We’ve just returned from a fabulous week on the island of Madeira. Madeira is a little volcanic archipelago off the coast of of Africa, about 400 miles west of Casablanca. Part of Portugal since it was discovered about 500 years ago, it feels more like Europe than like Africa, but environmentally it’s a sort of Hawaii of the Atlantic. Tropical climate. Steep, dramatic verdant hillsides, luscious flowers everywhere, fabulous tropical fruits, and incredible seafood. Well, except the main island has no sandy beaches.
For us the highlight was the walking. It turns out to be an incredibly nice place for hiking. The hillsides are beautiful, with stunning ridges and ravines, beautiful tropical forests, terraced fields, and neat rural villages. You’d think it would be hard going, with all that steep terrain. As it turns out, though, they have developed an extensive network (thousands of miles) of aqueducts, called “levadas”, over the past 100 years. It turns out that although they have plenty of rain, most of it simply runs down the steep slopes to the sea… so they capture it and route it through the levadas to all the fields. These levadas, about 2′ wide and 1-2′ deep, usually open to the air, follow the contours of the hills, of course, and are thus essentially flat. They are a public network, so in most places it is acceptable to walk along them. In some places, that means walking on a dirt path alongside the water channel. In others, the hillside is so steep that you walk on the concrete wall of the levada, which is maybe 18″ wide, and on one side you have the flowing water, and the other side you have a several-hundred-foot drop down into the ravine. It can be “vertiginous”, as the guidebook says. Other places, they tunnel through the hillside, and you crouch a bit and walk through the darkness for anywhere from a few feet to several hundred yards, trying not to hit your head or fall into the levada.
On our first hike, a newer levada (only 30-40 years old), it weaved through the forests and occasionally through a small village. Here and there was a little sluice gate where the water could be released to flow down into a farmer’s field. These gates were controlled by the levadeiro, a man who manages the levada. While stopped for a late-afternoon snack one day, a very old looking man strode along the levada past us, in his traditional wool hat and turned-down leather boots, clearly comfortable with the hundred-foot drop along the levada. I’m pretty sure he was the levadeiro; he certainly looked the part. [read detailed description, with photos]
But on our next hike, on one of the oldest levadas that flowed right into Funchal, it spent very little time in the forest and most of its time flowing alongside old houses. Indeed, this levada was mostly covered over, and the resulting three-foot-wide “sidewalk” was clearly the main path for transportation to and from the houses along the levada. We passed many people going about their daily business, making us feel silly in our hiking boots and backpack. We passed numerous neat little houses overflowing with tropical flowers, and countless banana trees, the principal cash crop at that altitude. In many places it was amazing to see extremely fancy new villas being constructed, most likely for an emigree returning from afar after making his riches. [read detailed description, with photos]
They are of course famous for their wine, “Madeira”, so we of course stopped by a few wineries for a tour and a taste ;-).
Vines were brought to the island by the first colonizing party, the Portuguese, in the late 15th century, and wine has been made ever since. But, as the story goes, one barrel shipped to the New World accidentally remained on board and sailed back to Madeira. The captain assumed that the wine was now bad, having sat in the barrel on his boat for so long. But upon tasting, it had improved!
It turns out that the slow heating in oak barrels, which happened naturally during the sea voyage, and now happens naturally in oak barrels stowed in the attics of wineries (or in the cheaper varieties, in heated vats), was responsible for the special flavor.
We toured the Blandy’s winery in downtown Funchal, one of the oldest and biggest, run by the Blandy family of Britain. They had a great tour including a wine-tasting.
But for a more interesting experience we went to a little place, barely marked, off one of the side streets… the home and winery of the Barros e Sousas brothers. Mr. Barros e Sousas was effusively welcoming, insisting that we climb up to his attic to see all the dusty barrels, that we taste some bottles, etc. Neat place! Most of his father’s and grandfather’s barrels had worn so much that the writing was not always legible, and thus many old old barrels are of uncertain vintage. Thus he sells them as “extra reserve” (from his grandfather’s day) or “reserve” (from his father’s day) since he is not allowed to cite them as a specific vintage. They thus cost less… but taste great!
They are also famous for their embroidery. Absolutely beautiful, but incredibly expensive, so we mostly had to just look.
Since we spent all of our nights at a hotel in Funchal, we wanted to get out at least one day to see some more of the island. The roads are incredibly narrow and twisty, and the local drivers quite bold, so we were not too excited about renting a car. The island bus system is quite good, but not terribly convenient for a day-long tour of the island. So we signed up with a tour company for a tour of the northeastern part of the island.
The next morning a taxi arrived, rather than the expected minibus. Change of plans… they were short a minibus so one of their drivers brought his taxi instead. So we had a private tour! Our driver/guide, Paolo, was an ambitious young man who spoke several languages: Portuguese, English, German, French, a little Spanish, and was enrolled in classes to learn more. He was also very talkative and informative, so we learned a lot as we drove.
From Funchal we zipped down the highway to the center point of the island, then north over the mountain pass in the middle, and then east around the north, east, and south coasts back to Funchal.
On our tour of the eastern half of the island, we passed numerous vineyards, all terraced into the steep hillsides. Given the terrain, the natural shape of all the roads is “hairpin turn”; coupled with the fact that all the roads are following the contours of a steep hill, and that nearly all the roads are barely more than 1 lane wide, this makes driving pretty hairy. The drive also gave us a flavor of the incredible diversity packed into a small space… as you change elevation from sea level up to the peaks at 6000′, the vegetation changes dramatically. The northern coast is much wetter than the southern coast (we spent most of our time in Funchal, the main city on the sunny south coast). And since the islands are volcanic, we were able to explore some grottoes (lava tubes, actually) formed by agent lava flows.
Even the airplanes landing at the airport do a wild hairpin turn as they land. There is so little flat land in this place that the airport hugs the coast and the runway actually sticks out over the water, on stilts. For some reason, the planes fly low parallel to the runway, then make a sharp 180-degree turn to land on the runway, momentarily flying straight toward the hills. Yikes.
Madeira’s tropical – yet mountainous – climate is perfect for growing orchids. We visited an orchid-growing greenhouse and the gallery includes many photos of these beautiful plants.
Funchal (the main city)
The city of Funchal itself is wonderful… 500 years old, young by European standards, it still has that wonderful European flavor, with narrow cobblestone streets, sidewalk cafes, ancient churches, and neat old architecture. On the left is one of the many beautiful mosaic sidewalks, Portuguese style.
Although quite a walkable city, we figured out the local bus system and found it quite handy. Because the terrain is so steep, a bus can be a handy shortcut to a steep climb uphill. Streets got a lot steeper and narrower as we climbed, stopping occasionally to press ourselves against the wall as a truck came barreling down the hill.
We strolled through the city market, filled to the brim every day with every sort of flower, fruit, or vegetable one can imagine, alongside the fish market with the freshest seafood.
Fortunately, there’s no shortage of Portuguese cooking in all the restaurants nearby. Yum… At Arsenio’s, the chef (Arsenio) stands out front grilling the most fabulous fish espadas, that is, fish and vegetables on a skewer. Inside, during dinner musicians play and sing “Fado” music. Although the food here was good, the atmosphere was a bit touristy… across the street, O Jango’s was much more interesting; tiny and crowded and also very good food.
Although it is part of Portugal, the British have been significant presence for about 400 years, arriving first as part of the sugar and wine industries. So it is a very popular place for British tourists, now, and quite a few Germans, although we saw very few Americans. So almost everyone, at least in Funchal and definitely at any tourist sort of place, speaks English. I hardly had a chance to dig out my old Portuguese. Unfortunately, the tourist industry is growing so fast that hotels are being built by the dozen. The gallery includes a photo that shows a view of the western edge of “Hotel town,” a cluster of many hotels on the western edge of Funchal. We stayed at the five-star Madeira Palacio, which we highly recommend.
Madeira is not a place to go if you want to sit on a beach and soak up rays. True, the little island of Porto Santo (a ferry ride away) has an incredible beach, but the main island itself has hardly any. Most are rocky. The rocks are all smooth stones, not too bad really. Toward the water it becomes a dark sand. So, I actually tried to swim, but the water was cold and just under the surf were more of the rocks, churning in the surf, so it was actually rather unpleasant.
Walk along the Levada dos Piornais and Levada do Curral.
In our second walk along a levada, we followed one levada from our hotel into the country, then up through a village to another levada, and then deep into a river valley. See the photo gallery and the post about the whole trip.
The first levada was the Levada dos Piornais, one of the oldest on the island. We picked it up a few blocks uphill from our hotel, and followed it upstream, westward. The initial part was through some rather depressing shanty/farms, but the scene quickly changed as it began to pass older, established banana farms.
Most homes in Madeira, particularly the nicer ones, seem to be surrounded by walls, with an entrance gate. Here you can see a typical section of the early part of the Piornais, where the levada is covered over to become a sidewalk, with people’s doorways along the wall. Above we peek through the gate to an elaborately floral display along the steps leading up to the house.
I liked this spot, with an old wall and a tree leaning over the levada.
Here we leave the sidewalk section and enter a cliffside section, where the levada clings to the side of a cliff. Sometimes it’s supported by arched stonework, like a bridge, and other times it cuts into the cliff-face.
Truly impressive. I was glad for the recently installed railings, because the drop was severe… several hundred feet in some places. Look closely at the pictures… see the trucks down below? it’s a long way down.
Here’s a place where they decided to cut the levada through some cracks in the cliff. We hikers then must scramble through.
Another set of impressive views. Here, you can get a sense of the vertigo we faced.
Here, we had reached a point where I was able to walk down below the levada and snap this picture looking back up at it… here you can see the bridge-like stonework. (In a few places the levada actually was on a bridge, a few feet out from the cliff.)
At this point we left the levada and climbed up through a village to find the Levada do Curral. That levada, too, weaved through many villages, like a sidewalk, and then entered a wooded section with some more steep drops.
Quite a ways further, we climbed up through a village to join the Levada do Curral, another very old Levada. This levada led deep up the river valley. Here are two views upward into that valley… on the right we peek between two high ridges (and below a layer of clouds) to a village high on a distant sunny ridge.
This levada, after passing much of the same “sidewalk” sort of terrain, past villas and villages, entered a wilder portion with only an occasional small farm. Below is a grape arbor overhanging our route.
Here we have reached our turn-around point, where the steep drop becomes truly treacherous, and the hillside is so steep that the plants overhang the levada and a spring drips, no, pours water on your head. We’re actually quite far up a river valley, near the head of the levada.
Next is a view of the head of the ravine, and you can see a bridge where the levada curves across the ravine toward the left.
Here is a view looking back down the valley. We walked pretty much all the way up from that fancy bridge in the background. Actually, it’s a pretty neat suspension bridge, very high and very long, for the new coastal highway.
During our visit to Madeira we took two hikes along the Levadas – irrigation canals that follow the contours of the steep hillsides. See the photo gallery from our walk, and the post about the whole trip.
Levada dos Tornos is a newer levada (only 30-40 years old). It weaved through the forests and occasionally through a small village.
The hike starts at the end of one of the city bus lines, high above Funchal. A few steps above the bus stop you find the levada, flowing along past these houses.
This picture shows what most of the hiking is like on this levada. Flat, of course. Well, slighly downhill, as we were walking downstream. A pleasant dirt footpath follows the downhill side of the levada, which is about 2 feet wide and about a foot deep. This water irrigates fields along the way, and ultimately flows into an electrical generator serving Funchal.
The island terrain is very rugged, with steep hillsides and deep ravines. The levada follows the contours, of course, which means it weaves in and out of the ravines. In each little ravine, typically, is a small stream. Here the levada is built up a bit on a wall as it crosses the stream. Yep, almost always the levada is carefully engineered so that the stream either flows over, or under, but never into, the levada. Adding water to the levada would only make it overflow.
One of the neat things is that the levada is often integrated right into the architecture of the homes it passes. The levada path is a sidewalk used for daily traffic for many of the people living on its route; in some cases, the only access to the home (no road access).
This levada is quite luxurious. There are two “tea gardens” along the way. This one, the Jasmine tea garden, is run by a British couple. We stopped here for some tea and cakes. The menu had a hundred varieties of tea. It was a hot afternoon so I ordered iced tea. Unfortunately, they don’t do iced tea… I received a can of Lipton iced tea.
Shortly after our stop at the tea garden we passed through our first (and as it turned out, our longest) tunnel. The tunnel was just tall enough for me to stand, and just wide enough to leave a little path to walk. It was about 100 yards long, but took several minutes to get through because it was, of course, very dark and we had to move carefully (even with flashlights) to avoid bumping our head or slipping into the water. In the picture above, taken at the entrance, you can just barely see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Here Pam is nearly through…
At this point a large pipe joined the levada, and was supported by these crosspieces. Note the steep drop to the right of Pam… this section was a little bit hairy, especially since there were tiny springs above that meant little waterfalls fell on your head.
The scenery along the way was quite spectacular. Here we look out over ancient terraces, many still active farms.
The climax of this hike is an incredible, huge waterfall. The levada flows on a bridge crossing the stream, just upstream of where we see the waterfall emerge in this picture. Because it was getting late, and we’d missed the last bus at the next road crossing, we stopped here for a snack and turned around.
While we were snacking an old man came strolling by, in his traditional wool hat and turned-down leather boots, clearly comfortable with the hundred-foot drop along the levada. I’m pretty sure he was the levadeiro; he certainly looked the part. The levadeiro is a man who manages the levada, in particular, controlling the release of water into farmer’s fields. (We had passed many a little sluice gate where the water could be released to flow down into a farmer’s field.)
We travel a lot with our kids. Every trip seems to require at least one layover in a large airport, requiring us to lug three kids, 1-3 car seats, a diaper bag, and a few other carry-on bags from one gate to another. Whew! that’s a lot to carry.
So I decided to convert the carseats into “back-packs”, so that I could carry the seats hands-free. I often stuff some of the smaller carry-on bags, coats, sweaters, etc, into one of the seats. It’s so much more comfortable than lugging them around in my arms!
One drawback is that you have to be really careful when you turn around, lest you bop somebody on the head with the carseat.
I ordered a simple set of back-pack straps from Campmor. I spent about $30 per seat and got some nice straps, but you could probably find nearly the same thing at any outdoor gear store, or probably places like KMart, probably for less money. You don’t need anything fancy: just a pair of straps, four sets of clevis pins with split rings, and probably a few washers. (The pins and rings attach the pack straps to the seat.) I was lucky to find holes in the seats in just the right places; I needed to add a few washers to strengthen the connection. I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to drill a hole, if necessary, but I can imagine a seat manufacturer claiming that voided the warranty.
I would never use this rig to carry my kid on my back. The parts of the seat to which I attach were not designed for that sort of stress, so the pins might pull right through. Also, as you can see in the photo, the system depends on the shear stress of the ring, unlike in most back-pack systems that depend on the shear stress of the pin. So I’d be afraid of the pin pulling through the plastic hole on the seat, or the ring shearing through, if there were a lot of weight. If I’m just carrying a diaper bag, and it fails, so what… but if I’m carrying a kid, and it fails, I’m in big trouble.
I doubt it would be good for long distances, unless you added some padding along the back.
It’s not really a back-pack in the sense that I can carry big loads. I guess it’s a car seat you can carry on your back.
Nordic skiing near the town of Saint Cergue, Switzerland.
On December 8, 1998 I was near Geneva on some business, and passing through the town where Alex de Sherbinin ’84 lives and works these days, so I stopped in for a brief visit. Just hours after landing, complete with jet lag, he picked me up at the Nyon train station and whisked me up into the hills. Geneva and Nyon are low altitude, along Lac Leman, but the land rises rapidly up to a ridge known as the Jura, perhaps 3000 feet elevation. As we drove up a windy road, the snow became deeper, and the views more spectacular, back across the lake to the Alps and Mont Blanc. We stopped in the little town of Saint Cergue for a little picnic lunch and to wait for the shopkeeper to reopen so I could rent some XC skis. When she finally returned, the neighboring shopkeeper scolded her, in reference to us, “These are the seventh people to come into my shop to ask when you will reopen, won’t you please put up a sign saying when you plan to return.” Even in my limited French I caught the gist of her resultant muttering about how she has the right to close when she wants, if she wants to close, she closes, etc etc etc.
A few francs later and we were off to ski on an amazing network of set tracks, in gorgeous conditions. It was a beautiful sunny day, temps just a little below freezing, and fresh snow. The trails rolled over gentle hills, in and out of the woods. The bright sunshine and the exercise pretty well eliminated my jet lag. There were few others out that day, being midweek, and most who were out were retirees about twice our age. I can only hope to be that active at that age.
Alex later took me by his office at the World Conservation Union (IUCN), across the street from his apartment where it seemed every window had a view onto the Alps, and around the corner from the WWF international headquarters. At the IUCN everyone seemed to be working on momentous projects in faraway places. Really neat place.
Wow. My wife Pam and I just returned from a spectacular two-week safari in the national parks of Tanzania, east Africa. It was a “family safari” with six other family (and friends of the family), organized through Thomson Safaris. Thomson is just one of many companies operating safaris in Tanzania, which is a booming industry now that the safari market in neighboring Kenya has pretty well saturated, and people are discovering Tanzania to be a safer, cheaper alternative.
We flew through Amsterdam, which gave us the opportunity for a 1-night stopover and a long jet-lagged day touring the museums and canals of that beautiful city. Probably the most important feature of the stopover was cleaning out the duty-free shops in Shipol airport, buying enough bottles of wine so our group had one for each night on safari.
The flight from there to Arusha, Tanzania is even longer, about 9 hours to span endless miles of the deserts of north-central Africa. It really gives you a sense of just how huge Africa really is when you fly for hours across so much “empty” space.
Kilimanjaro International Airport in Arusha is a small one-gate sort of place, primarily serving safari tourists, and diplomats attending the U.N.’s Rwandan war-crime tribunals being held in Arusha. The town of Arusha, with about 200,000 people, is closer to the major national parks, including Mt. Kilimanjaro just a few miles to the northeast, than is the coastal capital city of Dar es Salaam.
Both English and Swahili are official languages, although with a population from 120 different tribes there are another 120 other languages that can be heard around the country. Our guides were thus trilingual, speaking English, Swahili and their tribal language.
For our group of eight, Thomson supplied two guides and one guide-in-training, and two specially modified LandRovers. The guides, John and Gebra, are all native Tanzanians and had been guiding for 10-15 years, so they knew an incredible amount about the parks and wildlife. Indeed, Gebra was somewhat of a birding specialist, and could not only identify a passing bird by name, but could also instantly tell you the page and plate number where its picture could be found in the bird book. Our guides were clearly more experienced than many of the other guides we encountered; often they would stop to talk with our guides along the road. There seemed to be a friendly fraternity among the guides of various companies, and they all seemed to cooperate to give each other tips about the location of the best wildlife.
We spent the first day in Arusha national park, a relatively small park near Arusha and on the slopes of Mt. Meru. Like Kilimanjaro (at 19000+ feet the tallest in Africa), Meru is a tall volcano with a lush tropical rainforest on its lower slopes. Here we established the basic daily pattern: slowly driving along very bumpy dirt roads, watching for wildlife and stopping whenever there was something interesting to watch. The roof the LandRover popped up so that we could stand and look in all directions, yet still be shaded from the equatorial sunshine. Unfortunately, it was cloudy and misty that day, so we had no views of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Almost inches after crossing the park boundary, where the banana and coffee plantations gave way to the rainforest, we came across a set of giraffes next to the road. A little further along a troop of baboons were lolling about in the road in front of us. Ponds were filled with thousands of flamingoes, and visited by herds of cape buffalo, waterbuck, and the tiny dik-dik antelope. What amazed me is that most of these animals barely noticed our presence, even when we pulled up only a few yards away from them. In general, most of the animals in the parks have no reason to fear humans, particularly humans in LandRovers.
We hired a park ranger to join us for a hike along one of the forest roads. He carried a rifle and was a required part of any hiking party in the park. Apparently, cape buffalo (when alone) are easily startled and can become quite dangerous. One look at their horns convinced me that I did not really want to test that hypothesis. Although we did startle a pair of buffalo on the walk (and the ranger’s rifle was rapidly in position for action) they ran off into the woods, so the real excitement was spotting a bunch of black and white colobus monkeys high in the trees.
The next day we spent in Tarangire National Park, which is further to the west and is a completely different experience. Set in rolling savannah country, this dry and sparsely vegetated area is teeming with elephants. Well, let’s just say that we saw over 100 elephants in our first 3 hours. Many had (very cute) little baby elephants along with them, and many were right next to the road. One teenage male was quite blustered by our presence, flapping his ears and trumpeting, and making small false charges. Unfortunately, the elephants love to eat Baobob trees, to the point that the baobobs are likely to disappear from the park.
While some of our group saw lions there, indeed, a mating lion couple, the real lion action would come later in the Serengeti.
From Tarangire to Serengeti is a long long poke over some unbelievably bumpy and dusty dirt roads. The worst roads of New Hampshire were smooth super highways compared to some of these roads. We broke up the trip with an overnight at a lodge perched on the edge of the great Rift, overlooking a huge valley with Lake Manyara and its flocks of flamingoes, and in the distance, our only view of Mt. Kilimanjaro. This was an agricultural area, and we stopped in the market in the bustling village of Mto Wa Mbu, where there were piles of bananas, rice, beans, spices, mangoes, and so forth. And a section for tourists with lots of crafts, mostly wood carvings of ebony and rosewood. Bartering was the rule here, and I managed to get a very nice carving in trade for a pair of old sneakers, a water bottle, and some cash. The hot commodity appeared to be socks (yes, socks), and anything with Michael Jordan, particularly sports magazines.
We spent three days in Serengeti National Park, a huge seemingly endless plain of grass that stretches for hundreds of miles, connecting to game reserves and to some parks in Kenya. Huge herds of animals roam these plains, following the rains. Although the largest herds had already migrated north (the rains ended in May), we nonetheless were often surrounded (quite literally) by hundreds of zebra, wildebeest, gazelle, topi, and others. Giraffes could be found wherever there was a clump of acacia trees, and hippos and crocodiles hung out in the pools along the river. We found troops of hyena, including one with babies, as well as jackals and foxes. But the most amazing were the lions and cheetah. We could pull right up next to snoozing lions, only 20 yards away. The cubs would tussle and play, and the adults would keep right on snoozing. We were very lucky with the one cheetah we saw, who we found in her den with 5 cubs. When we were the only folks there, she came out to look around and the cubs played in the grass.
Unfortunately, later, there were other tour operators who insisted on driving within about 3 feet of the cheetah in her den, way too close; our drivers reported those drivers to the park rangers. Apparently the parks have severe penalties for driving off road where not permitted, or for disturbing the wildlife. In Tarangire, a driver can be banned from the park for one year, which effectively puts them out of the business.
Early one morning, before dawn, we drove out for a pre-breakfast peek at the wildlife. Right outside of camp, only 100 yards from our tents, we spotted a lioness as she sprang after a herd of wildebeest. She chased them for a while, to no avail. Nearby a pack of hyenas waited patiently.
Perhaps one of the most striking things about the Serengeti, with its endless plains, roamed by herds of 1.8 million wildebeest and zebra, is that I could see what the North American west used to be like only 150 years ago. It’s sad what we have lost, and impressive what they have managed to protect.
After the Serengeti it seemed that it could not get any better. But then we moved on to Ngorongoro crater, the largest perfect caldera in the world that is habitable. Long ago it was a huge volcano, taller than Kilimanjaro. The lava that filled the core of the volcano drained away, leaving a hollow shell that collapsed to form a caldera, i.e., a crater. [My apologies to the geologists in the crowd, who I am sure see right through my simplistic understanding.] The thousand-foot high rim around the crater is 12 miles in diameter, and is high enough that it catches clouds and thus receives rain all year. Thus there is a rainforest on the rim, and the streams flow down into the relatively dry crater to form a shallow lake. With no outlet, the water evaporates to leave a highly alkaline environment. This shallow, alkaline lake is prime territory for thousands of pink flamingoes. The sight of that much pink feather and blue water is stunning, as is the smell of droppings from thousands of flamingoes (whew!).
Over 22,000 large mammals live in the crater; huge herds of resident zebra, wildebeest, gazelle, etc. These make easy targets for a fat and happy population of lions and hyenas. We spent an hour one day watching a lioness, barely crouched behind a tiny hillock, tense and waiting to spring as unsuspecting wildebeest strolled by. Neither the wildebeest nor the lioness seemed to notice that we were only about 25 yards away the whole time. Several times we were *sure* that she would spring out to catch a wildebeest that was only about 15 yards from her, but she decided to wait. Apparently she was waiting for a particularly stupid wildebeest (and they are pretty stupid) to stumble right over her. Ultimately we tired of watching before the lioness tired of waiting for her lunch; we later heard that she never did chase anything that day.
The confined space makes for wonderful wildlife viewing, but it also means that there is a very high density of LandRovers. At one stop we counted 14 LandRovers stopped to watch a rhino family. The black rhino are dwindling in number– only 22 left– despite intense protection from poaching. The Japanese market for rhino horn means that poachers can make a lot of money for killing one rhino, leaving it to rot while they take only the horn.
We took a side trip here to hike up to the rim of neighboring Olmoti crater. The 10,000′ altitude plus two weeks of sitting on our butts in a LandRover made this climb somewhat strenuous, though short. From the rim we could look over another beautiful crater, this one filled with cows. Here we met a young mother of three; she was just one of several wives of her husband, who apparently owned many cows and thus could afford several wives and many children. They carry their children on their backs, wrapped in the long blankets they all wear.
Yes, this is Maasai country, and the area is managed as a conservation area in which the Maasai tribe is allowed to live and graze their cows as they have done for centuries. Indeed, the Maasai have done an amazing job of maintaining their traditional culture and living style, in small villages of round stick-and-dung huts, living off their cows. They are a tall, proud people with very colorful dress: men wear a red blanket, somewhat like a toga, and carry a wooden staff and a spear, women wear gorgeous silver and bead jewelry.
We stopped by one village, where (for a price) they let us look around, visit their homes, and take pictures. They offered some of their crafts for sale, particularly the gorgeous beadwork of the women and the carved staffs and spears of the men. I don’t want to romanticize it– the area between the huts was strewn with cow manure, there were flies everywhere, and the huts were filled with smoke. They have a hard life, and I am really impressed that they have managed to maintain the traditional lifestyle despite the modernization of the rest of their country.
So Tanzania is a fascinating and diverse country, with many kinds of people and many lifestyles. There is a lot of poverty, which is particularly obvious in contrast with the tourists and their fancy hotels, Gore-tex rainwear, and video cameras. It made me very thankful for the things that I have.
We had three types of accomodations: fancy lodges, tented lodges, and tented camp. They all had spectacular locations, such as the lodge on the rim of Ngorongoro crater. Tented lodges were permanent installations where each “room” was an independent canvas tent, albeit with a concrete floor and shower/toilet attachment. The tented camp was a temporary setup run by Thomson folks, although none of us have ever camped in such luxury. Each couple had their own large canvas tent, with attached toilet tent; little shower tents; a dining tent; beer and wine on hand; great food; campfire made for you; warm water and a basin prepared for you at bedtime and at wake-up time. They even baked and decorated a birthday cake for me on my birthday.
Overall I found the Tanzanians to be a very friendly people, and the country to be absolutely gorgeous place. Definitely worth a visit if you ever have a chance. Although excessive tourism often ruins many places, the country seems (for now anyway) to have a fairly good conservationist attitude, as did our tour company. One quarter of Tanzania is already set aside in parks and game reserves. Thus it seems likely that the wildlife, scenery, and culture will survive reasonably well.
Sorry I did not include many photos here. I scanned the best of the prints, but most of the really good pictures are on slides. The photographic opportunities were phenomenal, given the amount and proximity of wildlife, and stunning scenery.
P.S. Our son John, 9 months old at the time, spent one week with his grandparents and another week with his cousins, and by all accounts had a blast without mom and dad around. Mom and dad missed him, on the other hand, quite a bit. At one refueling stop we met a local woman and her baby; Pam was so taken with her baby that she pulled out a photo of John to show her. In this picture of her you can just see her holding John’s photo, which she kept.
A family vacation that ends with a horrible accident.
This story was written by my father (Jack Kotz) shortly after the trip. The story of my broken neck occupies the last third of the story; you can read the 2009 blog entry describing my trip back to Fiji (twenty years to the day after my accident). See also the gallery of my photos.– dave
In the winter of 1988-1989 we decided to take a family trip in the summer of 1989. We wanted to celebrate the fact that Pete had graduated from college and Dave had completed his Ph.D. exams. We also realized that this may be the last chance for the whole family to travel somewhere together. After a great deal of thought and planning we decided to go to Fiji, a group of islands in the South Pacific, on the other side of the date line and north of New Zealand.
Dave was giving a paper at a computer science meeting in Los Angeles on June 7, so we flew there and met him for the flight to Fiji on Thursday, June 8. Our Qantas flight, about 13 hours in duration, was six hours late in leaving. Since we finally left about 4 AM on Friday, June 9, this meant that we flew almost all the way in day light. After about 8 hours we landed for refueling in Tahiti. It certainly is a beautiful place, with steep volcanic hills dropping into the ocean. Someday we’ll go back.
The flight from Tahiti to Fiji was about 4 1/2 hours, and we landed there at about 2 on Saturday afternoon, six hours late. Of course we had missed our connection to the island of Taveuni where we were to pick up our chartered sailboat on Sunday. But things in Fiji get done in their own time if you are patient. The little airline that was to fly us to Taveuni, Sunflower Airlines, rolled out a plane, found a pilot, and without telling us very much, put us on the plane.
After flying for well over 90 minutes, and seeing beautiful islands, coral reefs, and atolls, we started our descent into Taveuni, the so- called “Garden Island” of Fiji. As we lined up on a grass landing field, we looked out the window and saw, anchored in a beautiful bay, the lovely white yacht that we had chartered. What a sight!
After landing we walked over to the terminal – a small wooden building – where we were met by a fellow from the hotel where we to spend the night. He took us to the Maravu Plantation, a very nice small hotel near the airport. The rooms are small cottages in the Fijian style (called bure’s), and a beautiful beach was just a few feet away. The resort is owned by Ormond Eyre, a Fijian with European blood. He had been a Qantas steward for some years before returning to start his resort. His main interest is food, so we had marvelous gourmet meals in a beautiful open-air dining room every day during our stay. (Just outside the dining area were banana and papaya trees where they could get the fruit for meals and hibiscus and frangiapani flowers for the tables.)
Sailing the islands
After a good dinner and a good sleep, we had a big breakfast and then were driven to meet the people who owned the boat we had chartered. They were Warwick and Dianne Bains; he is English and she is from New Zealand. He had had a great deal of experience sailing boats all over the world and had built the 54 foot, steel hulled ketch we were to sail. About noon we sailed out of the bay and into Somosomo Strait for the island of Kioa, about 10 miles way. We anchored off Kioa, did some snorkeling on a beautiful reef, and then had a marvelous dinner. (Dianne’s hobby is cooking, so we had some excellent meals.) On Monday, we sailed around Kioa in a good sea and then went ashore in the village. The people on Kioa are from the Ellice Islands, an island group north of Fiji. Apparently their islands had become overpopulated, so they bought Kioa from the government of Fiji and settled there. Not many white people come to this island, so there was a lot of interest in us, and all the women in the village turned out to sell us the handicrafts they had made. Warwick and Dianne knew many of the people in the village, so we met many of them and really had a good introduction to Fijian culture. A highlight was a visit to the school. The children were all coming back after their lunch in the uniforms. They gathered with their teacher on the beach near the school and all brushed their teeth. (Many Fijians have bad teeth because they chew sugar cane.)
After lunch we sailed on to the nearby island of Vanua Levu, the second largest of the Fiji group. We anchored in a sheltered bay surrounded by coconut palm plantations and then explored one of them. We also met one of the local fellows, who came on board with a load of fresh papayas, pineapples, limes, and lemons.
The next day, Tuesday, we sailed on around Vanua Levu to a small but very beautiful bay where we again went snorkeling and saw some magnificent coral. Later in the afternoon, we sailed into yet another nearby bay and then went ashore to visit the small village and see their new school. The children were again charming, and they came out to the boat very early the next morning to sell us shells. It was quite a sight to see the little children paddling out to us on a calm sea in their outrigger canoes.
On Wednesday we met up with a diving boat from the best scuba diving resort in Fiji (called Dive Taveuni). Pete transferred to the boat for a day of diving in one of the best places in the islands. (He later said it was one of the most exciting experiences of his life.) The rest of us then sailed across the Somosomo Strait to Taveuni and then up the coast of the island to the east end where we met Pete at the end of the day and where we anchored for the night.
Thursday we sailed on to the island of Qamea and visited the very beautiful resort on that island. After anchoring in a sheltered bay we went to the resort for a Fijian meke, a way that the natives have of telling stories in song and dance. It was performed by local villagers as a way of raising money for their church, and it was very interesting and enjoyable. About 9 PM we started back to the boat, which was anchored about a mile away. Unfortunately, the heavens opened up and it poured! Needless to say we had a bit of trouble finding our way back through the reef to our boat.
Friday morning we visited a village on Qamea where Warwick and the village chief performed a traditional sevusevu, a ceremony where visitors present gifts to the chief in exchange for the privilege of visiting the village. (The gift is usually yaqona, the root of a plant from which they extract the traditional drink of Fiji. The root contains a chemical similar to pepper, and it has a numbing effect on the mouth.) The village was one of the most interesting we saw because the people lived in traditional houses made out of palm leaves and lived a life style close to the way they have lived for many years (except of course that they have given up cannibalism).
By later in the afternoon we had sailed over to Matagi Island, perhaps the most interesting anchorage we had seen. Matagi is a small island that was obviously a volcano. One side had broken away, so we could sail into the caldera. Warwick took us on a snorkeling trip to the reef just at the entrance to the bay that was the most spectacular we had seen. The water is so clear in Fiji that we could see the bottom at least 60 feet down. There were many types of corals in many different colors and fish of every size and color. And even some sharks cruising along the bottom. We finished a perfect afternoon by exploring some of the beaches in the bay and then had dinner by moonlight on a calm sea.
Saturday morning we decided to go ashore to see if we could find the most famous bird in Fiji, an orange dove with a green head! Apparently the best place to find it is on this island, and, sure enough, we found one at the top of a ridge overlooking our anchorage.
We sailed on late in the morning and anchored off Laucala (pronounced Lauthala). This island was bought some years ago by Malcolm Forbes for his private use. Although it is somewhat controversial, he moved the local village off the beach into new homes about 300 yards from the beach, and he provides for their medical care and education. The beach area is now used for a resort that is very small and very expensive. We met the resident manager, and he gave us a tour and even took us into Forbes’ home at the top of one of the highest hills on the island. (From the house and pool, you have almost a 360o view of the island, the beaches, and the Pacific. Beautiful!) Saturday evening we anchored once again off the island of Qamea and had dinner on a calm sea in the moonlight.
Sunday was our last day, so it was sad getting the boat ready to go home. However, we had a good sail across the strait from Qamea to Taveuni, and anchored in the bay by the Bain’s house on Taveuni about 11 AM. After saying goodbye to our hosts, we went back to Maravu Plantation Resort for the next several days.
On Monday the day dawned with a tropical rain — all wet but still nice and warm. Dave and I decided to take one of the tours offered to hotel guests: to a beach and waterfall on the other side of Taveuni. Off we went — with an couple from New Zealand — in a Taveuni taxi driven by someone we would come to know well: Suhk Lal. After about 10 miles we had to ford a river. Unfortunately, the river was higher than usual, so Suhk’s taxi stalled after getting to the other side. We had to dry out the distributor (using a cigarette lighter) and push the car to get going again. However, Suhk decided that it may not be safe to go on, as there were more rivers to ford. Therefore, we turned around, forded the river we had just been through, and went back to Maravu. There we decided to take a trip down the island’s other shore with our New Zealand friends, and Kate and Pete decided to go along.
The roads on Taveuni are just dirt tracks covered with coral, and, with the rain, they were even worse than usual. Unfortunately, after several miles Suhk’s taxi had a flat tire from the coral, so we had to change that. We finally made it to the end of the island and saw the beautiful black, volcanic rocks and beaches. We had lunch in the rain, and decided to head back. On the way back, the other taxi — carrying Dave, Pete, and a guide — broke down because the rocks in the road had torn out some wiring. But Suhk soon had it fixed, and we proceeded a bit further — but only after hunting for Suhk’s watch which he had lost while fixing the taxi. Soon we had yet another problem with a wheel on our taxi, which Suhk fixed in his inimitable way.
Along a particularly hilly, winding and muddy portion of the road we realized something was wrong again with Suhk’s taxi. The odor of hot brakes was coming from the right front wheel. Suddenly, the wheel fell off, and the taxi went out of control. It was fortunate we were going quite slowly, so Suhk guided the taxi as well as he could into the hill on the right side of the road. (If we had gone left, we would have gone over a bank that fell away into the ocean.) If it had not been so potentially catastrophic, the accident would have been quite comical. In another stroke of good luck, another taxi happened along just at that time, and took us back to Maravu.
Tuesday was again raining, so Kate stayed in and read, while Dave, Pete, and I went off again with our New Zealand friends to a coffee plantation. The coffee on Maravu is especially good, and it was interesting to see how it is grown, picked, cleaned, and roasted.
Needless to say, the day we were to leave Taveuni dawned sunny and warm. We went to the little airstrip about 10 AM, and our plane arrived to take us back to Nadi on the main island of Viti Levu.
Sigatoka and Suva
On landing at Nadi we picked up our rental car, and headed off along the south coast of Viti Levu for the town of Sigatoka. There we were to stay in a small resort called the Crow’s Nest. After Maravu it was a come-down, but it was nice enough and it was in a good location. Sigatoka is on the Coral Coast, about halfway between the airport at Nadi and the capital of Fiji, Suva. Sigatoka itself is an interesting market town, so we explored the souvenir shops there on Wednesday afternoon.
Thursday drove the 100 km or so to Suva, the most cosmopolitan city in Fiji. Even though it rained most of the day, we made the rounds of the souvenir shops and the Fiji Museum. The artifacts were very interesting, and detailed the history of cannibalism in the islands and the exploration of the islands by Europeans and Americans. In the evening we had dinner at the Great Wok of China. We thought the food at the Great Wok was some of the best Chinese food we have ever had. Fortunately we got there early and could get a table.
Friday, June 23 was to be our last full day in Fiji, so we decided to go to the beach. The guide book said that Natadola Beach on the island of Viti Levu was particularly beautiful, and, since I heard the road to it was terrible, we decided to take that little sugar cane train that starts at the Fijian Hotel and goes about 15 miles to the beach. I thought it was a bit pricey, but it was fun. The train derailed on the way out, but everyone got out and helped to get it back on, so we made it out there in time for a swim before lunch.
After our lunch I am afraid that tragedy struck us. Dave decided to go in again to go body surfing. (We had all been body surfing before lunch, and it was wonderful.) Unfortunately, Dave was caught in a wave and was slammed head first into the sand with the result that he broke his neck (although we did not know it at the time). He struggled out of the surf on his own and collapsed on the beach. Pete saw it happen and immediately went to help him. Fortunately, Pete knew that Dave had a serious head or neck injury, so, after talking with Dave, he made a cervical collar out of beach towels. Then, after a search, we found a large board from a old truck. At Pete’s direction, we lifted Dave onto the board, and then carefully put him on the train, still on the board. I held his head as firmly as possible on the hour- long ride back to the Fijian Hotel.
In spite of the fact that the train people had called ahead to the Fijian to have a doctor there when we arrived, there was none in sight nor none expected. At that point Katie used her travel agent credentials with the manager of the Fijian, and they finally located a doctor in the nearby town of Sigatoka. He came after about 45 minutes, looked at Dave, and said Dave probably just had a severe neck sprain and perhaps a concussion. However, he thought we probably should have him x-rayed in the nearest hospital with the appropriate equipment; this was in the city of Lautoka, about 100 kilometers away. The problem was to find an ambulance. This took another 30 minutes or so, and then it only took us to Sigatoka. After some more conversation — and time — they agreed to take him to Lautoka, so Pete went off to the hospital in the ambulance with Dave, and Katie and I went back to the Crow’s Nest, checked out, and moved all of our stuff to the Mocambo Hotel in Nadi, a city where the international airport is located and closer to Lautoka. We finally made it to the hospital about 9 at night or so, where Pete gave us the bad news. Dave did indeed have a severely broken neck.
By the time we saw Dave on Friday evening they had him in a very old fashioned cervical collar, but it didn’t fit. It turned out there are only 2 cervical collars in Fiji, and the other one — which we found the next day — fit better.
At this point we did not know what to do. The orthopedic man — Fiji has only one, and I’m afraid he is not very good — had left for the evening, and the only other doctor was in surgery. We waited for him until about midnight, and he told us that Dave would be all right, that we should not worry because he was neurologically OK, and that we should come back Saturday morning. We were scheduled to fly home on Saturday evening, so we were anxious to figure out what to do.
Saturday morning we called people at home, including our local orthopedic man, and then we began checking with Qantas on how to get Dave to LA. On arriving back at the Lautoka hospital the local orthopedic doctor was there; he’s Chinese and, unfortunately, his English is hard to understand. Both he and the surgeon had mentioned something about some American doctors that were around, but they were not clear about whether or when these doctors would be available. However, the Chinese orthopedic guy said again we could go ahead and take Dave home that night as originally scheduled. We just needed to ask Qantas how to do it.
About this point we didn’t know what to do. But also at that point one of the American doctors, Dave Frankl, walked in. He is a young fellow who is there with his wife, also a doctor, working at the Lautoka hospital for two years. With his arrival our luck began to turn around. He urged us to go slowly with everything, to stay in Fiji a few more days to make sure Dave was stable, and to have time to make proper arrangements since it was quite complex to do so. In the meantime he told us that there was a chance we could get the other American doctor, Taylor Smith, an orthopedic surgeon from San Francisco, to come over from the resort of Musket Cove on another island. (He was in Fiji for a month to vacation and teach at the Lautoka hospital.) Without really telling us, Dave Frankl realized the seriousness of the problem, called Taylor and had him fly over that afternoon. When Taylor came into the hospital and saw the x-ray I could tell we had a problem, but I knew that Taylor and Dave Frankl were going to help us get everything arranged properly.
Late on Saturday afternoon Taylor and the Chinese orthopedic doctor put Dave into a cast called a “Minerva jacket” that went from the top of his head down to his stomach. The idea was to stabilize his neck well enough that he could stand the trip home. Finally, we began to breath a bit more easily.
On Sunday we spent much of our day completing arrangements with Qantas for a stretcher to LA. This turned out to be extraordinarily complicated. However, the Qantas manager in Nadi (Joe Sang) was extremely helpful, and we shall always be grateful to him. We found that a stretcher in a plane requires them to set aside nine seats, and some airlines charge you for all of those seats. Qantas was very nice in only charging us for 3 seats, one of which we had already paid for as Dave’s seat. Also, all airlines require a doctor to travel with a stretcher patient, so we were faced with paying for a seat for one of the American doctors to go to LA and return. However, Taylor said that Dave was stable and that Pete was qualified to give the required medical care. It took some doing to get Qantas to accept that, but they eventually did, so everything was cleared to travel on Monday.
On Monday it took some doing to coordinate the ambulance for Dave to the airport, to pay the bill at the Lautoka hospital (the total came to $125 for three days in intensive care, at the tourist rate — natives pay far less), to check out of our hotel, return the rental car, and so on and on. We had another good piece of luck even then. Taylor Smith was going to stay in Fiji for another week, but his wife and daughter were flying home on the same flight as us. Therefore, Taylor rode to the airport in the ambulance with Dave and was there to help us settle him onto the plane.
When it came time to get Dave on the plane (a 747), we took him into the plane through one of the rear cargo doors using one of the hydraulic lifts that they use for food carts. It took quite a few people to maneuver Dave on a stretcher into the plane and then get him carefully onto the stretcher that was bolted to the floor of the plane. And poor Dave was hot, frightened, and sick to his stomach from the medicine we gave him to keep him calm. It was a real nightmare… and we single-handedly made a 747 full of people about 30 minutes late.
After we took off Dave finally drifted off to sleep from the medication we had given him and he slept all the way to LA. However, there was still a minor problem. Taylor Smith had specified that Dave needed a portable bed pan and urinal, items that are normally with the stretcher. However, someone in Nadi had pinched them, so we made do with an orange juice bottle until we could get them from the Qantas office in Tahiti. However, as we neared Tahiti the chief steward told us they didn’t have them in their offices but rather had had to beg or steal them from UTA.
One of the most difficult parts of making arrangements to fly a stretcher patient is to ensure there will be an ambulance at the other end. In fact, Qantas will not take a patient until you can guarantee an ambulance will be there to take the patient off their plane. At this point we had more luck.
When we called our orthopedic doctor at home on Saturday, he got in touch with a colleague, Bill Dillin, at Centinela Hospital in Los Angeles. (Centinela is one of the foremost orthopedic hospitals in the U.S. and Dillin is one of the best in that field.) Dillin then called Taylor Smith in Fiji, and quickly discovered that Taylor had been his professor in medical school. All three doctors recommended that we stop over at Centinela to have Dave checked to see if he was able to go on to New York. In fact, our local orthopedic doctor said that Centinela was the best possible place for Dave and that we should stay there in any event for his treatment.
Qantas was again very helpful on landing in LA. They had customs agents come on board to make that process as simple as possible, they helped us get Dave off the plane to an ambulance, and they helped Katie get Pete over to American Airlines so that he could go directly on to New York. So, by early afternoon on Monday, June 26 Dave was in a hospital in Los Angeles and two doctors were there to check him. After looking at the x-rays they told us it was just luck that Dave was not killed by the blow to his head and neck and that it was nothing short of a miracle that he was neurologically fine. They also said that he probably would have been crippled if Pete had not done the right things after the accident. (They said that Pete will probably never see an injury that bad in his career in sports medicine.)
On Monday we checked on ways to get Dave home, and that turned out to be almost insurmountable. Airlines in the U.S. do not want to take stretcher patients (the damned lawyers!), so we were told we would have to use an air ambulance. But the cost of that starts at $8000. Nonetheless, with the help of a service provided to holders of a Gold Card from Master Card, we made arrangements to fly Dave from LA to New York City on an overnight flight on Friday on Northwest and then to take him by ambulance from New York City to Oneonta. All at a cost of about $4000.
The original opinion of the doctors at Centinela was that Dave would need an operation on his neck and that he may have to be in traction for 12 weeks or more in a hospital. However, they did a CT scan on Tuesday morning and discovered less soft tissue damage than they had expected. This meant that he could go into a traction device called a “halo” and that he would only probably need only about 2 weeks of hospital care after his operation. With this opinion, and observation that Centinela was really a first-rate place to take care of him, the three of us made the decision to stay there.
Therefore, they placed him in a “halo” on Wednesday. This device consists of a hard plastic vest that the patient wears. The vest supports U-shaped stainless steel bars that rise along the head. The bars are bolted to a ring or “halo” that goes around the patient’s head, about 1 inch away from the head. The ring is fastened to the head with titanium bolts. The bolts go through the ring, through the skin, and into the skull. Dave will have to be in this thing about 3-4 months. It is cumbersome and uncomfortable, but at least he can walk around in it.
After Dave had been stabilized in his halo, Dr. Dillin operated on his neck on Friday, June 30. They wired the broken vertebra together with the ones above and below. Then, using bone from his hip, they grafted bone onto his spinal column to keep the three vertebrae together permanently. The operation was very successful, and by the following Tuesday Dave was up and walking and really beginning to feel better. For the first time in about 10 days we could begin to believe that our son was going to come out of this a whole person.
Our decision to stay in the hospital in LA was a good one. The hospital sees a number of spinal injury patients, so the nurses and technicians know how to take care of such people. In addition, it was a very nice place, and Dave had a large, comfortable room. And finally, the people there were warm, friendly, and very helpful.
Although this has been a difficult time for us, many good things have come out of it. First, the people in Fiji were wonderful to us. The hospital does not have much, but they gave us the best care possible within the limitations of their facilities and equipment. The staff at the Hotel Mocambo were marvelous (the manager and one of the people at the desk even went to the hospital to visit Dave and they were helpful in making calls for us and in other ways). The people at Qantas went out of their way to be helpful, and we owe them our gratitude for smoothing over many problems. And Taylor Smith was marvelous. He went well beyond his duty, and he and his wife were a considerable comfort to us. In spite of the accident, we left Fiji feeling deeply grateful for the friendship of her people.
We went to Fiji to have family time together and for some adventure. We certainly found both. We did not come back refreshed, but rather with a renewed sense of our family. It was worth the journey.