The Upside of Down: How we kept our Travel Zen in 2015

2015 was a year of highs and lows for us at Zen Travellers.

 We started the year off on a healthy note with a nordic sweat session on a beautifully frozen Lake Louise, then continued the trend with some skiing in Whistler and long walk along the sea wall in Vancouver. All the while also enjoying delicious and unique YVR eats and craft beer. Yin and yang friends.

Travel Alternates: Do They Measure Up?

A lot is made of the alternates while travelling. Try this hike instead of the Inca Trail, since it’s less crowded. Track chimpanzees in Uganda instead of gorillas since it’s less expensive, but I’ve always wondered if the alternates truly measure up.

There are many reasons to choose an alternate over the main attraction. Budget being one. Avoiding crowds being another. So when I read that Mount Elgon in Uganda was considered an alternate to Mount Kilimanjaro, I was very intrigued.

Philip and I had dreamed of summitting Mount Kilimanjaro one day, but we had a pretty jam-packed itinerary during our 5 weeks in East Africa, and weren’t sure Kili was feasible due to both financial and timing constraints. Besides, I try to leave a few things left to see so I always have a reason to look forward to coming back. It’s always good to  have something to dream about.

That being said, we still wanted to bag a peak while we were in East Africa and Mount Elgon seemed like a very interesting, accessible and affordable climb and we were not disappointed. 

Mount Elgon borders Kenya, has the longest base of any mountain in the world and is home to the world’s second largest caldera. It rises to over 4321m above sea level and features incredible bio-diversity. It’s no tallest free-standing mountain in the world, but impressive nonetheless and it made sense for our itinerary since at that point in our trip, our next stop was Kenya. 
Mount Elgon from Mbale

Having come back from the brink of death in boring Budadiri, we finally set out the trail head 2 days later than we had planned. Much to our surprise, and my relief from the outset, our guide Moses instructed us and a Dutch couple to hop on the back of some boda bodas to cruise the first 3 kms up a muddy, rutted country road. The drivers managed the difficult terrain expertly, but it left my nerves a little rattled. They let us out at a little village where we began our trek through the idyllic countryside. Villagers went bout their business waving hello as we walked by. The gentle rolling terrain soon became very steep and I struggled every step of the way. Whatever strength I had gained from hiking in the Rwenzoris and gorilla tracking, I lost with that mystery sickness. I tried my hardest to push through it since we wanted to do the Sasa to Sipi Route which meant we had to make it to the second camp that first day.

Looking back toward the village
I took what felt like constant breaks, slowing down our team and worrying that we wouldn’t make the second camp. Eventually we ran into the British father and daughter team who left the day they were supposed to.

“We were wondering about you guys, but we knew you were coming on account of the MEC backpacks!” the dad remarked, sweat beading off his brow.

“You are very close to being done the hardest part.” His daughter added which reassured me greatly. 
We hiked through dense, foggy forest for the first bit 

I felt relieved enough to carry on and we made it to the first camp with ten minutes to spare and the skies opened up just after we arrived. We hunkered down in the bare bones wooden hut while our cook Xavier prepared our lunch. The soup and tea that he prepared for us warmed us up and we carried on toward the second camp.

After climbing a grueling 1600m in one day, our arrival seemed to shock the Dutch couple as well as the 20 German school kids and their porters that were camping there.

“Uganda power!” Moses offered up as an explanation.

“Uganda power!” the porters chimed back in unison, raising their cups of tea towards us.

It felt good to have made it through the hardest day, but it was raining and very cool outside and my stomach was still in twists. I struggled to keep my spirits up while we waited for dinner in the hut with the porters. At one point I told Phil that I would be ok if we went home at that point, That I was close to giving in. He seemed surprised. We still had the summit and seeing the Great Migration in Kenya ahead of us. But I was tired. My bones ached, my muscles throbbed and I felt weak in mind and body. Why wasn’t I just lying on the beach? I cursed myself for picking such a challenging vacation. 

The next morning we began our summit attempt after a decent night’s rest. I was feeling marginally better at this point but still struggled to keep my energy up. Moses knew we’d be slow and had us start an hour before everyone else who caught up and passed us in no time.  Once we were in the afro-alpine, the views opened up and we could see some of those strange plants that thrive only on the mountain.

Afro-alpine plants

We reached Jackson’s Pool after about 3 hours of hiking and Moses dared us to jump in. I told that I would consider it on the way back down and he replied by saying that he wouldn’t save me if I started to drown.

Philip poses by Jackson Pool at 4050m 

I figured that since the pool was at 4050m and we were heading to 4321m, I remarked to Moses that we must be pretty close to the summit. He shook his head and said no, there was a lot of terrain to cover yet and the route was not direct.

Foggy ascent

We trudged on for another couple hours through alternating fog and sunshine before finally gaining the summit. The Dutch couple and middle-aged couple that had both passed us had been there for almost an hour already.

Brought to you by Uganda power!
Our guide Moses poses with us at the summit. 

The summit was covered in this weird fast-moving fog that made the lighting switch from dark to really bright in a matter of seconds. The views we able to catch in between rolling fog patches were incredible. Peaks and valleys forever. Lush green hillscapes that gave way to towering brown rock formations. We ate our lunch in awe as I pulled out a tiny flask of Ugandan Waragi gin.

“Uganda power!” I said lifting it up to the sky as the Dutch couple looked on curiously. Philip and I had a swig and offered it to the others. After spending about 45 minutes on the summit, we began our long trek down as the Dutch couple went on to climb and descend another peak that same day.

Once back at the camp which was noticeably less crowded since the 20 German teenagers had begun their descent on the Sasa route, we enjoyed some tea and hot dinner and went to bed early since we had another big day ahead of us.

The Sipi route ends very close to the town of Sipi, but contrary to the promotional material on the UWA website, it does not take you by the picturesque Sipi Falls. That being said, it was marvelously scenic, even more so than the summit.

Having a break with our climbing crew

But it is also another long, hard day. By then I had some of my strength back and my spirits were better, but we still had about 38km to walk on foot and a substantial amount of elevation to gain and lose. When your guide tells you it’s “up down gentle” be prepared for anything. Up down gentle meant climbing to the top of a hill, then descending all the way down to the water and then climbing back up the hill on the other side then descending back down to the water the whole day long.

The “gentle” hills of Mount Elgon

Still, hiking alongside the caldera was beautiful and the “gentle” rolling hills were truly a sight to behold. We reached the last camp just shy of dusk having hiked for close to 11 hours. As per usual, the flatlanders had beat us there and had enough time assemble not only their tent, but ours as well. Their seemingly endless energy impressed us immensely and it was nice to be in a more quiet camp.

Only two tents in the camp, a sight for sore eyes on Kili. 

As we waited in the warming hut for dinner, it began to rain heavily so Philip and I pulled out our Uganda power and had a sip in silence. I figured it would help keep us warm. Nevertheless, that night we froze despite putting on every warm layer we had and cursed ourselves for not having packed warmer clothes. Next time, I’m bringing my down jacket I promised myself.

We woke to sunshine the next morning and began making our way down off the mountain. The night’s frigidness gave way to stifling heat as we lost elevation and the sun beamed down on us. The trail descended quickly and soon enough we were back in thick tropical forest with butterflies and birds fluttering around us. Although we didn’t get to see the beautiful Sipi Falls on the descent, the river valley and plantations below provided nice scenery.

Nice views for the descent too.

Once off the mountain we thanked and tipped our guide, cook and porter and hailed a bota bota to the beautiful Sipi townsite. The falls are visible from the town site, but to get a closer view, we would have had to do another hike that day. We opted to have a nice meal and a warm bucket shower and enjoy some downtime before our hectic overland border crossing to Kenya scheduled for the next day. If we’d had a little more time in Uganda, Sipi is the one place we would have liked to stay longer for the falls hike, the coffee plantation tours, and tranquil atmosphere.

Sipi Falls 
While the last 4 days of hiking had been challenging, they had been very rewarding at the same time. We had climbed to our highest elevation yet, saw amazing sights, tested our strength and resolve, and forged a nice camaraderie with our hiking partners. While I don’t think it could truly stand in for the rooftop of Africa, Mount Elgon is a worthwhile destination for any mountain lover and we were glad that we had the opportunity to climb it. If you’re interested in learning more about organizing a hike up Mount Elgon, please check out my earlier post.

The Dreams that Lie in Wait

“None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm.” – Henry David Thoreau

Last summer I made one of my lifelong dreams come true: I came within arm’s length of a wild gorilla. A silverback no less. 

My interest in great apes began in grade school when I had to choose an animal to do a report on. I chose mountain gorillas since they are both huge and intimidating, but also very rare. My initial reaction was to fear them on account of images we see of growling silver backs, but as I researched them I learned they are gentle, intelligent herbivores that live in mountainous rainforests. 
Gentle herbivores is right.
Photo credit: Google Images
As I learned more about gorillas, I became equally interested in their mountainous forest habitat and devoured any books on rain forests I could get my hands on. Yes, I was that cool. What can I say? No other animal had managed to capture my imagination as much as those gentle giants. I was so enamoured with them that I wrote all my grade 4 assignments about them and had at least 3 stuffed gorillas in my room. I dreamed of one day seeing one in its wild rainforest home, but it was just a silly childhood dream to be filed away along with so many others. By the fifth grade, I already had a new series of topics to obsess over and more dreams to add to the file.

But as the years passed by the dream returned. Upon seeing blue giant morpho butterflies in the Costa Rican jungle, I remembered just how much the mountain gorillas of East Africa inspired me as a child. Now over 20 years after that dream first occurred, I found myself perched precariously on a steep jungle hillside in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest wondering if I would in fact see an endangered mountain gorilla that day.  The day had started with an all too early wakeup call at 4am to make the over 2 hour bumpy drive from Lake Bunyonyi to Bwindi where a few hundred mountain gorillas call home.

The hills and rice terraces of Kabale, just outside of Bwindi.

Upon arriving in the park, groggy trackers are divided into groups of up to 8 people based on their ability to bushwhack for hours through thick jungle.  Still sore from a recent trek in the Rwenzori Mountains, I hoped for a shorter day of hiking but the Ugandan Wildlife Authority rangers had other plans. Our group of 6 tourists, 3 porters and UWA ranger named Stephen was assembled and briefed before setting off along a dusty road toward a clearing at the top of the hill.
“Gorilla tracking is easy.” Said no one ever. 
Once at the top, we paused for a much needed drink of water and took in the view of lush green rice-terraced mountains before entering the forest. Buzzing with excitement we trekked cheerily over unending rolling hills until our feet and legs ached. As the day stretched on, I sensed people’s energy levels draining and asked Stephen how long we had been walking.
“3 hours” he answered matter-of-factly and then gestured for us to follow him off the boot beaten path.
We turned sharply into dense rainforest, trailing Stephen as he chopped branches out of way with a machete. Thorns grabbed at our clothing while we achingly made our way up a steep ridge. Once we gained the ridge, Stephen told us that this was where we would be having lunch.
“Are we going to see gorillas at all today?” A trekker asked the ranger with impatience in her voice. “I hope so.” He answered solemnly.
“So there’s a chance we may not?” Another added rhetorically.
Then things got even harder.
Feeling discouraged, I sat on the cusp of the hill and ate my lunch in silence. I thought to myself that maybe this was only meant to be a dream while others in the group grumbled aloud. Meanwhile, Stephen radioed the rangers who had been tracking one of the families since sunrise. They spoke in Ugandan so I had no hope of gaining insight on whether our group would get to see the animals we flew halfway around the world to see. I resigned that I may indeed come away from the experience disappointed.

“Time to go!” Stephen ordered and we all stood up and shuffled along behind him.

We walked for another 45 minutes, growing even more discouraged and tired as time went on until Stephen gestured to stop and pointed to a bush in front of us. I strained to look but could only see green jungle plants, not the enormous black apes I had hoped to see. As we stood and stared quietly, the bush began to shake ever so slightly as a collective wave of excitement surged over us. Could it be?  Was this the moment of truth we had been waiting for? The moment we had walked laboriously for hours through dense rainforest for? The moment that I had first dreamed of when I was only 9 years old? The anticipation was stifling.
The shaking turned more violent as a giant male silverback pushed the brush out of his way making a window through the foliage to stare at us. He was quickly joined by several members of his family who crouched beside him and peered at us through their picture-perfect natural frame. 

At this point I was speechless.
The scene was breathtaking and we spent the next 60 minutes following the family through the forest as they ate, climbed trees and even slapped one of our crew for getting too close. It felt like a surreal, living dream.
Pictured: a Belgian about to be slapped by a silverback. 
Once our time with the magnificent creatures was up, I reflected during the long walk out of the forest on the importance of never letting dreams go no matter how far away in space and time they may seem. Some dreams linger quietly in the background until the time is right to pursue them, and good dreams may just follow you until they come true.
And what a dream it was. 

The Zen of Real Life

Your work is to discover your world, and then with all your heart give yourself to it.” – Bhudda 

I haven’t been able to write for a couple weeks because real life has interfered with travel blogging life. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I write about travel because I love travel. And I travel, not to escape my real life, but to enhance it.

While I occasionally envy those travel bloggers who have made a career of it, I also appreciate the freedom to disconnect both while I travel and live real life.

When I was much younger, I dreamed of being paid to travel. Travel can be so expensive and I thought that getting paid to go overseas would mean that I could have awesome adventures all the time.

I learned a valuable lesson early on while doing a semester abroad in France during high school, which was that although I was in France,  I was still in school and had real responsibilities. It wasn’t a 3-month long backpacking trip, it was real life.

Again, after grad school I did an internship in Mali where I lived real life in a place that was very different than what I was used to. Of course I had some time to be a tourist and take in the sights and sounds of bustling Bamako and enjoyed many weekend escapes in nearby towns, like Siby. But at the end of the weekend, I still had a job to get back to. When you travel for work, you travel on someone else’s dime and someone else’s time. With that in mind, there’s something to be said for travelling on your own time and terms, even if for me it means that I don’t get to travel all the time.

Bamako: a very exciting city to live real life in. 

There’s also something to be said for loving your real life as much as your travelling life. There’s a lot of glamour attached to quitting your job to travel the world, but I can’t help but think that the money needed to travel has to come from somewhere.

For me, finding a balance between the good life at home and exploring as much as possible is key. Doing so means that I get many trips and blog posts to look forward to, and there is Zen in that.

How we Made our Travel Dreams Come True in 2014

2014 was a banner year for us at Zen Travellers. Hard work, and deliberate and consistent budgeting meant that we were able to make one of our biggest travel dreams come true: a five week adventure in East Africa.

I had been dreaming of going back to Africa since my first time there in 2010. I had spent 5 months working in West Africa, and a month in Morocco touring around after my contract was over. The experience was incredible, but I still wanted to see the Big 5 on safari, watch the Great Migration, track gorillas in the jungle and watch more majestic African sunsets.

Sunsets like this (oh can I please go back??)

Unfortunately, I had that pesky grown-up business of student debt to pay off, monthly bills to pay and a retirement that hopefully involves a lot of travel to save for. When I returned to Canada from Africa the first time, I was broke having just finished grad school and not being paid exceptionally well during my internship. Still, I knew I had to get back, so I took contract job after contract job until I landed something permanent. After Philip successfully got me addicted to the insanely fun, but expensive sport of downhill skiing, I returned the favour by infecting him with the even-more-expensive travel bug. Together, we made a plan to scrimp and save as much as we could in order to make our travel dreams come true. At the same time we made sure to get out and enjoying the Canadian Rockies as much as possible since mountains make us insanely happy and too strict of budgets fail. Luckily for us, hiking and cross-country skiing are practically free. Downhill skiing on the other hand, requires some creative budgeting at times.

If you’re happy and you know it, put your tips up!

Our first order of business was to pay down our student debts, which we achieved in 2013. I had been making monthly payments as much as $1500 to pay it down as soon as possible. Every windfall from a bonus or gift or selling my car went straight to my student loans. Once they were paid off, I was used to living on less than my whole paycheque so I simply transferred equal amounts into savings.

Philip on the other hand, likes spreadsheets and percentages which he’ll likely do a guest post about sometime, so he saved by having a certain percentage taken directly off his paycheque every two weeks.

Other methods we used to save money for trips were:

1) Booking travel on points:
I had a mass of Air Miles that I had been collecting for ages and never put to use. So in 2013, I was able to fly to Winnipeg for a wedding, to Los Angeles to see the Rolling Stones and to Arizona for a family reunion for just the taxes and fees. These little, inexpensive trips satisfied my travel bug without breaking the bank, and I could continue to put money into savings for our East Africa 2014 dream trip. Another example is Philip used his Capital One Aspire MasterCard  to buy his flights to Africa and was reimbursed over $700.

Hiking in the Superstition Mountains in Arizona: a budget activity. 

2) You know those friends who say you can stay on their couch? Take them up on that: 
In 2013, we flew to Ottawa during the summer to enjoy Ottawa Bluesfest and Montreal Jazz Fest. A friend of mine from grad school had offered her couch numerous times and we finally took her up on it. By having somewhere inexpensive to stay, we were able to enjoy the festival and have a wonderful visit with our friends in Canada’s capital which is delightful in the summer. In the absence of a nice friend’s couch, try AirBnB or even Couch Surfing. As Ottawa Bluesfest spans almost two weeks, we saved vacation days for our African adventure by working from “home” during the weekdays which worked out perfect since most shows didn’t start until after 5pm.

3) The early bird gets the discount: 
Booking early is also a way to save money on travel as well. For example, we saved $75 each on our Bluesfest tickets by buying them early and our train between Ottawa and Montreal was only $50. If we had waited, the cheaper seats would have been sold out. When planning our East African adventure, we also saved over $100 by prepaying for our SCUBA lessons too.

4) DIY everything: 
It is amazing how much money you can save by doing things yourself. Whether it’s making your own meals or getting around East Africa on your own, DIY is one of the best ways to save money for travel and while travelling. For example, during our 5 weeks in East Africa we only spent a week and half on an organized tour. Although it meant a lot of research and planning on our part, we were able to spend 5 glorious, action-filled weeks in Zanzibar, Uganda and Kenya for what one tour operator would have charged us for 3 weeks in only Uganda. Personally, another benefit of DIY is that I feel a certain satisfaction from finding my own way around.

One drawback of DIY travel: this can be your view for several hours. 

5) Travel during shoulder season:
Travelling during shoulder season can also be a way to save money on trips. We made it to one of my favourite places on Earth, Whitefish Montana, twice during 2014 shoulder seasons. Prices for accommodations were substantially less in May and we were able to go hiking in Glacier National Park before the trails were cleared of snow in Alberta. Later, in November we celebrated Philip’s birthday at a VRBO condo right on the mountain for half of what it costs during the peak seasons. Saving on these little getaways meant that we didn’t have to hold back during our big East African adventure and caught the Great Migration, even though that meant travelling in Kenya during expensive peak season.

Amazing early season hiking in Glacier National Park

Now for 2015, we are planning on using a lot of the same tactics to make this year’s travel dreams come true. They include a week in Cuba, skiing in Colorado and Northern California, hiking in the Grand Canyon if we get a permit, and Lollapalooza if we can get tickets. So much to look forward to!

How do you make your travel dreams come true?