Travel Zen in Africa

Few places in the world have ever inspired as much awestruck in me as Africa. Not only is the continent huge with an incredible diversity of ecosystems and culture, it is a friendly, beautiful and otherworldly place. I have had the tremendous fortune to spend time in countries in West Africa, East Africa and North Africa and I cannot speak highly enough of the experiences.

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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?

Off the Beaten Track: Coconuts and Cycling in Zanzibar

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware.” – Martin Buber

Travellers know this to be true: there is a special type of satisfaction that comes with feeling like you’ve “discovered” something. Zanzibar is famous for white sand beaches, calm clear waters featuring fishing boats with romantic white sales, and a lush countryside ripe for growing fragrant spices.


Many tourists come to this idyllic island to lounge on the beach sipping cocktails and spend their evenings dancing in night clubs. Given my extreme susceptibility to sunburns and inability to sit still for too long, I have never been very fond of lounging on the beach. So I was excited to learn while researching things to do that a lesser known attraction to add to Zanzibar’s magnificence is cycling.

Philip and I attempted to contact a cycling tour operator in Nungwi that we heard about on Trip Advisor prior to leaving Canada, but weren’t able to firm anything up. When we asked for information, the company rep mailed us a brochure and told us to come find them. Once we arrived, we attempted to call the number on the brochure but it was disconnected. We were starting to feel like our cycle trip may not happen. 
Luckily for us, Nungwi is a small enough town that we very quickly got our bearings and went toward the turtle aquarium to try to set up a ride. We had read that the cycling tour operator was located there, so that’s all we were going on. Once there, the ticket window attendant seemed confused when we asked about bikes. He checked with his friend, who checked with a friend while we waited for a long time, as it often goes when travelling in East Africa. Eventually someone began leading us toward a small shop back on the beach. The shop sold fair trade items but didn’t seem to say anything about cycling, so we would never have found it on our own. There we met Machano, who would become our guide for the afternoon. He provided an overview of the tour and had us pick out our bikes. 
The bikes were in better shape than other bikes I have ridden, but still could have used a good tune up and the selection of helmets was almost comical. I chose a pink, child size beauty while Philip got something a little more subdued, and Machano rocked a camo helmet. We took off through the village toward our first destination: a cave with “crystals” in it. 
Meandering through the village provided a much different perspective than Nungwi’s beach front which is developed for tourism. Villagers were going about their business uninterested in our passing through, except for the children who ran behind us singing “jambo muzungu!” as if we were celebrities. 
Eventually, we ended up on the same narrow highway that we had rode in a taxi to Nungwi from Stonetown a few days earlier. I had to chuckle to myself a bit because Philip had remarked, “can you imagine cycling along this road?” and now we were.

We definitely thought this through
After a short but tense ride along the highway, we turned off onto a road that seemed like little more than two tracks in the dirt. I began to have difficulty keeping the bike upright and eventually it tipped over to one side. Machano seemed worried so he advised us to leave the bikes where they were and continue to the cave on foot. After a brief jaunt walking with our bikes, we were at the mouth of the cave which our guide said had only been opened to people the year before. Two men were waiting for us with flashlights, as well as two teenage boys in their school uniforms. Together, our expanding posse continued into the cave. Our guide pointed out certain features and some lovely spiders, while the more outgoing of the teenage boys practised his English with me. We walked a short distance underground and made it to this strange “crystal” that was in the cave near its exit.

I asked Machano if he knew what the crystal was made of, but he said he didn’t and was hoping to get a geologist in sometime to confirm. For now, all he could say was it was probably some kind of stalactite. 
From the cave, we worked up quite a sweat while heading to little village to see a blacksmith. After trying the bellows and learning how the men melt down the metal to make the nails for the iconic fishing ships that pepper the coastline, we asked cautiously if we could have a fresh coconut to drink. 
Trying out the bellows while the pros look on. 
We were visiting Zanzibar during the month of Ramadan.Given that Nungwi caters to tourists, it hadn’t really affected us until then. Now in this small village, we knew we should ask permission to eat or drink  in front of others. Machano interpreted for us and the villagers said it was fine. So fine, that pretty much before I finished the word coconut, a young boy was halfway up a tree. 
He made it look so easy
He began throwing down coconuts for us when the blacksmiths started yelling at him and some villagers joined in too. We thought maybe we had been out of line by asking for a coconut but Machano told us they were telling him that he was picking the wrong ones. Eventually it became so heated, that another lad ran up a different tree and threw a few more down from there. Once the villagers had decided on which two coconuts were the best, they hacked them open for us and let us have the freshest, most satisfying coconut ever. This ended up being our favourite part of the day. No one seemed to mind us eating and drinking except a little girl who told our guide that she wasn’t Muslim so she could have some coconut too which made him laugh out loud. We all admired her courage though.

Again the village kids made us feel like celebrities by running behind us repeating “bye bye” and jambo” over and over until we reached the highway. Then we peddled to the last site on our tour, some Portuguese ruins and an inland salt water cave. It took me a bit of courage to jump in the water but I was glad I did. The water was cool enough to leave us refreshed for our approximately 8km ride back to town.

After dropping off our bikes,we walked back along the beach instead of taking the same way and enjoyed a quiet section of the beach, bathed in golden twilight, where I was able to take this incredible shot of some village boys playing football between the boats.

National Geographic feel free to contact me about this.

Cycling through the villages ended up being one of our favourite experiences in Zanzibar and we were eager to promote the excursion to other travellers we would meet afterwards. We also still chuckle about the villager’s enthusiasm toward selecting the best coconuts too.

A few months after our visit as I write this, it appears that Zanzibar Cycling Adventures is who guided our cycling tour and the company has since improved their web presence. It looks like a lot of people have been enjoying cycle tours with them since our passing through, which is fantastic as they are a great tour operator, and we are glad to see their business grow. Zanzibar is indeed so much more than a beach and we were happy to discover that for ourselves. 

Top 5 Gift Ideas for Zen Travellers

One of the easiest ways to improve one’s outlook on life is to give to others, and ’tis the season after all. So here you go readers, my first “listicle” (à la Buzzfeed):

Gift Ideas for the Zen-minded Adventure 

5) Buff Headwear

One thing that can harsh a traveller’s Zen is being bogged down with too much stuff. This is where Buff comes in. I’m truly surprised by how much I love my Buff. I’ve used it for extra warmth during cross-country skiing, alpine touring, and hiking Mount Elgon in Uganda. I’ve used it for sun protection at Austin City Limits, while hiking on hot summer days in Alberta and at the beach in Zanzibar. I’ve also used it as a pre-filter with my water filter while hiking in the Rwenzori mountains. Buffs are warm, lightweight, some have a sun protection factor of 50+ and all are versatile. Bonus points for affordability, as most are only around $20. 
4)  Give the Gift of Travel

Research shows that experiences create more happiness than things and there are plenty of ways to gift an experience to a traveller. Discount websites like Groupon and Travelzoo offer deals on hotels, meals in restaurants, and activities that the traveller can schedule on their own. Many hotels offer gift certificates, as do some airlines. In short, it is easy to give a traveller what they would like the most, more travel!

3) Gift Your Points
Have you been collecting Air Miles for years and don’t plan on using them any time soon? What about those points for an airline that may expire soon if you don’t use them? Many reward programs will allow you to transfer your points to an eager traveller who will gladly put them to use. It may seem like a stingy gift, but I know I for one would be thrilled to have them over some special from a big box store any day. 
2) Local Currency

All the monies in the world!

If the resident travellers in your life have been talking about their upcoming trips, chances are they would love to receive some local currency to wherever they’re travelling to as a gift. Not only does it show your travel-crazy friends that you actually listen to them, it can also help to alleviate some of their stress by having a bit of local currency in hand when they arrive in a new place. Also, it  makes it more likely that you will receive a nice souvenir from them in return,  thereby creating an infinite loop of gift-giving happiness and who wouldn’t want that?
1) If you can’t afford to buy them a Go Pro, Go Old School with a Travel Journal

Ibn Batutta’s tomb in Tangier, Morocco

blogged before about how I really could have used a Go Pro Hero 4 during certain moments of my recent trip to East Africa. But in the absence of one of those fancy contraptions which I cannot justify buying for myself, a plain old travel journal will suffice to record memories. Gifting a travel journal to your favourite traveller will allow them to follow in the footsteps of the legendary Ibn Batutta whose journal has inspired explorers for centuries. It has the added bonus of making the traveller think of you every time they open it, so if you miss them when they’re on one of their rambles, you could think of it as a gift that guarantees you’ll always be in their heart, wherever in the world they may be.