Our first RTW - 2005

Old Jun 1st, 2020, 07:58 AM
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Our first RTW - 2005

With a lot - a lot - of time on my hands these past weeks, I've been doing a lot of work scanning old pictures and renewing old memories. A couple of weeks ago I decided to post an account on Flyertalk of the first round-the-world (RTW) trip my wife and I took fifteen years ago. It started out as a fairly straightforward accounting of the trip (including some pre- and post-trip times) but as I got into it I realized that it has been a real watershed in our lives, and that some of the things we learned and experienced and confronted on that trip had left a permanent mark on us.

Anyway, I figured I might post it here, too. Comments are, as always, welcome. Don't hold back on criticism, my skin is thick even if my hair is thin (but oh so long .) I've put it on this board because it involves several destinations. Maybe I'll put short links on the destination boards to point to it.


Yeah, fifteen years ago. Better late than, well…

With lots of spare time in my locked-down world, I've decided to jump into the wayback machine big time and post a ridiculously long trip report from my and my wife's first round-the-world trip, taken fifteen years ago. I'll post it in sections and will be happy to answer any questions or accept any criticism you might have. Mind you my memory might not be what it once was... what was I saying?

- - - -

Around 16 years ago I became aware of some (relatively) little known airline ticket products, called round-the-world (or “RTW”) tickets. These products, sold mainly by members in the three big airline alliances, Oneworld, Star Alliance and Skyteam, feature one-price tickets that cover a number of flights that allow one (require, actually) to circle the globe. The tickets are generally good for a year, require that you cross both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in the same direction, and end up in the same country where the trip began. Between the start and finish, however, you have enormous discretion as to where to go and stop over, and what routes to take.

Over a decade before, my wife had been diagnosed with a slowly-progressing autoimmune disease that could impair her ability to travel past a certain point (and which ultimately ended her life) so our mindset was not to wait around but to go to work on our joint bucket lists sooner rather than later, so in late 2004 we started putting together plans to spend a few months traveling the world.

RTW tickets are priced very differently depending on where you begin and end the trip, and since we wanted to travel in business class we looked for someplace outside the US where business class RTWs were more affordable than at home. At the time, a four-continent business class RTW ticket sold by the Oneworld airline alliance, good for 20 flights over the course of a year, was less than half the US price if bought and begun in Turkey. Because of the lifespan of the ticket, our plan was to start in Turkey in the spring, then travel home and use the ticket’s allowed 6 flights within North America over the course of the spring and summer (while we worked at our jobs most of the time) and then to travel west to Australia and across to Africa before ending the trip back in Europe late in the year. The tickets can be changed relatively easily and cheaply, so plans made, we took off in early April of 2005, bound for Istanbul. But because we only needed one-way tickets (the return would be via the RTW ticket) we decided to take a slow boat over the pond.

Phase 1 – Seattle – New York – (Newfoundland) – Southampton – Edinburgh – Prague - Istanbul

(Courtesy Great Circle Mapper)

Our first stop was New York, where our son was attending graduate school and where we were to meet our future daughter-in-law’s parents (who live in Brooklyn.) We were only there for a couple of days, during which we accomplished the meeting, my wife met some work associates for a long lunch, and my son and I went to a Yankees game (I had never been to “old” Yankee Stadium, and this was something of a bucket list item for me.) We stayed at the Millennium Hilton hotel, across the street from Ground Zero, which was still in recovery mode from the events 3 ½ years prior.

Short visit over, we took a cab uptown to the Manhattan Cruise Terminal where we boarded our ride across the Atlantic, the Queen Mary II. We had been on a couple of cruises before and enjoyed them well enough, and because of the time of year our transatlantic trip on the QM2 was actually cheaper than a one-way flight would have been, given the weird one-way pricing then prevalent in the airlines.

The departure from New York was memorable, with the sunset reflected off the Manhattan skyscrapers and silhouetting the Statue of Liberty as we passed her into the night.

The six-night crossing to Southampton was generally uneventful, save for a mid-ocean medical evacuation of a sick passenger and his wife (and their numerous pieces of Louis Vuitton luggage – we could watch from our balcony) into a Canadian Coast Guard Zodiac near St. John’s Newfoundland. The QM2 was too big to fit into the harbor and the stormy weather made a helicopter landing on the ship too risky, so the Canadian Coast Guard cutter stood off and sent a big inflatable boat to transfer the passenger. It was very dramatic; the ship’s captain announced a couple of days later that the passenger was in good condition in the hospital.

Otherwise it was days looking out on the big ocean, visiting with new friends at meal time, and doing various shipboard activities, including attendance at fun mini-plays presented by an on-board troupe of RADA students from London, and various lectures delivered by Oxbridge scholars covering things like the Magna Carta and the Blitz. All very enjoyable and not at all like conventional leisure cruises. Of course, being a Cunard ship, one was immediately immersed in ridiculous social stratification, with your dining room and access to various parts of the ship based on your fare category. We figured all the fun was down in steerage, where there was a ceilidh in progress with jigs and reels being danced on the dinner tables. King of the world!

On the seventh morning we arrived in Southampton, disembarked and took a car service up to Heathrow, then caught a late-morning flight up to Edinburgh. We stayed (as usual) with good friends who live in the New Town, and used the occasion to catch up on lots of gossip, attend not one but TWO friends’ birthday parties, drink a fair amount of whisky and beer, and also to visit the newly-opened (and still partly being built) Scottish Parliament, located on a former (smelly) brewery site at the foot of Arthur’s Seat (in Holyrood Park.) One of the birthday parties was for an architect friend who, like me, is somewhat critical of the design of the parliament buildings, and we laughed about the role played by the original (Spanish) architect’s ghost, who apparently communicated regularly with his Italian architect widow during the course of construction. To use a phrase coined by Prince Charles (not so bonnie, he) the damn thing is – IMHO – a carbuncle. I have no idea why the Hebrew letter dalet is so prominently displayed on the building’s exterior. Or is it the butt of a Glock pistol?

To make things even better (?) construction costs for the project vastly and scandalously exceeded the budget, leading to considerable controversy and name-calling.

Edinburgh pilgrimage complete, we drove out to Turnhouse airport and took an afternoon flight to Prague. At the time, CSA, the national airline of the Czech Republic, flew twice daily between Prague and Edinburgh. Our plane was basically empty, and the service was discontinued soon after. But at the time it was a seriously cheap means of getting from Edinburgh to Istanbul, with a brief plane change in Prague. We flew in economy and were served decent (rather starchy) meals on both segments.

We arrived at Attaturk Airport around 9 PM, got visas issued by a border agent sporting a fabulous Ottoman mustache, and were met by our hotel’s driver (free shuttle, woo hoo) who took us to our comfortable lodgings in the Sultanahmet historic district. No, I don’t recall the name of the hotel; there are numerous decent mom-and-pop hotels in the old city, all much of a much as far as I can tell.

We only had a couple of days to explore Istanbul before collecting our RTW tickets (“paper” tickets at the time) from the British Airways office near Taksim Square in the newer part of the vast city (15+ million, fifth biggest in the world.) So we occupied ourselves with walks, visits to the Grand Bazaar and the smaller Egyptian Bazaar, the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosques, Topkapi Palace and other places where we were two out of thousands and thousands of tourists.

What can I say? Stunning, gorgeous, grotty, smelly, elegant, antique, colorful beyond words, grim and grand… The food in the bazaar stalls was to die for, the rug merchants relentless and hilarious, the mixture of European and Asian cultures dizzying. The traffic was awesome, the air contaminated with lord knows how many toxins, and the sight of a parade of ships through the Bosporus reminded us that for centuries this was the center of the world. Istanbul is a city not to be trifled with, but we had to, because we had to get home and get back to work.

To be continued...
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Old Jun 1st, 2020, 08:01 AM
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Phase 2 – North America Interlude

(Courtesy Great Circle Mapper)

We collected our RTW tickets from the pleasant people at the British Airways office in Istanbul, and the next morning made our way back to the airport and boarded a BA 767 for the 4-hour flight to Heathrow. After an hour or two in the BA lounge, we boarded a second flight, this one a 747 to Vancouver BC. Although BA flies nonstop from London to Seattle (a very profitable route due to all the corporate types who use the service) at the time the Oneworld Explorer ticket didn’t allow the use of BA “metal” between the UK and US cities, a rule which has since been eliminated. So flying into Vancouver was the solution. We had both ridden in first or business class before, but the trip, on the upper deck of the giant plane, was quite special. As ever, crossing Greenland was a high point.

After clearing Canadian border formalities, we picked up a one-way rental car at YVR and were home three hours later, tired but energized. Fifteen nights had passed since we had left.

Then we went back to work. This is one of the benefits of starting an RTW someplace other than home. Because the ticket is good for a year, you can break the trip into pieces and live something of a normal life between these phases, and not be overly concerned with the calendar. Because our ultimate plan was to visit destinations in the southern hemisphere during the local late winter to early spring, i.e., late summer in the northern hemisphere, we had a few months available to spend at home.

(A note about the work logistics: My employer was generous in letting me take some unpaid time off during the longer times I’d be gone. My wife owned her own company and had a partner handle her workload while we were overseas. Needless to say we were in frequent email contact and occasionally phone contact throughout the times we were gone.)

However we did use the RTW ticket for a limited amount of domestic travel. At the time the Oneworld Explorer allowed a total of 20 flights to be taken over the course of the year. (It’s currently 16.) However one was limited to four flights within each of the (four, in our case) continents one touched in the course of the trip, but six within North America. “North America” in airline parlance includes Central America as well as the Caribbean, but of the six allowed flights, only one can be a nonstop transcontinental flight. So over the Memorial Day weekend we used the ticket to attend an engagement party for our son and his fiance. Our future daughter-in-law is from Brooklyn, but she and our son met while both were living in Los Angeles, and in the spring of 2005 he was completing graduate studies at Columbia (while she was still in LA) so the party was sort of a combined graduation-engagement do.

We drove back up to Vancouver and took Cathay Pacific’s luxurious business class on their Vancouver – JFK nonstop, spent the weekend in New York feting the happy couple and meeting the new machatunim (her family) then flew back home, this time via Dallas, since we had blown the transcon segment on the way east. Then it was back to work until the end of July.

As we prepared to depart for the second and biggest part of the RTW trip, I left a day before my wife and flew to Chicago, then down to LA, so that I could optimize the ticket’s contribution to my frequent flyer status with American Airlines. Especially in business or first class, RTW tickets can provide a rich harvest in terms of redeemable frequent flyer miles as well as allowing one to achieve “elite” status with the airlines. This status conveys benefits like lounge access, free upgrades and other perks, and an extra day’s “mileage run” seemed like a good idea. My wife and I rendezvoused with our son and his future bride in LA; he had moved back there over the summer, studies complete. We spent a day with them, mainly eating at places like Nate and Al’s in Beverly Hills (only celebs present were Elliott Gould and Larry King, both regulars) and Martha’s Grill in Hermosa Beach, both long time haunts.

Then it was time to chase the sun.

To be continued...
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Old Jun 1st, 2020, 08:03 AM
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Phase 3 – Across the Pacific

(Courtesy Great Circle Mapper)

Seven years before, in late 1998, my wife and I had traveled to Fiji and New Zealand as part of a big sabbatical break, the highlight of which was a return to the US via a cargo freighter. But neither of us had visited Australia, and this was a bucket list item (along with Africa) that was a central draw for going the RTW route.

But rather than enduring a 15-hour flight, even one with flat beds, we decided to break the trip with a night in Hawaii. I found an amazing rate on an ocean-side room at the Royal Hawaiian, the “pink palace” on Waikiki Beach, so off we flew to Honolulu.

The Royal Hawaiian was everything we hoped for, and Waikiki was everything we dreaded, but an evening stroll a couple of blocks yielded a mom-and-pop café selling plate lunch-style meals, and some shave ice on the way back to the hotel revived our love of the islands. A sunset mai tai on the beach in front of the hotel, with a rainbow hovering over Diamond Head, wasn’t too shabby either.

The Royal Hawaiian

View from our room

On the beach

Our flight to Sydney the next day was long enough – 10½ hours on a rather clapped-out Qantas 747 – to leave us fairly knackered on arrival, but the Holiday Inn at Darling Harbour which we had booked was convenient and comfortable enough; the monorail that passed by our window has since been dismantled.

We spent our first two days wandering around Sydney, taking in the sights and the glorious weather. I really wasn’t sure what I expected of the city. I was familiar enough with the iconic pictures – opera house, bridge, beaches, etc., but of course it’s much more than that – a multicultural metropolis, glorious and grimy (not very – it reminded us a lot of Vancouver without the snow-capped mountains) and full of friendly people. But in a couple of days we didn’t even scratch the surface; at this stage of our tour of Australia Sydney was really a place to get our internal clocks adjusted and little more. We’d be returning to Sydney in a couple of weeks, so no need to push things. We did, however, spend an afternoon at the marvelous Taronga Zoo, seeing all sorts of marsupials and birds, as well as some reptiles ranging from deadly to seriously deadly. There are lots of ways to part company with the living in Australia.

On the plane ride from Honolulu we sat next to a lady from rural New South Wales who suggested that we might want to wander outside of Sydney while we were in the area. We asked where she might suggest – someplace not especially touristy but maybe a little interesting. She recommended her home town of Mudgee, which I confess neither of us had heard of. No worries, she replied, not that many Australians have heard of it either.

So after a couple of days in Sydney I designed a loop drive through the NSW countryside, got a car and off we went through the Blue Mountains to Mudgee. The scenery en route was very pleasant, very much like a northern California winter – bare vines in all the (many) vineyards, hazy blue skies over the Blue Mountains, occasional kangaroos in the distance, a fair number of sheep closer in. I won’t say the land was especially impressive, but there was certainly nothing unpleasant about it.

The weather was clear and quite chilly and our boutique-ish hotel possessed rather inadequate heating. Again, I’m afraid I don’t remember the name, but the attached restaurant was very nice. Mudgee itself was also pleasant but isn’t going to win any beauty contests, shall we say?

We spent the next day driving around, then after our second night in Mudgee, we moved on out to the coast around an otherwise very pleasant Port Stephens, where we stayed at a dismal “holiday camp” near a Koala reserve we wanted to visit. The cabins in this resort, basically mobile homes that had been de-wheeled, possessed no heaters aside from radiant heaters in the tiny bathroom, and halfway through the night I went to the mini-kitchen and opened the door to the oven and turned it on. As if. We froze, and the next day we schlepped through the reserve, seeing exactly zero koalas. The landscape was nice, there were lots of birds in the trees, but koalas? I presume they were there too, shivering. Back to Sydney we went, then it was off to the red centre.

Ayers Rock, or more correctly Uluru, is one of a few big red bumps in a big red world. The flight from Sydney took 3 ½ hours, during which the landscape went from green to brown to red, and evidence of settlement went from dense to sparse to zilch. We finally saw signs of settlement on the downwind leg to the airport, amounting to a few structures – hotels and other commercial facilities – clustered a few kilometers from the rock itself. In the distance is Kata Tjuṯa (aka “the Olgas”) another massive rock outcropping.

Our hotel was the Ayers Rock Resort, one of a few concessions within the national park that surrounds both landmarks. I had rented another car which we used to explore the area before joining a guided sunset dinner/walking tour, which featured an astronomer/historian’s fascinating “tour” of the southern sky and recounting of Uluru’s role in the first peoples’ culture and heritage. The sunset was everything promised, and the night sky (there was no moon at the time) was breathtaking – best I’ve seen anywhere except the far north in Alaska. Worth every penny (and it cost a lot of pennies.)

In the pre-dawn morning we drove out to one of the locations where the sunrise views of the rock were supposed to be terrific, and they were. Then we drove around to various walks and mini-oases surrounding the rock, then out to an overlook of Kata Tjuta, which we only visited briefly, owing to the arrival of a few million flies doing their best to be swallowed, inhaled, or before they could take up residence in our inner ears. I had heard about the flies in central Australia, and even though we were visiting in late winter, they were awful. I can’t imagine what it’s like in high summer.

The views from the plane arriving, and on the roads and trails near Uluru, only gave hints of the vastness and harshness, and also the beauty, of this region. I imagine it’s a landscape one loves or hates; I think any middle ground would be difficult to hold.

We returned to the airport, dropped the car, and waited for our flight to Cairns, from the desert to the rain forest. In due time the Qantas 737 arrived and 2 ½ hours later we were on the shores of the Coral Sea.

For the next few days our base of operations was the Palm Cove district of Cairns. This is a very pleasant waterfront community, with a number of small hotels, cafes, bars and shops facing the long golden beach, fringed with the village’s namesake palm trees. It’s almost a cliché of Pacific beauty, that beach, and morning walks along it, before the (relatively few) tourists arrived by mid-day, were magical.

We hung out at the beach for a time, took an aerial tram through the Kuranda National Park rain forest that covers the hillsides just inland from the coast, visited a bird sanctuary, and traveled to the pretty but quite touristy town of Port Douglas, from which we took a tour, including an underwater tour, of the Great Barrier Reef.

The area is all about the natural environment, and especially after the reef tour, we left more concerned than ever about the fate of these global treasures. Even though this was in 2005, the warnings and citations of evidence about the peril facing these resources left us very troubled indeed. I can only imagine how it is now. But they are glorious places indeed.

We returned to Sydney for a final few days in the metropolis, spent doing more of the same things we’d done before – being tourists. We managed to attend a performance at the Opera House (less impressive indoors than outside, a common feature of many performance venues) and visited Bondi Beach. This time we stayed in the Kings Cross district, much more lively than our previous Darling Harbour-adjacent digs.

Beach suits

One stop service

Ah, pies.

A highlight of this visit was an afternoon spent at a (fairly empty) Luna Park – the great amusement park located across the bay from the Circular Quay ferry terminal. This is very old-school stuff, immensely enjoyable, with what must be one of the best locations in the world for such things.

And then it was time to move on. Our flight on a Qantas 747 to Johannesburg took what was described by the flight crew as a very unusual route.

Adieu, Oz

On the seat back

Out the window

To be continued...
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Old Jun 1st, 2020, 08:05 AM
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Phase 4 – Africa

Visiting Africa had been a priority for both of us for a long time. Like many Americans we were unwilling to visit South Africa in particular during the apartheid era, and reluctant to visit Zimbabwe during Mugabe’s rule. But some expat South African friends, who had left their home in Cape Town during apartheid, and one of whose parents still lived in Zimbabwe, helped alleviate our concerns, as well as pooh-poohing (to a degree) all the negative buzz about personal safety in South Africa that was prevalent in the early 2000s.

So when the RTW ticket brought the opportunity for us to visit southern Africa, there was no hesitation on our part to make this one of the central aims of the whole undertaking.

The plan was to fly to Johannesburg from Sydney, then quickly (the next morning) head up to Chobe National Park in Botswana, then travel overland to Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwe side of the Zambezi River, then fly back to Johannesburg, from which we would drive up to Kruger National park in the northeastern part of South Africa. We would stay at a game lodge owned by some friends of our expat pals in Seattle, then return to Johannesburg and fly down to Cape Town to end the Africa portion of the big trip.

Part A – Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe

The long flight (14 hours) on the Qantas 747 was pleasant enough, particularly the part where we overflew the edge of Antarctica and over extensive sea ice. We were told this was a much more southerly route than typical but apparently shortened the flying time significantly by avoiding headwinds on the more northerly route. Even so, and despite the excellent service and comfortable lie-flat beds on the big jet, by the time we got to O. R. Tambo Airport in Johannesburg, were bused to immigration and customs, and got the shuttle to our airport hotel (the Southern Sun, very comfortable) we were pretty well ruined.

Nevertheless, the next morning there we were, reporting to the Comair (British Airways South African affiliate) check-in counter for our flight to Livingstone, Zambia. The goal was Chobe National Park in Botswana, on the other side of the Zambezi River from Zambia (and also from Zimbabwe.) In retrospect we could have just as easily (more so, actually) flown into Victoria Falls airport, from which the transfer to our lodgings in Botswana would not have required a river crossing, but when we planned the trip, correspondence with the lodge indicated the trip from LVI was no big deal, and they would arrange a van and driver to take us and other guests from the airport to the hotel.

Well, not exactly. We learned a new expression that morning, “TIA.” This is Africa.

The van from the airport was to take us to a ferry crossing at a place called Kazungula, where, the driver said, we would travel as foot passengers across the Zambezi, where another van would meet us and take us to the lodge. On the bus we sat next to another American couple who asked us where we were going, and when we told them our proposed itinerary, they looked grim for a moment and said, “No, you’re coming with us.” Turned out their daughter was married to a doctor who worked in Kasane, the Botswanan town adjacent to Chobe National Park, and this was their umpteenth time visiting their family members.

How would we get across the river? Well, you’ll ride with us in a boat our son-in-law has chartered to meet us. Why not take the ferry? Because it sank two years previously and has had numerous close calls in the past few years. Oh, and once you’re in the river you need to be able to swim faster than the crocodiles. Oh-kaayy. TIA.

So the Zambian van driver deposited us and our bags on the river bank and we waited a few minutes while our new friends phoned across the river and told their son-in-law we were ready. Presently a 15-foot (or so) aluminum skiff appeared and beached itself, we self-loaded and were pushed off into the river. There were a variety of small craft on the water, some propelled by long poles, presumably sticking close to shore. The current was fairly strong.

Partway across, I dipped my hand into the water to see how warm it was, and was quickly admonished NOT TO DO THAT owing to hostile life forms in the river, ranging from microbial to things with big teeth, that would enjoy my offering.

We arrived in Botswana close to the border controls post, where we bid farewell to our new friends, then were made to walk through a trough full of disinfectant, owing to a major outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the region. Properly stamped in, we awaited for the van with the game lodge’s sign on the door, and it presently arrived and took us on a ten-minute drive to our accommodations.

Our lodgings for the next two nights was the Chobe Safari Lodge, a mid-priced establishment located a couple of km from the actual national park boundary. Unlike higher-priced game lodges in southern Africa, this lodge ran everything on an “a la carte” basis, meaning your room was priced independently of meals and drinks, and safari excursions into the park were also supplemental. Later in the trip we’d stay at an inclusive lodge in a private reserve adjacent to Kruger National Park, where everything (save alcohol) was included in the (high) daily tariff.

We were escorted to our “rondavel,” a circular-ish cabin with a thatched roof that’s typical for these lodges. We had to pause en route while a small group of banded mongooses occupied the walkway, oblivious to the two-legged inhabitants seeking passage.

Once installed in our rondavel, we decompressed a little, when wandered down the path to the main lodge, for a beer or three in the open air bar, sitting above the river. As it was winter, night came early and there were no mosquitoes, which had been a concern great enough for us to begin malaria prophylaxis en route to Africa. In the gloaming at some great distance we could see an elephant silhouetted. Yep, we’re here.

Dinner was at an outdoor buffet, the tables lit with electric lanterns. Halfway through dinner there was a blackout, so while we could see our food, the service lines were in the dark. This was a frequent occurrence, we were told; the power comes from Zambia and is quite irregular. TIA. Eventually it came back on and remained on for the duration of our stay.

The next morning we were scheduled to take our first game drive. We were picked up by a concessionaire and driven in an open Land Rover to the national park entry post. Chobe National Park is famous for its elephants, boasting that nearly 50,000 of the animals are present. It’s also a “big five” area (so called because it contains the five most popular species for sightings, namely elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards and buffalo) but we didn’t spot any major predators during our tour.

Which is not to say we didn’t see dangerous stuff. Less than a minute after entering the park, the driver slammed on the brakes to keep from running over a boomslang snake in the middle of the road. This is a beautiful and extremely venomous green snake (principally a tree-dweller) that is not to be trifled with. It slithered rapidly into the brush at the side of the road (on the other side of the truck from us, hence no pictures.) It would not be, however, our only encounter with dangerous reptiles. Far from.

Being our first-ever safari game drive, we had no preconceptions of what sorts of things we’d see or what to expect. I’ll just post some pictures to illustrate. We returned to the lodge around lunchtime, dazzled, elated, dusty and ready for a beer. Or, more accurately, a hard cider, which I became quite fond of during the balance of the trip.

The day’s game viewing was not done, however. Around 4 PM we embarked on a river boat for a cruise along the Chobe River, a major tributary of the Zambezi. In short order it became clear why the hand-in-the-river stunt from the previous day had been a seriously bad idea. There were lots of birds and some hippos, too, but my, what big teeth you have, Mr. Croc.

That night, partway through the buffet dinner, someone at a neighboring table let out a whoop, which was followed by yelps and sounds of distress from all over the big terrace. The cause, we learned presently, was the sudden arrival of many – many – thousands of flying beetles, “night beetles,” or so we were told, that are attracted by the lights. In seconds, our table was completely covered in these black bugs, as was the flagstone-covered terrace and pretty much everything else. Surprisingly none landed in anybody’s hair, but the overall scene was beyond ghastly, real Indiana Jones stuff. The wait staff started crunching their way around the tables, switching off everyone’s battery-powered table lamps, then the whole place went dark. Oh great, I thought, another power outage. Nope, just the only means of getting rid of the bugs, and it worked unbelievably. They vanished just as quickly as they’d arrived, but that was the end of the dinner service. And how. We were accompanied back to our rondavel by a flashlight (torch) – wielding staff member, a common practice in camps where those glowing eyes you see in the dark might belong to something unfriendly. (The Chobe Safari Lodge has an ongoing problem with visiting nocturnal hippos, the species responsible for far more human deaths than anything else in the bush.) Okey dokey. TIA.

The next morning saw a repeat of the previous morning’s excursion into the national park, with similar results. Is “gobsmacked” a relative term or an absolute? A couple more pictures…

Then it was into a minivan and off to the land of Mugabe.

The border crossing into Zimbabwe provided one with a rather immediate introduction to the country that had been called “the garden of Africa” but which in 2005 was passing through a period of considerable domestic unrest, fueling - or fueled by - hyperinflation. We paid the required visa-on-entry fee (I believe US$40 or its equivalent in other currencies) but then were instructed by the van driver to add another $10 per person as a “service fee” to the border guards.

Our hotel for a one-night stay in Victoria Falls was a very nice Mercure, located on the Zambezi river bank a mile or so upstream of the falls. (The hotel has since been dropped by the Accor chain I believe.) Again, we were admonished not to get too close to the river, owing to various creatures that might take a disliking to us. All we saw were some more baboon families, par for the course as it turned out. The hotel was quite empty, and from all appearances was having a rough go of things. The kitchen had little food on the menu and it became quite clear that food shortages were a serious issue in the country. All prices were in dollars, Euros or Sterling, but I exchanged (I think) a US $5 note for a Zimbabwean note with a face value of $1 million Zimbabwe dollars. It got much worse a couple of years later.

The next morning a guide we had previously arranged took us up to the falls for a walking tour on the Zimbabwe side. He was very knowledgeable and eventually told us that he was a teacher by training but had to take on guiding services since his pay was inadequate to support his family. We learned that there was no fuel – diesel or gasoline/petrol to be had in the entire area, and that he (and everyone else) had to pay black market tank truck drivers to get any fuel, or else amass enough hard currency that they could drive over into Zambia or all the way to Bulawayo or Harare in order to fill the tank. The next day, on the way to the airport, the same guide risked a brief political comment, with predictable subject matter, and when we arrived at the airport we were repeatedly accosted by people asking for help in funding their need for cooking oil and rice. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as guilty as a western tourist in a third world country as I did in those 24 hours in Zimbabwe.

As for the falls themselves, to be honest we were a bit underwhelmed. As it was mid-winter and the dry season, the flow of water over the falls was a fraction of its springtime and summer high; on the other hand we could actually see the water, something much more difficult with higher flow, due to the heavy mist. Even so, we were soaked by the spray, and burnt by the hot sun. For us, it was definitely a “been there done that” moment, not especially leavened by the rather depressing social atmosphere. On the way back to the hotel, we passed a deserted petrol station, the only sign of life being a troop of baboons occupying the service islands.

That afternoon we drove out past the famous "big tree" (a giant baobab) to VFA airport, boarded a Comair 737, and two hours later were back at the Southern Sun at JNB, elated, dazed and a little confused.

Part B – Lions and zebras and cobras, oh my!

By now we were thoroughly de-jetlagged, so I didn’t feel uncomfortable in collecting a car the next morning and heading out to our next destination, a game lodge located in a private reserve abutting Kruger National Park, in the northeastern part of South Africa.

Kruger National Park is justly famous for its size and the diversity of habitats within its boundaries, and is generally regarded as a “must see” destination for wildlife enthusiast visitors to South Africa. But it’s not just the national park; abutting the park all along its western, northern and southern edges (the eastern edge is Mozambique) are a series of private reserves, which, for the most part, are unfenced, allowing the animals to traverse freely between the national park and these private lands.

In these reserves are situated numerous private lodges and camps, generally providing a higher (usually hugely so) standard of accommodation and service than the “rest camps” located inside the park. The other – major – advantage of staying in these places is that while the national park restricts vehicles to the roads crisscrossing its area, in the private reserves the lodge operators can go off-road, thereby allowing greatly enhanced opportunities to follow the animals as they travel through the bush. The private reserves also allow night-time viewing and drives, which is far more restricted within the park proper.

Our expat friends back home had made arrangements for us to spend a three nights at one of these lodges, located in the Balule reserve in the northwestern part of the Kruger “complex.” Ezulwini (Zulu for “heaven”) comprises two main camps, one in the bushveld not far from the main highway in the region, the other located on the banks of the Oliphants River, a major stream that’s one of the chief tributaries of the great Limpopo River, which enters the Indian Ocean at Maputo in Mozambique. (The more time we spent in Africa on this trip and subsequent ones, the more we fell in love with the names. Zambezi, Limpopo… glorious.)

The drive from Johannesburg to Ezulwini was an all-day affair, not especially due to poor road conditions (they aren’t – basically European or North American standards for the most part, and South African drivers are among the most considerate we’ve experienced.) However the distances are great, and daylight was short as we were still in the winter, and we’d been admonished NOT to drive after dark on these country roads, where pedestrians, cattle, or the occasional elephant might make for an unhappy encounter. So we finally pulled into Billy’s Camp, the main lodge, in the late afternoon, after that evening’s game drive had departed. We were told we had been slated to stay for one night at the River Lodge, so our bags were loaded from our rental car into a Land Rover, and we drove for almost an hour through the gathering gloom, on extremely rough roads, to the River Lodge, where it turned out we were the only patrons. We weren’t alone; our guide/driver and a cook/housekeeper and her husband were present, but it was, to tell the truth, a little creepy, what with all the noises in the night – various bird calls, crunching noises from elephants or (worse) hippos… Our accommodations were lovely, but after a much more high-density experience in Botswana, this was… unsettling, shall I say?

We were woken before daylight, which we came to accept as standard practice, were offered coffee and biscuits and were told to pack our bags, which were to be transferred back to the main lodge while we spent the morning on a game drive. We piled into the same vehicle that had brought us the night before, just us and the driver, and bumped through the bush for a time until we came upon another vehicle, this one with an Italian family already aboard. We transferred to this new truck, while ours evidently returned to fetch our bags, and we were off into the bush.

The Balule reserve, like many of the private lands around Kruger National Park, is in the lowveld region of South Africa. While heavily forested, the growth tends to be low and thick rather than the more open spaces we’d experienced in Botswana. We had been told that the winter was the best time to visit this area, because the absence of leaves on the trees and shrubs allowed for improved sight lines and made game spotting considerably easier than in the wet and leafy summer. (The absence of mosquitoes was another big benefit of traveling when we did.)

Thus the game drive experience at Ezulwini was very different indeed than our previous excursions at Chobe. Here there were just six of us in the vehicle (the three Italians, us and the driver) versus a dozen or more in Botswana. Here we were bouncing through the brush, dodging branches (many with serious thornage) whipping toward our eyes or limbs, squinting along with the driver/tracker through the “thicket” in hopes of seeing a rhino or a lion, or coming upon beasts in the middle of the dirt track/road. It’s a far more engaging time, and great fun, as the driver can’t help but to be as much a teacher as a guide. You come back knowing a helluva lot more about animal behavior, the ecology of the area – it’s advanced biology, zoology, botany… all in one. Fabulous.

As for the wildlife viewing, well, while we didn’t see any big predators that morning, it was damn fine anyway. Samples:

We returned, this time back at Billy’s Camp, around 10:30 AM, where we were fed a big and elaborate breakfast, then directed to our “new” rondavel, where our bags awaited, having been transported by the staff in the interim. We showered and relaxed as the overcast from the morning began to burn off, and the temperature started to rise. We ate a very light lunch around 2, then reported for the evening game drive around 4 or 4:30.

The first hour or so of this drive was not particularly productive; we saw a few animals concealed in the brush, and came upon a rhinoceros at a water hole, but it was too gloomy for decent pictures, and the driver said the rhinos don’t like it when the hand-held spotlight (which all the vehicles carry) is shined on them.

Once it was totally dark (like, boom) the driver would scan the surroundings with the spot, arcing it back and forth, looking for eye glint. This is the means used by the trackers to spot the wildlife at night – you’ll be looking in a tree and suddenly two yellow dots are glowing back at you. The spotlight lands on them and bingo, it’s a baboon, or maybe something else. As we were heading back to the camp, there were a couple of really big glints in the brush, and on closer observation, yep, our first lion.

Like all the wildlife in the national park and adjacent reserves, the animals are generally not spooked by the vehicles; over their lives they’ve come to recognize the trucks as non-threatening things. It would be an entirely different picture, however, were one of the occupants of said vehicles to alight. Depending on who’s watching, you’d either be a threat or a happy meal.

Lion-watching over, we returned to the camp for a lovely dinner, after-dinner drams, and bed. This time the elephant noise was really loud.

The next morning we hit the jackpot. Zebras surrounding lookout giraffes. Elephants hiding in the shrubbery. Lots of antelope of various species, from tiny and delicate up to major league. Oh, and a pair of mating lions. Holy cow.

Then it was back to the camp again for breakfast, showers, lunch and relaxation.

So there I was getting dressed after a noontime shower, while my wife, who had preceded me, was outside in the company of the Italian family’s 10-year old daughter, who had taken a shine to my sweetie. The day had turned warm and sunny, very nice indeed.

Dressed, I step out the door of our rondavel to join the group, when as one my wife, the daughter, and the Italian mother all shout at me to STAND STILL AND GO BACK INSIDE SLOWLY. Say what? They’re pointing at a potted plant next to the door of our cabin. I look down, and there, maybe five feet from my shoes, is an olive/brown snake curled around the base of the terra cotta plant pot.

Now I’m not especially frightened by snakes, but I haven’t had so many snake encounters in the wild that I can speak to a lot of experience. (My previous experience consisted of trying to find out why our scoutmaster hadn’t come out of his tent on a scout camping trip in the mountains near Los Angeles. Turned out he was wide awake, but the rattlesnake coiled on his sleeping bag, between his legs, wasn’t. It took another scout leader and his .22 rifle to end the standoff.) But this was the case of not knowing what sort of snake it was led me to follow my wife’s orders, and quietly to retreat back into the room and close the door g-e-n-t-l-y.

The Italian husband had meanwhile run off to find one of the lodge staff, and snake duty fell to one of the housekeepers, a sturdy lady in her forties, who arrived on the scene with a broom. She reached with the broom handle to prod the serpent, which dutifully unwound itself from the potted plant and slithered out into the open, where upon its brains were promptly bashed in by Ms. Angry Broom. I was called to join the group, coast cleared, which I did.

I inquired, what sort of snake was it? Oh, the now-arrived guide said, it’s just a Mozambique spitting cobra. We get them all the time.

Say what? Yep, Naja mossambica, a highly poisonous beastie that can spit its venom up to 10 feet, generally aimed at the victim’s eyes. I learned later that it might well be responsible for numerous deaths in southern Africa, mainly limited to illegal immigrants entering South Africa from Mozambique or Zimbabwe (of which there are many) who don’t have access to medical treatment.

But there it was, still dead, on the dirt in front of our rondavel. A debate followed. The Italian father (who wore way too many gold chains around his neck, if you get my drift) pleaded with the staff to let him take the snake home as a souvenir. No, the staff insisted. They needed to drag the snake back into the bush – not carry, drag – because its mate would likely come looking for it and would follow the scent as far as he/she could track it. Following it to our friend’s suitcase would make for a poor outcome to his holiday.

I still dream about the scene at customs at FCO when they ask him if he has anything to declare, or they open his suitcase for inspection. Mama mia!

We went on another game drive that evening, then the following day we left the lodge and drove to the northernmost entrance to Kruger National Park itself, and self-drove through the park to one of the main “rest camps,” this one overlooking the Olifants River (downstream from the lodge.) Driving through the park was a joy; the landscape varied hugely, and while the game viewing was nowhere as intense as on the reserve (much was obscured by roadside brush) it wasn’t all that bad, particularly when we came upon some ground hornbills, huge birds with even huger beaks. But the sense of openness and freedom that came from driving through this stunning environment was worth the effort.

We got back too late to join the evening game drive, but that was okay, we had to be up early to get back to Joburg during daylight, and so it was. If we had been stoked by our days in Botswana, I don’t know how to describe our feelings on that drive. We had been told that Africa was addictive. Well, no sh*t, Sherlock. Junkies.

The Southern Sun was by now a familiar place, we had a good meal, then in the morning it was time to fly south to the Mother City.

To be continued...

Last edited by Gardyloo; Jun 1st, 2020 at 08:18 AM.
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Old Jun 1st, 2020, 08:10 AM
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Part C – The Western Cape

Yes, it’s one of the world’s most beautiful urban environments. Yes, the contrasts between rich and poor are beyond breathtaking. Yes, words fail in trying to describe the countryside. But I’ll try.

Trees groaning under their loads of oranges. Whales spouting in front of rocky beaches, the home of penguins. Food and wine to make the French weep. Neighborhoods of houses that look like they were victims of a mass collision of paint trucks. Mansions behind electric fences, shacks with no addresses, and across the water, a former prison that speaks of hope and redemption.

Oh the sea is cold and the sky is grey
Look across the Island into the Bay
We are all islands till comes the day
We cross the burning water…

We had previously been introduced to the music of Johnny Clegg, the “white Zulu” and one of the icons of the fight against apartheid. But listening to his music on the car CD player as we drove from the airport into Cape Town, past the grim “informal settlements” that abut the freeway and into the urban core, eventually allowing Robben Island to come into view… well, that’s one of those big moments in one’s life of travel.

In 2005 it had been 25 years since Nelson Mandela had been released from prison, and over 20 years since he had become president. In our travels thus far around this amazing, frustrating and gorgeous country, the disparities between black and white had been obvious, but it wasn’t until Cape Town that we – rightly or wrongly – started getting a sense of what South Africa could become, and indeed, hopefully is becoming, even given the starts and stops between then and now. The Rainbow Nation.

The setting is every bit as glorious as advertised. Table Mountain, often covered by its “table cloth” of clouds, looming above the city and the bay. Lion’s Head, a peak in the middle of the city, forcing roads and houses to circle its base. The mountains extending south toward the Cape of Good Hope, the vine-covered fields amidst the citrus groves into the Winelands. Kirstenbosch Gardens, aka Eden… it makes you dizzy.

The cultural complexity is immediately apparent. Black, brown, white, and everything in between. Afrikaans, English and Xhosa are the predominant languages, but there’s also Chinese, Malayan, Hindi, even some Yiddish here and there. And of course other African tongues, including some from far away. Cape Malay food is to die for, or you can get fish that was swimming hours before, or beef, lamb, kudu…

Where to start? In our case it was in a lovely bed-and-breakfast house in the Bantry Bay district, just south of the trendy Sea Point neighborhood. We negotiated our way easily enough with our rented car, and received a warm welcome. Our accommodation offered a 180 degree view of the bay and a part of the city – stunning and extremely reasonable.

After settling in, we mulled about what to do; the day was sunny and warm-ish, but we knew the weather in Cape Town in the late winter can be very changeable, so on the landlord’s advice we drove to the base of Table Mountain and took the gondola up to the summit. There was no telling that the conditions would be good for the rest of our stay, and as it turned out this was a bit prescient.

The views from the top are, predictably, stunning. You’re overlooking the city, with Lion’s Head there below you. Off to the north the coast vanishes into the mist; to the east the Cape Flats likewise, and to the south the mountains form a line of peaks that look like something from Middle Earth. There are flowers and birds and little Cape hyraxes (aka “Dassies”) scurrying around the rocks. Everybody is taking pictures of the scenery and of themselves, bracing against a very cold wind, and doing what tourists do on mountaintops around the world. But out there in the bay is the low profile of Robben Island.

We took the landlord’s advice and had dinner in the residence, where dinner, bed and breakfast was offered a couple of times a week. While I can’t recall the menu I do remember that the food, wine, and companionship (two other tourist couples, both from the UK) were outstanding, as was the view from our bedroom.

The next morning was overcast and threatening rain (it was still winter, after all) so it was perfect penguin weather. We drove south an hour or so, through stunning countryside obscured occasionally by rain squalls, to Simon’s Town, where the Boulders Beach reserve is home to numerous African penguins. It was our first time seeing penguins in the wild, so a great many megapixels were allocated recording them. We took our time returning to Cape Town, had a light meal in Sea Point, and returned to our B&B.

For our second full day in Cape Town we had arranged for a township tour. Our driver met us and drove us to Khayelitsha, one of the vast townships that occupy the “Cape Flats” to the east of the city.

The tour was somewhat canned, which we anticipated, and involved a stop at a church where small children miraculously appeared, ready to sing and to accept donations, and at a “traditional healer’s” house where we were offered various folk medicines purported to cure infertility, bad breath, or to obtain one’s true love, or perhaps get rid of one’s mother in law. Hokey, fun. Care to donate? Sure.

But the township itself, and the visit to the District Six museum that followed, were sobering enough. Here was visual, vivid, real-time confirmation of the inhumanity of the apartheid regime, and the courage required to overcome generations of imposed poverty and disenfranchisement. It was raining on and off by the evening, so we grabbed a quick dinner someplace and went back to our books. On the TV were political ads for the upcoming general election, one memorable one talking about the “power of X” on the ballot. We were, of course, aware that the political scene in South Africa was complex and full of factionalism, accusations of corruption, and all that. Democracy just doesn’t happen; we had traveled enough in less-than-free places to know the signs. But more freedom is better than less, and South Africa’s wisdom in choosing truth and reconciliation over vengeance was evident.

The next day brought this home. In the morning we drove up to Victoria and Alfred (not Albert) waterfront and browsed through the shops for a while before it was our turn to board the ferry to Robben Island, to visit the prison where Mandela and other political prisoners were housed for years. The crossing to the island was very rough; the weather had come up in the meantime. The narration on the boat talked about how the cold water and the presence of numerous sharks – great whites in particular – mad for a very secure setting for the prison.

The tour of the island was, as expected, horrific and yet uplifting. How the prisoners survived is testament to their strength, to add a cliché to the narrative. And there it is – the Mother City across the bay. What a remarkable place.

Tour over, we spent some more time at the V & A Waterfront, then retreated back to Sea Point for a fabulous seafood dinner, then back to our digs and bed.

Then it was time to hit the road one last time in South Africa. We left the B&B fairly early and drove down the coast to Hermanus, a well-known seafront vacation destination, from which whale watching and shark-watching excursions are offered in the proper seasons. The coastal road remains up there with some of the most scenic drives we’d ever made, and in fact the whole day – from the coast through the mountains to the vineyards and orchards around Franschhoek and Stellenbosch In the “winelands” region – was a case of one OMG experience after another.

In Hermanus there were whales spouting offshore, on the mountain road leading inland we had to stop a couple of times to allow the baboons to get out of the way, and sitting in the sun in Franschhoek with a superb meal and an even better glass of local wine… sigh.

Of course any drive through the South African countryside provides frequent reminders of the legacy of apartheid – shanty towns on the outskirts of the major communities, minibuses packed with black commuters traveling into white districts, gorgeous Cape Dutch homes in fields lined with blooming rhododendrons...

Our hotel in Stellenbosch was in the heart of that gorgeous little university town. It was small, family-run, very friendly and very affordable. At breakfast the next morning we sat with an employee of the US Agriculture Department (!) who was resident during the citrus season to pre-inspect oranges that were being shipped home. What a terrible job. Not.

Our evening walk around Stellenbosch ended a long but marvelous day of sightseeing. If we hadn’t already committed to returning ASAP this would have done it, but it was time to go.

Our last day in Africa was a full one. Our breakfast in Stellenbosch was followed by an hour’s drive back into central Cape Town for a quick visit to the Bo-Kaap district, where generations of Cape Malay residents have painted their stucco-covered houses in brilliant colors. In the years since this trip, evidently gentrification has changed the culture of the Bo-Kaap pretty significantly, but regardless, this is a remarkable place. In subsequent visits we got to experience Cape Malay food more thoroughly, something we wished we’d done on this trip.

Our stay in Cape Town ended with a stop at the Kirstenbosch botanical gardens, the famous reserve on the side of Table Mountain. The gardens purport to include plants from all parts of South Africa, using the slope of the mountain to create different micro-ecologies reflective of the plants’ home region. I don’t know how effective this is, but the gardens are nothing short of stunning. More than stunning, but words fail. Then it was back to CPT, drop the car, and wait for our evening flight to London.

* * *

I don’t especially want to wax pompous about those days in South Africa, but looking back there’s no escaping the fact that this was one of those moments where travel changes your lives.

We were both head-over-heels in love. Not starry-eyed or puppy love; loving a place requires that you acknowledge the ugly as well as the beautiful. Africa, or the tiny fraction of it that we’d experienced over the previous days, won’t let you make sweeping observations. There are yings for every yang, thousands of them.

We had nothing in common with the Tsonga-speaking lady who’d whacked the cobra, nor with the Afrikaans-speaking landlord at our hotel in Stellenbosch. Their stories are not our stories, and yet…

Those days in Africa changed us. The following year we came back, and the year after that, and the year after that. Three years after this first trip, my wife traveled with a big Seattle-based NGO to visit some of their project sites in Kenya, where they were working as one of the chief operators fielding the Gates Foundation’s and the US PEPFAR program’s AIDS prevention and treatment mission. During that trip during a visit to a poorly-equipped hospital in western Kenya, she came upon a ward of children all suffering from a type of pediatric cancer endemic to the area but rare elsewhere. This disease, called Burkitt’s lymphoma, is incredibly aggressive but also eminently treatable if one has the right medications. Which they didn’t.

So my wife, ever one to take a dare, came home and started dialing for dollars. We set up a nonprofit charity, and over the next year managed to arm-wrestle $1 million in cash and at least $3 million in contributed drugs, supplies and equipment, which she (we) sent off to Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania where this disease is rampant. Within three years after that, over 800 African children had been treated, the majority of their lives saved, through those efforts. My wife died in 2015 but our son has picked up the reins. I won’t preach about the transformative power of travel, but, well, I guess I am. For us, it started with these couple of weeks in southern Africa.

To be concluded...
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Old Jun 1st, 2020, 08:13 AM
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Phase 5 – Intermission

Our original plan was to break the RTW in London, travel home for the fall and winter, then to return to Europe in the spring of 2006 and finish the trip then, with more time in Istanbul after visiting some of my wife’s family in Israel.

However by the time we got home, it had become clear that work and family commitments, namely the pending wedding of our son and his fiancé, were going to put the kibosh on any lengthy travels in the spring and summer, by which time the RTW ticket would have turned into a pumpkin. We couldn’t afford the time to do the Israel-Turkey portion of the trip upon our arrival from Cape Town, so we went home as planned, but then started configuring a plan to come back to Europe before the end of the year to complete the RTW. As it happened, pushing the completion to be in hand before the end of the calendar year would also allow us both to – with a little extra flying – make Executive Platinum status with American Airlines, conveying significant perks for further travel. (AA status is based on a calendar year basis.) At the time that seemed like a decent incentive to wrap it up in ’05, so that was the plan.

Our route home (Seattle) from Cape Town involved flying on the RTW ticket to London, then taking a long stopover (as far as the RTW was concerned) while we traveled back to the US using conventional tickets.

That summer, American Airlines had started a Shannon (Ireland) – Boston nonstop service using 757 narrow-body planes with an all-economy configuration, even though the domestic first class seats (nothing to rave about, to be sure) were still in place. Given our existing Platinum status, we were able to book two of these seats without needing to upgrade our cheap one-way fare, so on arriving at Heathrow the morning after leaving Cape Town, we simply went over to Aer Lingus and hopped a flight to Shannon.

My wife had never been to Ireland, and it had been some years since I had been, so I booked us into a small hotel in Newmarket-on-Fergus for two nights, and we spent a day and a half driving around the countryside – up to the Cliffs of Moher, which I had last visited in the 1970s when it was something of a secret, but which was now inundated with tours buses and food trucks dispensing ghastly fare and three dollar cokes. Meh, we didn’t even leave the parking lot.

We went up to Galway where I went searching for any vestiges of the sort of Gaeltacht culture I had observed in the ‘70s. Nope, just shops selling hugely overpriced woolen goods and some decent, but also hugely overpriced pottery. Time doesn’t stand still, I reckon.

But the landscape is still lovely, the people (generally) charming, and it was a nice break between long days of flying.

The flight to Boston was quick and reasonably comfortable, we spent the night at a Hyatt within Logan Airport, then the next day flew to southern California to meet with my stepdad, our son and our future daughter-in-law. After a couple of days in LA, it was home to our more-than-pleased dog, and, most importantly, our washing machine. There we would remain until December.

Phase 6 – There and back again

It’s the third week in December and time to finish. My wife’s office party and the end-of-the-year craziness at my office need to be survived, and then it’s into the not-so-loving embrace of American Airlines for a zigzag route to London. In the quest for elite qualification points we have ignored the comfortable Alaska Airlines nonstop from Seattle to Boston, instead submitting ourselves to MD-80 flights to Dallas and then Boston. More miles flown = more points. What an idiot I must be.

We arrive in Boston late at night, back to the Hyatt (Priceline, $80) and the next morning take the AA daytime flight to Heathrow, where we also arrive late in the evening. It’s dark and cold. It’s the longest night of the year.

We have three coupons left in the formerly-thick packet of paper RTW tickets (e-ticketing for RTWs came along a couple of years later) and they will be used for a brief visit to some of my wife’s family who live in Israel, followed by a return to London and a turn-around day to Istanbul and back. We need to be in LA by New Years – more family yoga.

At the time BA ran 767s on the LHR-TLV route, some fitted with lie-flat Club World seats in business class, some featuring “European” business class seating, 2-2-2 recliners in business class. On the outbound flight to Tel Aviv we are pod people, on the way back a few days later we’re in chairs. No big deal.

We spend the first couple of nights at our usual hotel facing the ocean in central Tel Aviv, and spend the day walking along the waterfront promenade, down to the Carmel market, to Jaffa and through the Neve Tzedek arts district. We eat falafel and shakshuka, and if you don’t know what that is, oh baby, you’re in for a treat.

Then we get a car and zip up to the Galilee. The biggest chunk of my wife’s Israeli family live on Kibbutz Degania Alef. This was the first of the kibbutz settlements, founded in 1910 and birthplace of Moshe Dayan. When one is asked by the Israeli immigration people where you plan to visit while in Israel, answering “Degania Alef” always – always – raises eyebrows.

The kibbutz has some guest quarters, but as it’s Hannukah (and Christmas Eve) they’re booked, so I’ve booked us into the Scots Hotel in Tiberias, around a 20 minute drive along Lake Kinneret, aka the Sea of Galilee, from the kibbutz. The Scots Hotel is run by the Church of Scotland, part of its mission in the holy land, and features a terrific (non-kosher, duh) restaurant and a lovely wee bar with substances like Glenmorangie available. Oh, what hardship. The hotel is gorgeous (a converted old charity hospital) and the setting couldn’t be nicer. All the staff are Arab Israelis, or possibly Druze from some of the Druze villages closer to the Lebanese border. Things are VERY close to one another in this part of the world.

For the next two or three days we hang out with the family. We drive around in this land of milk and honey, up into the Golan Heights, a stop at the lovely old village of Rosh Pina. Christmas comes and goes (weird to be in a Christian hotel in Israel) and then it’s time to say shalom to the family, back in the buggy and down the freeway to the airport, thence to London.

We arrive back at Heathrow with snow threatening, endure a ghastly night in an airport hotel, then fly to Istanbul the next morning. The official end of the RTW seems anticlimactic, because by this time we’re both getting really tired of airports. A couple of books purchased and a drink gulped in the BA lounge, it’s back to the same plane, with the same cabin crew, that we came with in the morning. We get back to Heathrow and nothing has changed, including the crap heater in our crap hotel room. My wife has caught cold and our mission for the next 36 hours is to get her to southern California in one piece. This is accomplished but at a cost – she’s grumpy and sick and the whole mileage-quest thing Is sour in both of our mouths. It’s only months later that we can reflect on the year’s travel, and on the changes it’s left in us.

I commemorated this Istanbul trip in a thread I posted on Flyertalk at the time. Here it is: Turkey Day

* * *

This was almost fifteen years ago. One of my birthday-boy pals in Edinburgh has died. So has my stepdad, and so has my wife. Our son is married, is now a working doctor married to another working doctor, and they have three kids that are the light of their grandparents’ lives.

We did more RTWs after this, always including Africa, and then did more trips to Africa outside the confines of all the rules. We used all the miles gained through this craziness to pay for trips to South America, to Europe, around the US, and as gifts to family members for graduations or other needed travel.

As I mentioned above, this first RTW opened our eyes, and ultimately our hearts, to Africa. My wife, who died much too young, nevertheless left a legacy that continues, and it makes me so proud to think about, and to write about, how it started.

Johnny Clegg died too, almost a year ago. South Africa is still very much a work in progress, and my wife’s work in Kenya and Uganda still goes on, despite the difficulties one encounters in those regimes. We met so many amazing people during this trip and in subsequent ones that all the places – the scenery, the animals, the food, the smells, all of it – seem quite secondary now.

I’m going to close with another one of Johnny Clegg’s songs, this one performed by his friends while he was dying.


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Old Jun 1st, 2020, 08:35 AM
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OH -- I am going to set this aside to read this evening . . . REALLY looking forward to reading all the details. Was almost ready to pull the trigger on a RTW (after studying several of your various primers) before all hell broke out in Feb -- will revisit the idea later this year after we see where things are going Covid-wise.
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Old Jun 1st, 2020, 02:08 PM
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Gardyloo-= Like you, I also have so much time on hand, so was just browsing and found this post written today---had to look into it. What a great treasure it is and I will need to read the whole thing and admire the photographs leisurely this evening.
You did an amazing journey with your dear wife and how you have these life-long memories. I can just imagine how the details are still fresh in your mind.
You will inspire many Fodor friends to start planning some fun adventures around the world. Now we are sitting at home and wondering when can we travel somewhere soon. Sadly have cancelled 2 different trips to Europe already and as we age, we worry, will we be able to really travel for few weeks to far away lands.
So much to think and to plan and of course, dream.
Thanks again, have a great day thinking of the good old days.
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Old Jun 6th, 2020, 09:46 PM
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What an INCREDIBLE report -- and photos. WOW!!!
Thanks for taking the time to post it.
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Old Jun 7th, 2020, 11:16 AM
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Finally got a chance to read the whole thing a couple of days ago. Just absolutely wonderful! Thanks so much for posting it.

I need to hire you to book my RTW when I get around to it . . . which won't flying in the pointy end of the plane is back to normal-ish/posh Ain't going to fly F or J if all I get is bottled water, cello wrapped sandwiches and pretzels.

Question - I've read several of your primers over the years and understand the fares vary quite a lot depending on the starting point. How does one find out where the bargain origination countries are at any given time?
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Old Jun 7th, 2020, 11:49 AM
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Originally Posted by janisj View Post
Question - I've read several of your primers over the years and understand the fares vary quite a lot depending on the starting point. How does one find out where the bargain origination countries are at any given time?
The airlines can't publish them because of various national and EU rules that require "all in" prices to be shown. Since any RTW is going to carry different taxes and fees depending on the destinations, the final prices can't be shown without violating those rules.

A couple of subscription services, Expert Flyer - https://www.expertflyer.com/ and KVS - KVS Availability Tool: Global Flight Availability, Award Availability, Fares, Timetables, Seat Maps - have means whereby you can see base prices for alliance RTW tickets, but again, the taxes and fees can easily add 20% - 30% to those figures depending on stopover points and choice of carriers, e.g. BA's extortionate surcharges. The alliance boards on Flyertalk - https://www.flyertalk.com/forum/glob...alliances-391/ - are also good resources on prices and features.
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Old Jun 12th, 2020, 01:00 PM
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Gardyloo, I just came across this account of your first RTW trip, and have enjoyed it so much. What an interesting description of all you saw and experienced. Great pictures, too. While I was planning our 50th anniversary RTW trip, I constantly referred to your Fodors posts for guidance. Your expertise was really helpful. And after I completed my own trip report on Fodors, you graciously outlined a possible itinerary based on my wishlist for a second round the world trip someday. After reading your wonderful descriptions of Africa, I now positivity know we need to travel there to experience a safari and to visit beautiful Cape Town. Hopefully, such a trip will be possible before too much time goes by. At our age, we can’t wait too long.

Again, thanks for posting this report.
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Old Jun 19th, 2020, 06:28 AM
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Thank you for posting. I enjoyed read your trip report very much.
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Old Jun 28th, 2020, 09:05 AM
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Thank You for taking the time to post.

It required a of of work for you to post this.

Thank You very much

Wow! What a trip you had .
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Old Jun 28th, 2020, 04:50 PM
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I too will take my time to look through this one.

Thank you!!
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Old Jun 29th, 2020, 06:04 AM
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I will comment on phases too. . Just read phase one and thank you for your descriptiveness. We have been in Istanbul and stayed in the Sultanahmet area as well. Your report reminds me of our wonderful time there. It’s a great city.

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Old Jun 29th, 2020, 10:04 AM
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Read phases 2 and 3. Wow! We stayed at that HI in Sydney too in 2017. It was a short walk to the ship, the Royal Ovation of the Seas where we embarked on our cruise.

Your pics are amazing. Will continue to follow!
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Old Dec 16th, 2020, 06:31 AM
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Wow! What an adventure.
Thanks so much for taking the time to post this for us to enjoy.
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Old Dec 27th, 2020, 10:28 AM
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Just stopping by to say hello and well done on the TR. I will read it this week!

I enjoyed your comment to the guy asking about traveling in chunks or one long stretch... I like your plan!
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Old Dec 27th, 2020, 01:37 PM
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Thank you for sharing this amazing gift of your RTW travels. Wonderful!
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