"Downtown" Sabang
"Downtown" Sabang

Before we arrived in the country, our prospects for seeing Namibia on the cheap were looking quite grim. Most of the package safaris we found online were north of the US$125 per day which is astronomical compared to most of the places we’ve gone (Palau excluded!). As with many other African countries, the general advice to budget travelers is to not book ahead but instead just turn up and look for a last minute discount.

The crew on our final morning.
The crew on our final morning.

We were thrilled when we met Chad, the owner of the Cardboard Box Travel Shop (and hostel) the day after we arrived in Windhoek. He was planning to try out a new business idea he had come up with for in a few days time. His idea was a “participation safari” for budget-oriented travelers. Basically, he would provide the vehicle, a guide (himself) and all the necessary equipment for NAD3500 per person for an 8-day itinerary. In addition to this cost, we would be responsible for paying for our own camping and park entrance fees.

As for the “participation” part of the safari deal, we would be responsible for preparing our own food and making/breaking camp each day. The food aspect of it was good fun. Given Amy’s vegan diet and my enthusiasm for burning things over an open fire, we would just assume do our own thing on that front. The near-daily access to Namibian grocery stores, which were well stocked, made it easy to get supplies and we even found exotic things like veggie sausages in the stores.

Gems (squash) stuffed with carrots and onions then roasted on the braai
Gems (squash) stuffed with carrots and onions then roasted on the braai

Helping setup and take-down the camp each night became part of the daily routine. Chad’s tents were of the industrial strength (military?) variety but they were easy enough to setup. These tents could have easily slept four people but we were assigned two people per tent. He also had some nice mattress pads and quality sleeping bags – what I would’ve given for those in Mongolia!

I became the roof loading specialist.
I became the roof loading specialist.

Overall, Chad’s safari was an excellent experience and on top of that he’s a great guy. His budget safari idea is a great one and I definitely think there is a niche in the budget travel market to be filled. In retrospect, I would say that the “turn up and see what happens” approach to budget travel in Namibia is a risky one. Unlike some of the bigger safari destinations (e.g. Kenya, Tanzania) there just didn’t seem to be a large volume of tours leaving from Windhoek and I think we were quite lucky. Hopefully Chad can make his new idea work to help open Namibia up to backpackers!

8-day Safari Budget Summary

  • “Participation” safari for two: NAD7000 ($875)
  • Groceries: NAD790 (US$ 98.73)
  • Two nights camping plus park fees at Etosha National Park: NAD770 (US$96.25)
  • One night camping in Damaraland: NAD180 (US$22.50)
  • Misc entrance fees: NAD260 (US$32.50)
  • Two nights at guesthouse in Swako plus laundry: NAD840 (US$105)
  • Two nights camping plus park fees at Sossousvlei: NAD1000 (US$125)

Total for two people: US$1355 (or $85 per person per day)

When a friend of mine heard that we were going to Namibia she told me that Sossusvlei was one the most spectacular and bizarre places she had seen anywhere.  Having visited myself, I have to say that I agree!  Sossusvlei is an area in the Namib Desert that is known for its spectacular sand dunes and salt pans.  We visited Sossusvlei at the end of our 8-day safari.

After a full day and two nights soaking up the cool breezes in Swakopmund, we loaded up the jeep and headed back inland across some hot and desolate terrain.  Come to think of it, Namibia has quite a bit of land that could be classified as hot and empty!  Somewhere out in the middle of nowhere we found a nice sign clearly designating the Tropic of Capricorn so clearly a photo was necessary.

A bit further on we passed through the settlement (read: intersection) of Solitaire, Namibia which is home to Moose McGregor’s Desert Bakery.  Moose’s most famous creation was his apple pie which I have to say is quite good even though it wasn’t the pie shape I was expecting.  In addition to the bakery, the outfit houses a gas station and a small eatery.  The whole compound is littered with ancient cars which didn’t quite survive the rigors of Namibia.  You could have told me I was in one of those quirky little towns along Route 66 in the American Southwest.

The campground at nearby Sesriem was nice and spread out with ample room between us and the other campers.  The fact that the surrounding land isn’t teeming with lions means they can spread the operation out a bit more, I guess.  On the day of our arrival nothing specific was planned so we just pitched the tents and enjoyed a beautiful sunset over the prairie.

The next morning it was rise-and-shine at the crack of dawn because the main thing to do at Sossusvlei is watch the sunrise over the dunes.  The park staff  open the gates to the park so that there is just barely enough time to drive the to the dunes and climb them prior to sunrise.

(Slightly) ahead of the tourist hordes climbing Dune 45
(Slightly) ahead of the tourist hordes climbing Dune 45

Dune 45, named because it is 45 kilometers into the park, is the focal point for all sunrise-seeking tourists.  When we arrived there was already a sizable throng of people plodding up the ridge of the dune.  If you haven’t climbed a dune before all you need to know is to stick to that razor-sharp ridge that runs up the center.  It is still not easy but it is much better than trying to scale the loose sand on the face of the dune (like we did in Mongolia).

After sunrise we drove to Deadvlei (literally “dead marsh”) which is an area in the dune field that was once fed by a nearby river.  At some point way back when, the dunes shifted and cut off the river that was flowing into this area.  The trees growing there died and their scorched remains are still standing hundreds of years later.

Before crossing Deadvlei itself we climbed one of the huge nearby dunes.  This dune is over 350m high and locals claim that it is one of the highest in the world.  Getting to the top was quite a workout but the views from the top were spectacular!  It was a good thing that we completed the climb in the mid-morning because it would have been way too hot in the middle of the day.

Deadvlei from above (the famous dead trees are the dark spots at the far end)
Deadvlei from above (the famous dead trees are the dark spots at the far end)

We descended straight down the steep face of the dune that faces Deadvlei.  This was one of those situations where the ascent took 90 minutes of sweaty determination whereas the descent took all of 2 or 3 minutes!

I think the photos from Deadvlei speak for themselves.  It’s a positively strange sight to take in.  The contrast between the blackened trees, hardened white mud, red dunes and azure sky is amazing.

By the time we finished poking around at Deadvlei the clock was creeping towards noon and the intense sun was starting to make it uncomfortable.  After a brief stop at at small canyon near the campground we retired to our shady campsite to pass the afternoon.  This was definitely one of the days where Amy and I regretted leaving our bathing suits behind in Windhoek as the campground had a pool!

We spent our last night of the safari doing what had become a familiar routine: cooking our dinner on the braai (Afrikaans for barbeque).   We stuffed some gems (small local squash) with onions and garlic and then roasted them on the coals of the fire.

On the last morning we again rose early to catch another sunrise from atop the dunes.  This time we elected to try for a less accessible dune to avoid the large crowds at Dune 45.  Chad dropped us along the road at the large dune due east of Dune 45.  It was about a mile from the road and was substantially higher than its more famous counterpart.  We missed the sunrise but did eventually make it all the way to the top!

Dune Hairy-footed Gerbil (Gerbillurus tytonis) - white spots behind the eyes distinguish him from the standard Hairy-footed Gerbil
Dune Hairy-footed Gerbil (Gerbillurus tytonis) – white spots behind the eyes distinguish him from the standard Hairy-footed Gerbil

To me, one of the most amazing aspects of the dunes was the creatures that call them home.  We saw a wide variety of beetles, lizards and even a dune gerbil.  My favorite was the Namib Dune Geckos which I managed to spot on my evening walk to the bathhouse at the campground.  These geckos are specially adapted to survive in the dry environment and even have webbed feet for better maneuverability in loose sand.

Namib Dune Gecko (Pachydactylus rangei)
Namib Dune Gecko (Pachydactylus rangei)

Overall, Sossusvlei is stunning.  I would rank it up at the very top of all the natural sights I’ve seen and highly recommend it to anyone considering a visit to Africa.  The next post will be a short wrap-up post regarding our safari costs in Namibia.

Sossusvlei
Some of the inhospitable terrain east of Swakopmund
Some of the inhospitable terrain east of Swakopmund
Knobbly Darkling Beetle (Physadesmia globosa)
Knobbly Darkling Beetle (Physadesmia globosa)
Moose's famous apple pie
Moose’s famous apple pie
Southern Masked-Weaver (Ploceus velatus)
Southern Masked-Weaver (Ploceus velatus)
Sunrise before climbing Dune 45
Sunrise before climbing Dune 45
(Slightly) ahead of the tourist hordes climbing Dune 45
(Slightly) ahead of the tourist hordes climbing Dune 45
Seed Beetle (Stips stali)
Seed Beetle (Stips stali)
Racing Darkling Beetle (Onymacris plana)
Racing Darkling Beetle (Onymacris plana)
Beetle tracks
Beetle tracks
You are going to need the 4WD here!
You are going to need the 4WD here!
A long climb to the top!
A long climb to the top!
Wedge-snouted Lizards (Meroles cuneirostris)
Wedge-snouted Lizards (Meroles cuneirostris)
Trying to keep cool: two feet up, two feet down
Trying to keep cool: two feet up, two feet down
Deadvlei from above (the famous dead trees are the dark spots at the far end)
Deadvlei from above (the famous dead trees are the dark spots at the far end)
Namib Dune Gecko (Pachydactylus rangei)
Namib Dune Gecko (Pachydactylus rangei)
Namib Dune Gecko (Pachydactylus rangei) - the webbed feet are a special adaptation
Namib Dune Gecko (Pachydactylus rangei) – the webbed feet are a special adaptation
Dune Hairy-footed Gerbil (Gerbillurus tytonis) - white spots behind the eyes distinguish him from the standard Hairy-footed Gerbil
Dune Hairy-footed Gerbil (Gerbillurus tytonis) – white spots behind the eyes distinguish him from the standard Hairy-footed Gerbil

Damaraland
Damaraland

Heading west from Etosha Park we passed through a region of Namibia known as Damaraland.  We were scheduled to make an overnight stop there to break up the long drive to the coast.  The terrain of Demaraland is beautiful but it is definitely not a place you would want to get stranded without supplies.  The land is arid and rugged but it made for some good photos.

We stopped at two places along the way.  The first was a petrified forest which was run by some of the local indigenous people.  The forest was OK, but not nearly as good as the one we saw earlier in the trip.  The main thing I remember about the forest is that it was very very hot!  The second stop was at Twyfelfontein (that has got to be one of the best place names of the trip!) which means “uncertain spring” in Afrikaans.

Twyfelfontein’s claim to fame are the ancient rock engravings that can be found in the walls of the valley.  Some of these engravings are upwards of 6,000 years old and mostly depict animals of the region: giraffes, lions, zebra, etc.  There was even a partial engraving of a penguin!  Considering we were standing in a desert, it was hard to believe that penguins live along the coast, less than a hundred miles away.

We camped near Twyfelfontein at a small campground along a dry river bed.  A fierce-looking line of thunderstorms rumbled away to our south but we didn’t see a drop of rain that night.  For some reason, and maybe it was the nearby storms, but the evening sunlight was a spectacular gold hue.

Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill (Tockus leucomelas)
Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill (Tockus leucomelas)

Amy and I cooked up roasted gems for dinner.  Gems are small, perfectly-round squash a little bigger than a baseball that we cut open and stuffed with onions and garlic before roasting on the open fire.  While we were preparing the meal, lots of strange looking birds were hanging around waiting for handouts.

The next morning we broke camp and loaded up the Land Cruiser and continued west across the Tsiseb Conservancy.  The  final 50 miles to the coast were across a desolate pan of loose sand although Chad did point out that some small lichen manage to survive on the sand provided nobody drives off-road.  We stopped at one point and I snapped this photo of the telephone poles along the road.

Approaching the coast you can see the wall of fog
Approaching the coast you can see the wall of fog

We hit the coast at the small town of Hentiesbaai where we ate our lunch in the visitor center parking lot.  With full stomachs we headed north up the Skeleton Coast to visit the Cape Cross Seal Reserve which is home to one of the largest colonies of cape fur seals in the world.

As we learned, visiting the seal colony in November has its ups and downs.  On the upside, it is pupping season so there are plenty of cute baby seals flopping around.  The bad news comes when you learn that one of the leading causes of seal pup mortality is being crushed to death by an adult seal.  This made the colony more smelly than usual but it was still an interesting stop.

On the final stretch down to Swakopmund we stopped to see one of the more recent shipwrecks that give the Skeleton Coast its name.  The “Zela” was a fishing trawler that lost its bearings and ended up aground a few years back.  Apparently there are more ships like this one further north but those can be very hard to access.

The fishing pier at Swakopmund
The fishing pier at Swakopmund

We spent two nights in Swakopmund and had the day in between to ourselves.  Swakopmund has a population just over 40,000 and has a distinctly German vibe.  The most noticeable (and appreciated) change from the prior few days was the cold temperatures.  The cold South Atlantic gives the place a much cooler and wetter climate.  We didn’t do much while we were there other than wander the town and the coastline.

Damaraland and Swakopmund
Damaraland
Damaraland
Termites
Termites
Giraffe carving
Giraffe carving
Laughing Dove (Spilopelia senegalensis)
Laughing Dove (Spilopelia senegalensis)
Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill (Tockus leucomelas)
Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill (Tockus leucomelas)
Grey Go-away-bird (Corythaixoides concolor)
Grey Go-away-bird (Corythaixoides concolor)
Red-billed Spurfowl (Pternistis adspersus)
Red-billed Spurfowl (Pternistis adspersus)
Approaching the coast you can see the wall of fog
Approaching the coast you can see the wall of fog
Cape fur seals
Cape fur seals
Many, many seals
Many, many seals
One of the more recent wrecks along the Skeleton Coast
One of the more recent wrecks along the Skeleton Coast
Great White Pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus)
Great White Pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus)
The fishing pier at Swakopmund
The fishing pier at Swakopmund
Swakopmund's main drag
Swakopmund’s main drag

If you want to go on safari in Africa you have two choices: book it in advance or turn up and hope for the best.  The latter approach generally yields much better deals but demands some flexibility.  I researched some of the options ahead of time and the costs were downright scary.  We are talking well north of US$1000 for an 8-day tour!  To put that in perspective, that is roughly equivalent to our monthly budget!

Fortunately, our turn-up-and-see-what-happens approach worked out just fine.  On our first full day in Windhoek we visited a couple of tour agencies including the Cardboard Box Travel Shop where we learned about a tour that was departing in about four days.  Chad, the owner, would personally be leading the 8-day “participation safari” to some of Namibia’s headlining attractions.  Unlike the expensive tours, we’d be responsible for feeding ourselves, erecting/stowing the tents and loading the vehicle.  The itinerary included two nights in Etosha Park, a night in Damaraland, two nights in Swakopmund on the coast and finally two nights near the dunes at Sossousvlei.  Don’t worry if those names don’t mean anything, I’ll be writing about all of them in the coming posts!  I’ll also put together a budget summary for the safari in the final post on Namibia.

Namibia has some great roads
Namibia has some great roads

On the first day of the trip we made the 400km drive north from Windhoek to the southern entrance to Etosha.  The roads in Namibia were much better than we were expecting (Mongolia certainly altered my concept of what constitutes a bad road!) so we reached the park by mid afternoon.   As soon as we were through the gates we started to see the animals and lots of them there were.

Sometimes the birds dwarf the mammals!
Sometimes the birds dwarf the mammals!

Like many of the parks in Africa, Etosha is basically a huge fenced-in area.  The park is a little more than 22,000 km² which is roughly the size of the state of New Jersey but the wildlife is a bit more exciting!  The animals that live in the park roam freely, eat each other and do what wild animals do.  Water is the only thing that is provided to them by humans and this is because they are not able to migrate long distances in search of water as they would do in the wild.  The park staff drill boreholes to make small ponds for the animals.

Oryx (Gemsbok)
Oryx (Gemsbok)

Etosha is also the only game park in Africa where you can turn up in your personal vehicle (we saw people driving tiny VW’s!) and go on a self-guided safari.  The roads inside of the park are sealed and comparable to what you find in many national parks back home.  The rules are simple: stay on the roads and never get out of your car except at designated points.  I guess this makes sense considering you could very well end up as a tasty meal for one of the park’s residents.

A black rhino!
A black rhino!

There are a number of camps within the confines of Etosha.  We stayed at Okaukuejo lodge, a German-built camp dating back to 1901.  The facilities there include a luxury hotel, a campground, a swimming pool, a small airport and probably lots of other things I am forgetting.  We stayed in the campground but were treated to hot showers each evening and even running water at our campsite.

The best part of Okaukuejo was the adjacent watering hole.  Just a short walk from our campsite we could go sit and watch the activity at the watering hole behind the safety of a formidable fence and stone wall!  Sitting at the watering hole you have basically a nonstop parade of animals coming through.  At first there might be some giraffes awkwardly drinking from the pond (did you know they pass out if they keep their head down in the water too long?).  A short while later a pride of lions might come in for a drink and a nap while the lesser animals watch on cautiously with envy.  After they leave it could be rhinos, wildebeest, springbok, etc.  The parade goes on and on around the clock.  Amy and I both agreed that we could have spent days hanging around watching the action.

It took us a while to spot her!
It took us a while to spot her!

The main activity inside of the park is to go on game drives.  We completed a number of drives in the early morning and late afternoon when the animals are most active.  Chad had large modified Land Rover was perfectly suited for photography with huge windows.  Combine the vehicle with Chad’s uncanny ability to spot animals out in the bush and we had more than our share of animal sightings!  Be sure to check out the gallery below for many more photos from our time at Etosha.

Namibia – Etosha National Park
Beware of the warthogs!
Beware of the warthogs!
Namibia has some great roads
Namibia has some great roads
The group just outside of the camp ground at Okaukuejo
The group just outside of the camp ground at Okaukuejo
Kudu
Kudu
Kori Bustard (Ardeotis kori)
Kori Bustard (Ardeotis kori)
These springbok have figured out how to share the limited shade.
These springbok have figured out how to share the limited shade.
Springbok
Springbok
Red-Crested Korhaan
Red-Crested Korhaan
Jackel
Jackel
Sociable weavers - massive bird colonies
Sociable weavers – massive bird colonies
A black rhino!
A black rhino!
Etosha Pan
Etosha Pan
Cats and birds.  Both bigger in Africa.
Cats and birds. Both bigger in Africa.
Zebra crossing?
Zebra crossing?
The viewing area at the lodge's watering hole.
The viewing area at the lodge’s watering hole.
Black Rhino
Black Rhino
Helmeted guineafowl running for the water
Helmeted guineafowl running for the water
Oryx (Gemsbok)
Oryx (Gemsbok)
Southern Masked-Weaver?
Southern Masked-Weaver?
Kudu
Kudu
Helmeted Guineafowl
Helmeted Guineafowl
Looks like we aren't going to be continuing on this road.
Looks like we aren’t going to be continuing on this road.
Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius)
Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius)
Gemsbok (Oryx)
Gemsbok (Oryx)
A lone wildebeest listening to his radio
A lone wildebeest listening to his radio
Sometimes the birds dwarf the mammals!
Sometimes the birds dwarf the mammals!
Gemsbok (Oryx)
Gemsbok (Oryx)
The more vulnerable animals come out to drink in the light of day.
The more vulnerable animals come out to drink in the light of day.
Tuna sandwich.  I ate a few of those in Namibia.
Tuna sandwich. I ate a few of those in Namibia.
Acacia (also known as camelthorn)
Acacia (also known as camelthorn)
Jackel
Jackel
Blacksmith Lapwing (Vanellus armatus)
Blacksmith Lapwing (Vanellus armatus)
Jackels
Jackels
Spotted Eagle-Owl (Bubo africanus)
Spotted Eagle-Owl (Bubo africanus)
Cape Fox (Vulpes chama)
Cape Fox (Vulpes chama)
Mongoose
Mongoose
It took us a while to spot her!
It took us a while to spot her!

St. Mary's Church towers over Krakow's main square
St. Mary’s Church towers over Krakow’s main square

Most people that ask us about our RTW trip are surprised when we tell them that we spent less than ten days in Europe during our 10-month trip.  The truth is, it’s a fairly expensive part of the world and on top of that, we’ve both spent quite a bit of time traveling in that part of the world.  Given the choice we would have flown straight through from Asia to Africa without even stopping but unfortunately that wasn’t possible due to award seat availability.  I detailed the rational behind this ticket in an earlier post but it was basically an 8-flight, 5-airline one-way ticket that required us to make stops just shy of 24 hours in Berlin, Warsaw and Krakow plus a long daytime connection Zurich.

Berlin Cathedral and the TV Tower
Berlin Cathedral and the TV Tower

Our first stop was in Berlin.  After the long-haul flight in from Japan we were both exhausted so we didn’t get to explore all that much.  We did head over the east side of the city for lunch and wandered past the Berlin Cathedral on our way back to Potzdamer Platz.

An evening flight with Polish LOT took us from Berlin’s Tegel Airport to Warsaw, Poland.  We stayed the night at the Courtyard by Marriott that is right at the airport terminal.  The next morning we rose early, checked out, and headed into town.  Most of Warsaw was bombed flat in World War 2 so it is mostly devoid of old buildings but it is still nice enough for a walk around.  The biggest challenge was the cold!  The temps were down around freezing which was quite a shock since we were in the Philippines just a week prior.

Obwarzanek is a popular snack in Krakow.
Obwarzanek is a popular snack in Krakow.

Krakow, Poland was our third stop and probably the most likable of the cities on our whirlwind circuit.  We stayed at a youth hostel near the train station which placed us very close to Krakow’s old town.  We had a picture perfect autumn day ahead of us and we made good use of it by exploring the main square and Wawel Castle.

Meal service on a 40 minute flight!
Meal service on a 40 minute flight!

Before we knew it our two-day visit to Poland was behind us and we were on a EuroLOT turboprop headed from Krakow to Vienna, Austria.  Since it was an international flight, albeit a short one of about 40 minutes, we had a nice meal service along the way.  I’ll keep that in mind next time I’m on a 90 minute regional jet and the crew declares the flight too short for a beverage service!

Dawn over the Alps enroute to Zurich from Vienna
Dawn over the Alps enroute to Zurich from Vienna

Vienna was just a plain and simple overnight for us.  We got in late and had to leave early the next morning so we found a place to stay close to the airport.  In retrospect, we should have just been hobos at the airport to save money because it was a pretty crummy night of sleep.  The next morning we checked in with Austrian Airlines for their early morning flight to Zurich.  The sun rising over the Alps made for a great view while we enjoyed the breakfast service.

Day room at the Swiss First Lounge in Zurich.  Here it is in "blue mode."
Day room at the Swiss First Lounge in Zurich. Here it is in "blue mode."

Upon arrival in Zurich we were still quite tired due to our short overnight.  Since we had outbound tickets in Swiss First on the evening flight to Johannesburg, we had free reign over the Swiss First Lounge.  I had read that they have some nice day rooms available so we availed ourselves to one of them.  The rooms are small but they include a small bed, a writing table and a bathroom with shower.  One of the entertaining features of the rooms are their chromatherapy system which lets you change the ambient lighting to any color you want.

After naps, showers and topping up our stomachs on free lounge food we headed into Zurich for some sightseeing.  In typical Swiss style it is a quick and efficient 8 minute train ride from ZRH to the city center.  From the bahnhof we wandered around the lake a little ways and also made our way up to a local university that has a view over the city.  Amy bought takeaway lunch for us at a local vegetarian restaurant and I think all there is to say is that we were simultaneously awed and horrified at the cost of eating out in Switzerland!

Back at the airport that evening we had a bit of drama just minutes before boarding our flight to South Africa.  The document check agent at the gate wanted to deny Amy boarding because she lacked the two completely blank pages required by South African law.  She relented once we told her that we were merely transiting South Africa on our way to Namibia.  Of course we had planned to go to South Africa in a couple of week’s time so we’d eventually have to face up to this issue.  Fortunately, Windhoek has a US Embassy.

Shortly after takeoff I changed into my PJ's and joined Amy for dinner.
Shortly after takeoff I changed into my PJ’s and joined Amy for dinner.

The ten hour flight from Zurich to Johannesburg went all too quickly.  After the chaotic boarding process it was nice to relax with some champagne while the other passengers boarded.  Shortly after takeoff I changed in to the my new Swiss PJ’s and joined Amy for dinner.  On Swiss you can optionally dine facing your traveling companion so we gave that a go.  It was fun for a change but sitting on the ottoman isn’t too comfortable.

I woke up after 5 or 6 hours of sleep and opened my window shade for my first glimpse of Africa.  I think we were over Botswana at the time but honestly it could have been the American Midwest for all I could tell as it was dotted with circular crop fields.  Touchdown at JNB was nice and smooth and we had no difficulty obtaining our transit stamps at document control.

Pulling up to our gate at Joburg
Pulling up to our gate at Joburg

The 8th flight on our crazy award ticket was with South African Airways from Joburg to Windhoek, the capital of Namibia.  The 737-operated flight had a very strange seating configuration in business class…there were two seats on one side of the aisle and three on the other!  It was a short flight on a new airline for me so I didn’t mind it one bit, I just found it a bit peculiar.

All in all, it was a pretty exhausting week of travel milestones for us but certainly 120,000 miles well spent.  We kicked it off with what is, in my opinion, the finest first class product in the skies and followed that up with Poland, my 50th country.  We had a short stay but we’ll go back some day and do a more thorough job.  Africa was also a new continent for both of us not to mention the 6th we had stepped foot on during the trip.  Despite the passport drama of the night before it was hard to feel too down.  After all, we were in Nambia…a country with wild giraffes!

Hopping Around Europe
Berlin Cathedral and the TV Tower
Berlin Cathedral and the TV Tower
Deutsche Bahn Headquarters at Potzdamer Platz
Deutsche Bahn Headquarters at Potzdamer Platz
A familiar livery on the apron at TXL
A familiar livery on the apron at TXL
Old Town Square, Warsaw
Old Town Square, Warsaw
Back to WAW for our flight to Krakow
Back to WAW for our flight to Krakow
St. Mary's Church towers over Krakow's main square
St. Mary’s Church towers over Krakow’s main square
Obwarzanek is a popular snack in Krakow.
Obwarzanek is a popular snack in Krakow.
Quite strange to be back in the fall season for the third time in 2011.
Quite strange to be back in the fall season for the third time in 2011.
Time for another flight with EuroLOT.  Destination: Vienna
Time for another flight with EuroLOT. Destination: Vienna
Since everyone boards from the rear, business class is at the back of the plane.
Since everyone boards from the rear, business class is at the back of the plane.
Meal service on a 40 minute flight!
Meal service on a 40 minute flight!
Dawn over the Alps enroute to Zurich from Vienna
Dawn over the Alps enroute to Zurich from Vienna
A tasty grilled sandwich from Austrian
A tasty grilled sandwich from Austrian
Day room at the Swiss First Lounge in Zurich.  Here it is in "blue mode."
Day room at the Swiss First Lounge in Zurich. Here it is in "blue mode."
Some nice toiletries to make away with.
Some nice toiletries to make away with.
Palm trees in the fall time in Zurich
Palm trees in the fall time in Zurich
Zurich's main train station
Zurich’s main train station
Time for some snacks at the Swiss First Lounge
Time for some snacks at the Swiss First Lounge
Enjoying some canapés while the rest of the passenvers board.
Enjoying some canapés while the rest of the passenvers board.
Shortly after takeoff I changed into my PJ's and joined Amy for dinner.
Shortly after takeoff I changed into my PJ’s and joined Amy for dinner.
A light breakfast as we cross Botswana
A light breakfast as we cross Botswana
Pulling up to our gate at Joburg
Pulling up to our gate at Joburg
The 8th flight and 5th airline on this ticket!
The 8th flight and 5th airline on this ticket!
Namibia, at last!
Namibia, at last!

I suspect that some of my readers have been appalled by some of the travel conditions we’ve endured during parts of our RTW trip.  Cramped buses, dirty hotel rooms, limited food options, etc.  Overall it hasn’t been nearly as bad as some might think but I will agree that there were a few days here and there where the situation just plain sucked.  November 5th did not fall into that category.

A seat AND a bed!
A seat AND a bed!

November 5th was the day we were scheduled to take Lufthansa Flight 741 from Osaka to Frankfurt with an onward connection to Berlin.  This flight is operated by Lufthansa’s 747 aircraft which they are in the process of retrofitting with a new First Class product.  Their product is unique in that it offers first class passengers both a traditional seat as well as a dedicated bed.  Many airlines offer lay-flat beds but most are seats which convert into beds – obviously some design compromises must be made there.  The icing on the cake is that Lufty has their First Class on the upper deck of the 747.

Champagne and macadamia nuts
Champagne and macadamia nuts

After climbing the stairs and being shown to our seats we got down to business.  Namly, Champagne and macadamia nuts.  A short while later, and still during boarding, the flight attendant came through and offered an amuse-bouche so that we wouldn’t starve to death.  She also gave us all the other supplies we’d be needing: a stack of food and wine menus, slippers, pajamas (ours to keep) and Bose headsets (ours not to keep!).  She also gave us each our Lufthansa rose.

Before even seeing the menus I had decided that I would be selecting the Japanese menu on the flight.  It seemed like it was my last chance at some gourmet Japanese food for a while so why not?  I started with caviar and a wonderful seared tuna appetizer.

Zensai Sanshu: Caviar with all the fixings and a starter of seared tuna with grilled watermelon
Zensai Sanshu: Caviar with all the fixings and a starter of seared tuna with grilled watermelon

As is traditional in a Japanese Kaiseki meal, there are many many courses.  My caviar and seared tuna were followed up with three more dishes in the “zensei sanshu” course (click for enlargements and menu text).

Honey glazed Duck Breast, Vegetable Salsa, Micro Greens and Seasame Dressing
Honey glazed Duck Breast, Vegetable Salsa, Micro Greens and Seasame Dressing
Scallops and Shiitake Mushroom with Bonito flavored Cream
Scallops and Shiitake Mushroom with Bonito flavored Cream
Kudzu Cake with Cod Milt, Salmon Roe and Dashi
Kudzu Cake with Cod Milt, Salmon Roe and Dashi

Next up was the beautifully-plated “Hassun” course.

Hassun: Snow Crab Sushi, seared Blowfish Sushi, Fish Roe rolled with Kelp, blanched Blowfish Skin served with Ponzu Sauce, Gisei-Tofu and Kumquats simmered in Syrup
Hassun: Snow Crab Sushi, seared Blowfish Sushi, Fish Roe rolled with Kelp, blanched Blowfish Skin served with Ponzu Sauce, Gisei-Tofu and Kumquats simmered in Syrup

I was getting pretty full by this point but I still hadn’t reached the biggest dish of the meal, the “Omozakana” course.  One highlight of this course was the rice.  Rice often gets dried out and tough on the plane but Lufthansa has solved that by serving the rice packaged in a bamboo sheet.

Omozakana: Simmered Sea Bream and Turnip served with Gin an Sauce, Kintoki Carrot and steamed Tawara Rice
Omozakana: Simmered Sea Bream and Turnip served with Gin an Sauce, Kintoki Carrot and steamed Tawara Rice
Gohan: Steamed rice wrapped in a Bamboo Sheet
Gohan: Steamed rice wrapped in a Bamboo Sheet

To close out the meal they served some miso soup and then some Japanese sweets.  Japanese sweets often leave the western palate unsatisfied as they tend not to be very sweet.  I enjoyed mine but I will admit that I supplemented with some truffles and a coffee.

Wagashi: Japanese Sweet with Otemoto Stick
Wagashi: Japanese Sweet with Otemoto Stick
Some truffles to top things off...
Some truffles to top things off…

Thoroughly stuffed I took a stroll around the plane before heading to the lav to change into my pajamas.  The meal took a couple of hours so by the time we finished we were making our way across China and headed for Mongolia.  I spent a long while just staring out at the barren terrain thinking about what a wonderful experience it was to travel in Mongolia.

Mongolia!
Mongolia!

I stirred after a few hours of sleep and decided it was high time to investigate the snack options.  I availed myself to both the western (canapes) and Japanese (onigiri) snacks.  One of the flight attendants also pointed out that we were half-way to Germany so I decided to order up a nice beer, a Erdiner Weissbier to be exact.  Meanwhile, Amy was still chiseling through the movie selection.

Amy enjoying her bed and the movies
Amy enjoying her bed and the movies

Before we knew it, our 12 hour flight was nearing its end and the flight attendants were preparing to serve the second meal of the flight.  I scarcely had room left in my belly but I did my best.  Even so, I had to skip a couple of the courses.  

Attention to detail: the logo always faces the customer!
Attention to detail: the logo always faces the customer!
Omozakana: Simmed  Black Rockfish with simmered An Sauce, grilled Tofu and steamed Tawara Rice
Omozakana: Simmed Black Rockfish with simmered An Sauce, grilled Tofu and steamed Tawara Rice
Chocolate Spicy Cake
Chocolate Spicy Cake

Sadly, we were right on schedule touching down in Frankfurt (flights like this you always want to go long) but there was more luxury waiting for us in the First Class Terminal (FCT).  Lufthansa has a dedicated terminal building in Frankfurt for First Class passengers.  The facility is primarily intended for passengers originated in Frankfurt, however, transit passengers such as ourselves are equally welcome.  The only downside is that it required us to pass through security and walk down the street a little ways.  It is well worth the effort though!

Upon arrival at the FCT our credentials were checked and we were subjected to a respectful screening at the dedicated security checkpoint.  Next, we were introduced to our personal assistant who would take care of us during our stay.  Normally this person would also collect our passports so that they could be processed at the facilities private immigration facility, however since we had an onward domestic flight to Berlin this wasn’t necessary.

Nice shower rooms at the Frankfurt First Class Terminal
Nice shower rooms at the Frankfurt First Class Terminal

Our first order of business was showers.  The FCT has some excellent spa facilities with huge “rainfall” shower heads and enormous bathtubs which are very welcome treat after a long flight.  To be honest though, what I was really excited about was picking up a souvenir of the occasion: a Lufthansa Rubber Ducky.

A quality spread on the buffet line...cured ham, anyone?
A quality spread on the buffet line…cured ham, anyone?

Rubber ducks in hand, we headed to the dining area for some more food.  Amy made a pass at the buffet while I ordered a pumpkin salad and the weiner schnitzel.  I can also report that dying of thirst is not a risk at the FCT as there is a choice of seven different types of bottled water.  Their selection of alcoholic beverages is also formidable: I counted 66 different single-malt whiskeys on the menu!  All of this is complimentary of course. 

...and the schnitzel
…and the schnitzel

The FCT experience ends with a bang.  About 15 minutes prior to our flight’s scheduled departure time our personal assistant came to find us and asked that we follow him downstairs.  Waiting downstairs is a row of Mercedes limousines and Porsche SUV’s.  We climbed in one and headed out across the tarmac to our waiting aircraft.  Our assistant escorted us onboard and introduced us to the crew.  As soon as we sat down the doors were closed and off we went – everyone else was already on board!  I think that is about as close as we can get to having a private jet.

Our ride to our Berlin-bound aircraft
Our ride to our Berlin-bound aircraft

The flight to Berlin was short and uneventful and we soon made our way out to the curb to find the city bus.  I would venture to guess that we were one of the only Lufthansa First passengers to also use a city bus that day.  The bus took us from Tegel airport to Potsdamer Platz and the Grand Hyatt Berlin.  Of course there is no way that we could afford such fancy digs on our budget but I had a some free Hyatt nights saved up for such an occasion.

We scored a nice upgrade at the Grand Hyatt Berlin
We scored a nice upgrade at the Grand Hyatt Berlin

Thanks to my soon-to-be-expired status with Hyatt’s rewards program, we were given an upgrade for the night to a suite.  The room was spectacular and we made good use of the hotel’s facilities which included a beautiful indoor poor on the top floor.  As an added bonus, they even comped the contents of the massive minibar!  Too bad we could only stay one night.

We brought the Hyatt rubber ducky two friends from the Lufthansa lounge
We brought the Hyatt rubber ducky two friends from the Lufthansa lounge
Crossing Asia in Style
The red carpet awaits
The red carpet awaits
A seat AND a bed!
A seat AND a bed!
Champagne and macadamia nuts
Champagne and macadamia nuts
Amenity kit, slippers, pajamas and a Bose headset
Amenity kit, slippers, pajamas and a Bose headset
Amuse-bouche to keep us from starving during the boarding process
Amuse-bouche to keep us from starving during the boarding process
When flying Lufthansa, one must not miss the pretzle rolls!
When flying Lufthansa, one must not miss the pretzle rolls!
Zensai Sanshu: Caviar with all the fixings and a starter of seared tuna with grilled watermelon
Zensai Sanshu: Caviar with all the fixings and a starter of seared tuna with grilled watermelon
Combination of Sesame crusted Yellow Fin Tuna, grilled Water Melon and Capsicum Parfait
Combination of Sesame crusted Yellow Fin Tuna, grilled Water Melon and Capsicum Parfait
Honey glazed Duck Breast, Vegetable Salsa, Micro Greens and Seasame Dressing
Honey glazed Duck Breast, Vegetable Salsa, Micro Greens and Seasame Dressing
Scallops and Shiitake Mushroom with Bonito flavored Cream
Scallops and Shiitake Mushroom with Bonito flavored Cream
Kudzu Cake with Cod Milt, Salmon Roe and Dashi
Kudzu Cake with Cod Milt, Salmon Roe and Dashi
Hassun: Snow Crab Sushi, seared Blowfish Sushi, Fish Roe rolled with Kelp, blanched Blowfish Skin served with Ponzu Sauce, Gisei-Tofu and Kumquats simmered in Syrup
Hassun: Snow Crab Sushi, seared Blowfish Sushi, Fish Roe rolled with Kelp, blanched Blowfish Skin served with Ponzu Sauce, Gisei-Tofu and Kumquats simmered in Syrup
Omozakana: Simmered Sea Bream and Turnip served with Gin an Sauce, Kintoki Carrot and steamed Tawara Rice
Omozakana: Simmered Sea Bream and Turnip served with Gin an Sauce, Kintoki Carrot and steamed Tawara Rice
Gohan: Steamed rice wrapped in a Bamboo Sheet
Gohan: Steamed rice wrapped in a Bamboo Sheet
Misoshiru: Miso Soup
Misoshiru: Miso Soup
Wagashi: Japanese Sweet with Otemoto Stick
Wagashi: Japanese Sweet with Otemoto Stick
Some truffles to top things off...
Some truffles to top things off…
...and coffee, with more chocolate.
…and coffee, with more chocolate.
Dessert wines and cheeses on the way but I was stuffed.
Dessert wines and cheeses on the way but I was stuffed.
A bit of a strange routing to begin with
A bit of a strange routing to begin with
Mongolia!
Mongolia!
Lake Baikal in Russia
Lake Baikal in Russia
Sporting my Lufty PJs
Sporting my Lufty PJs
Canapés as a mid-flight snack
Canapés as a mid-flight snack
My last chance at some onigiri for a while so I had that as a snack as well.
My last chance at some onigiri for a while so I had that as a snack as well.
Half way to Germany, might as well celebrate with a German beer.
Half way to Germany, might as well celebrate with a German beer.
Amy enjoying her bed and the movies
Amy enjoying her bed and the movies
Why look, it is time for another meal!
Why look, it is time for another meal!
Attention to detail: the logo always faces the customer!
Attention to detail: the logo always faces the customer!
Hassun: Osaka pressed Sushi featuring Mackerel, Prawn and Eff, Sea Bream, minced Chicken Cake covered with Poppy Seeds, small River Fish rolled with Kelp, Petit Arrowhead Bulb pickled with Sweet Vinegar and Ginger
Hassun: Osaka pressed Sushi featuring Mackerel, Prawn and Eff, Sea Bream, minced Chicken Cake covered with Poppy Seeds, small River Fish rolled with Kelp, Petit Arrowhead Bulb pickled with Sweet Vinegar and Ginger
Omozakana: Simmed  Black Rockfish with simmered An Sauce, grilled Tofu and steamed Tawara Rice
Omozakana: Simmed Black Rockfish with simmered An Sauce, grilled Tofu and steamed Tawara Rice
Chocolate Spicy Cake
Chocolate Spicy Cake
I decided to try some plum saki.  Tsukinoi Nihonshu Shikomi Umezake
I decided to try some plum saki. Tsukinoi Nihonshu Shikomi Umezake
Nice shower rooms at the Frankfurt First Class Terminal
Nice shower rooms at the Frankfurt First Class Terminal
A quality spread on the buffet line...cured ham, anyone?
A quality spread on the buffet line…cured ham, anyone?
I order off the menu a pumpkin salad
I order off the menu a pumpkin salad
...and the schnitzel
…and the schnitzel
Hot chocolate for dessert
Hot chocolate for dessert
We scored a nice upgrade at the Grand Hyatt Berlin
We scored a nice upgrade at the Grand Hyatt Berlin
The walk-in closet at the Grand Hyatt Berlin was about the size of our whole room at the Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong
The walk-in closet at the Grand Hyatt Berlin was about the size of our whole room at the Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong
Huge bathroom!
Huge bathroom!
We brought the Hyatt rubber ducky two friends from the Lufthansa lounge
We brought the Hyatt rubber ducky two friends from the Lufthansa lounge
We couldn't even put a dent in the complimentary minibars
We couldn’t even put a dent in the complimentary minibars
Nice sculture in our floor's elevator lobby
Nice sculture in our floor’s elevator lobby
Our ride to our Berlin-bound aircraft
Our ride to our Berlin-bound aircraft

Hong Kong's skyline
Hong Kong’s skyline

As I had mentioned in an earlier post, we had an excellent mileage redemption lined up to take us from Japan to Namibia. The only problem was that we had to get from the Philippines to Japan on the cheap.

ZestAir - Asia's most refreshing airline
ZestAir – Asia’s most refreshing airline

The first step was a short hop from Palawan back to Manila on ZestAir. They call themselves “Asia’s most refreshing airline.” Kind of a bold claim for an airline that doesn’t even provide complimentary beverages but they did get us to Manila mostly on schedule for the low price of US$51.

Our Cebu Pacific aircraft to Macau
Our Cebu Pacific aircraft to Macau

From Manila we took a bus to Clark Airfield about an hour’s drive to the north. Clark used to be a major US air force base but these days it is a commercial airport popular with the discount carriers. Cebu Pacific took us from Clark to Macau for the astoundingly low price of US$62. Certainly one of the cheaper international tickets I’ve flown.

Macau was more or less as expected. After grabbing a taxi from the airport to the Macau Westin Resort (another points redemption!) we took the hotel shuttle down to the strip. Huge casinos were all over the place with many more under construction. All the familiar brands were there (Venetian, MGM, etc) and they all seemed to be spot-on replicas of their American counterparts. Did you know that Macau’s casinos now bring in more money annually than Las Vegas? It is the gambling capital of the world.

The view from our room at the Westin Macau
The view from our room at the Westin Macau

After a night in Macau we boarded one of the high-speed ferries to Hong Kong. Despite all my travels I had yet to visit Hong Kong so I was very anxious to check out one of the world’s most iconic cities.

My friend Charles insisted that we stay at the infamous Chungking Mansions to get the full Hong Kong budget travel experience. The mansions didn’t disappoint. The massive complex of buildings are crammed full of everything from tiny guest houses to money changers to restaurants to laundry mats. It’s truly a city within a city.

The best shot we could manage of our tiny room in the Chungking Mansions
The best shot we could manage of our tiny room in the Chungking Mansions

Amy stayed with our bags in the comfort of the Holiday Inn lobby next door while I explored the labyrinth of guest houses for a place to crash. I was able to view 8 or 10 different places within a half hour and I have to say, it pays to shop around. They vary widely in cleanliness, room size and price. Haggling is of course a requirement. In the end, we got a small but perfectly acceptable room in the heart of Hong Kong for just over $20 per night.  Here is a video showing the walk from the street to our guesthouse which was nestled back in “D block” on the third floor:

Sadly, I didn’t get to explore nearly as much as I had hoped during our two day stop. Our award ticket from Japan to Africa needed some tweaking so I spent many hours on the phone with United while Amy was out exploring. Charles arrived on our second day and led us around on a brief tour of the waterfront one evening and across to Hong Kong Island on the Star Ferry.

Osaka at night
Osaka at night

By our third morning it was time to head to the airport for our flight to Osaka. Amy and I have both spent considerable amounts of time in Japan so we didn’t have any must-dos on our list for our two night stop. This was just as well since Japan is extremely expensive with the strong yen. To keep costs down we burned some hotel points for a couple of excellent nights at the Sheraton Miyako and ate cheap convenience store food.

Osaka by day
Osaka by day

During our only full day in Osaka we headed up to the Umeda Sky Building so that Amy could check that out and then we wandered through some of the massive department stores and camera shops. All in all, we didn’t do all that much but that was fine by me since we had a busy week of flying ahead of us.

Macau, Hong Kong and Japan
ZestAir - Asia's most refreshing airline
ZestAir – Asia’s most refreshing airline
Mmmm...zesty!
Mmmm…zesty!
I'm glad that I don't have to eat a meal on this thing!
I’m glad that I don’t have to eat a meal on this thing!
There was some excitement at MNL just prior to our arrival
There was some excitement at MNL just prior to our arrival
Manila's not-so-impressive domestic terminal
Manila’s not-so-impressive domestic terminal
Our Cebu Pacific aircraft to Macau
Our Cebu Pacific aircraft to Macau
Westin Macau - a little classier than our hut in Sabang
Westin Macau – a little classier than our hut in Sabang
Vegas?  Nope, the Venetian in Macau
Vegas? Nope, the Venetian in Macau
The view from our room at the Westin Macau
The view from our room at the Westin Macau
Historic center of Macau
Historic center of Macau
Lots and lots of apartments/condos
Lots and lots of apartments/condos
The best shot we could manage of our tiny room in the Chungking Mansions
The best shot we could manage of our tiny room in the Chungking Mansions
Hong Kong's skyline
Hong Kong’s skyline
Some breakfast at the Cathay First Class lounge in Hong Kong
Some breakfast at the Cathay First Class lounge in Hong Kong
Our ride to Osaka
Our ride to Osaka
Osaka at night
Osaka at night
Osaka by day
Osaka by day
Time for some takoyaki, a Kansai specialty
Time for some takoyaki, a Kansai specialty

About six hours in a cramped van brought us from Sabang to El Nido at the north end of Palawan Island. El Nido is a bit off the beaten track but it is well worth the effort to visit. It is a tropical paradise!

El Nido
El Nido

We rolled into town without reservations so while Amy watched our bags, Charles and I scouted out the accommodation options. The beach front was lined with a dozen or more guesthouses right up against one another. We had read in the guidebook that there were some more secluded alternatives just outside of town around the point. Makulay Lodge was the first place we found and we absolutely loved it.

The view from our room
The view from our room

The guesthouse was small operation. There were only three rooms in the original building where Amy and I stayed and we were lucky enough to get the top-floor room with a stunning view of El Nido’s bay. We negotiated a 1000PHP ($23) nightly rate for the room. Certainly one of the best room values of our RTW trip.

The main thing to do around El Nido is to tour the surrounding waterways and islands. Day-long boat tours are how this is done and the staff at Makulay helped us hire a boat on three separate days. On each of these tours, lunch consisted of the boat crew grilling up some fresh fish on the beach. Charles joined us on the first two tours and we were lucky to have a private boat just for the three of us. The boat tours averaged 600PHP ($14) per day per person.

I also enjoyed some of the area’s superb SCUBA diving during our stay in El Nido. I dove with Palawan Divers, one of the older outfitters in El Nido, for an affordable $65/day for three dives. Amy was also able to join the tours for a nominal fee to go snorkeling. We didn’t have an underwater camera with us this time around but we saw some spectacular sea life. The highlight for me was seeing a massive sea turtle at close range.

Given how cheap it is to reach Palawan I was shocked that there weren’t more tourists in El Nido. Everyone kept telling us that high season was right around the corner (Nov 1, to be exact) but we saw little sign of tourist hordes. I’ve spent a fair amount of time exploring SE Asia’s beach and island offerings over the past few years and I have to say that El Nido is one of the most idyllic tropical destinations I’ve seen. We liked it so much that we stayed a week in total soaking up the tropics.

El Nido
El Nido
El Nido
Makulay Lodge
Makulay Lodge
The view from our room
The view from our room
A nice lightshow one evening.
A nice lightshow one evening.
We had a massive foot-long gecko on the porch
We had a massive foot-long gecko on the porch
The fruit-eating bats would always leave presents on our porch overnight.
The fruit-eating bats would always leave presents on our porch overnight.
You definitely don't want to fall on these.
You definitely don’t want to fall on these.
Another day, another beach
Another day, another beach
Sand dollars
Sand dollars

When we returned to civilization after our 13-day Mongolia tour, I was happy to hear that my friend Charles would be making a short-notice trip over to SE Asia and that his plans overlapped with ours in the Philippines. Charles is a fellow frequent flyer mile junkie and has completed two impressive round-the-world trips on his own. Neither of us had been to the Philippines before but we had all heard good things about Palawan.

For the most part, getting around the Philippines is cheap and easy thanks to a very competitive mix of low-cost carriers. We used one of the biggies, Cebu Pacific, to travel from Manila to the island of Palawan. Palawan is in the far southwestern corner of the Philippines and is one of the country’s least developed areas. The tickets rang up at an affordable $56 per person.

After a brief overnight in the town of Puerto Princesa, we boarded a bus for Sabang, a tiny village on the west coast of Palawan. The ride took us across mountains, rice patties and small farms – every once in a while we’d catch a glimpse of the beautiful coastline.

The main attraction in Sabang is the “Underground River.” The Underground River is a long water-filled cave which is navigable in small canoes and kayaks. The tourism board recently completely a successful campaign to have it listed as one of the “New 7 Wonders of Nature” against competition such as Iguazu Falls and the Galapagos Islands. I can’t say that I would rank it as such but it was an interesting and impressive sight.  As a tip to other travels, make sure that you are up early to catch one of the first boats into the caves as it can get very crowded and noisy with all the other tour groups.

To me, the real beauty of Sabang is how sleepy it is. The wide crescent-shaped beach isn’t bad either! Most tourists visit the Underground River by way of a day tour from Puerto Princesa and while the beach is bustling by day, it is almost deserted in the late afternoons and evenings.

Sabang offered up the whole range of accommodation options. At the low end were small bamboo huts and at the high end were two out-of-place and nearly empty high-end resorts. While Amy stayed with the backpacks, Charles and I scrutinized the options. At the far end of the beach we found a humble little place called Mary’s Beach Resort. Mary’s only had about 5 bamboo huts and two of them had prime location facing the beach.

We stayed in the hut on the right for three nights.  600PHP ($13.82) per night!
We stayed in the hut on the right for three nights. 600PHP ($13.82) per night!

We haggled a bit on the price but I think we were both of the mindset that we would take the huts at just about any reasonable price. In the end, Amy and I paid under US$14 (600PHP) per night for ours and Charles got a slight single-occupancy discount on his. The huts each had showers, a front porch, mosquito nets and electricity (6PM to 10PM only!) but really the best part was the view:

The view from our hut
The view from our hut
Sabang
Cebu Pacific flight 639: Manila to Puerto Princesa, Palawan
Cebu Pacific flight 639: Manila to Puerto Princesa, Palawan
Our bus from Puerto Princesa to Sabang
Our bus from Puerto Princesa to Sabang
Great scenery along the way from Puerto Princesa to Sabang
Great scenery along the way from Puerto Princesa to Sabang
Sabang's lovely beach
Sabang’s lovely beach
We stayed in the hut on the right for three nights.  600PHP ($13.82) per night!
We stayed in the hut on the right for three nights. 600PHP ($13.82) per night!
Another satisfied customer at Mary's
Another satisfied customer at Mary’s
Important traveling tools: laptop, mobile phone, mosquito coils
Important traveling tools: laptop, mobile phone, mosquito coils
The view from our hut
The view from our hut
The view of the beach from Mary's Resort
The view of the beach from Mary’s Resort
"Downtown" Sabang
"Downtown" Sabang

One of Continental Airline’s more obscure routes took us from Palau to Manila. We spent a couple of nights in Manila but honestly we didn’t see much more than a few shopping malls. The city really doesn’t have all that much to offer the tourist so I don’t think we missed much. Maybe we should have tried harder?

The mighty jeepney
The mighty jeepney

We had a few days to kill before Charles, a good friend of mine, arrived in Manila. We had heard some decent things about Taal Lake which lies a couple hours south of Manila so we headed that way.

Like most of its neighbors, the Philippines has a creative and entertaining solution to mass transit: the jeepney. Jeepneys used to be surplus military jeeps that were extended and converted into bus-like vehicles. These days, jeepneys are made locally from scratch but still keep the styling of the originals. What’s cool about the jeepney is that it comes in all shapes, sizes and colors – it is as if there are no two that are the same. The only commonality amongst jeepneys is that they tend to be severely overloaded with passengers and cargo at all times!

During our three weeks in the Philippines we saw and made use of many jeepneys. My friend Charles amassed a sizable collection of jeepney photos and those are featured in the album.

To ride a jeepney you just flag it down (they will stop anywhere), climb in the back and hopefully find some space on one of the benches. Next you yell your destination at the driver and pass forward the correct fare (the other passengers help to pass it forward). If you don’t have exact change then the driver will count out change all while driving, shifting and honking. Cheap transport but not comfortable transport.

Taal Lake as seen from the ridgeline at Talisay
Taal Lake as seen from the ridgeline at Talisay

Fortunately, Taal lake is quite close to Manila. We spent about an hour on a bus and then a further hour on a jeepney to get to Talisay on the north side of the lake. Talisay is perched on a ridge overlooking the lake and, thanks to the altitude, has a mild climate compared to Manila.

The entire Taal lake area is part of the Taal volcano, one of the most active in the Philippines. There are numerous craters visible from the ridge. The most popular excursion is to take a boat to volcano island, hike up to the ridge and get a look at the boiling sulfurous lake below.

We took a boat out to the volcano one day and hiked to the ridge. Sadly, most tourists make the trip by horse and they all looked to be pretty sickly and overworked. The climb wasn’t all that bad but we were glad we started early in the day when temps were lower. The view from the top was good but I think we are starting to get a bit spoiled by all the fantastic landscapes we’ve seen on the trip.

Food-wise, the Philippines didn’t impress us. It is a bit of a paradox because they certainly have access to the same ingredients as their neighbors. Most of the food that is available sort of reminded me of carnival food – fried chicken, hamburgers, cotton candy, deep fried ice cream, etc. To be fair, I did have some very good chicken adobo (a Filipino national dish of sorts) but there wasn’t the variety of cuisine you see elsewhere in SE Asia.

Despite the Philippines shortcomings on the food front, we did have a few entertaining culinary experiences. The first came when we were on the bus down to Talisay. Food vendors came on board the bus to sell their goods. This is common throughout the world but what was interesting here is that it is done by the big corporate food outlets. We had a guy in a Dunkin Donuts polo shirt hocking big boxes of donuts! I was in the mood for lunch so I got a mini pizza. The other thing the Philippines does right is cold beer. A bottle of respectable pilsner for under a buck is universally available. Perfect after a long day of diving!

Taal Lake and Jeepneys
The mighty jeepney
The mighty jeepney
Is he filling it with water or petrol? Note the hose running to the engine. Does it have a steam engine?
Is he filling it with water or petrol? Note the hose running to the engine. Does it have a steam engine?
Taal Lake as seen from the ridgeline at Talisay
Taal Lake as seen from the ridgeline at Talisay
Our boat was partially made of discarded circuit boards!
Our boat was partially made of discarded circuit boards!
The Philippines may come up a bit short in the area of cuisine but they do deliver on cheap cold beer.
The Philippines may come up a bit short in the area of cuisine but they do deliver on cheap cold beer.
Chicken adobo
Chicken adobo
Sample Mexican food outside of the America's is a big risk but Army Namy in the Philippines did a good job.
Sample Mexican food outside of the America’s is a big risk but Army Namy in the Philippines did a good job.
They even put a funny stamp on your receipt after you get your food.  Run by an ex-pat, I assume.
They even put a funny stamp on your receipt after you get your food. Run by an ex-pat, I assume.
There is a very respectable assortment of peanut butters to chose from in the Philippines
There is a very respectable assortment of peanut butters to chose from in the Philippines

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