Travel Articles

When on safari, patience pays off - By Jeff Jones

Posted: January 26, 2013 - Post Bulletin, Rochester, MN

When we arrived at Nuamses Fountain, there were a few antelope, a couple of zebras and giraffes at the waterhole. Sitting in the shade of a mopane tree with a pleasant breeze blowing through the windows, we decided to settle in and see what happens. 

Being our second time in Namibia's Etosha National Park, we knew how to find a goodwater hole and wait; the animals would come to us. It didn't take long before the first herd of zebra strolled past us to the water hole. As the zebra herds came and went,the mixture and numbers of antelope increased with time, but no elephants yet. 

Our patience paid off. As we sat quietly in our 4x4 15 yards from the water hole, we were surrounded by herds of impala, kudu, gemsbok, springbok,zebra, giraffe and finally one bull elephant. 

We were fascinated watching the social dynamics at the waterhole. Each species habits own place in the pecking order. When a larger antelope, such as a kudu or gemsbok, arrived, the smaller impala and springbok would move aside to make room.When an elephant arrived, everybody moved aside until he had claimed his space.Only then did everyone cautiously return to the water's edge. It was amazing to watch all those many and varied species share that priceless resource, water.

While we had the water hole and all its wildlife mostly to ourselves, every so often, another park guest would pull up and sit for a few minutes before driving off in search of more wildlife. Many would ask before leaving if we had seen elephants. If only they would have stayed a few minutes longer, they, too, would have seen the bull elephant silently glide out of the trees on his way in for a drink and bath. 

Our silent patience had allowed us to blend into the background, and the wildlife carried on as if we weren't there. In our three hours at Nuamses Fountain, we saw a dozen species and hundreds of animals visit the water hole. At times, there would be only a handful of animals, and other times, there would be 100 or more. 

With the afternoon waning and an hour's drive ahead of us, we reluctantly put the cameras away, started the 4x4 and made our way back to camp. It was very important to keep track of the time and distance from camp. The camp gates close at sunset, and being late would cost us a visit to the ranger's office the next morning — been there, and it's nofun. 

The camp is fully enclosed, making it safe to freely walk throughout the facility.Complete with a small store, gift shops, post office, restaurant, pool and gas station,the camp was our oasis in this wild land. Being in the camp did not mean our game viewing was through for the day. Only a few yards from our chalet was the viewing area for our camp's own water hole. Illuminated at night, the waterhole was bustling with activity. 

After dinner, we would take our glasses of wine back to the water hole, sit on one of the many benches along the viewing wall and watch magic happen. Late evening is the best time to spot rhino coming in for a drink. One night, we watched a mother rhino with her two young walk to the pond's edge. After sampling the water, the youngest rhino crawled under the mama's belly and began suckling her rich milk instead.

 Our four days exploring Etosha exceeded our expectations. We knew we would return someday, and we did. Since our first trip to Namibia in 2000, we've been back several times, usually arriving in Windhoek, Namibia's capital, and driving north toward theAngola border to Etosha National Park, one of the oldest game preserves in southernAfrica. 

We extended our 2007 adventure to 10 days and covered much more of this marvelous country. This trip took us south from Windhoek to the Kalahari Desert before turning west over the Naukluft Mountains and across the Namib Desert to the 1,000-foot-high dunes of Sossusvlei. 

From Sossusvlei we drove north to the coastal resort town of Swakopmund, then on to the Damaraland region with its buttes and bluffs much like our Monument Valley. All the stories we heard about the natural wonders of this ancient and beautiful country were true.

Last year, we returned again,this time with 10 friends with which to share this magical place. Our original mission in traveling here had been to see the wildlife, and time and time again, we have never been disappointed. 

The Chase, A Safari Experience - By Jeff Jones

Posted: Rochester, MN Post Bulletin  January 2, 2015

It was our last full day on safari in Botswana, sitting in our open Land Cruiser bouncing along the sand and gravel trail. Connie, our guide from the Chobe Game Lodge, received a radio call from a fellow guide. She looked back to us and said "lions." We did a quick U-turn and headed north to the mostly dry, but grassy flood plain of the Chobe River. As we came out of the bush to the edge of the flood plain, lying peacefully in the sun was a pride of adult lionesses. Connie drove slowly forward, positioning our vehicle into a good viewing spot, and turned off the engine. The lionesses were some 30 yards to our left, sunning themselves on a soft bed of green grass. To our right were 10 yards of open sand rising to the bush line, with its multitude of paths leading in and out of its green maze. While grabbing our cameras and binoculars, Connie did a quick count and whispered, "Where is number eight? There are eight cats in this pride. I wonder where she's off to?" Minutes later, while looking to my right, I spotted number eight walking out of the bush into the open sand, where she stopped, looked around, sniffed the air and then walked back into the bush and disappeared. Moments later a mother elephant with her baby walked out of the bush and stood right where number eight had stood. The vehicle went silent, the tension was so high. We were all thinking the same thing. Does mom see the pride? Is the pride showing interest? Where is number eight? Mom stood there for several minutes smelling the air, looking around, and then finally wandered back into the bush, the same way number eight had gone. We held our breath again, as moments after Mom and baby left, number eight popped back out, looked around, sniffed the air and once again returned to the bush. Over the next 10 to 15 minutes, Mom and baby would pop out and back into the bush, then number eight, then mom and baby, to our great relief never together. Finally on her third appearance, number eight wandered across the road and joined the rest of her pride to our left. Mom and baby popped out again and stood about 10 yards from us for the longest time. We could tell she wanted that nice green grass despite the lions. Spotting an elephant breeding herd approaching in the distance must have given Mom the courage to make her move. With baby in tow, they crossed in front of us and out onto the grassy plain some 40 yards ahead of the pride. Mom stood facing the lionesses with her baby standing behind, staring at the pride and not happy that those cats were so close. With her ears held out wide, Mom trumpeted hostilely and charged straight at the cats. The lionesses that had been watching intently Mom and baby's approach now jumped to their feet and, at a brisk trot, retreated. Having covered about half the distance to the cats, Mom came to a sudden halt. Still flapping her ears with a trumpet or two, she watched while the pride moved some 40 to 50 yards away and settled back down. Satisfied the pride was no longer a threat, Mom retrieved her baby and started eating that delicious grass. While we were watching all the action to our left, on our right, the approaching herd of elephants had arrived. After silently walking out of the bush, they gathered in the open just ahead of us and waited until all were accounted for. Now gathered, the breeding herd crossed to the grassy plain. Mom and baby had moved further on, eating as they went. While the elephant herd started enjoying the fresh grass, three adult members stood sentry, watching the lionesses linger in the sun, now some 60 yards away. Without warning, the middle elephant took off and charged toward the lionesses. At first the lions slowly got up and started to walk further down the open plain, but soon they realized the situation had changed. This elephant didn't stop or even slow down at the halfway point like Mom did. It didn't want them to move — it wanted them gone. In a panic, the lionesses were almost bumping into each other as they tried to get out of the elephant's way. Their facial expressions were priceless: eyes wide, panting heavily and their heads turning in every direction. Several turned up the rise just behind us and disappeared into the bush. Quickly, the rest followed. This elephant evidently had a grudge with these lionesses because she turned to follow, running up the rise and into the bush. For several minutes the cats would dart out of the bush just to our right, take a quick frantic look around, and dart back into the bush. The elephant's stomping made a dust cloud rise above the tall bushes as she chased those cats. For safety, our guide quietly started the engine and slowly inched us forward. The dust and trumpeting continued, but the cats finally disappeared for good, probably heading deeper into the bush. With sunset approaching and an hour's drive ahead of us, we turned east along the river back to our lodge, listening to the occasional trumpet and watching the rising dust of one determined elephant. 

Driving Ireland - By Jeff Jones

 Posted: Friday, March 14, 2014 3:06 pm | Post Bulletin, Rochester, MN

There are countries where self-driving is truly the best way to explore them, and Ireland is definitely one of those countries.

Over the past 12 years, while hosting numerous corporate group programs and my own vacations, I have traveled Ireland by bus, train, local public transportation and rental car. My first choice for exploring Ireland is in a rental car with an open and adjustable itinerary.

When asked to suggest an itinerary for Ireland, time is the first and biggest factor. How many days are you committing to? Remember to factor in flying time; it's usually two  days there and one day back. You'll land early in the morning, whether it's in Shannon or Dublin.

Once you're in Ireland, my itinerary advice is always: "Pick a direction, drive until you start running out of time, then head toward your final destination and fly home." You won't be disappointed wherever you end up.

My first time to Ireland was work-related, a three-week multiple wave program in Killarney. After landing in Shannon, I found my taxi and settled into the front seat. Being my first time in Ireland, I didn't know how far it was from the airport to Killarney, so I asked. My driver looked me in the eye and replied, "Son, in Ireland it's not how far, it's how long." And so began our three-hour, 90-mile journey.

If Dublin is your first stop, you'll want to spend a couple of nights there and explore the area using their excellent public transportation. The double-decker buses to and around downtown are an experience of their own. Once in the city center, a good pair of walking shoes is your best mode of transportation. The Guinness plant is too far to walk, so you'll want to take the city bus there and back.

From Shannon, you rent your car and head out. There are several wonderful destinations to choose from: the Dingle Peninsula or Killarney are nearby options for your first day of driving.

Whether it's right away from Shannon or after exploring Dublin, you are now behind the wheel of your well-insured rental car. You're sitting on the wrong side of the car and driving on the wrong side of the road; however, in this case two wrongs do make a right! The arrangement keeps the driver on the centerline. Once on the road, it feels much more natural. Just remind yourself when pulling onto a main road to say aloud, "Left, left, left."

Our first self-driving vacation started in Killarney. After exploring the area for two days, we rented our car and began our trip by driving half of the Ring of Kerry. Why half?Instead of driving the full ring, we took the beautifully scenic mountain pass road and cut the ring in half. From the backside of the pass we headed toward the coast and found our B&B overlooking the village of Dingle.

On this first trip we continued exploring north along the coast as far as Westport before turning to Dublin. On a more recent trip, we started with a couple of days in Dublin before driving north counter-clockwise around a good two-thirds of the island. As I mentioned earlier, "Pick a direction, drive until you start running out of time."

We have no expectations how far we'll get any given day. It depends on what we discover along the way: stopping for photo ops, spending time in places that grab us. It's our time and we're enjoying ourselves.

We'll stay in the occasional hotel, but we prefer local B&Bs wherever we happen to be. Besides all the books and websites available, Ireland's B&Bs are well marked by roadside signs. Accommodation levels are signified by how many shamrock leaves are filled in (none = 1 star, all 3 = 4 stars.)

We'll find our B&B early evening Sunday through Thursday and earlier on Friday and Saturday. Once found, we knock, ask if rooms are available and can we see them. If acceptable, we settle in, if not, we thank the host and try another place down the road.

Much of the information for our next day's adventures comes from visiting with our B&B hosts and other travelers. Many of our favorite memories are from places off the beaten path that some generous person said we had to go to — a five-star restaurant above the pub in Ballycastle or a 700-year-old footbridge leading to a forest so lush and green you can almost believe in leprechauns.

Like I said, you won't be disappointed no matter where you go in Ireland, as long as you allow for plenty of time, listen to the locals, get off the beaten track now and then, and remember to say "left, left, left." 

Cruising Alaska in Comfort - By Jeff Jones

Posted in the Post Bulletin, Rochester, MN - August 2, 2014  

I just returned from back-to-back Seattle to Glaser Bay, Alaska, cruises, with stops in Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan and Victoria, Canada. 

Most sane people would be satisfied with one Alaska cruise, but as an event operator I hosted a cruise for 360 guests, twice. I've also hosted groups on the Vancouver-to-Anchorage and Anchorage-to-Vancouver routes. Whichever route you choose, you are in for an amazing journey.

I'm often asked — which side do I want my cabin on to best experience all the cruise has to offer? My first recommendation is to get an outside cabin with a balcony — it's worth the extra on this cruise.

On the Seattle seven-night loop, which side doesn't really matter. Whatever you miss on the way up, you'll see on the way back.

On the one -way, Seattle or Vancouver to Seward, Alaska (the port for Anchorage) and the return cruise, the old nautical term POSH comes into play. When sailing from England to India the saying was Portside Out and the Starboard Home. Consider Alaska as home and POSH works.

There are plenty of cruise lines to choose from and bargains to be had. While some ships are more freestyle, others have formal dinners almost nightly. Service levels will vary from brand to brand, but the food is consistently good to excellent, especially in their premier restaurants. When choosing your ship, look at its size and capacity: Remember you'll be living with the same 900 to 3,000+ shipmates for seven to eight days and nights.

Each ship posts the latest flight arrival times recommended for departure day. To be on the safe side, I recommend arriving in Seattle or Vancouver the day before — both cities are beautiful and worth a look-see.

Bring along plenty of layers, including a warm jacket, gloves, cap, good rain gear, water  resistant walking shoes and binoculars. The mountains are so green and the waterfalls so plentiful because it rains a lot on the inside passage. Daytime temperatures can vary from sunny and 70 to 45 and pouring, so be ready.

On Day 1, your ship will depart late afternoon or early evening, spending Day 2 at sea and making your first port-of-call on Day 3. If you haven't already signed up for some shore excursions, this is a great time for that. Attend the shopping and sightseeing lectures in the theater. They provide good information and often additional discounts.

I suggest using the ship-sponsored excursions for two reasons. First, they're usually well organized and run by knowledgeable local suppliers. Second, when you sign up for their excursions, the ship guarantees not to leave port without you. If you're otherwise late for the ship's last "All-Aboard" time, it will leave without you. Remember, everything operates on ship-time, so you'll start on Pacific Time, and on Night 2 you'll switch to Alaska Time. Check the schedule on the TV in your cabin for the correct time before disembarking the ship. It matters.

Unlike a Caribbean cruise, where the ports-of-call are the highlight, on Alaska's inside passage it's the mountains, glaciers, forests, waterfalls and wildlife that are the main attractions. At times I felt I was so close to the shoreline, I could have hit it with a baseball.

The day in Glacier Bay was stunning and lasted all day, with sunrise at 4 a.m. and sunset after 10 p.m. A Park Ranger narrated as we glided through the deep fiord toward the Pacific Glacier, some two miles across where it enters the sea. As the ship slowly rotates just off the glacier, you can hear the ice cracking as it calves off, becoming icebergs floating out to sea.

Each port-of-call has a different flavor and special sights and adventures. The ship's nightly newsletter and excursion desk are good resources for planning your next port's activities. Try a flying tour, taking a floatplane or helicopter at any of the ports. There's nothing like a bird's eye view of this magnificent land.

Juneau has a great salmon bake and don't miss The Red Dog Saloon. The Mendenhall Glacier is worth the trip, too. There is also a tram to the top of Mt. Robert's, where you get a fantastic view of Juneau, the surrounding mountains and fiord. The shopping is great, too.

Skagway is a step back in time. Its 950 year-round residents have maintained the settlement's turn-of-the-century charm, with wooden boardwalks and some period shops and saloons.

And no stop in Skagway is complete without a ride on the vintage White Pass Train. The three-hour journey to the top of the pass is both beautifully scenic and historically captivating.

Ketchikan is the prettiest town, and a photographer's delight with its brightly painted homes nestled in the hillside and surrounded by colorful gardens.

You can see an authentic lumberjack show, watch native dancers, learn about totems and their heritage, or drive your own jeep on the area's mountainous and challenging old logging roads.

Alaska is well worth having on your bucket list and cruising is a great way to sample it.

Jeff Jones, a longtime Rochester resident, is a professional travel director and PADI scuba instructor. He has been operating corporate events and organizing private adventure travel trips for 20 years, including seven safaris into Botswana and South Africa, among other countries.