journeys as an easy and charming first step.

In the meantime, enjoy some armchair travel there while we’re waiting out our home stays!

The Skies of Africa – Part 5, Victoria Falls

Our final morning in Serondela was bittersweet. Ahead lay the spectacle of Victoria Falls, one of the greatest natural wonders in the world, but it meant that we had to leave behind the safari staff who had come to feel like family. The night before, one of our fellow travellers remarked that he’d been nervous about visiting Africa before the trip began, and now he had a completely different opinion of the continent. Africans are well aware of how much bad press their home receives, and they are incredibly grateful to be able to show the genuine side of their countries to visitors. I hope that our fellow guests don’t mind my posting this photo, which expresses so clearly the depth of our bond with our Botswanan friends.

Victoria Falls is the result of the Zambezi River tumbling over about a 330-foot-plus drop as it straddles the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. Our Botswana safari guides drove us on the main road, edged by farms and women carrying goods on their heads, as far as the Kazungula border post and steered us through Customs.

We sadly said our goodbyes and crossed into Zimbabwe, where we were picked up by staff from Matetsi River Lodge for the approximately 45-minute drive to our home on the banks of the Zambezi River for the next couple of nights.

Matetsi for me was the epitome of a romantic African lodge in the wild. I loved it so much that on a return trip we made a point of staying there again, renewing our acquaintance with Obert, the lodge manager at the time. I say ‘was’ because several years ago & Beyond renovated it into something more sleek and upscale, so sadly you won’t be able to stay at the beautiful place in our photos.

Upon arrival at the Matetsi Reserve, we were dropped off at the entrance, given some refreshing cold drinks and cold wet washcloths to freshen up with, and loaded into safari vehicles for the drive through dense bush to the lodge.

The main building houses an open-air lounge, bar and round table, on a hillside overlooking a terrace very close to the water with a larger dining table and a round barbecue.

Our blue-tinted cabins were tucked away along the river’s edge, each nestled into its own private shrubbery, with a big bedroom and separate bathroom area, joined to each other by a small covered area that led out to a stone deck and a private plunge pool.


The bedroom and bathroom each had their own lockable door to keep out marauding monkeys, and there was even a slingshot handily draped on a hook should we need to scare some off. We never saw any near our cabins, but there was a big monitor lizard that visited several of our lawns, lumbering peaceably through the grass in the late afternoon.

There was also a small pavilion with a gift shop, where you could buy jewellery, mud cloth and clothing. Everything was tucked quietly into the bush, connected by sunny stone pathways which we were allowed to wander during the day, but when dusk fell we were escorted by lodge staff – we were in the midst of Matetsi’s large private game reserve, after all.

After lunch, we were taken into the town of Victoria Falls for the main event. Vic Falls town bustles with travellers out for adventure. There are a wide variety of accommodations for most price points sprinkled throughout the town and sprawled discreetly along the Zambezi. The Falls sit within two protected parks, one in Zimbabwe and one in Zambia, so you can see the Falls in all their glory in pristine wilderness, unlike Niagara Falls which slinks its way past hotels, casinos and tour buses.

Inside the visitor centre, we were given rain ponchos and an orientation to the river and falls. Then we were led along a path that brings you to the statue of David Livingstone, the official discoverer of the Falls, even though the native peoples had been living in the area for years, and even other Europeans had been there previously. It was the romantic figure of the Scottish missionary and explorer – who named the Falls after his queen and became really famous after being lost in Africa for several years and then found by Henry Morton Stanley, an intrepid American reporter – who captured the public imagination and got the credit.

Even at the statue, we couldn’t hear much, and I was truly wondering how impressed I was actually going to be – until we caught our first sight of Devil’s Cataract and heard the deafening roar of 3 million gallons of water churning over the precipice every second! I stopped dead and stood there with my mouth open. I’d never seen anything like this!

It was April, the tail end of the rainy season, and the Zambezi was in full flow.

The Lozi tribe had given the Falls the name Mosi-oa-Tunya, the Smoke that Thunders, and so it did!

As it flung itself over the Falls and crashed into the bottom of the gorge, it created multiple rainbows, and a mist that billowed over 1,000 feet into the air, making nearby tall palm trees look like little ants. The mist falls as dense rain and creates a strip of tropical jungle in the midst of a dry African savannah. It can be seen from over ten miles away. Even with ponchos we all got soaked to the skin, which wasn’t unwelcome in the hot sun.  

Hubby and me, in our intrepid Tilley hats at the Falls

Exploration on the Zimbabwean side takes a while, as there’s a long trail to see the different gorges and very close to the bridge between the two countries that carries the rail line built by Cecil Rhodes, who made his fortune in the diamond fields of South Africa before stripping Rhodesia (the former name of Zimbabwe) of much of its resources and endowing Oxford University with its most famous scholarship.

One of Rhodes’ dreams was to build a railway from the Cape of South Africa to Cairo in Egypt – commemorated on this flag post on the ground of the elegant colonial-era Victoria Falls Hotel.

The busy bridge has lanes for foot traffic, motor vehicles and rail. if you don’t mind heights, the walk across has great views of the Zambezi and all the human life around it.

Back at the lodge we all took full advantage of the full bathrooms – while hot bucket showers in the bush are fun, there’s nothing like being able to take your time in a proper shower or a hot bath.

Evenings at the lodge start near the bar, where an assortment of liquors wait to be mixed into whatever drink you like. Visitors usually welcome the opportunity to use blow-dryers and put some nicer clothes on – nothing overly fancy, but a little up from bush garb. We all chuckled at our transformation.

Delicious meals were cooked on the big round grill and served with linens and delicious wines. It was so dark that we couldn’t see much beyond the terrace, but the torches kept any animals away. Then it was off to our wonderful netting-draped beds for a well-earned deep sleep.

Breakfast overlooking the Zambezi was a special experience, with cereals, juices and fresh fruit in the cooler morning air while we watched the water lazily flow by before it gathered speed 25 miles away.

Victoria Falls is one of the adventure capitals of Africa and of the world. If you’re a bungee-jumper, it has to be on your bucket list. We elected to take a helicopter flight over the Falls and surrounding area, which allows you to see the deep gorge that the river has carved through the landscape over millions of years, and to see the Falls in their mist-filled entirety – although if you go in low-water season around October or November they will look much different.

The bungee-jump station straddles the bridge at the exact point where Zimbabwe and Zambia meet – apparently so that if any jumper is injured, neither country will have to take responsibility. Two of our fellow travellers decided to do the jump, and as the rest of us stood on the bridge looking over the dizzying long drop to the raging waters below while they got rigged for the jump, most of us thought they were insane!

At that time of year the rapids were so strong, up to Category 6, that white water rafting was cancelled. The zip lines were open, but some people chose to go shopping while a few of us decided that golf in Africa was not to be missed.

At the time, the economy in Zimbabwe was still quite depressed – we were able to buy souvenir money in completely devalued trillion-dollar denominations for a couple of US dollars – so the golf course at the elegant Elephant Hills lodge wasn’t getting used much.

We were given the services of two caddies, but we had to walk nine holes in 90oF heat, with no beverages anywhere out on the course. We saw a few animals – herds of impala, and I had the unique experience of waiting to tee off while a family of warthogs had a leisurely meal – and the water hazards were not to be messed with.

By the time we finished I was suffering from a pretty good case of heat exhaustion. I don’t remember much of the bus ride back to Matetsi, but we arrived back at the lodge to find that the staff had prepared candle-lit and flower-strewn bubble baths for us! I made it through dinner and then crashed in bed for 14 hours.

Victoria Falls has the main airport in the area to catch flights home via Johannesburg, but there’s also an airport in the town of Livingstone on the Zambian side of the Falls. Viewing the Falls on that side is a more intimate experience, as you can sit on a boulder right alongside the edge, and a little further along there’s a side area that’s shallow enough to wade in – a favourite activity of the local residents on a hot day. There’s a decent museum in Livingstone, and plenty of shops to replenish camera supplies and buy crafts.

On our first safari there, we only had one night at Matetsi, and elected to stay on the Zambian side for a couple of nights to be able to do more activities.

The Zambezi Sun lodge is a pretty adobe-pink mid-range hotel set inside the national park, so zebras frequently wander through the grounds and visitors are advised to keep their doors and patio windows shut and locked at all times or the monkeys will invade and destroy everything you own as well as the room you’re staying in. From the hotel it’s a short walk over to the Falls, so near that you can always see the spray shooting over the rooftops.

We did our helicopter ride on the Zambian side. The flight centre was 11 miles from the Falls and the mist was clearly visible from there.

We also took a sunset cruise on a boat named the African Queen – for anyone who’s a fan of classic movies, that was an irresistible choice. Everyone goes on a cruise to watch the sunset over the Zambezi, but it’s a lovely peaceful ride with a glorious sunset at the climax.

And so, at some point it becomes heart-breakingly necessary to leave Africa, to me the most magical continent on our planet. We had amazing photos and souvenirs to bring home – an Angolan harvest mask we bought at a gallery at an upscale hotel in Zambia, a hunting set from Botswana, baskets and mud cloths and handmade copper bangles – but we’d found a second home 8200 miles away that we didn’t want to leave.

The hunting set in the cowhide bag, all baskets, the carved wood box and the long red and white necklace are all from Botswana. The beaded collar necklace is from the Samburu tribe in Kenya. All of these were bargained for and purchased on our travels in those countries.

In this blog I’ve only managed to skim the surface of our amazing journeys. A trip to Africa, if done authentically and immersively, changes your life.

Before we’d left the first time, at a party a family friend named Leo, who was a class-A pot-stirrer, decided to needle me about why we would want to undertake hours of flying, and then all the dust and heat and discomfort of being there live, when we could just watch all about Africa on television from the easy comfort of home. I just smiled and said that places were meant to be experienced live, that nothing on television could ever capture the feeling of being there in person.

A few weeks after we returned, we put together a photo presentation with dinner for much of the same group of people. Leo was surprisingly silent through the entire two hours of photos and videos – no snarky repartee, not even a smile. As our guests were stretching their legs and getting ready to leave, I was standing by the front staircase chatting when he came towards me. Uh oh, I thought, what is he up to – has he saved all his gibes for last?

He stood solemnly in front of me, put his hands on my shoulders, and said, “Thank you. That was amazing! Now I understand why you wanted to go there in person.” Even through just the lens of my camera and our stories, we’d managed to share our transcendent experience with other people.

When this pandemic is over and the opportunity to travel is available again, if you love our planet at all you must go to Africa – cradle of civilization and so beautiful you’ll never forget it. Ernest Hemingway wrote, “All I wanted to do was get back to Africa. We had not left it, yet, but when I would wake in the night I would lie, listening, homesick for it already.” I know exactly what he meant.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this lengthier look at going on safari and that it’s transported you for a little while through the magic of the mind’s eye. If you would like to ask me any questions about these places and about how to put together a good safari, please post in the comments or email me directly at liontailmagic@gmail.com.

Tsamayang sentle.