We just finished our five day diving trip on the Sinai with Desert Divers. We started in Dahab on the east coast of the Sinai Peninsulu(Gulf of Aqaba) – roughly 100 Km south of the Israeli border. Dahab is a Bedouin town of 30,000 on the East side of the Sinai whose economy is mostly based on diving tourism. The Sinai coast is beautiful. The Sinai desert is more arid and far more mountainous than I had imagined (see photos). It’s not a place you’d want to be lost. The Red Sea goes from light blue to deep azure along the coast. Unfortunately, like most places we’ve been, there is a very casual attitude towards garbage and litter and so the coast is lined with it.

A short jeep trip and a less-short camel ride took us to a place north of Dahab called Ras Abu Galloum where we were based for four days. I’ve ridden a camel before, but never for an extended period of time.It’s nothing like riding a horse. Camels are slower and very deliberate. You typically mount camels while they’re sitting. The camel gets up and sits down in a three-step process that isn’t unlike sitting on the handle of a manual water pump for a few seconds. Also discovered that camel riding is much easier on female anatomy than on male.

Our time in Ras Abu Galloum was terrific. We had a Bedouin man cooking for us and the native food he cooked for us was pretty consistently terrific. We grew to love the flat, soft Bedouin bread and the various dips for it. Two out of the three nights we slept there, we slept in the open desert a few feet from the ocean which was mostly great, except our bodies weren’t accustomed to the hard ground so we didn’t actually sleep that much. The diving was also pretty great. The coast here is the best coral site that I’ve dived and possibly the richest small-fish site I’ve dived. We also saw some larger fish – a large Grouper, some Giant Trevally, a Crocodile Fish, and others. I also did my first night dive which was a treat.

The last day we returned to Dahab so I could complete my Advanced Open Water certification. Cameron got mild nitrogen narcosis during our “deep” dive and became a little over-happy which was entertaining. The certification went fine but we both ate something that made us a bit sick – a first for me on the trip – though it cleared up three days later.

Overall our time in the Sinai was one of the best parts of our trip so far. Our tour operator, Desert Divers was absolutely fabulous in every respect, and our hotel in Dahab, the Coach House was also exceptional. I’ll be looking for an excuse to return some day.

We decided to stop for 3 days in Istanbul mostly because someone at Cameron’s work said that it had been one of his favorites among places he had visited. We signed up for just a two day tour of the main tourist attractions with Credo Tours who handled everything very professionally. Our guide was a young lady named Yazemin who was terrific in all respects. We saw the usual fare in Istanbul: the Topkapi Palace – seat of the Sultans, the Hagia Sophia – a huge cathedral later converted to a mosque, the so-called Blue Mosque, the Suleiman Mosque built by Suleiman the Great, a cruise up the Bosporus Strait, and the Grand Bazaar – once the market of the city and now an enormous tourist shopping center.I won’t give a recap of the history – you can find a better synopsis elsewhere – but I will give the biggest impressions we took away from our visit:

  1. Istanbul is way bigger than we had imagined.The city has more than 12 million people with considerably more in the greater metro area – not far from the size of New York. We were advised that the tap water isn’t potable, but in all other respects it appeared to be a very modern city.
  2. Istanbul is also a much bigger tourist site than we imagined.Our tour guide told us that Istanbul gets about half the number of visitors that Paris does, or about 22 million a year! I believe it from the number of visitors we saw at the major tourist sites.
  3. Turkey is predominantly Muslim (over 90%), but has a history of secular government. Although it’s clear to any visitor that it’s a Muslim city from the 2000 mosques in the city, the prayer calls from the mosques, the Ramadan banners, and the hijabs and occasional burkas, it’s not a place where a westerner would feel out of place at all. Everything is very modern, the men dress in western style as do most women with the exception of the hijab, and we were not able to detect anything that would disrupt the life of the average western person living here. I wish this kind of Islam got more media attention.

We would have liked to have had more time here. We realized after 2 days of tours that we had only just scratched the surface of Turkey. The food was pretty much fantastic across the board, the hotels were very modern and comfortable, and there’s an unbelievable amount of interesting history here. I’ll be looking for a way to return someday.

Sorry it’s taken so long to get this post up. There were a bajillion photos to sort through and it seems like we’ve been hardly able to catch our collective breaths. That said, Cameroon was quite an experience. We were there for two full weeks and there’s nowhere near enough room for me to record our experience here, so I’ll just try to hit some of the highlights and you can look at the photos to get some additional idea of our visit there.

Cameroon is a developing nation of about 18 million people founded in 1960. It has two major cities – Douala, which is the commercial capital of the country, and Yaounde which is the political capital of the country. You can read here if you want to learn more about Cameroon. We chose Cameroon for a few reasons:

  1. It is stable and peaceful
  2. It is fairly unique among African countries in having both jungle (the southeast which is part of the Congo basin) and classic savannah (the northeast). Because of this, Cameroon’s advertising slogan is “Africa in miniature” and it lives up to this promise.
  3. It hasn’t (yet) been overrun with mass tourism like Botswana and some other countries, which we thought would give us a better chance to get an authentic look at a piece of Africa and its people.

Most of our stay in Cameroon was enjoyable, but we felt that the operator of the tour company we chose (Victor Awasung at Equatorial Tours) cheated us. The rest of the Equatorial Tours staff was fantastic. I don’t want to make this part of our trip the focus of this post, so you can read about it here if you want.

Most of our stay was spent in the rural areas in the Northeast and Southeast of the country en route to two of Cameroon’s national parks (Waza and Lobeke). Waza is a park in the northeast, accessible over a paved road, of the savannah type that most people associate with an African safari. The best time to see wildlife here is in the dry season (Jan. – Mar.) when animals congregate around watering holes. It’s still the wet season here which means the grass is still very tall and animals are hard to see. However, we did get very close to a large group of giraffes. Lobeke, in the southeast is accessible only by a long 2 or 3-day drive over dirt roads and is not frequently visited by tourists. Lobeke is part of the jungle of the Congo basin and is famous for its gorillas and other large mammals. We stayed at an observation post for viewing the animals but didn’t see the gorillas – possibly because it was too wet. We did get glimpses of a black panther, some small deer, a large boar and several small animals. We also saw tracks for numerous large animals such as water buffalo and elephants.

The time we spent traveling through the rural areas in the east of the country was fantastic. Cameroon is a truly beautiful country and the people are extremely friendly. Southeast Cameroon doesn’t get very many white visitors (we only saw white people only once in our six days of traveling around the southeast). When a white person drives by, pretty much everyone turns to gape. But the stares we drew weren’t unfriendly stares. To the contrary, one of the defining characteristics of Cameroon was the friendliness of the people – especially compared to US standards. People would often spontaneously wave and smile and a wave from us was almost guaranteed to generate a smile and a wave back. I was also struck by how helpful people were in assisting travelers with problems. Anywhere a road problem developed, a swarm of locals quickly developed to fix the problem – whether it was repairing a bridge or creating an alternate route for an impassible road. And we would frequently encounter travelers walking by the side of the road who would hail vehicles for a lift to the next village. It is a kind of community friendship that has vanished from most of the US.

Of all the friendly people we met, the children were the best. I’ve never considered myself someone who had a particular talent for working with children, but you’d have to be a sociopath to not fall in love with the children here. I’ll keep a lot of memories of the children here – huge beautiful toothy smiles and full-arm waves, groups of children who see us (“Les Blancs”) and try to run beside our vehicle waving, children who will come running and give you a fifty-thousand volt smile for a piece of candy, children who entertain themselves with games like Cat’s Cradle and other pre-Playstation inventions. For me, Cameroon was worth it just for the children.

Of course, Cameroon has challenges similar to other developing nations – the ongoing struggle against corruption, people living in rural areas on subsistence farming without modern equipment, the slow progress of a modern road system, the dominance of raw materials such as timber and agriculture in a developing economy, and so on. However, we saw good progress in many areas. We were never harassed by the police or asked to pay bribes for example. 

Again, I can’t possibly cover our whole stay there. Despite the challenges we experienced with our tour operator, I truly loved our visit to Cameroon and I hope I can return someday.

Almost every aspect of our visit to Cameroon was enjoyable. I loved the people, the beautiful landscapes, and our guides were terrific. But our interaction with Victor Awasung, the operator of Equatorial Tours, seriously tainted what was otherwise a wonderful visit. Here’s the story if you’re thinking about signing up with them:

There aren’t a lot of options visible on the Internet for tourism in Cameroon. Equatorial Tours had a decent, if not very polished, website and responded quickly to our emails. Despite finding almost no references to them by others, they seemed like the best option. It took us a while to put together an itinerary with them because we were still sorting out the rest of our travel schedule to other countries. Victor urged us to pay sooner rather than later to secure our reservation and promised us our itinerary would be flexible. Like many tour operators in developing nations, he required payment by wire transfer or Moneygram/Western Union so we settled on a price for a tentative itinerary and we sent him the deposit via Moneygram. Subsequently, we decided to extend our tour by one day to accommodate our flight schedule and agreed upon a price for the extra day.

We met Victor at the Douala airport. Victor is a big, jovial, back-slapping kind of guy. We had a hiccup transferring the rest of the money from the US to Victor, but it was quickly ironed out (the bank in Douala didn’t support Visa Cash Advance transactions despite Equatorial Tour’s assertion that they did). We paid Victor the cost of the original itinerary length, plus the cost of the extra day. Things seemed to go well for the first few days of our tour. In our first meals with him, he spent several minutes talking about how he had given tours to royalty to several different countries as well as Janet Jackson, and how he’d been giving tours in Cameroon for over 10 years. This was a bit of an eyebrow-raiser but we shrugged it off (as it turns out, none of the three employees we met had worked for Victor for more than a year). We visited Maroua and Waza national park and our tour guide, Patrick, was fantastic – extremely helpful and always looking out for us.

On the morning of the fifth day of our tour, Victor sent us a curt email asking us for a significant additional amount of money to continue the tour. He claimed that he had pre-paid for a 4WD vehicle to take us to the next part of our tour in the southeast of the country but that the 4WD had developed serious engine problems, that the company he had pre-paid would not reimburse him, and that the extra money was to cover the cost of a new 4WD that he was having to rent at a high price because of the short reservation notice. Unsurprisingly, we were alarmed and angry at this unexpected development. We had no way to verify his claim, and we felt that even if he were telling the truth that the extra cost should be his responsibility, not ours. He said he understood our position but that he didn’t have the money to cover it. He was very convincing. It’s still possible he was telling the truth, although his later actions cast doubt on that.

My brother and I discussed our options at length. Our travel schedule was relatively inflexible, we were sure that Victor wouldn’t refund our money if we abandoned the tour, and we really wanted to see Cameron. So we decided unhappily to pay an extra $1,000 to continue the tour. I phoned my sister in the US to wire the money to Victor. She miscalculated the transfer amount and wired Victor 20,000 XFA (about $45) more than she was supposed to. Victor assured us he would refund the excess.

Before leaving for Lobeke in the southeast, we discussed a change in the itinerary with Victor. We wanted to make the trip there and back in two days each way instead of three . This would enable us to make up for the day we lost ironing out Victor’s surprise extra fee and hopefully even gain a day back that we could spend in Douala. The itinerary change was understood by all involved, including our guide and our driver. Victor said this would be no problem.

The trip to the southeast was enjoyable and uneventful. Our guide, Elvis, was very helpful and friendly like our guide in the northeast had been. On the way back though, Elvis asked for a $45 loan for gas. Apparently, Victor gives his guides the amount of money he thinks they’ll need and they’re on their own if they exceed that amount. We obviously loaned Elvis the money with the promise of repayment by Victor on our return to Douala. At this point, Victor had now taken $1,090 more than the stated tour cost and agreed to pay $90 back to us for the overpayment and gas loan.

More surprises awaited us on our return to Douala. Victor first produced an early copy of our itinerary and claimed that our tour was over. To his surprise, I was able to produce emails that showed that we had in fact paid for an extra day and that moreover we had paid for an activity – a day at a Pygmy village – that he not only hadn’t provided for, but that really didn’t make any sense (there’s not really a lot to do at a pygmy village other than take pictures of their unusual houses). There was some entertainment value in watching him re-read his own email three or four times while furiously thinking about how to explain it away. In the end he basically just reneged on most things. We got him to loan the company car to Elvis for an extra day to take us around Douala provided we pay all gas and meals.

The next morning we found out he also expected us to pay for our Douala hotel ($70) the previous night (which we had agreed was included within our tour length). Victor claimed by phone that he had pre-paid a hotel in a different town on the way back that he expected us to stay in, and that as a result he “didn’t have the budget” to pay for a hotel in Douala so it was our responsibility. This was dubious on several levels. First, he hadn’t mentioned anything about this little detail the night before when we had arrived in Douala. Second, we had discussed our itinerary upon leaving for Lobeke and our tour guide, and our driver had all understood that we would be staying that night in Douala – so if Victor hadn’t understood it, it was his fault and responsibility, not ours. Thirdly, in my opinion it’s very unlikely that he actually pre-paid the hotel. Pre-paying a hotel is rare in Cameroon because 99% of the hotels require cash payment (no Visa support). To pre-pay he would have had to send the money via Moneygram invoking another fee. We also know he hadn’t pre-paid our other hotels.

At the end, Victor gave up any pretense of making a valid case for taking money from us. Although he had come up with explanations for the $1000 extra for the 4WD, the $70 for the last night of the hotel, and the $50 or so for the last day of expenses, he never denied he owed us $45 for our overpayment or the $45 for the gas loan to Elvis. He had a different strategy for dealing with that. He repeatedly rescheduled meeting with us until we checked out of our hotel the very last day and then – shockingly — he didn’t show up despite telling us by phone a half-hour prior to the meeting that he was on his way. We even had lunch at the hotel for an hour and a half after the meeting to give him the benefit of the doubt and I sent him an email saying he could send the money via Moneygram if he really intended to pay it back. Unsurprisingly, he never replied. As sketchy as everything else was, we probably would have kept our mouths shut had it not been for this blatant robbery.

So in the end, we paid over $1200 extra for our tour (22% more than the original price). His fraud was especially annoying because we had gone out of our way to try to lower costs for him. Cameron and I have spent a lot of time in small companies and we know how hard it can be. So when it was discovered that I had left my passport at the Waza hotel an hour after leaving, I paid for the extra gas to go back and get it. And for the entire tour, we ate just two meals a day instead of the three that come standard with most multi-day tours.

We’re not totally sure why Victor treated us like he did. We certainly paid him enough. We know what the hotels and meals cost and even when making very conservative estimations at his other costs, we gave him enough money to cover our expenses with plenty of cushion. In fact, our tour cost was more than double the cost of an equivalent tour in Egypt of the same duration, even though Egypt has a higher per-capita income! At any rate, this was our experience. I’m sure other Equatorial Tours customers had better experiences than we did, but it’s a good idea to be careful.

Update: Equatorial Tours has threatened to sue me for defamation as a result of the original contents of this post. While I stand behind everything I said in that post, I have edited it to remove the alleged defamation.  Victor still doesn’t deny that he owes us money and he still has not repaid us two months later. I have also received information from the US Embassy in Cameroon that they have received similar complaints from other customers of Equatorial Tours.

After leaving Oruro and La Paz we headed to Santa Cruz, the other large city in Bolivia. Santa Cruz and La Paz are about as different as two cities in the same country can get. La Paz is high and dry, older, poorer, more urban, and more traditional. Santa Cruz sits under 2000 ft. in altitude, is warm and humid, and is more modern and western.

Noel Kempff National Park is one of the few remote wildernesses remaining in the world. It can only be accessed by plane, or a very long boat ride up a river. Discovered by Percy Fawcett in 1910, it is comprised of 3.7 million acres in the very northeast corner of Bolivia, sharing a border with Brazil on the Itinez River on the east, and bordered by the Paragua river on the west. The interior is a plateau that rises 1800 feet from the jungle floor and is demarcated by steep sandstone escarpments (see photos). This feature of the park was the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World” novel. The park encompasses five distinct ecosystems and is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world. Over 600 species of birds, 70 species of reptiles, and 130 species mammals have been documented in the park. Some 110 species of orchids have been discovered within the park boundaries. We stayed at one of the larger park stations, Flor de Oro, which is located on the Itinez River (Brazil is on the other side of the river). Brazil’s side of the park is supposedly a reserve as well, but we saw several ad hoc fishing camps and not a little garbage accumulation on the Brazil side which is unfortunate.

From Santa Cruz, we took a half hour ride to a rural airfield outside the city where we met our pilot and his plane (see photos) for the ride to the Flor de Oro park station Noel Kempff. Cameron took the front seat since his legs are about six inches longer than mine and I shared the backseat with our gear. My knees made pretty good friends with my chin over the next three hours. The ride wasn’t as bumpy as we expected, but we did discover that we had come in the middle of burning season. At the end of the dry season (wet season begins in December) farmers in Bolivia and surrounding countries Brazil and Venezuela burn off old vegetation on their lands or set fires to clear new land. The result is a 2-month smoke cloud larger than Utah which obscures the sun nearly all the time. The pilot’s vision was pretty completely obscured and we might as well been flying through a cloud for three hours (with no radar instruments or radio contact by the way). The smoke cover is evident in most of the photos.

Flor de Oro is an old ranch settlement converted to a park station. They do host “tourists” but this is not your typical tourist stop and it’s not for everyone. Besides requiring a 3-hour ride in a small chartered plane to get here, it also has no hot water, electricity only a few hours a day, no one that speaks English well, and um… a few critter issues. It is also warm and extremely humid. On the other hand, it’s about as unspoiled and beautiful a wilderness as you’re ever likely to see, the people were friendly, and the food was out of this world.

Our accommodations were basic but clean and comfortable – a room with two beds and sheets, some shelves, a cement floor, and a 2-liter bottle of potable water. There was a light in the room which worked for a few hours each evening. It sounded like there were a couple mice in the walls, but there was no evidence of mice inside. However there were bats in the attic area of our building and they made a racket coming and going each night. Other than that, everything was satisfactory.

The park station cooking staff (actually, the wife, mother, sister-in-law, and daughter of the man who runs the station) provided us lunch shortly after we arrived the first day, introducing us to a food theme that was to repeat itself throughout our stay there. Every day, every meal, the food was out-of-this-world good and there was always way more than the two of us could eat. When I say the food was good, I don’t mean it was good for being in the middle of nowhere in the Amazon Basin, I mean it was some of the best food I’ve ever had in my life. In fact, one Brazilian roast beef dish might be some of the best meat I’ve ever had in my life (it’s tender when you can cut it with a spoon). When Cameron bit into it the first time he sounded like Bill Murray eating his corn on the cob in What about Bob. Seriously. All this great food might sound like a good thing. It wasn’t for at least two reasons. First, although we were actually getting pretty good exercise each day walking around the jungle, we weren’t burning off the 1200+ Calories per meal we were getting each day. Worse, the cooking staff seemed genuinely hurt that we only ate half or less of the food each day and kept asking if there were other dishes we would prefer etc. We protested and told them how terrific the food was etc. and tried to chalk it up to cultural differences, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t buy it. In the end, we left them a tip, Cameron asked for a recipe for a sublime Lime Mousse they had made for us and we called it even.

Every day we went out in the jungle in the morning, in the late afternoon, and once late at night. Some days we went on hikes, most of the time we went out in a dinghy on the river. Our guides (the Noel Kempff staff) were terrific and it was great to just cruise or drift the banks of the river in the cooler hours of the day looking for new animals or other interesting things. This is the dry season in the jungle, which is mostly the best season for seeing wildlife. The river is about five or six feet lower than it is in the wet season and there are fewer sources of water so the animals tend to migrate to the river to drink which makes them easier to find.

We didn’t get to see everything we wanted, but we were pretty lucky overall. I took pictures of about 50 bird species and we probably saw 20 more. I don’t have the kind of high-power photographic equipment that is really needed to take great, crisp bird pictures but I did the best I could. I was only able to identify a few. I’ve posted several of the bird photos in case someone wants to try to identify them. As with the birds, we didn’t see all the mammals we hoped for (no tapirs, only a glimpse of some monkeys), but we saw several of the famous pink/purple river dolphins, Capybaras, Nutrias, and a ways up the river, the biggest treat- the rare and endangered giant river otter. We also had some up-close and personal encounters with Caimans as you’ll see in the photos.

As with the other places we’ve been so far, we thoroughly enjoyed our stay at Noel Kempff and would go back in a heartbeat. It really is a unique jewel of a wilderness and I hope it can stay that way. We’re on to Cameroon tomorrow where it’s possible we may be without Internet access for the two weeks we’re there. I’ll post again as soon as possible.