Tucan Travel - Safari & Beach Tour Day 8 – 10
So yeah, the Serengeti was absolutely mind-blowing! The trees, the wildlife, the scenery – I could not have imagined it to be more beautiful. The game drive lasted all morning and for lunch we returned to our campsite from the night before. After we had finished eating we drove out of the Serengeti NP and on to our second campsite which was right at the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater. You could tell we were at a certain altitude but we wouldn’t stay up here long enough to develop any symptoms of altitude sickness. It was just for one night. Our tents were again already put up for us and all I had to do was grab a comfy mat and roll out my sleeping bag. There were kitchen and dining room facilities and restrooms – with warm showers! Oh the joy of not having to use baby wipes but actually being able to have a relatively hot shower! And there were toilets too... only non-western ones. Ah well, I got away with not having to use them so far but I knew sooner or later I’d have to. Luckily this was the only time on this trip and let’s just say with a bit of practice it’s all do-able and it’s a great thigh workout ;)
The next morning we packed up and went down into the Ngorongoro Crater for an epic game drive. The landscape was again different from the Serengeti: hardly any trees, instead endless
meadows of wildflowers and high grass... oh nature's beauty! *sigh*
This would be our last safari on this trip and sadly tonight we’d already be back in Arusha. We went for dinner in a local restaurant with our group and back at the hotel we packed and re-packed again for the next day when we’d fly to Zanzibar!
If you ever find yourself flying anywhere from the metropolis of Arusha, this is what you should prepare for (yep, that’s the airport!):
See you in Zanzibar! :)
Tucan Travel - Safari & Beach Tour Day 6 - 8
After a fun-filled day in Nairobi we were up again by sunrise the next morning, checked out of our beautiful room and got a van to bring us to our Tucan Travel Overland Vehicle. Yaaay! I was so hoping to get to travel on the famous yellow Tucan Truck! That’s him... meet Tom!
I loved this truck which was a welcome change from the little safari vans we had mostly traveled in so far on this trip. And considering that we were only a group of 6 we had the rare luxury of spreading out inside. Heaven! There were board games and books on board and the huge panoramic windows were just perfect for the occasional scenery shot. Oh and our bums & backs were also grateful for a little better suspension and mostly paved roads!
So today it wasn’t only goodbye to Nairobi but we also had to bid farewell to Kenya. Soon enough we were heading towards Tanzania for the second part of our tour.
Just before lunch we arrived at the border. Passports and yellow fever certificates in hand we queued up in one building for a document check and everybody who couldn’t prove they had received the yellow fever vaccine was led to a small room to have it administered right there. We got our Kenyan exit stamp and marched over to another building to fill in some forms, have our pictures taken and finally get a beautiful full-page visa sticker put into our passports. We were in! Wohoo!
Back on the truck it was a short drive before we stopped for our al fresco lunch buffet in the middle of nowhere. We chopped veggies together, put up folding tables and chairs and prepared ourselves a decent little feast! After we did the dishes and packed up we were firmly on our way to Arusha where we would stay the night.
We arrived at our hotel which was very idyllic located in a quiet side street & surrounded by a beautiful garden. For our first dinner in Tanzania we drove out to the snake park – no snakes to be seen that evening but yummy food to be had! Again, a delicious vegan-friendly meal was prepared for us while the others enjoyed a BBQ. After dinner we hung out in the bar and that place seriously reminded me of Daly Waters in Australia! Flags, t-shirts and trinkets from all around the world!
Back in the hotel we were now faced with the same decision we already had to make earlier on this trip: what to take and what to leave?! The next morning we’d be off into the Serengeti for two nights camping again – yes camping, not glamping! That meant sleeping bag, flashlight, toilet paper (of course!), hand sanitizer, bug spray and lots of wipes. This was bare-bones compared to the Masai Mara camp. I never particularly liked camping so yeah... but I was ready for whatever the wilderness would throw at me – this was the Serengeti after all! It’s a once in a lifetime thing I told myself.
So again we packed our overnight bags and left our backpacks in the hotel. It was an early night and – you guessed it! – yet another early start. This time we were back in the safari van. We drove for a couple of hours before we reached the Ngorongoro Crater National Park. After we got our permission to enter, had a quick coffee & bathroom break we got in through the big gates and our second safari adventure officially began!
The landscape changed quite a bit up here – we were now at over 2,000m – the color of the earth went from grey to red to brown and we climbed up higher and higher until we got our reward... this view over the crater:
The Ngorongoro Crater was formed when the original super volcano collapsed into itself and formed the largest un-flooded volcanic caldera in the world. Today the crater is teeming with wildlife like lions, zebras, elephants & hippos and yes, you can actually go game driving inside it! But for now we moved on into the National Park for our first game drive - welcome to the Serengeti! :)
Some rather unexpected guys!
And we also spotted a group of hyraxes! Also knows as "dassies" these little creatures who look like giant rodents are apparently close relatives of elephants...
Wow Mother Nature, how did you do that?!
More big cats...
...and the most beautiful sunset!
I do have a thing for acacia trees - they just scream Africa!
Just after sunset we made our way to the camp site and this was it – our home for the night! The tents, 2-person igloos, had already been put up for us. There was a brick building that housed (cold) showers and toilets – western (yaaay!) and non-western! And then there were two more buildings surrounding the camp – one that functioned as a kitchen and the other as our dining room. Again we had our personal chef with us who would cook us incredibly yummy meals. Let me show you around...
My first night in a tent. Ok technically it was my first night in a tent like this in about 20 years. I had camped before as a kid but this was different. The sounds of exotic birds, the bright starry sky, this was the Serengeti, not my own backyard! So my first night in a tent was amazing I must admit. I slept well and found it quite comfortable! The really thick mats which were provided for us helped me drift off easily. At some point in the early hours I needed to use the restroom all the while remembering our guide’s words: “This camp is not fenced and there’s a lion pride living nearby.” Whaaaat? No Masai warrior to protect me from big cats?! Ok, by now I really needed to pee. I tried to listen for animal noises but apart from cicadas I couldn’t hear a thing... then again, cats are very quiet when approaching their prey. Argh, I had to go! Armed with my flashlight I unzipped the tent and staggered out into the night. Oh-my-God! Since glamping in the Australian outback I had not seen a sky so extremely full of stars! It was just so beautiful that I stopped and stared into the sky for a while before realizing that I’m all alone out here – near a possibly hungry lion pride... cats are nocturnal, right? I hurried to the toilets, raced back to the tent, snuggled up in my sleeping bag again and fell asleep once more.
The next morning we had a quick breakfast and went out on a full day game drive. The whole time I had already had Toto’s “Africa” in my head... “I know I must do what’s right as sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti...” – definitely my personal theme song of this trip!
Ok, so the Serengeti is a slightly different environment to the Masai Mara, most notably I found there were many more of the beautiful acacia trees here. Perfect for a sunrise shot! Other than that I’ll just let the pictures take over – no need to say much more! ;)
Sightseeing in Kenya’s capital: Day 4 - 6
...and so we left the Rift Valley behind us and headed back to the city of Nairobi. We checked into the Kenya Comfort Hotel again and were re-united with our bags. For some reason we got a different room this time and it was much bigger than the first one we had. We even had a pretty good view from up here! We now basically had this afternoon and all of the next day to ourselves to explore this place. Though first we really needed to do some laundry! We found the laundry shop, handed in our bags and paid the hefty bill – but hey, it had to be done and it was 24 hr service after all!
I had no plans for this day and was happy to wander around with my new-found friends from our tour group. So here’s a little summary of what’s there to do in Nairobi if you have a day or two to spare!
1 – Drink coffee!
First stop: the Java coffee house. With an abundance of restrooms everywhere I could happily indulge in caffeine again! :) There are, however, many awesome coffee places around and most of them serve Kenyan coffee so we tried a couple of different ones. Some have soy milk and those who don't just helped me get my taste buds into shape with strong espresso. Now, I'm a creature of habit and I won't deny that I love my Starbucks. Basically, wherever I go in the world if there's a Starbucks I know exactly what my tall one-shot soya latte will taste like. And when I was only starting my caffeine habit a couple of years ago I preferred to know what to expect in my cup! Now I have grown up, my taste has evolved and I happily diverge from the green mermaid whenever I travel to a place known for great coffee!
2 – Wander around!
That said, I didn’t walk around on my own or at night! Although the people were friendly and very polite wherever we went, as a white Westerner you are an easy target and some people here really do live the hard life and need to survive somehow. I’m not making excuses for pickpockets or scammers. Just be careful, walk with a purpose and don’t flash your valuables in people’s faces. Common sense applies and I barely behaved any different in Nairobi than I would in other big cities (including Dublin to be completely honest!). So now that you’re a smart, confident traveler grab your map & start exploring! Oh and you may want to carry your passport with you at all times! Our group was kind of divided between “I won’t leave my passport in a hotel room!” and “Hell no, I won’t take it out with me – it’s much safer locked up in my room (that was me btw)”. Certain tourist attractions require you to show a valid ID and sometimes leave one behind at the reception until you leave the place again. Luckily, one passport was always enough to vouch for our group.
3 – The Kenyatta International Convention Centre
As explained above, this was one of the places where you deposit your passport upon entering and pick it up again when leaving. The Kenyatta International Convention Centre looks pretty cool from the outside but once you get in and buy your ticket you get to go up to the top and the view over the city from up there is pretty awesome! They say on a good day you can see the tip of Kilimanjaro!
Go all the way up to the helipad for the best views! You may or may not be “forced” to listen to one of the guides up there. They’re good fun to listen to and you’ll learn quite a bit about the city. The talk is for free but tips are expected – and if you think you can get out of it and don’t leave a tip just wait until you need to use the toilet! The place can be hard to navigate and the restrooms downstairs are a bit hidden. But luckily there are enough wonderful tour guides around to show you the way and then ask for money in the toilets haha! But in all fairness, that’s how they make a living and they are quite entertaining up there! The tickets to the observation deck can be bought at the reception where you enter the building and we paid about €5 per person – totally worth it!
4 – The Giraffe Center
Most of you know by now that I absolutely adore cats & giraffes and Nairobi happens to have a giraffe centre where you can hand-feed these gentle creatures! So for our full day in Nairobi we booked a private driver who brought us out to the park. This was my chance to pet and feed a giraffe! I was over the moon. It’s a pretty cool feeling to pet their long necks and have these sandpaper-rough tongues snatch the food pellets from your hands – or straight from your mouth as some visitors preferred!
5 – The Karen Blixen Museum
Before we set off on our Africa adventure we watched – no, not the Lion King! – but Out of Africa.
The beautiful story of Karen Blixen, a Danish lady married to a Swedish Baron who had moved to Kenya in the early 20th century to leave war-torn Europe behind for a while. She attempted to grow coffee in the area, built a school where local children could learn to read and write and in general had a great influence on this region – to the point where now colleges, streets and a whole Nairobi suburb carry her name. The Karen Blixen Museum is basically the house in which she lived and where the movie (starring Meryl Streep none the less!) had been filmed.
The Karen Blixen Cafe and Restaurant nearby is a really cool place too! The food and the coffees are amazing and there are artists painting out in the yard while exhibiting some of their pieces. And of course there are also lots of cats around... unsurprisingly. ;)
I hope you enjoyed this mini guide to Nairobi!
These were our last days in Kenya before we made our way into Tanzania - so stay tuned for more Africa posts in the near future! :)
Day 2-4: Let the adventure begin...
On the road with Tucan Travel – Safari & Beach Tour April 2017
It was an early start... and I’m not a morning person! That would have to change on this trip I decided as there would be more than just one 5 am start. I’d cope I told myself. I’ll just have copious amounts of coffee – I’m in Africa after all! – and I’ll be fine. I’ll let you know how that went later... Spoiler alert: it's not a good idea.
Anyway, still half asleep and with our backpacks & room keys in hand we made our way down for breakfast and check-out. Now it was time to leave Nairobi and say goodbye to most of our belongings which were locked up in our big bags and stored safely in the hotel until we would return two days later. For now it was just me and my overnight backpack stuffed to the brim with essentials for two nights camping (half of those things I didn’t even need).
Soon enough our van arrived – that would be our home for the next couple of days. It was spacious enough for the six of us and we had our own local driver and chef with us too. The drive out of Nairobi was pretty smooth and on the way we stopped at a lookout spot to soak up the breathtaking view over the Rift Valley... it looked something like this:
Pretty cool, huh?
Later we stopped for a quick buffet lunch and some souvenir shopping and soon after that we hit the dusty, bone-dry, unpaved roads of rural Kenya. It’s called “African massage” for a reason. I somehow got used to the constant rattling, shaking and bumping and by the time we arrived at the actual game park with its dirt tracks and occasional river crossings this wasn’t really a big deal any more. I was, however, more than happy that I had packed my shock-absorbing sports bra! Ladies, it really does help! With a scarf around my nose & mouth to keep the dust out of my face I sat back and watched the landscape change. By now we saw the occasional Masai warriors dressed in their traditional colorful kangas and we even spotted some wildlife! We had definitely left the big city behind.
In the afternoon we reached our camp site and I got an idea of what “assisted camping in permanent tents” means. It’s basically what I always imagined glamping would be like. Our tent was big enough for an actual double bed - complete with mattress, blankets, pillows & mosquito net. We could even stand up in it! And behind the zip on the other end there it was: our very own bathroom with WC, sink & shower. I was in heaven! If this was camping I could totally do it!
The place we stayed at was called Miti Mingi Eco Camp. Electricity and hot water were available only at certain times, i.e. for a couple of hours in the evening and in the early morning and there were no (working) power outlets inside the tents. Cameras and cell phones could be charged in the common room in the evening once the electricity was switched on. I loved this concept! Oh, and we had our very own security guard – a real Masai warrior non the less – who made sure no cheeky monkeys opened up the tents to steal our snacks.
We chilled in our comfy new homes for a while, sorted out our stuff and then zipped up our tents and went on our very first sunset game drive into the Masai Mara. There is no point in talking much about it, I’ll just the pictures speak for themselves...
Back at the campsite we quickly went into our tents to change and put on some insect repellent – your two main accessories out here are sunscreen by day & Deet by night. We went back to the common room - basically a bigger wooden building with tables and chairs - where dinner was already waiting for us. Our chef cooked some amazing veggie-friendly foods for us: vegetables, potatoes, rice and as always chapati bread. Seriously, not once on this trip did I have to go hungry or rely on the snacks I brought! Now here’s a little disclaimer: when I’m traveling I go by the rule “as vegan as possible, as vegetarian as necessary” – and so far that always worked! I try to stick to my plant-based diet as much as I can without being a pain in the neck to my fellow travelers or turning into the rude Westerner insulting local people who just cooked a meal in their humble home for me. I find this balance works quite well for me and vegetarian food is almost always an available option (note: I'm not allergic to dairy or eggs - so small amounts aren't an issue if I can't avoid them).
And then something funny happened: there was an old TV set in the dining room and some of the ladies working at the camp site started watching this horribly dubbed Mexican soap opera called “Un Camino Hacia El Destino”. I’m not sure how good the original is but the English version was ridiculously bad. The synopsis is “A woman falls in love with her stepson”. Enough said. We were addicted to it in no time.
After dinner we went back to our tents for an early night as we had to get up before sunrise again the next morning for another game drive where we would finally see 4 out of the Big 5!
The Big 5 in terms of African wildlife refer to lions, buffalo, elephants, rhinos & leopards. Only the leopards made themselves rare and we had to wait till Tanzania to spot them. Again, pictures will say more than words ;)
Just a couple more cats...
The mighty Mara River
We arrived back at our camp for lunch and then we set off to visit a Masai village nearby. We were first invited to watch a traditional welcoming dance which the men performed for us. After that we got to see some really cool Masai jumping – and they jump really high! They’d give some basketball players a run for their money! Then we were led around the grounds where they keep their animals, we learnt about how they use plants for certain diseases or as insect repellent and watched them make fire. At the end we were invited into their houses. It was incredible to see how they live! Huge families live in the tiniest of spaces. They sleep, eat and cook pretty much in the same room. In the Masai culture men tend to the livestock and women are responsible for building the houses.
Back at our camp we sat down for another wonderful & healthy dinner cooked by our chef and of course watched more Destino - we really needed to know what happened to Camila...
The next morning we were up again early and by sunrise we were already on our way back to Nairobi. Of course we stopped again at the Rift Valley lookout spot for a quick break and to enjoy our yummy packed lunches. This also doubled as a toilet stop of which there are kind of enough on the trip. Meaning you’ll be fine if you drink normal amounts of water. Not so much if you drink too much coffee in order to deal with the early starts... Not a good idea when you’re stuck in a van for 5 or 6 hours on safari or going overland from A to B. Lesson learnt. Although by now the early starts didn't even bother me anymore. Was I getting used to the African way? Had my body clock reset itself with all that rising at dawn and going to bed at dusk? And most importantly, did I seriously like camping now?!
I hope you enjoyed coming on this virtual safari with me! If so watch out for my next post when I show you what else there is to do in Nairobi! :)
PS: Oh yes, some of you may have noticed that I chose to spell Masai with one “a”. I found different opinions online and locally in Kenya on what is supposed to be the correct spelling. Some use Masai, others prefer Maasai. I’m sure there’s some logic to either spelling but for the purpose of keeping it simple I just stuck with “Masai” here on the blog ;)
Day 1: They warned me. They said Africa does that to you. I didn’t believe it and now I know better. At the end of my trip I could safely say I’d contracted Mal d’Afrique – Africa disease.
But let me start from the beginning. Only two days after I’d arrived in Ethiopia I was already on a plane again, this time to Nairobi in Kenya. It was a morning flight and we, my boyfriend and I, arrived at Kenyatta International Airport just after noon. Immigration was easy enough as we qualified for ESTAs which we sorted out online in advance and I also already had some Kenyan Shilling with me so I wasn’t forced to exchange money at airport rates. Once we went through customs we met our driver who brought us to our hotel. On the way I got a good idea of what Nairobi might be like: a busy, sprawling, chaotically colorful metropolis. Wait, was that a zebra right next to the highway?! Yes, it was. I’d barely left the airport and was already on my first safari!
Nairobi wasn’t quite as much of a culture shock as I’d thought it would be. Two days in Addis Ababa helped me very well acclimatize. Here there were skyscrapers, men in suits, expensive cars but there was still a lot of poverty as well. Children forced to beg for clean drinking water was something I just couldn't get used to. This was a city of contrasts I was soon to find out: a Mercedes here, a wandering Masai warrior there. It’s hard to put it into words but I wasn’t scared a single moment in Nairobi. I loved it here! Of course I took the necessary precautions against pick-pockets and didn’t walk around alone at night. And maybe I was just lucky. But with a bit of common sense, a firm “No” on your lips in certain situations (i.e. people asking for money & extremely persistent souvenir shop owners) and armed with Google Maps it’s almost impossible not to fall for this buzzing place!
We arrived at our accommodation, the Kenya Comfort Hotel, and immediately set out to find a supermarket. There’s nothing cooler than to explore a local food shop! Of course there are a lot of brands everywhere that are internationally known but if you step away from the candy isle you might just find the really cool, local stuff: like Matoke crisps – fried, salted green banana. Yum! I would eat them a lot during the next week.
Then there are the obvious things you need on any Africa trip: toilet paper (trust me, you WILL need it!), hand sanitizer & lots of bottled water (don’t even think about using tap water to brush your teeth). Armed with a shopping list and a re-usable bag (you might have heard that Kenya wants to make plastic bags illegal – great move!) we found a fairly big supermarket in the Nakumatt shopping mall nearby. As with most public buildings there are security check points with two lines, one for men and one for women, and everybody has their bags checked and gets a quick scan with the metal detector. We got everything we needed and with two big bags (you guessed it, they were free plastic bags into which the attendant stuffed our purchases! Tssss...) we wandered out into the heat and back to our hotel only to unpack and decide that we’d need some coffee soon. A quick search on Google and we realized that the Java coffee house was only a few blocks away. Off we went in search for some caffeine. We found the place and they even had soy milk - win! :) I had an yummy soy latte made from Kenyan coffee beans. We’d come back here several more times during our time in Nairobi as the coffee was really nice. Now wide awake we wandered around this part of town a little bit more and discovered parks, lots of little local shops and a beautiful mosque!
In the evening we finally met our Tucan Travel tour group and tour leader for our briefing. I had done group tours before with Intrepid Travel and also Tucan Travel so I had a rough idea what would be involved: you introduce yourself to the group, sign some waivers and hand over the local payment. And then you move on to the really fun stuff: discussing the itinerary, getting a pep-talk regarding non-western toilets (or no toilets at all in the bush haha) and a rundown on local customs & traditions before meeting in the hotel restaurant for your very first group dinner together. It's basically a getting-to-know-the-people-you’re-spending-the-next-two-weeks-with meal - and we had lots of fun right from the start! The food was really good even for us vegan peeps: boiled spinach, potatoes and vegetable stew with yummy chapati bread. We ate, we talked and we got to know each other a little. We were a relatively small group of only five people (one Australian, one New Zealander, two English and me, the token German - I always tend to be the only German on those tours lol) plus our tour leader who was also from NZ. It would be a cosy and comfortable two weeks with this fun bunch of seriously well-traveled people!
Over dinner we got some more information on what exactly we should pack into our over-night bags we’d take into the Masai Mara with us the next day: clothes, insect repellent, sunscreen, shower gel and -wait for it- toilet paper of course. The bare basics for two nights of assisted camping in permanent tents - at that point I had no idea what that even meant but I was soon enough to find out! Our big backpacks stayed in the hotel for the next two nights until we returned. Back in our room we frantically tried to decide what to take with us and what to leave behind. This was, after all, our very first proper safari! I had no clue what I'd need... Now I was extremely grateful for all the compression bags and stuff sacks I brought – my love for packing solutions may be called obsessive but hey, at least I'm organized! ;)
All packed and with an early alarm set I crawled under the mosquito net into our bed and with that my first day in Kenya came to end.
PS: Stay tuned for my next post: You'll meet some beautiful big cats and I'll take to you a Masai village!
...and off I was to East Africa for the very first time! And the adventure started already on the way there: our flight from Dublin to Istanbul was severely delayed so that our 1 hr 10 minutes stop-over there was reduced to a whole 10 minutes! Oh no, not another airport run! Yes, this has happened to me before and I had to run the length of O’Hare in Chicago. That was nothing compared to what I was about to experience at Atatürk Airport though...
We got off the plane and an airline officer awaited us and roughly told us where to go and to run! The overhead boards said it would take about 15 minutes to walk to our designated gate. By now we had about 8 minutes left. Let me say this, there is one veeery long terminal at this airport and we literally had to go from one side of it to the opposite. Before long my lungs were burning. I was extremely jealous of the people in the shuttle carts driven by airport staff. I was grateful, however, for the fact that I didn’t over pack my hand luggage this time. After an incredible sprint we made it to our gate. The funny thing is we weren’t even the last passengers to get on the plane! By now I was wheezing and coughing and gasping for air (my lungs hurt for a two full days!). It seems yoga is good for many things but it doesn’t prepare you for an airport sprint! I really need to get fit again haha!
Anyway, we made it – wohoo! Next problem: all the overhead cabins were full and I was asked to leave my carry-on backpack underneath the seat in front of me. That wouldn’t have been that bad if I hadn’t been assigned the middle seat in a Ryanair-size airplane. So there I sat uncomfortably for the next 5 hours catching my breath until we would arrive into Addis Ababa.
Other than that both flights were quite enjoyable (and I finally got to watch The Shallows – I just love Blake Lively!). Still overjoyed that we made the flight, in my head I was planning my outfits for the next two days – after all there was no chance that our checked luggage would have made it from one plane to another within 10 minutes! Luckily I had packed a couple of spare outfits into my compression sac which I had in my hand luggage. When we arrived in Ethiopia just before midnight tired, exhausted and sweaty we made our way to the immigration desks and were done in no time as we had already gotten the visas in Dublin at the embassy. Luckily the exchange office was still open so that I could get hold of some local currency. Ethiopian Birr are very hard to come by outside of Ethiopia – it’s pretty much like a closed currency. You are also technically not allowed to leave the country with more than 200 Birr which is less than $10/€9.
Then we walked over to the luggage belt, just in case...
And low and behold: there were our bags! The people from Turkish Airlines had tagged them with “tight connection” stickers and I was seriously impressed by the ground staff at Atatürk Airport! Now with everything in order and our transfer to the hotel waiting outside the arrival area I was ready to begin my African adventure!
After a short but comfortable night in the beautiful Sidra Hotel we were picked up for our day tour with Inside Ethiopia Tours the next morning. Our guide Mulugeta Ababu and our driver first took us to the National Museum which was, however, closed due to a power cut. I was really hoping to see Lucy (the skeleton of an early human found here) - Ethiopia is after all believed to be the cradle of mankind - so we decided to come back later.
In the meantime we were driven up Mount Entoto for a beautiful view over the city. Ethiopia is also called The Roof of Africa due to its elevation. Addis Ababa is at ca. 2,350 m/7,709 ft and Mt Entoto is about 3,200 m/10,498 ft high.
The city looked great from up here but you could also tell that there is a lot of pollution going on as the view was quite hazy.
It was Sunday and Sunday is church day here. The vast majority of people here is orthodox Christian and the women tend to dress in white to go to church on Sundays. Interesting fact: In front of most churches there is a veiled picture or painting of the saint after whom the church is named.
We visited the colorful St Mary’s church together with the local museum and the palace grounds where Emperor Menelik II used to reside on Mount Entoto. The palace buildings are still there but they aren’t quite what you would think a palace looks like – this is Africa after all and so the palace is a rather modest assembly of large huts with straw roofs.
Unfortunately the National Museum was still closed later in the day. So instead we checked out another museum within the university which was full of artefacts, paintings and information posters about traditional Ethiopian life. I learnt that when a man wants to marry a woman he first has to jump over several bulls to prove that he’s strong. And apparently there’s also the funny tradition of a man throwing a lemon at a girl to get her attention and show his interest. Another fascinating piece of information was that Ethiopians mostly eat with their fingers – usually using the yummy sour-doughy injera bread to pick up the food with instead of a fork. According to our guide people here believe that using cutlery is kind of backwards, like using tools in the stone age. And here we are in our flash dining rooms in Europe or North America thinking we are oh so evolved by using several different types of knives, forks and spoons for our meals. I had to laugh at myself at lunch trying not to use my fork. It was messy... :D
And speaking of Ethiopian food – during lent most orthodox Christians here refrain from eating animal products including milk and eggs. Perfect time for me to be here! :) At the oldest hotel in the city, the Taitu Hotel, we found an incredible vegan lunch buffet! I was in love! There were so many yummy vegetable dishes with chickpeas, cabbage, potatoes, even noodles and everything was accompanied by my new favorite bread: injera. It’s basically soft, spongy sourdough pancake-y bread – so tasty!
And then there is Ethiopian coffee! Our wonderful guide took us to Tomoca Coffee, a busy little place that has been in business for more than 60 years. The coffee is of course amazing and it’s a great spot for people watching. We also bought some souvenirs and bags full of coffee here to take home.
After an incredible meal & coffee our driver gave us a little tour around the city so that we could get a feeling for it. Granted, we were inside a car a lot of the time but even when we wandered around the streets I always felt safe and comfortable. Sure, it's a completely different world and even level of poverty in some areas. We drove past markets where people sat on the floor or had small stalls selling everything from fruit and spices to clothes and cooking utensils. It was quite chaotic and colorful. The streets were full of buyers and sellers so that we could only get through the crowds very slowly. When they saw us white people in the car they immediately tried to sell us their goods through the window. And that was on a Sunday when the actual market is sort of closed we were told. During the week there is no way you could drive through here as there would be way too many people.
One of our last stops was at the Holy Trinity Cathedral. This is a traditional Ethiopian Orthodox Christian church - but with a twist: in order to visit inside everybody needs to take off their shoes and women cover their hair with a scarf. Reminds you of a mosque, right? I was really fascinated by this parallel between this Christian denomination and Islam, after all in a Catholic church one would remove any hats before entering. It was a pretty cool experience!
After a short stay at the cathedral we drove on and were shown the Communist-looking Tiglachin Monument which was built in memory of Ethiopian and Cuban soldiers involved in the Ogaden War.
Our last stop on this tour was the colorful railway station which used to have trains run from here all the way to the port in Djibouti. As Ethiopia is land-locked access to the port in Djibouti was the only feasible way of importing and exporting goods for a long time.
Our tour came to an end in the afternoon and I was sad to say goodbye to our guide. We had learnt so much about this incredible country in just one day! We were even taught a few words in Amharic, the official language which has its own alphabet and sounds just so beautiful!
Later that evening and also the next morning we wandered around our neighborhood a little bit more - mainly in the search for more coffee shops. In Addis it is, however, quite hard to figure out where exactly your are! Even with google maps I always just felt a little bit lost. But that's part of the fun of traveling, right? Getting lost in random places and discovering all the hidden gems! Although it must be said we only went wandering around during daylight to be on the safe side.
And with that our super quick Ethiopia trip already came to an end. We were sad to leave as it's a really cool place and visiting Addis alone doesn't do it justice! We promised we'll be back - after all there's so much more amazing stuff to see in this country - just google the "rock hewn church of Lalibela" and you'll see what I mean. I guess I'll just add it to my bottomless travel bucket list ;)
Lots of love,
Being the UAEs direct neighbor, The Sultanate of Oman often gets overlooked as a tourist destination. Most people settle for Dubai (Emirates) or Abu Dhabi (Etihad Airways) as a stop-over and with good reason - these are amazing cities that can easily be explored within a short amount of time. But if you do have some extra days, try heading down to Muscat (1 hr flight south from Dubai). It may be a bit out of your way but It'll be worth it!
The great thing is that this place is not (yet) exactly overrun with snap-happy tourists and the locals are open & very welcoming to visitors - kind of the best of both worlds if you ask me.
What's there for you to discover?
You can check out the Sultan's Palace, haggle at traditional Souqs, visit ancient forts or admire the architectural masterpiece that is the Qaboos Mosque.
How do you get around? Public transport isn't that easy to access but there are other options. If you want to see as much as possible in a short time you can either rent a car or try the hop-on-hop-off bus which stops at all major sights. If that's not your thing - sitting on a red double-decker bus listening to pre-recorded anecdotes can be a bit touristy - then take cabs or ask your hotel to hire you a private driver for the day. Maybe not the cheapest option but this way you'll get to chat to friendly locals who may have way cooler stories to tell. And if you're lucky you'll get away with some new Arabic words or even catch the evening prayer broadcast live on your cab's radio! How's that for a seriously cultural experience?!
And what will you eat? If you like Middle Eastern food, then you're sorted. I think I had Falafel & hummus every single day. And dates. Omani dates are the sweetest & juiciest I've ever had! Seriously.
Should you simply crave pizza or sushi, there are malls with food courts (like Muscat Grand Mall) to help you out. Also try to get your hands on some local mint tea - it's divine! It may sound counter-productive to drink hot tea in 40C/100F but it's surprisingly refreshing!
Now the most important question: What to wear?
Oman is a Muslim country. People here, especially in rural regions, are not as used to tourists as folks in Cairo or Marrakesh. So be prepared to be stared at! This has nothing to do with being rude, they just find you interesting. Take it as a compliment. However, I would suggest to dress respectfully no matter where in Oman you visit. Cover up – especially as a woman. Long, wide trousers/skirts & long-sleeve shirts are a must – your shoulders & knees should be covered at all times. Bring a shawl to cover your hair if you’re planning to visit mosques.
After having traveled to a couple of Muslim countries I decided to get my own abaya. It may sound a tad drastic for a non-Muslim Westerner but I find it helps me get in touch with locals easier & I just feel more comfortable covered up. The question where did I learn to tie my headscarf (pssst: YouTube!) has been the start of some great conversations. That said, if you're fair-skinned like me then covering up also doubles as fantastic sun protection! :)
Visa requirements: most nationalities can buy a tourist visa on arrival at the international airport (check with the embassy beforehand). Travelling on a German passport, I paid 5 Omani Real (~ €11/USD13). All I had to do was to show my passport with a minimum of 6 months validity left and an immigration card (which you either fill in on the plane or upon arrival at the airport). The issued tourist visa was valid for 30 days.
So next time you're stopping over in the UAE, why not take an extra couple of days and explore Oman, too?