Thursday, January 31, 2013

Day One - On My Way to South Africa

My trip to South Africa began with a flight delay while we waited for the plane to de-ice. To tell the truth, my journey began months before this, but now the planning is all in motion and after a 4.30am alarm (much to the chagrin of the dogs who will need to get used to early morning wake-up calls while I’m away), I found myself stuck on a plane that did not depart until one hour later than planned. An extra hour in bed would have been nice. It seems once the plane got us on board, it did not want to let us off; upon arrival in Atlanta, there was a mechanical malfunction with the jetway. Since I had the entire day to spend here, I was much less upset by the delay than the remaining passengers, most of whom risked missing their connecting flight to Costa Rica. As I listened to people complain about the extra baggage charges for their 45 lb suitcases, I wondered why I had been concerned about my little 20lb backpack. Monkeying around in South Africa does not require much in the way of fancy shoes or make up. A few pairs of adventure pants, t-shirts, and a light fleece and I am good to go.

Usually, my time in Atlanta airport is limited to dashing from one gate to the next, so having some time to spend here in Terminal F, it is actually a very nice airport (and thankfully without Detroit’s psychedelic light show and welcome song!)

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Weekend Getaway to North Carolina

With my departure to South Africa looming ever closer on the calendar, it seemed like the perfect time to take a quick break last weekend so off to North Carolina we drove.

Our original plan when booking a weekend getaway in Asheville was to go skiing nearby. However, as the date approached, that idea was quickly put to rest. Even with snow making facilities in place, when the temperature is most unseasonal, by noon you're dealing with slush on a slope. So instead, we made the most of the 75 degree weather (take that global warming naysayers) and hiked to Chimney Rock. As an added benefit, the hike gave me an opportunity to try out my new hiking boots.

The drive from Asheville to Chimney Rock is incredibly pleasant. We made our way from the city through pastures of cattle to winding mountain roads, which are home to some charming communities, and a good deal of new environmentally-minded development (solar panels, local materials, etc.)

View from Chimney Rock
Deciding against the easy option of driving to the top of the mountain, we enjoyed a peaceful hike, followed by what I can safely say is my first ever elevator inside a cliff to reach Chimney Rock itself.

Chimney Rock
Once we reached the top, we were surprised to find quite a few people, all taking advantage of the weather no doubt.

Incidentally, movie buffs will be keen to interested to learn that Chimney Rock was a filming location in The Last of the Mohicans (1992). Pictures of Daniel Day-Lewis on set can be seen in the gift shop.

Furthermore, romance classic Dirty Dancing was also filmed near here at Lake Lure (which you can see from Chimney Rock). So if you dream of reenacting a little Patrick Swayze - Jennifer Grey dance magic, you can head down to the lake and get your groove on (although I suggest you wait until summer).

While you're at the top, don't forget to visit "the Opera Box" where you can look at an outcropping known as Devil's Head.

Devil's Head

Several of the higher trails were closed for winter maintenance so we were unable to hike any further. After a pause to admire the view, making friends with a bulldog, and a drink, we started the hike down again.

Once at the bottom, we decided we had earned an ice cream and as luck would have it, there was an ice cream store open. 2 scoops of Muddy Sneakers for me please - yes, that is a real flavor, and it is GOOD!

I can only imagine how busy this area must get in the summer, with hikers, climbers, and boaters, not to mention those seeking to reenact their favorite movie scenes.

No sign of any Dirty Dancing at Lake Lure in January.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Don't Read This If You Want To Get Sick on Your Travels!

A touch of Montezuma's Revenge or sunburn while you're on vacation is bad enough, but if you don't take the right precautions, you could end up with something much more serious. Fortunately, with a little preparation and some common sense, you can avoid most health risks, no matter where you happen to be traveling.

Since I'm heading to South Africa in just a few weeks, I want to be sure I'm covered when it comes to my health. After all, much of my time will be in rural areas. Health insurance is all very well, but an ounce of prevention is even better.

If you're heading somewhere off the beaten path, I highly recommend that your first step in your travel health planning be the CDC Travelers' Health website. This is the same site that my GP and my travel specialist both use for checking up to date health risks. The site allows you to search by country or by illness, check vaccinations, and pick up general information on everything from insect bites to yellow fever.

Next stop was my regular GP. I am already up to date on my tetanus, but she recommended shots for Hepatitis A and B. Although both require a six month follow up shot, which I will get in June, she decided it was better to have some protection from the preliminary shots than none at all.

A shot now can save a lot of trouble down the road.

For my other shot information, I paid a visit to the University of Kentucky Travel Clinic. The amount of information I got here was staggering; the physician provided information on shots, sunscreen, insect bites, food, public safety, even where to change currency. As it happens, I didn't require anywhere near as many shots as I expected. Since I am flying directly to South Africa and not passing through any other African counties, I do not need to be vaccinated against Yellow Fever. We decided the rabies shots are incredibly expensive and probably unnecessary. (The local Health Department offers great treatment in the event of exposure.) So that just left Typhoid, and instead of a vaccine which offers 2 years of protection, the oral preventive is cheaper and offers 5 years of protection. I completed my course last week (just one pill every other day for 4 doses).

I also have anti-malaria pills (recommended for the region I am visiting) and a course of antibiotics (just in case). My original malaria Rx was for Larium but the doc at the travel clinic changed that. It turns out that Larium is no longer used by the state department or the military as it can have some nasty side-effects and there are a host of contraindications if it is used with any other meds. It could have potentially serious side effects because of another medicine I take. Luckily, the doc caught that and wrote a different prescription.

What other advice did I pick up from the travel clinic?

  • Given my fair skin, a sunscreen of minimum 30SPF.
  • A mosquito repellent containing at least 30% DEET. (I am usually an open buffet for mosquitos).
  • No swimming or wading in water unless its safety can be GUARANTEED.
  • No bare feet. The doc cautioned me that even flip flops offer little real protection against potential parasites that can enter through the skin. 
  • Be careful with the water. This also applies to ice cubes in drinks and salads. Just a few weeks earlier, the doc had seen a patient with a severe infection. She insisted she had not drunk the water during her trip to Kenya, but it didn't occur to her that the ice cubes in her coke were...water.
Best of all, the UK Travel Clinic is considered a public service which means all I paid for were my typhoid meds.

If it sounds a little paranoid to be taking all these precautions, think again. I now feel secure in the knowledge that my trip is unlikely to be marred by severe illness. Furthermore, the typhoid and hepatitis vaccinations will last for years to come.

So if you want to get sick on vacation, skip the shots, skip the pills, and skip the common sense. While you're rushing for the loo for the umpteenth time, I'll be enjoying the scenery.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Five Things to Remember When Shopping for Travel Insurance

I know this will make some of you cringe, but I have rarely bought travel insurance when going overseas before. However, this was usually because I was covered in other ways - European health coverage, provided by my employer in Japan and so on. When we traveled to Mexico a few years ago, insurance was part of the vacation package, so once again, it was something I didn't need to spend too much time thinking about.

But the bottom line is that even if I didn't have to think about it, I was insured in one form or another.

This time though, I've had to think about it.

And it can be complicated.

Photo courtesy of

So what should you look for when buying travel insurance? And where should you look? Here are a few tips to get you started. (Please note: I have NOT been compensated in any way by the companies I mention).

There are tons of different packages available, covering from a few days to a year, one trip or multiple, baggage only to natural disaster evacuation, plane cancellation, and a zillion other things.

One great place to start is STA Travel. I've used them in the past and they are excellent to work with, plus they are all highly experienced in dealing with world travelers.

Since I like to compare prices, I ended up using InsureMyTrip. By plugging in dates, age, cost of trip, and destination, I was able to pull up a long list of possible policies and compare them, eventually narrowing them down to those that would best suit my needs.

My most important factors?

  1. Baggage coverage. If my baggage is lost or delayed, I don't want to be stuck in South Africa with no clothes or personal items. I chose a policy that provides an allowance to buy clothes and other items if my bag is delayed. I also chose coverage of up to $2500 for lost or stolen baggage. This was the maximum amount I could find. $500 or $1000 may sound plenty, but factor in a small laptop and a camera, and that's not much at all. (Be aware, though, that there is often a maximum reimbursement per item of no more than $500 - that wouldn't cover my camera but it's better than nothing). For anything particularly valuable, either purchase an individual rider, or consider if you really need it. My wedding/engagement ring is staying at home and I'll wear a simple band from Walmart.
  2. 24 Hour Assistance. I wanted reassurance that it anything happens, as long as I can get to a phone, I can get help. My policy includes a worldwide 24 hour assistance number. I just reverse the charges.
  3. Medical Coverage. This is the big one for me. I will be taking plenty of health precautions, but I'm also realistic. I will be working with wild animals in remote areas, and in an area with multiple potential health risks. If something happens, I don't want to be worrying about an enormous hospital bill.
  4. Evacuation. Continuing on from medical coverage, I wanted to be sure that my policy includes emergency evacuation and repatriation. Obviously, I hope I never have to use it, but if the worst comes to the worst, I want to be sure I can be flown home to loved ones and that I can receive the best medical care, whether that's in Africa or here in the US. On a more macabre note, my husband tells me that when I'm eaten by lions, he wants to know that my remains can be flown home. (I think he's joking!) Don't assume that your insurance policy automatically includes this. I saw a lot of medical policies that do not include evacuation, for medical emergencies or otherwise.
  5. Car Rental. This was a final addition that I may or may not need, but since I may end up renting a car for a few days, and my choice came down to two comparable policies with the same benefits and for the same cost, I chose the one that included this. 

There are plenty of other clauses and coverage types, so each person has to decide what they need for their trip. In the end, I got my policy from Allianz Global Assistance. It gives me plenty of coverage for my trip, and therefore peace of mind for me and my husband.

I've printed out my policy and will leave a copy here at home, as well as taking the emergency contact numbers with me. 

It may seem like an unnecessary expense, but after hearing just last week about a girl flown home with contracting an unknown parasitic infection during her trip to Kenya, I'd rather be safe than sorry.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Update on Trip and Changes at Chimp Eden

With only 24 days to go until I fly to Johannesburg, I wanted to give a few updates to my trip. More importantly, I wanted to let you all know about some changes at Chimp Eden and how that may alter my plans.

The flights are booked, insurance purchased, and I take the last dose of my typhoid vaccine tomorrow. (See a post coming later this week about travel health). I also dreamed last night that I got there and all the monkeys were laughing at me - I suppose the equivalent of first day at school nerves.

Some of you may know that I have been in contact with David Devo Oosthuizen, the Executive Director of the Jane Goodall Institute in South Africa. Because of this, I already knew that some changes at Chimp Eden might mean I need to be make some changes to my original plans. Yesterday, the Jane Goodall Institute and the Cussons family both issued press releases about the future of Chimp Eden. You can read both statements here.

So it seems that I have really bad timing, huh?

What does this mean for my trip? Firstly, I want to reassure all of you who have generously helped to make this trip possible that it is still going ahead. My original plan had been to spend two weeks at a monkey sanctuary near Pretoria, before flying to Nelspruit to spend two weeks at Chimp Eden. At the moment, with the changes at Chimp Eden, it is uncertain whether their volunteer program will be reestablished in time for me to spend two weeks there in February; I will be contacting David in another week or two to find out.

If I am unable to volunteer there, my backup plan is to spend three weeks at the sanctuary in Pretoria. I will then still fly up to Nelspruit, where I will spend a week exploring Kruger National Park. I will still visit Chimp Eden. David has made it clear that even if the volunteer program is not in place, I am still very welcome to visit. In that case, I would hope to spend at least two days there, looking around, learning about the facilities and the changes, and chatting with staff.

Travel plans have to be flexible, and I am confident that this trip will be more enriching than I could ever imagine, whatever schedule I follow.

P.S. Those who supported my IndieGoGo campaign are no doubt wondering about the private trip blog. This is currently being set up so it will be in place before I depart. Details will be sent to each of you nearer the time.

Thank you again for your support.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Closer to Home: Stanford's Bluebird Cafe

Because travel doesn't always mean the other side of the world...

Whether you live in Kentucky or just happen to be passing through, the Bluebird Cafe in the small town of Stanford is well worth a stop. With locally sourced products, including hormone and antibiotic free meats, you are guaranteed the freshest food with a wonderful taste.

I had been meaning to make the drive down to the Bluebird for some time and I finally got the chance last Saturday. It had been several years since I was last passing through Stanford and I was pleasantly surprised to the changes on Main Street - lots of little shops, everything wonderfully decorated for the season, and a real sense of community renaissance.

The Bluebird was BUSY! We were able to get a table straight away but by the time we left, people were waiting for the next available spot.

But I know what you're all really interested in is what we ate, so here it is:

I enjoyed the Somerset Wrap and a side of slaw - bacon and chicken from the nearby Marksbury Farm, avocado, cheese, greens, and a chipotle honey mustard sauce that gave it a real kick. The coleslaw was excellent, not overly vinegary or swimming in mayo like some I've had elsewhere. Just what I was looking for.

Nic wanted something more warming so he opted for the Bluebird Burger with a side of chili. The burger is made of local grass-fed Marksbury beef, topped with local Cheddar, garlic mayo and grilled red onions. I tried some of his chili (he wouldn't let me near that burger!) and it was thick, rich, meaty, and spicy.

The service was friendly and knowledgeable about the food. I also have it on good authority that they do an excellent breakfast.

In short, for my first visit, I was very impressed. It's always good to see restaurants with locally sourced food doing well and I predict a long and happy future for the Bluebird. Although Stanford is a bit of a drive from my side of Lexington, I get the feeling I'll be making the trip again.