“Thanks to the Highway Interstate System, it is now possible to travel from coast to coast without seeing anything.” Charles Kuwalt
After traveling for three months through seven different countries in Southern Africa, we come home and prepare to hit the road again. I’m talking about those maintenance visits like doctor, dentist, and hardware store.
A few months later, we hit the road and spend four summer months in remote Haines, Alaska as caretakers of the Bald Eagle Preserve. Although Alaska is not a foreign country for US citizens, it sometimes feels like it. Something about the pristine air and abundant wildlife draws us to Alaska over and over.
Back home after Alaska, and after several more maintenance visits, we prepare to spend a couple of months in Australia. But first…we need to drum up some travel money.
Enter the Christmas tree…unloading, cutting, drilling, loading back up, cutting again, and eventually tying with twine to the tops of fancy SUV’s in the Scottsdale/Paradise Valley area of Arizona. I even deliver and set-up trees in a few mansions. Anything for a sale. Sometimes we simply place the tree in the backseat of a sporty convertible.
Three solid weeks of bending and lifting takes its toll on our backs, legs, and hands. But we make it through in one piece, with a pocket full of travel cash!
First destination on the road…a stop in Albuquerque, New Mexico in a room with a hot tub! Then we continue our drive across the US for a surprise visit to my parents on Christmas Eve in the village of Mingo Junction, Ohio.
Let’s take at least one side road, the Yellow Brick Road to the “Land of Oz” where we visit the original house of Dorothy and Toto in Kansas.
After a fantastic time with my parents in Mingo Jct., we’re off to the city lights of downtown Chicago. Yes, splurge on a room (1/2 price, off-season) downtown in the middle of the Magnificent Mile to start off the new year. Stay tuned… Ron Mitchell
I cast my lure upstream in the Chilkoot River, let it bounce down with the current, and reel it back in…over and over until a salmon or a dolly varden strike.
What a thrill to land one! Sometimes I catch the limit, other times nothing. That’s why they call it fishing, instead of catching.
I watch eagles catch fish so big that they cannot fly away, and have to swim to shore with it. It matters little if I do not catch a fish. Simply being along the Chilkoot River feels like pristine paradise.
Four times in the past week, a brown bear and her two first-year cubs came strolling down the shoreline. During our first encounter, I wasn’t fishing with my “head on a swivel,” and my eyes briefly met with mama grizzly’s eyes.
She was about twenty feet away. I slowly back away, not turning my back to her. I make it up to the bridge, look down and watch her teach her kids how to fish. She’s much more effective at fishing than I. So are the Eagles.
Photographers and hordes of tourists on foot and in vehicles appear out of nowhere when the bears arrive. Hopefully they keep a good distance, and leave the bears a wide exit path. Otherwise, the bears get stressed, could get aggravated, or not be able to eat.
One professional bear photographer from Ontario says to me, “I’ll never come to Haines again. They allow people to kill bears here.” He shakes his head. “The penalty is less than a slap on the wrist.”
I partially agree. The “Chilkat Valley News” recently reported that a Haines resident was cited for three counts of violating hunting season, and fined $1500. He left the windows down in his truck which held bags of groceries he apparently forgot about. When a mama bear and her two cubs sniffed it out, he shot them dead on the spot. The reduced charges were a result of the man being “honest” about it.
Just the other day, another Haines resident dressed up in a convincing brown bear costume. He harassed two cubs, and then scared the bee jeepers out of a family sitting in a car, by attacking the driver side window. Young children inside were traumatized. It may be humorous to some, but this man is still on the loose, and I’d love to unleash my bear pepper spray on him next time he’s in costume! Now, that would be funny.
When fisherman bring their coolers to the shore, and then have to scoot out quickly when bears appear, coolers are often left behind. This irresponsible behavior teaches bears to associate humans with food. Leave the cooler in your vehicle. The extra steps to and from are good for you.
All these activities eventually lead to the bear and cubs being shot. “A fed bear is a dead bear.” Since our last summer in Haines three years ago, we know of at least three bear families that have met this lethal fate.
Our Ranger says that back in Valdez, when they have to euthanize a bear, it costs the community about $25,000 in lost tourist/photographer tour revenues. In Haines, that estimate climbs to $125,000 per bear because of the many visitors the bears draw. Of course, for Mare and I, and others who appreciate the unique wonder along the Chilkoot River, the loss of life has nothing to do with money.
I continue to cast my lure upstream, and let it bounce down with the current in hopes of catching a fish. I take in the beauty that surrounds me, breathe fresh, cool air, and watch eagles dive for fish. When the bears show up, I make my way through the onlookers, look down at forgotten coolers, and say a respectful goodbye to the remaining bears. Hopefully, they will live and prosper and continue to amaze. Ron Mitchell
We sit on the deck of the caretakers’ cabin in the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, and watch eagles catch fish in the Chilkat River.
Rafters on tours float past us and wave, unless gazing at glacial jagged mountains. Most come from the many cruise ships docked in the “nearby” town of Skagway. A raft guide tells us, “We call this the ‘float and bloat’ because they’re used to four meals a day.” Another guide says, “We called them the ‘newlywed or nearly dead’ when I worked in Juneau.”
The swift current in this braided river never freezes. Upstream, a large portion of water sits under accumulated glacial sediments. This underground reservoir is insulated and stays ten degrees above freezing all year. As a result, the river hosts the final salmon run on the North American Continent, where around 4,000 American Bald Eagles converge in the fall for a final feast. It’s like a convention of nature’s executives convening in Haines instead of Las Vegas.
Mare and I catch a rare sunny day for our favorite hike up Mt. Riley. We have the moderate six-mile round trip trail to ourselves, and make noise in the thick woods to keep the bears at bay. Up top, we’re treated with views of the Lynn Canal – North America’s longest and deepest fjord.
We gaze over the Chilkat River, Haines, and the Taiya Inlet. We can practically see all the way to Juneau. Massive glaciers melted years ago, allowing this vista which includes optimal views of Rainbow Glacier and its iconic waterfalls.
Battery Point Trail undergoes constant repair. The trail head is right in town and thus one of the most popular hikes in Haines. Ranked as easy, the four-mile round trip takes you through forest and onto rocky beach lined with flowers including Queen Anne’s lace, cow parsnips and fireweed. I go for my pepper spray when we hear something crashing through the thick spruce, relieved when two eagles, instead of a brown bear, busts through.
I haven’t caught a sockeye yet, but have learned how to fish for Dolly Varden. These arctic trout/char, depending upon who you talk to, can get huge. I caught a five-pounder. They taste sweet and would delight any staunch meat-eater. It took three summers for one local fisherman to give up his secret spot to me.
Mare made friends with a young eagle while I was out of town on a family emergency. She calls him “Screamer” because he screams when she walks past on her daily morning stroll. Sure, Mare…how long have you been here in this cabin? So, she takes me on the walk, and there he is, in the same spot, screaming and then soaring over top of us for several moments. It happens every morning when Mare calls to him. We’ll see if after he grows up and his head turns white he’ll remember us.
Still missing our dog Jack, Mare calls and chases what she thinks is a stray black dog. She later claims it was actually a black bear. I think that she has cabin fever, as we have seen no sign of bear. Then, this guy shows up in our backyard.
This year’s cabin comes with electricity. What a treat to have a refrigerator, propane range, oil heat, and the ability to store food and freeze fresh fish! We get one radio station out here, KHNS, a community station. Especially love the listener personals, eclectic array of music, NPR and local news.
Bathrooms are outside of course, which we clean and stock for the general public. Out-houses never break down. We’ll drive 19 miles into the town of Haines for a shower once in a while and catch up on internet (spotty and slow). Then fill our containers with glacial fed spring water and our growlers with beer from the Haines Brewery.
So, here we are, sitting around our fire pit, staring at a fire, a raging river, and the surrounding jagged, glacial-pocked mountains.
We marvel at the eagles fishing skills, and our good fortune to see it all. Life is good. Ron Mitchell
Load that pick-up with supplies, because prices for everything in Alaska run high. Speaking of “high,” a retail marijuana shop is open for business right outside of our motel in Bellingham, Washington not far from the ferry terminal.
Workers quickly point out that bringing Washington weed out of state is illegal, even though we’re traveling to another “weed legal” state.
Mare and I plan to spend the summer volunteering as caretakers for the Bald Eagle Preserve in Haines, Alaska. We travel a lot and rarely visit a place more than once, but this will mark our third summer here. Haines is that special. Getting there is fun also.
After a four-hour wait at the terminal, where police dogs sniff vehicles, we drive onto the ship for an elevator ride to the second floor. Mare secures two lounge chairs up top in the solarium, where we’ll sleep for three nights under heat lamps.
You can also pitch a tent, using duct tape instead of spikes. Cabins are available, but sell-out fast. We prefer the panoramic view and fresh air outside. Public showers and bathrooms are free.
Goodbye beautiful Bellingham! Rare sunshine and clear skies follow us the entire cruise up the Alaska Marine Highway.
Except for a foggy morning in Ketchikan, the first stop in 38 hours.
Dogs cannot wait to get out of cars and hit the grass, as most large dogs “hold it” for all that time. On a previous trip, we laughed when our dog Jack took a world class, record pee here. Unfortunately, Jack is no longer with us. We miss traveling with him, but know that he would not miss this ferry ride.
I do my best to ignore the ladies next to me, as they constantly talk…to everybody, forever, except for me. Don’t intend to be rude, just don’t want to get stuck yakking for three days. It’s the first time that I have faked reading a book!
The ferry has a cafeteria and restaurant, but we bring our own healthy fare. Okay, we sneak some beers from the cooler, without causing a ruckus.
Relax. Cruise past remote island towns and a few lighthouses. This clear day reveals fishing villages along shores of the Wrangell Narrows. Typically, they’re cloaked in fog. The inside passage route often resembles a river.
Glaciers divide mountains the farther north we travel.
Nearing Haines, we get excited when spotting waterfalls from Rainbow Glacier, and our friends Dale and Rennie’s cabin in the woods below.
We used to view this glacier from our cabin in Chilkat State Park, where we volunteered as campground hosts for two straight years. Living without running water and electricity proves that you don’t need as much as you think.
We disembark the ferry and retrieve keys for a different cabin from Alaska State Parks. This one has electricity! Next stop, the Haines Brewery where it’s growler time. Paul, the proprietor recognizes us from past years. “I didn’t realize you guys were gone so long,” he says with a smile. We share some excellent craft beer (Spruce Tip and Lookout Stout) with good friend Shannon, who greets us.
Our cabin sits on the braided Chilkat River. In the fall, this river provides a final salmon run on the North American Continent.
Up to 5,000 bald eagles shall convene here to fatten-up for winter. Like the salmon and the eagles, we have returned to Haines. It feels like home, except that Jack isn’t here. Ron Mitchell
Out of the desert and onto the coast.
Hello, flamingos and white pelicans of Walvis Bay! This place is a birder’s paradise.
We’re not birders, but still appreciate the beauty of birds.
The Atlantic Ocean crashes into the sands of Namibia, as we enter the holiday resort town of Swakopmund.
Mare treats us to several nights of luxury at the “Beach Lodge” which is designed to look like a wrecked ship, right on the ocean.
Driving part of the Skeleton Coast, we understand how it had earned its name.
Salt flats, mineral and precious gem mines, and the road goes on forever.
Many shipwrecked sailors died of exposure here.
Man cannot live on salt alone, but he can certainly purchase it.
A surreal seashore with over 100,000 seals make us feel like intruders. Wonder if they think that we stink too?
Invigorating walks along a never ending shoreline rejuvenate our bodies, which have been car-bound for days. A simple outdoor shower provides a chance to frolic, and clean up at the same time.
Himba tribal members have kept their cultural heritage intact for many years. The female hair style utilizes a mixture of clay and mud.
Crafts are handmade and very reasonable. Bartering is an important ingredient of their culture, so it’s foolish and insulting to agree on the first price.
We wrap up another amazing adventure in Namibia. A land that has so much more than just sand. Our next adventure will take us back to Cape Town, a place that feels like home. Ron Mitchell
We read, “Don’t bother with Namibia. I can take you to the beach and show you some sand. It is over-priced and over-rated.” Being from the desert in Arizona, and serious budget travelers, we almost did not go.
As we met and talked with fellow travelers who loved Namibia, a new plan and path emerged. So, after that 20-hour bus ride to Windhoek we rent a car and venture into the sand.
The road transforms from pavement to gravel, making for slow travel. We’ll call it “magnificent travel.” Vast terrain transforms in color and formation every several kilometers.
We’re getting worried that our small Volkswagen may be running out of gas (gauge is stuck on full).
We haven’t seen another vehicle for several hours, except for a mule-driven cart.
Namibia has a population of only 2 million people, as opposed to South Africa’s 53 million. No wonder it’s one of the safest countries in Africa!
The town of Solitaire certainly earns its name. They could have named it “Relief.” After a gas-up, we make like a baby and “head out.”
Let’s make camp in a safari tent at “Desert Camp.” The tent comes with a bathroom and back porch kitchen.
Talk about a porch with a view…we are in planetary paradise. Fire up that lamb braai! Suddenly, the road turns straight, forever into oblivion. Changing sunlight sets mountains, dunes, and vastness aglow with different colors.
Impalas, ostriches, gemsbok and wildebeests also love the desert.
In the morning, many rush to Namib-Naukluft National park to climb the dunes and watch the sun rise over the landscapes.
About every ten years, rains flood the washes and riverbeds. That’s when Sossusvlei, a large ephemeral pan, comes to life.
It attracts hundreds of thousands of migrating birds from as far away as the Arctic. Usually, though, the pan is dry and looks like a different planet.
Some of the highest dunes on earth are formed by some of the oldest sands in our world. Here, they separate the desert from the Atlantic Ocean.
Back on the straight, gravel road, Zebras come out of nowhere.
We’re heading to the Namibian coast, totally grateful that we decided to travel here. Gotta have more sand! Ron Mitchell
“You guys are living the life. You’ve got it made.” Throughout our travels we hear these sentiments from many different folks. We are and we do. We live in a state of appreciation. But why do we love to travel? I don’t know…so I researched “travel,” the word.
An ancient root from the Latin word tripalium means to impale with three stakes, as in torture. Later, the French root travail, or travailen means to torment, labor strenuously, journey, toil and struggle. Hmm…50 Shades of Travel? Perhaps I don’t want to know why we love travel.
Here’s an example of a day in the life of a traveler, which is just as typical as seeing wonderful things and meeting beautiful people:
Mare and I board a 20-hour bus from Livingstone, Zambia to Windhoek, Namibia. The bus gets so full of passengers that there remains no seat for the extra driver. He ends up sleeping below the bus in the luggage compartment.
Being the only white people on board, we get another glimpse of what it feels like to be a minority. Of course, we’re in Africa. The man sitting behind Mare is too huge for the seat. Mare cannot lean her seat back at all. I argue with him a bit, but he’s too huge for that also.
As soon as the bus leaves the station, our backs soak with sweat during this hot, bumpy ride. The road is long and straight, and elephants cross on occasion. An awful movie blares. It begins with white cops chasing and beating up a black thief. Great. Then, it develops into something about cops getting way in to God, and end up practicing loving forgiveness. (Science fiction?)
Four hours later we all disembark to walk about a mile in the hot African sun, between various Immigration and Customs buildings. We swipe our feet on chemically soaked rugs to prevent spread of “hoof and mouth” disease. This practice occurs at least four times during the twenty-hour trip. I begin to look forward to it, to break the monotony.
At the Namibian border, we are screened for Ebola by standing sideways, while a woman shoots a ray gun at each of us. Then we receive a torn piece of cardboard with a number written on it. Apparently, that means we do not have Ebola and can enter Namibia.
Ten hours into the ride, the black of night cloaks the windows. Mare cannot lean her seat back, so falling asleep means that her head drops forward. She lays her head on my lap, and stretches those long legs straight up in the air against the window. Mare sleeps. Lucky devil.
My knees ache. Back still wet with sweat. Neck is tied in knots, and leg where Mare’s head lies is totally numb, but I don’t have the heart to wake her. My ass feels like someone has scrubbed it with sandpaper, and my elbows are rubbed raw from the arm rests. Then, as soon as I close my eyes, the final movie blares louder than any other – “Alvin and the Chipmunks.”
The screeching sound of singing chipmunks in the darkness for two hours is surreal. That “Hula Hoop” song stays stuck in my head for days.
Twenty hours later, we arrive in Windhoek. It’s six o’clock in the morning and we can’t check in to the hostel room until noon. We walk the streets, mainly waiting for a “decent” time to have a beer. Time of day matters little at this point. Finally, in the room and out of our clothes, a shower has never felt so good.
The strange thing about “travel” is that we love it. I’m not sure what that says about us, but we live in a state of appreciation for all of life’s experiences. Well maybe not all… sometimes it simply feels good to stop.
Why do we travel? Most often, a pay-off comes with it. In this case, the following day we rent a car for an exhilarating ride on remote gravel roads, and end up in a safari tent at Desert Camp, outside of Namib-Naukluft Park. Unworldly landscape and monstrous dunes blow us away. Perhaps we travel just because we like to see different stuff.
We’re living the life and we got it made. Thank you, Abundant Universe! Ron Mitchell
The onset of rainy season fires up wild animals. Mare and I board a boat with eight others for a safari cruise on the Chobe River, where Botswana be on the left, Namibia on the right.
The Chobe and Zambezi rivers meet at the tip of Impalila Island, resulting in a junction of four different counties – Botswana, Zambia, Namibia, and Zimbabwe.
From the safety of our boat, we glide past crocodiles and lizards who blend in with the terrain. A bay of water lilies in bloom provides food and disguise for the many water birds. It also signals the beginning of breeding season.
None will escape the eye of the Fish Eagle, the national bird of Zambia, who scopes out the river scene from a tree.
Hippos roll all over each other, engaging in foreplay. Males are full of testosterone and very aggressive.
They are Africa’s deadliest killers, from a mammal perspective, and have been known to charge boats. Running under water at amazing speed, they can sink their tusks through the hull of a boat! Experienced guides know how to spot the bow wave, and scoot on out of there.
Here come the elephants. Chobe National Park boasts Africa’s largest elephant herds.
They put on a spectacular show, frolicking in the muddy waters. Female elephants are careful to prevent randy young males from engaging in incest.
When males reach this age, they are banned from the female herd. They get to hang out with the guys for the rest of their life, following the females in anticipation of an invite.
Once we disembark, and jump into a safari truck, the breeding theme intensifies.
Vultures wait for the remains of a kill, while we watch a male baboon get excited when a female strolls past. He licks his lips enthusiastically, but she keeps on walking. (That technique had never worked for me either)
Whoa, big fella! This male elephant crosses our path in an obvious, perhaps desperate search for a female. Just how many legs do elephants have?
After a sexually charged water and land safari, we’re moving pretty slow back at the junction. I feel like smoking a cigarette. Ron Mitchell
Stuck in luxury. The Manhattan Hotel in Pretoria, South Africa has five star accommodation. Surrounded by a prison, bus and train stations, the sketchy unsafe streets imprison us in irony.
We cannot get a visa for travel into Zimbabwe. The application website does not work, and the bus company will not wait for us to get one at the border. Even a trip to the Zimbabwean embassy proves fruitless. They won’t let us through the gate. Okay, travel plans change. We will fly to Livingstone, Zambia to witness Victoria Falls from the Zambian side.
Stand in the center of a rainbow on a walking bridge over a gorge. Let the mist of Victoria Falls cleanse you like a cloudburst ascending from the ground. Cry in the moment as one-million liters of water per second fall down a 108 meter (about one football field) drop.
Words and photos cannot describe or compare to feeling, breathing, wearing Victoria Falls. The earth simply split open in the middle of the Zambezi River and now takes us all in. From a distance, the mist looks like smoke from a major forest fire. No wonder local folks call the Falls Mosi-oa-Tunya, which literally means the “Smoke that Thunders.”
Let’s take a two-hour tour to Livingstone Island, where Scottish explorer David Livingstone was the first European to witness this amazing sight. Depart from the ultra-luxurious David Livingstone Lodge on the Zambezi Riverfront. I thought the tour was going to be stupid. I was wrong.
After a short boat ride to the island, six of us hold hands while following one guide. We traverse over slippery rocks in the Zambezi River within feet of the edge of the Falls. The rainy season is late this year, which gives us an opportunity to “swim” in the Angel’s Armchair.
One by one, we go out with a guide who holds our hand while we lounge in the rapids on the lip of Victoria Falls. Zim! Bam! Wee! What a thrill! Crab crawl back to land over rocks and through the rapids. I hope that I did not ingest too many parasites by swallowing Zambezi river water during this adrenaline rush. Later, Mare reads sad stories about travelers losing friends, and guides from this activity.
Dammit. We’ll walk into Zimbabwe. Yes, after numerous customs/immigration checks on the hot road, we are in, baby!
The view from this side is also spectacular. We can see where we swam yesterday. Outside of the park, hawkers and hustlers fill this border town, and we’re wearing thin. One guy persistently wants my tennis shoes. We have only enough US dollars for two beers and no lunch.
Back at the “Jollyboys Backpackers Hostel” we meet many interesting travelers. One man from Scotland has been riding his bicycle for the past seven months. He started in London, destination Cape Town. He was hassled in Egypt more than anywhere else, being hissed at as “Ferener.”
Another young man finished his 27 month Peace Corp stint in Lesotho, purchased a Triumph motorcycle (never rode before) and has been riding Southern Africa for several months. They both tent camp, in this unrelenting heat.
Then there are the 40 or so teachers in training here for a month. All but a few are women from Norway. They are young, blond and beautiful. Makes hanging out by the pool a pleasure, for me.
We made it to Zimbabwe. No big deal. The big deal, Victoria Falls, a true “Wonder of the World,” will mesmerize you from either side. Ron Mitchell