On the road to Ngorongoro

We traveled from Lake Manyara to Ngorongoro Crater in three Land Cruisers. Each person had a window seat and a roof hatch to pop your head up.

We stopped at the gate to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area for paperwork, where a troop of baboons wandered by.  The baboon seems almost human.  The image is cropped from a photo taken with a 400 mm lens. The baby baboon looks safe and secure atop the mother.

baboon eyes
baboon eyes
baboon mother and baby
baboon mother and baby

We drove into the Conservation Area and stopped to watch elephants grazing at dusk. The elephants got closer and closer…

elephant at dusk
elephant at dusk
elephant next to our car
elephant next to our car
elephant with Bob and Toni
elephant with Bob and Toni

Our car moved forward, and the elephant walked behind our car. In the photo you can see our car and the car behind us.  The elephant passed between the cars. From the car and people, you can see how large the elephant and tusks are.

elephant behind our car
elephant behind our car

An exciting end to our first day on safari.


Serengeti safari

In late February we went on our first African safari.  A friend who has gone on several safaris suggested Tanzania since it has well-known places like the Serengeti plains, Ngorongoro crater, Mt. Kilimanjaro, and Olduvai Gorge.

We chose a tour covering the northern Tanzania safari circuit:

  • Lake Manyara National Park. Home to tree-climbing lions and many kinds of birds.
  • Ngorongoro Conservation Area.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area includes Ngorongoro Crater (the world’s largest caldera) and the Olduvai Gorge (the site where the early human remains were found.
  • Serengeti National Park.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to the great migration, the largest herds of grazing animals in the world and the carnivores that prey on them.
Serengeti safari map
Serengeti safari map

Future posts will discuss our experience and show wildlife pictures.

Other tour members asked us how we chose the tour.  So, how do you choose a safari when you’ve never been on one?  Two years ago we selected a tour of Egypt and Jordan, and we used the same process to choose the safari.  Our approach is to gather highly qualified candidates and then make the selection based on value.

Two noted travel magazines, Travel + Leisure and National Geographic Traveler, rate safari operators.  We compared northern circuit safaris from highly rated safari operators and calculated the value, the cost per night of lodging.  Some tour operators play games with the number of days, counting travel days as part of the package — nights of lodging levels the playing field.  Of the highly rated companies, one had a value (cost per night of lodging) that was significantly better than the others.  We chose that company.

The selected safari also stays on Maasai lands next to the Serengeti National Park. Staying on Maasai lands offers bush walks, off-road travel, night game drives, open vehicles, and cultural interchanges with the Maasai. Last year, on a shady bench on the Dubrovnik harbor, we chatted with a couple who told us about their safari experience.  The woman said the most exciting thing on the safari was the bush walk — she always walked right behind the guy with the rifle! Sounds like great advice.

Lake Manyara

The first stop on our safari was Lake Manyara National Park.  Lake Manyara is an alkaline lake — so alkaline that most animals can’t drink the water.  Instead, they drink from streams flowing into the lake.  In the national park, our land cruisers had to stay on the road.

Baboons are social animals.  They spend a lot of time grooming each other, checking for fleas and ticks.  They’re sitting on a termite mound.

baboons grooming on termite mound
Hold still!
Home sweet home

Lions of Lake Manyara can climb trees.  Look for the tail and legs hanging from a tree branch.

first lion in tree
First lion in tree

Our car moved ahead, and we saw the lion’s tail.

First lion with tail showing

As more cars left, we were able to move forward again.  Now we could see there were three lions in the tree!

three lions in tree
Three lions in tree

It’s not known why these lions climb trees.  Tree-climbing lions are rare — almost always female, and limited to a few regions of Africa.  Climbing trees can be difficult, especially turning around with four feet to get down!  Falling from a tree could cause injury, hampering the lion’s ability to run down prey and and get food.

Lake Manyara is home for hundreds of kinds of birds.  This superb starling sprawled out on the ground next to our picnic table at lunch, so we could admire its superb, iridescent feathers.

superb starling on display
Superb starling on display
Silvery-cheeked hornbill
Silvery-cheeked hornbill
African fish eagle
African fish eagle

Finally, we visited the hippo pool. There are four hippos in view: the large one on the right, a smaller hippo next to the large one, a pair of ears showing, and a pair of eyes showing.  Hippos look very relaxed, but they can be dangerous.  In Africa, more people are killed by hippos than any other animal.

hippo pool
Hippos listening to the tourists

Sunrise Photos, January 20

I’m still working on my photography skills, part of my lifelong learning.  There was a storm last night, after two months with little rain in the Bay Area.  Yesterday, before the storm, there were clouds at sunrise.  Here are some sunrise pictures, techniques used, and tips for sunrise photos.

I like sunrise and sunset pictures with red clouds.  When scouting for red clouds, I look for clouds on the horizon, with the sun over the horizon.  Here’s what I think happens.  At the proper time, red light from the sun is refracted by the atmosphere, painting the clouds red, while the other part of the spectrum is refracted less, thereby missing the clouds.  With only the red light on the clouds, the clouds are red.

A half hour before sunrise Friday, I noticed a red glow on the horizon.  I set up the DLSR on a tripod by a window facing east.  I took some test pictures and found that an exposure compensation of -1 2/3 EV darkened the yard and still showed the clouds and sky.  I set the aperture to f/8 and adjusted the exposure (1/6 sec.) to produce the desired exposure compensation.  In the first photo, the clouds on the horizon are red, and the bottom edge of the clouds in the center start to turn red.

red sky at sunrise
red horizon at sunrise

Two minutes later, the sun shines on the bottoms of the clouds in the center of the picture, showing their texture.

red sky 2
red bottoms for clouds in center

A minute later the sky is brighter and you can see rays of red sunlight.

red sky 3
red rays of light

The moon was up, and I wanted to capture it, shining faintly.  I added a circular polarizer to darken the sky.  The moon is a crescent in the upper right hand corner.  I kept the aperture at f/8 and set the exposure to 1/60 second to retain the -1 2/3 EV exposure compensation.  This picture was taken 5 minutes before sunrise.

sunrise with moon
sunrise with moon

btw, during postprocessing I adjusted the white balance to daylight, enhancing the contrast between the lit and unlit portions of the clouds.  My camera was set to automatic color balance.

Here are some tips for sunrise photos.  If folks have suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

  • Get ready a half hour before sunrise.  I see more dramatic sunrises in the winter, when the sun rises later.
  • Use a tripod, or else take several shots
  • Set white balance to daylight or cloudy
  • Identify the key features (clouds and sky) and do some test shots to figure out the exposure compensation to focus on the key features.  I underexposed -1 2/3 EV to black out my backyard, which would detract from the clouds and sky.
  • Use a circular polarizer to darken the sky and enhance contrast with the clouds and moon
  • Look at your photos and figure out how to improve

Coast Live Oaks and Mulch

The coast live oak is a beautiful tree native to California.  To help our oak trees, we landscaped with California native plants and spread wood chips as mulch.  A disease called Sudden Oak Death (SOD) has spread through the San Francisco Bay Area, and it kills coast live oaks.  There’s a risk that SOD can be spread by bringing in wood chips, so we are exploring other mulch options.

Coast Live Oak

The coast live oak, quercus agrifolia, is an evergreen tree growing to 10 to 25 meters tall.  A native plant, the coast live oak has adapted to the long, dry summers of our Mediterranean climate.  However, if oaks are watered throughout the summer, they can get crown and root rot, which can shorten their life, so we landscape with native plants that require only occasional summer water.

When we landscaped the yard five years ago, we spread wood chips as a mulch to suppress weeds, add nutrients, and reduce evaporation. The original wood chips have gotten much thinner and need renewal.

We attended a SOD talk and a treatment class by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley.  We learned that the SOD pathogen, phytophthora ramorum, can be spread by wood chips and sawdust.  The pathogen needs warmth and moisture to become active, but the pathogen can live in dry wood until favorable conditions arise.  Generally, when a coast live oak is infected, it dies, so the consequence of an oak being infected by SOD is severe.

We get wood chips from arborists who prune and chip trees.  Unless the arborist is pruning and chipping our trees, we don’t know the identify of the trees being chipped, or whether the trees are infected.  In the Spring of 2011, volunteers sent in samples that were tested for the SOD pathogen, and the results were published.  SOD is widespread in the mountains near us, but trees in the valley floor are generally not infected.  In 2011 SOD spread rapidly due to a wet spring, and 97% of the trees tested in the mountains near us were infected.

“Experts predict as many as 90 percent of California’s live oaks and black oaks could die from the disease within 25 years.”  With the severe consequence (death) if an oak is infected, we don’t want to risk infection by importing wood chips or host plants that might carry the SOD pathogen.

We are trying approaches to mulch the oak leaves.  Coast live oaks are large and drop a lot of leaves each year.  The leaves are thick and stiff, so they don’t not decompose easily.  Dry leaves are brittle and will break when stepped on.  We’ve tried stepping on leaves or crushing them with gloved hands.  Oak leaves have sharp thorns on leaf edges.  This manual approach is very slow.  We’re considering purchasing an electric leaf mulcher to speed the process.

In summary, people with coast live oaks should consider risks of SOD when bringing in wood chips for mulch.  Mulch is valuable, so we’re exploring approaches to mulch our oak leaves as an alternative to wood chips.

Food Tips for a China Tour

We didn’t find notable regional food or restaurants on our two-week China tour. Instead, we found ourselves trying to stay healthy and enjoy the food we ate.  Here’s some background, our experience, and some tips.

Our tour included meals and was arranged by a Chinatown travel agency.  We started the trip in a group of 16 while visiting Beijing and Xian; then we left the group for a private tour (for two) of Lhasa, Chengdu, and Guilin.  Preparing for the trip, we read traveler reviews complaining about food on tours arranged by Chinatown travel agencies.  We considered excluding dinners for our private tour.  The agency said that the dinners cost so little that we’d be better off with the tour dinners and occasionally buying our own food.  We did this, and it worked pretty well, after we learned some unwritten rules and managed the relationship with our tour guides.

To understand how tour food works, here’s a little about the travel agency, regional tour operators, and tour guides.  Before the tour we worked with a Chinatown travel agency to plan and customize our trip.  The travel agency coordinated with four regional tour operators in China to contract for our trip. The tour operator provides the tour services (guide, driver, car, hotels, flights, admissions, etc.). Depending on the regional tour operator, the tour guide can determine the food served on the tour.

Our meals in China can be grouped into these categories:

  • Hotel breakfasts.  Breakfast is the first meal of the day, and usually the high point.  Most hotels had a buffet breakfast, and all buffet breakfasts were all very good to excellent, with a wide assortment of Chinese and Western dishes.  We liked soup noodles, sauteed Chinese vegetables, omelet, croissants, juice, coffee, and whatever else looked good.  The Guilin Shangri-La served custom-made crepes!  When we left for an early flights before the buffet opened, we got disappointing bag breakfasts of yogurt, stale pastry, and fruit. In Yangshuo we stayed in the small inn with only a cook-to-order breakfast that was pretty good.
  • Restaurant and dishes selected by the tour operator.  For lunches and dinners in Beijing and Xian and dinners in Guilin, the tour operator arranged set meals in restaurants catering to tours.  In Xian we had a buffet lunch and dinner that were okay.  Buffets are good because you can eat as much of the dishes you like.  You can’t do this for the served tour meals, which have 7-9 courses of food that the Chinese thought that Chinese Americans would like: fried fish, sweet and sour pork, watery soup, vegetables, etc.  There were a few dishes we liked, but it’s not polite to take more than your share before everyone at the 8-person table serves themselves.  The dishes were monotonous, the same for lunch and dinner. A Beijing duck dinner was at a well-known restaurant, but at a branch catering to tour groups.  The duck was so-so — the skin was soft instead of crispy. We saw other branches with a crowd of Chinese waiting outside, so the food has to be much better at those branches. Our first dinner in Guilin was at a hotel serving only tours, with a preset menu.  It was just like the tour meals in Beijing and Xian.  😦
  • Leave the tour and eat on your own. We joined cousin Bob in Beijing for the Great Wall, a hutong walk, and two delicious lunches.  We ate at a fish farm near the Great Wall and at a restaurant specializing in Mongolian dumplings — delicious, cheap ($4 pp), and much more food than we could eat. That evening we skipped the tour dinner and found something light, Ajisen ramen.  It wasn’t as good as in California (much leaner broth and less meat), but it was cheaper, about $7 a bowl. This was in an expensive mall on the Wangfujing. If you leave the group away from your hotel, you’re responsible for getting back to your hotel.  When the hotel is located near lots of shops and stores, walking is great.  Hailing a taxi in Beijing was very difficult.
  • Guide chooses the restaurant.  In Lhasa and Chengdu, the tour operator provided the guide with a small food budget, and the guide is responsible for feeding us and staying within the budget.  Our tour food was much better than in Beijing and Xian!  In Lhasa, the tour guide chose the restaurant, and we picked a soup, entree, and drink from the menu.  Suffering from altitude sickness, we chose Nepalese food (biryani and naan), skipping local delicacies like yak and yak butter. In Chengdu, the guide chose the restaurants to keep within the budget, and he ordered the meal for himself, the driver, and us.  We really enjoyed the shared food.
  • Tour operator chooses restaurant and guide chooses food.  In Guilin and Yangshuo, the restaurants were chosen by the tour operator, but after the first dinner we got the guide to select dishes for us instead of the preset menu.  When our guide chose the dishes, we had lots of food, mostly vegetables and not much meat (expensive).  We were happy.  Our last meal was in a restaurant at the Guilin airport.  Other travelers said they had a bad meal there (probably the preset meal), but our guide ordered a meal that was delicious and more than we could finish. Here’s a picture of our lunch near Guilin.  We paid extra for the sticky rice cooked in bamboo (behind the rice).

    lunch selected by our guide
  • Airline food in China.  We rode a least three different Chinese airlines.  All served hot meals.  I didn’t know always what I was eating, but the food was warm, and I finished several meals.  The airline food was better than expected, and sure beats the drinks served on US domestic flights.
Based on our experience we have several suggestions for fellow travelers to China:
  • Enjoy your buffet breakfast.  It’s very good and dependable.  A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.
  • China tour operators can select restaurants based on business relationships.  The tour operators in Beijing, Xian, and Guilin chose restaurants based on business relationships.  Watch out for places that serve only tours.
  • Engage the guide and be clear.  For our first dinner in Guilin, they drove us a half hour to a hotel serving only tour groups, where we were served the usual cheap dishes that the Chinese think that Chinese Americans eat (tasteless soup, fried fish, sweet and sour, etc.).  We complained to the guide right after the meal, asking for dishes like kung pao chicken that she and the driver ate.  After that, the guide ordered delicious, homestyle dishes for us, except for the Li River cruise, where the kitchen is limited and all passengers have the same lunch.
  • Go off on your own as opportunities arise.  The tour group travels by bus, and the bus often goes directly to the restaurant without stopping at the hotel.  We only left the group for a meal with cousin Bob or when the group left for a dinner from the hotel. Restaurants in China are much less expensive than restaurants in California.
  • In China, you get what you pay for.  We haven’t heard complaints about the food on tours from mainstream companies such as Tauck and Geo Expeditions.  Those tours cost more than ours.
  • Serving utensils.  Food is served family style.  Restaurants don’t bring out serving utensils.  Rather than have everyone serve themselves with their chopsticks, we asked for serving utensils.  We didn’t get colds on our China trip, just some altitude sickness in Tibet.  Much better than our previous trip to China, where almost everyone caught a cold.

We enjoyed our China trip and stayed pretty healthy.  These are our lessons learned.

Some Chicago Food

One of the joys of travel is trying local dishes and restaurants.  In early December we spent a few days in Chicago.  Here’s the notable food from our trip.

From Frank Lloyd Wright’s home in Oak Park, we walked to Giordano’s, a chain specializing in deep dish pizza.  We had a lunch special that includes a personal pizza that can be served faster than the larger pizzas.  The thick crust was hard, and there was lots of cheese and sausage.  The pizza was inexpensive and fast, but we wouldn’t go back.

That evening we drove to Bob Chinn’s Crab House in Wheeling, a suburb north of Chicago.  The early bird special is amazing: soup or salad, rib roast and fish, and dessert for $15.  The food was tasty and more than we could eat.  The service was very good.  The restaurant is huge and very popular.  Come early.

The next evening we walked through downtown Chicago after visiting the Art Institute.  Just off State Street, we saw Garrett’s Popcorn. We were able to wait in line inside, where it was warm, and we had time to read the menu and see what people order.  Of course we tried the Chicago mix:  caramel corn and cheese corn mixed together, so you get some of both in a mouthful.  It’s good. We munched as we looked at the store windows of the former Marshall Field, now Macy’s.  We contained the rest and finished it on the flight home.  🙂

After walking the Magnificent Mile (bright lights and holiday decorations following Thanksgiving), we rode the Metrarail back to Skokie.  We had seen signs advertising Italian beef and sausage, and my aunt said they’re a local specialty.  We checked yelp and decided to try Portillo’s Hot Dog, despite the Hot Dog in the name.  Portillo’s had the highest rating and best reviews, but hot dog joint for dinner wasn’t appealing. Were we in for a surprise!  Portillo’s is large and packed with people. They had four registers to take orders.  We shared an Italian beef sandwich: moist, thinly sliced beef, like a french dip, but with dry bread.  It was very good, so we ordered an Italian beef and sausage sandwich, which adds a sausage.  My cousin later told us that their family had conducted a blind taste test of Italian beef sandwiches, and Portillo’s won. We’ll be back!