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Climbing to the Rooftop of Africa

If you had asked me growing up what my travel goals were, I would have given you a long list, which included travelling to all the continents, visiting all the countries my Grandma had travelled to and more, seeing the wonders of the world, and on and on…but climbing mountains was never something I had really thought much about. In fact, if you had asked if summiting mountains was a goal of mine, I would likely have just laughed—at least until I spent several months living in Kenya, and found myself climbing Mt. Kenya. It ended up being a tough but very cool adventure, and I thought, Well, now I can check climbing a mountain off my life list and move on! 

Climbing bigger mountains definitely wasn’t in the plans until some members of the group who I had volunteered with in Kenya in 2008 started talking about climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. After debating my plans to never climb another mountain, I decided it would be a great adventure and I’m never one who likes to be left behind or miss out on a great experience…even if it is a challenging one.

So this is how, exactly ten years ago today, I found myself in Moshi, Tanzania, having an early morning cup of Kilimanjaro coffee while waiting to meet our guide and set off on our trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro.

We met our guide, Julius, who told us to call him “Whitey,” an interesting nickname for this tall, dark Tanzanian guide. We all introduced ourselves and headed over to the Ahsante Tours office to pick up any rented gear and have a briefing before setting off to the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro. 

We arrived at the Machame Route Gate, at a height of 1800m, got signed in and met our assistant guide, Benedict, or “Benny.” We took a group shot to mark the start of our trek and by 10:45am, we finally started making our way up the tallest mountain in Africa. 

Whitey and Benny- our amazing guides

We spent the day hiking and chatting away, something that slowly died down on subsequent days as the air got thinner and our energy levels dwindled. But for now, we were fresh and excited. The setting today felt like hiking through a jungle, with some steep muddy parts thrown in to challenge us.

In between Whitey regaling us with songs, including a soulful rendition of “Hakuna Matata” and laughing and yelling out encouragement to us as we hiked along, I had some questions for him. I wanted to know how many times he had climbed this mountain, and he told me he quit counting at 120. 120?!? For me, once proved to be a challenge. I cannot imagine trekking up and down this mountain well over 120 times. (He is still a guide today, so I can only imagine what his count is now!) He’s been working on the mountain for 7 years, beginning as a porter at 18 years old, quickly working through the ranks to assistant guide and doing all the required training to become a lead guide. He told me becoming a guide was his dream. He grew up in Moshi and spent his childhood looking out at Mt. Kilimanjaro, knowing one day he wanted to climb it. Once he did, he couldn’t wait to bring others up his beloved mountain so they could see the beauty for themselves. We were definitely in good hands with him, and his love for his job and the mountain were unmistakable. He said he feels most at home on the mountain, and when he’s gone, he can’t wait to get back. 

Around 5pm, we made it out of the jungle and into that evening’s camp, already set up and waiting for us. After settling into our tents, we met in the dining tent for hot chocolate and popcorn. Then we walked up to the ranger station to check in that we made it through day one, and then Whitey led us in what became a nightly routine of singing and dancing all together with our guides and porters.

This was a team bonding time, which became a little harder each day as our energy waned. But no matter how tired we were, we always mustered a last bit of strength for this fun. A perfect way to end each day of trekking! 

The food prepared for each of our meals along this journey was delicious, made even more so by how hungry we were by the end of each day and how impressive it was that they were making pumpkin soup, pasta dishes and tasty desserts on the side of a mountain!

After dinner each night, Whitey came in to brief us on what the following day would entail and ask each of us to share our high and low moment of the day—another great daily tradition of this trek. Bedtime came early each night as we were always exhausted from the day.

“Now I’m in my tent, writing about day one by the light of my headlamp on Mt. Kili, 3000m up. How cool is that? Amazing!”  — Journal excerpt

Day two began at 6am with a knock on the tent. “Jambo, good morning! Tea for you!” I opened the tent to find steaming mugs of chai tea waiting, a cozy way to start the morning, still wrapped up in my sleeping bag. 

Breakfast was at 7am, before starting the day’s journey at 8am. Whitey told us today would definitely be “Pole Pole,” which means “slowly, slowly” in Swahili. He had told us from the start this was how we would be climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro and repeated these words often throughout the trek. Pole Pole was certainly the mantra of today as we made our way mostly uphill on a six-hour trek.

We stopped for lunch around 12pm and then made it to camp around 3pm. All day today, the scenery was beautiful. We woke up above the clouds and by lunchtime had climbed above a second layer of clouds.

In the distance, you could see the summit of Mt. Meru in Arusha peeking out from the clouds. We were now up at 3,800m. We climbed up to 3,900m and then back down a bit to sleep and let our bodies adjust to the altitude. “Climb High, Sleep Low” was another mountain mantra that helped us to safely acclimatize.

Tonight’s camp was at Shira Cave, so after settling in, Benny took us up to see the old cave.

“The sunset tonight was incredible, going down through the clouds, behind the hills, and the view of the peak was amazing. It’s so beautiful and peaceful up here. After dinner, once it was dark, the sky was lit up by 1000s of stars. Gorgeous. Tonight was one of the most beautiful sunsets and starry skies I’ve ever seen. Breathtaking!”  — Journal excerpt 

Once again, day three began at 6am with another steaming cup of chai tea at our tent door. A girl could get used to this kind of wake up…even if it is earlier than I would like!

Another incredible view this morning up above the clouds, with the summit stretching high above us and the sun just starting to streak through the clouds.

Getting packed up to leave camp on Day #3

Our highest point today was Lava Tower at 4560m, a very cool rock formation created by volcanic activity on the mountain years ago. The tower stands 90m tall and is a beautiful backdrop for a much-needed resting spot by this point in the trek. We went back down to 3950m to sleep. 

Every time I’d ask Whitey how much farther, he’d tell me we were almost there. Finally, about nine hours later, it was true! Each day, our singing and dancing ritual got a little more challenging, but still no one could resist celebrating the end of another day of trekking and being closer to our goal of reaching the summit.

On day four, after about 20 minutes of hiking, we arrived at Barranco Wall, a challenging climb up 257m. We went Pole Pole for sure here, trying not to lose our footing. We carefully made our way up this part of the trek, our guides helping us across the tricky parts.

As we got to higher altitudes and trickier spots, we had both Whitey and Benny, plus Francis and Joaquim, two other guides in training, with us at all times to help us along and make sure everyone was still doing okay with the altitude.

Today was when things really got tough. The higher altitudes and steeper parts were challenging and we were moving at a turtle’s pace. Even if we wanted to go faster, I’m not sure many of us could have done anything other than go Pole Pole.

Camp tonight had by far the best bathrooms—still just a squat hole in the ground—but this one had a cement floor, instead of the usual wood. And even better, the contents weren’t up around the top! (Some days it’s the little things that bring you joy!) Whitey gave us a pep talk as part of the briefing tonight and we all went to bed early to prepare for the summit. 

We were woken up at 11:30pm to get ready and had hot chocolate, popcorn and porridge. I was dressed in as many layers as I could manage because it was freezing in the pitch-black night this high up on the mountain. We set off just after midnight, with only the stars above and our headlamps to help guide our way. You could only see what was right in front of you, which was likely a good thing, because if I had seen how far and high I still had to go in the freezing cold, I might have crawled right back into my warm sleeping bag!

We took a break about halfway up. 

“When you looked out across the darkness, you could see the red/orange line of the sun beginning to rise above the clouds and there was a tiny sliver of a crescent moon just above the cloud line. It was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen, and for a moment, I forgot about being freezing and exhausted and just stared out at the beauty, taking it all in.”  — Journal excerpt

The higher we climbed, the harder it got. My muscles burned and near the top, my breathing became more laboured. We made our way through the snow and ice closer to the top, past the glaciers.

Whitey said he’d already seen a dramatic decline in the size of the glaciers in the seven years he had been climbing Kilimanjaro due to global warming. It was still an impressive sight, but I wonder what it used to look like?  

We stopped for a tea break, before slowly continuing along the snowy, rocky trail to Stella Point. From there, we only had an hour left to go, but that last hour felt like we were hardly moving, everyone inhaling deeply, trying to get enough oxygen to take our next slow step. 

Finally, around 8am, we rounded the last bend in the trail and made it to the summit, 5896m up. Making my way over to the flags and the sign saying, “Congratulations, you are now at Uhuru Peak,” welcoming me to the highest point in Africa, I burst into tears, exhaustion and excitement flooding over me. 

Even though I wanted to quit at least 100 times today, I had made it. I could check climbing the highest mountain in Africa off my travel list!  

Watching the sun rise over the rooftop of Africa is a moment I will never forget.

Those of us who made it to the summit got a group shot and quickly took our photos with the sign. Then, about 15-20 minutes later, we were on our way back down. Such a long way to go for such a short stay, but with the high altitude, we couldn’t linger. 

We made it back to camp eleven hours after leaving it, toenails bleeding from the impact of heading basically straight back down, slipping and sliding through the gritty sand. After a nap and lunch, we packed up and hiked another two hours or so to that night’s camp. Today the highs were all about making it to the top and celebrating that victory!

The final morning after breakfast, we gathered for one last dance party before packing up and heading down the rest of the mountain, about a five-hour journey. 

Back at the hotel that night, after having my first shower in six days (which was amazing), we met for one last dinner all together and toasted our success with cold Kilimanjaro beers. 

Climbing mountains may not have started out on my life’s travel list, but the fact that I made it to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro remains one of my proudest travel experiences. Standing at the top, smiling through my tears and watching that incredible sun rising to the “Heaven of Africa,” as Whitey put it, is definitely a moment I will never forget. 

I always knew I enjoyed a challenge and was not a quitter, and completing this trek cemented that for me. But now I’m seriously through climbing mountains…I think!

For some singing, dancing, hiking and commentary on this beautiful but challenging trek, check out the video below!

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Watching the Tidal Bore in Moncton

I’ve been spending a lot of time in Moncton, New Brunswick with work this winter, and on a rare day off, I decided to go check out the famous Tidal Bore. This natural phenomenon is caused by the Bay of Fundy tides and takes place twice a day. As the Tidal Bore comes in, the water in the Petitcodiac River rolls back upstream in a rippling wave that can get to a height of 60 cm.

The one I witnessed wasn’t anywhere near that high. In fact, a man passing by commented that it was one of the smallest he’d ever seen. Oh well – at least I can say I saw Moncton’s Tidal Bore, one of the world’s highest tides!

You can find the estimated daily Tidal Bore times online. From downtown, the best viewing area is at Bore Park. Be sure to arrive early as many factors may affect the time of the Tidal Bore by 15 to 20 minutes either way. 

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Machu Picchu Bound!

One year ago today, I got to cross a major travel goal off my bucket list. After four days of hiking, we made it to Machu Picchu. The Inca Trail was challenging at times, but the views were beautiful… as I mention many times in this video!

(I blame the lack of oxygen and exhaustion for my limited vocabulary!!)

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Exploring Atlantis

The lost city of Atlantis may be the stuff of legends, but in Nassau, Bahamas, you can spend a day (or more) exploring their incredible Atlantis!

While staying there definitely looks like a fun option, if, like us, you find yourself staying at one of the neighbouring resorts, there are still lots of ways to enjoy Atlantis.

You can book day passes for various adventures in Atlantis, including the waterpark Aquaventure and Dolphin Cay. But there are other options to explore.

Atlantis Marina

You can wander through the shops and the marina at any time and eat at the restaurants found there. The Casino is also open to all if gambling is more your style. Through the Casino, you’ll find The Dig.

This beautiful aquarium features hundreds of sea creatures from tiny seahorses to huge grouper, lobsters to clownfish and gorgeous rays swimming around the mysterious ‘Lost City’ ruins. Day passes are required for non-guests, but if you go in the evening, you can wander around for free and enjoy all these amazing sea creatures.

I loved it so much, we went back a second evening and wandered around above ground, gazing down into the open air tanks and watching the fish and rays swimming below.

We also found the Hibiscus Lagoon filled with green sea turtles and Predator Lagoon, home to Hammerhead sharks, Caribbean Reef sharks, Barracuda and Smalltooth Sawfish swimming around the tunnel as you walk through.

Whether you want to go all out and participate in all Atlantis has to offer or simply wander around, it’s definitely a must-see spot in Nassau, Bahamas!

If, like me, you find watch fish swimming to be very relaxing, then enjoy a few clips I took while exploring Atlantis!

Watching the fish and rays swim around the ruins at The Dig
Exploring Hibiscus & Predator Lagoons
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Swimming with the Sea Lions

Jumping into freezing, smelly water isn’t something I generally enjoy doing, but that’s exactly what this excursion was…and I LOVED it!!

While travelling in Peru, we opted for a unique excursion in Lima – swimming with sea lions!

Map of the IslandsWe headed to the marina in Callao to meet up with our tour before setting out into the Pacific Ocean. Our guide pointed out the smaller islands we passed en route, as well as different wildlife including pelicans and Humboldt penguins! It was a rough ride out, but as we rounded the bend to Palomino Island, you could already hear the sea lions. There were hundreds of them. They began jumping off the rocks to follow the boat, splashing and barking away. They were ready to play!Sea Lions

We got our wetsuits on and one by one jumped into the chilly water and swam out to them. The curious sea lions would come very close, sometimes even touching your toes, before swimming away again. We spent 20 minutes in the water swimming with them all around us. What an incredible experience!!

 

More Info

  • Went with Mar Adentro Excursiones 
  • Wetsuits are provided
  • Bring a camera that can go in the water, towel and warm clothes for the boat ride back…you’ll be cold!
  • Hotel pickup is included  (be sure to book that option)
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Trying Cuy in Peru

One of Peru’s most famous dishes is not exactly a conventional one – at least not by North American standards. Here, though, Cuy (guinea pig) has been a staple in the Andean diet for around 5,000 years. Long before they were considered cute fluffy pets, they were raised in the Andes for food.

While gourmet chefs have spruced up the original recipes and are now adding their own flare to the dish, Cuy is generally roasted whole, with the head, teeth, ears, and other parts left intact. They are doused in salt and garlic to crisp up the skin. You can find them being sold as “street meat” on sticks in areas surrounding the Sacred Valley, but many restaurants in Cusco and a few in Lima also serve the dish. For Peruvians, Cuy is a dish served on special occasions, not part of the everyday menu anymore. But with the influx of tourists over the last decade, many restaurants keep Cuy on the menu for those curious travellers to taste. It’s generally one of the most expensive items on the menu, costing anywhere from 40-70 soles ($15-28 USD).fullsizeoutput_1be0

I like trying local dishes while travelling, but this one was harder than most. Growing up, I had pet guinea pigs named Fuzz and Magic, and seeing the little face still intact on this Cuy dish definitely made me feel guilty for taking a bite. If you can get your head around it and forget what you are eating, the crispy skin tastes a lot like fried chicken.

I certainly won’t be making this dish a regular, but if you are in Peru, it’s definitely a must-try!

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Bonjour Paris!

I had always wanted to visit Paris, but seemed to always find myself heading elsewhere on my trips to Europe. Finally, on my last trip over, I had a few days to spend exploring the ‘city of love’.  The architecture here is amazing. I loved just wandering around the streets taking in all the old buildings.  Since we didn’t have much time, we walked the streets looking for all the iconic Parisian sights, stopping at bakeries for croissants and coffee along the way!

Here’s a little video with some of the most famous sights in Paris.

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Exploring Coloane

When you think of Macau, it’s likely the dazzling casinos and grand hotels that come to mind. I mean, it’s not known as the ‘Vegas of the East’ for nothing. But if you head past all the hustle and bustle and ‘Ka-Ching’ of the slot machines, you’ll find yourself in Coloane, the leafy green part of Macau filled with hiking trails, beaches, temples and the giant pandas!

 

 

For more info on the A-Ma statue and cultural village click here

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Halloween with Mickey Mouse

fullsizeoutput_c30Halloween is my favourite holiday. I love the decorations, Hocus Pocus, carving pumpkins, and most of all – dressing up. It’s a magical holiday, so what better place to celebrate than at one of the most magical places on earth! Disney World is one of my favourite places to visit and I’ve always wanted to celebrate the most wonderful time of the year with the magic of the park. So this year, I headed to Magic Kingdom for Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party to celebrate Halloween with Mickey and the gang.fullsizeoutput_cb5

The event is a separate ticketed event that runs certain evenings from the end of August until November 1st.  Once you get your wristband, you are given a bag to go trick or treating!here were Treat locations set all over the park where you could go to get candy. There were also lots of characters out for photos and autographs, including those who aren’t normally out like Jack and Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas

There were Treat locations set all over the park where you could go to get candy. There are also lot’s of characters out for photos and autographs, including those who aren’t normally out like Jack and Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas. fullsizeoutput_ca7

In Tomorrowland, you can join Mike Wazowski, Sulley and Boo for a Monstrous Scream-O-Ween Ball – a fun dance party with all your favourite songs.

Not all of the rides are open, but there’s still a good selection for those wishing to enjoy them (including The Haunted Mansion, the perfect ride for this time of year!)

Mickey’s “Boo-To-You” Halloween Parade makes its way through the park at 9:15 and 11:15, filled with Mickey and friends as well as a number of villains.

One of the main reasons I wanted to go was to see The Sanderson Sisters in the Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular! The sisters were back for the night to brew a potion to create the most Villainous Halloween Party the Kingdom has ever seen.  They were joined by a variety of Disney’s greatest villains and ended with their iconic song.

As always, there was a great fireworks show over Cinderella Castle. This one had a Halloween theme. “Happy Hallowishes” invites you to join the 999 happy haunts for an evening of fun!

fullsizeoutput_c97It was a great night at the park with all of Magic Kingdom decorated for Halloween, but one of my very favourite parts was getting to dress up in costume and seeing everyone else dressed up, wandering around this magical place!

Happy Halloween!

Info

Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party runs from 7pm-12am on certain dates during the Halloween season, but you can typically start entering the park as of 4pm. Just be sure to get your wristband as only party guests are allowed in the park after 7pm.

Be sure to check out the costume guidelines on the website before planning what character you want to be.

Treat bags are fairly small, so if you want to hit all the locations, you might want to bring a bigger bag or buy one at the park.

The character lines are LONG, especially Jack and Sally. They are out before the party officially starts, so you can get in line early or try later at night.

For more info visit the park’s website

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Full length versions:

Happy Hallowishes Fireworks

Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular

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Thailand’s fairytale temple

fullsizeoutput_c01Wat Rong Khun, better known as the “White Temple,” is one of the most recognizable temples in Thailand. This unique temple, located just outside the city of Chiang Rai, is one of the most visited attractions in the area. It’s not hard to see why.

The temple looks like something out of a fairy tale. The entire structure is a brilliant white colour with pieces of glass in the plaster, sparkling in the sun. It almost doesn’t look real. It’s more like a mirage you’ve stumbled upon – a beautiful mirage with a glistening pool of water below, filled with Koi swimming around.

fullsizeoutput_be1Last year, we made our way to Wat Rong Khun just before Halloween. With all the demons and villains that met us as we entered, coming out of the ground and hanging from trees, it was the perfect time of year to visit.

 

Wat Rong Khun was designed by Chalermchai Kositpipat, a famous Thai visual artist. He chose white to signify the purity of the Buddha. The pieces of glass throughout it symbolizes the Buddha’s wisdom and Buddhist teachings. The temple is filled with Buddhist symbolism.

fullsizeoutput_beeTo enter the main chapel (ubosot), you cross a narrow bridge over a pool of hands and faces reaching up, trying to claw their way back to the surface, representing suffering souls in Hell.

 

The pathway symbolizes the way to happiness by overcoming worldly things like temptation, greed and desire.

 

After crossing the bridge you arrive at the “Gate of Heaven,” guarded by two creatures representing Death and Rahu, who decide over men’s fate. At the end of the bridge, you reach the ubosot where there are several Buddha images in meditation.

 

Once you make your way out of the main temple and leave the fenced in grounds, you come to an ornately decorated golden building. This one represents the body while the ubosot represents the mind. The building was created in a gold colour to symbolize the focus on worldly desires and money.fullsizeoutput_bfb

Around the temple grounds are several concrete “trees.”  Hanging from each of them are thousands of ornaments or ‘Lucky Leaves.’ For 30 Baht, you can add one with your name and a message written on it for luck.

 

You can also make a wish by throwing a few coins into the wishing well.

 

Most of Thailand’s Buddhist temples have centuries of history. By comparison, Wat Rong Khun is very young as construction on it only began in 1997.

Then, on May 5, 2014, a strong earthquake hit Chiang Rai and Wat Rong Khun was damaged. The designer, Chalermchai Kositpipat, decided to restore and further expand the temple.

At this point, the temple is not finished. It’s stated that eventually there will be nine buildings on site.

fullsizeoutput_c05If you find yourself in Northern Thailand, Wat Rong Khun is a must-see. Just get there early to avoid the crowds.fullsizeoutput_beb

 

Info

  • The temple is located about 13km south of Chiang Rai
  • The temple opens daily from 8 am until 6 pm.
  • The temple gets very busy with both tourists and locals, so plan to arrive early.
  • Admission is 50 Thai Baht per person.
  • Dress respectfully. No revealing clothes. Shoes must be removed before entering a temple building.
  • Taking photos is not allowed in the main building.
  • Souvenirs, coffee and snacks are available on the grounds.
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