Sacha Lodge: Amazon Adventure Part 2

Sacha Lodge’s canopy walk, 30 m above the forest floor.

When last we met, gentle reader, I was lost deep within the Amazon jungle, pitifully dehydrated and starved, surrounded by merciless headhunters and savage wild animals, swooning in the steadying embrace of my brave companion, as we faced, unarmed, the rapid onslaught of a particularly bloodthirsty-looking individual.

“Lemonade, madame?” he inquires solicitously, proffering a tray of iced fruity drinks.

This is the conundrum and delight of Sacha Lodge: there is no question that you are in the rainforest, light years away from any town. There are piranhas in the lagoon, caimans directly underneath the boardwalk upon which you stand, tamarin monkeys swinging nonchalantly overhead, and tarantulas within armsreach. Yet your weightiest decision is whether to choose fish or beef for your main course. I’ve always been more than a little timid about the dangers of the Amazon, but—as with so many things—once you’re actually there, it all seems exciting and fun rather than threatening.

That’s not to say there aren’t safety concerns. As we sipped those welcoming drinks, the manager gave us the orientation talk with all its do’s and don’ts. We were assigned two guides and given our own little tour group, probably because, being birders, we were the odd ones out. (Trust me, no sane person wants to be stuck in a group with birders.)

Our four-night stay was quite regimented: up every morning by 5 am when the guide knocks on your door. Breakfast at 5:30, hit the trail—or the canoe—at 6:00. The guides decide your destination. One morning, you climb the canopy walk (30 m of stairs). Another morning, you take a different 30 m of stairs to a platform atop a massive kapok tree. A third day, you might go on a longer canoe ride to more distant birding areas. What gets done when depends on the weather and the interests of the guests.

Back at the lodge by 10:30, you find that you are peckish (after all, breakfast was a loooong time ago), so naturally, there’s a snack waiting for you out in the open-air dining pavilion. Then a bit of leisure time before lunch, followed by more relaxation during the hottest hours of the afternoon. Take a swim in the lagoon, read, catch up on your sleep.

At 4 pm, you’re out again with your guides for more exploration, in our case, via small canoe up the various waterways (see previous post “Birding By Boat”) where the wildlife-spotting opportunities change constantly. Birding is a challenge, as the area boasts nearly 500 species, many from families completely foreign to us: antbirds, manakins, jacamars, woodcreepers, etc.

Hoatzin

The first day, we easily spot one of my targets for the trip: the primitive hoatzin with its funky hairstyle, clambering awkwardly through the trees. The next day, we find the boat-billed heron, huge dark eyes peering through the gloom. On the last day, I spot a massive anaconda on the bank less than a metre from our boat. And monkeys, always monkeys, noisily feeding and moving through the forest: capuchins, red howlers, squirrel monkeys, night monkeys, tamarins.

As darkness arrives, you head back to the lodge for the most formal meal of the day, when guests compare notes on what they’ve done and seen that day and wrestle with the aforementioned challenge of choosing between several tasty menu options.

Finally, you stagger back to your cabin and fall into bed, not minding at all that it’s only 9 pm. You might struggle to stay awake for a few minutes to enjoy the deafening chorus of night sounds, frogs, insects, and lord knows what else, competing to be heard a few inches from where you are laying your head, but you won’t win that battle for long. Before you know it, that 5:00 knock is tapping at your door.

“This is like summer camp for grown-ups,” my husband pointed out. I don’t know if he was referring to the early lights-out, the structured, supervised activities, or the joy of being outdoors all day, every day, but overall, I think he hit the nail on the head. It wasn’t all fun and games—hiking in stifling heat and humidity while giant carnivorous flies attempt to harvest chunks of your flesh right through your clothes is not my idea of a good time—but it was all worth it. Sacha Lodge provides a superb adventure for those of us who dream of the Amazonian jungle but like our comfy beds at night.

Do’s and Don’ts for Sacha Lodge

  • Do not forget to count your malaria pills before you leave home. (See previous posting “Malarial Muddle.”)
  • Do not forget to stock up on high-powered insect repellent before you leave home. You may not find any in Quito.
  • Do not worry about being clumsy when climbing in and out of the little canoes; I’ve already set a Guinness World Record for awkwardness that is unlikely to be beaten any time soon. Besides, the guides do take good care of you.
  • If you have the time, do take the car trip down from Quito to Coca rather than flying. It’s a beautiful way to see the mountains. You can fly back, so you don’t have to do the drive up.
  • Do bring a swimsuit so that you can enjoy the lagoon pool. Probably the only chance you’ll ever have to swim in the Amazon waters.
  • When the guide offers you a rain slicker, do not be brave or stoic or think you know better. Take the d**n thing or you will regret it. I was already wearing a rain jacket and a rain poncho and thought the one he offered would be extraneous. Wrong. Welcome to Ecuador, where two raincoats are not enough.
  • The lagoon at sunset.

Sacha Lodge: Amazon Adventure

Oil company vehicles being barged up the river to remote sites.

The photos were gorgeous. The reviews were raves. No question, Sacha Lodge in the Amazon basin of Ecuador has a sterling reputation. We had only four nights to spend in the area—someplace we might never visit again—and we wanted to be sure that our experience would be top-notch. We ignored the Big Numbers on the rate sheet and booked.

In the Ecuadorian part of the Amazon, there are a number of jungle lodges (or, as they prefer to style themselves these days, eco-lodges) scattered along the Napo, the largest tributary to the Amazon. From my research, it seemed like they shared some characteristics: e.g., trained guides, walks in the jungle, and canoe rides. Most have some kind of tower or walkway to allow guests to visit the canopy. Differences between the lodges include style of accommodation, quality of food, size of groups, distance from civilization (the farther, the better). Sacha scored high on all these criteria. It also has a swimming area in the river, a huge draw for us, and something no other lodge can boast.

We knew that we didn’t want to waste our precious time doing activities that were of marginal interest, like visiting a local village (see previous blog People Safaris) or fishing for piranha. Our goal was birds and wildlife, as much as possible. So I eliminated the lodges that seemed to put a lot of emphasis on unwanted activities.

When I contacted Sacha, they were firm that we would not be allowed to do any wandering around on our own. Once we arrived, we understood completely why, and to be honest, although we’re usually pretty independent, we wouldn’t have wanted to roam without a guide. There are just too many dangers in the forest and a lot of ways to get lost or injured. This is the depths of the wilderness; you are a long way from medical help and you don’t want to take chances.

They were also cagey about promising exactly which activities we would do, saying that would be up to the guide and the group we were with. I wasn’t thrilled about that. I’ve been on too many tours where we were stuck with people whose interests were completely different and bored guides who obviously couldn’t wait to check their phone messages. However, I trusted to the excellent reviews and the promises that we would have the ultimate Amazon experience.

When I explained that we are birders, the booking agent asked if we’d like to have a guide who specializes in birds, rather than a generalist. Yes, please! In addition, she told me they would try to place us in a group with other birders, if possible. I crossed my fingers.

For all of these lodges, guests make their way to the closest city, Coca, and meet up with a motorized canoe for the trip up the Napo River. A glitch occurred immediately: while most guests arrive by plane and are met at the airport, we chose to be driven down to Coca so we could see the countryside along the way. I had confirmed with the booking office the time that the boat would depart and had received this info: “If you arrive to Coca on your own you will need to join the group around 12h00 in our office of Coca.” We therefore planned to arrive around 11:00 so there would be plenty of time. We arrived at the office just after 11:00 and were met by anxious handlers who indicated everyone else was waiting around just for us and hustled us into the boat asap. Minor issue, but it was lucky that we hadn’t planned on a 12:00 arrival.

Motoring up the river for a couple of hours was fun. The boat had a canopy in case of bad weather, but it was clear and dry that day. We saw a few small clearings on the banks where people lived, but they were far away and not terribly interesting. We were surprised at the amount of development related to the oil industry that we saw: plants and docks and barges moving large goods (think semi-trailer rigs) to or from the oilfields, plus lots of company-owned boats ferrying workers around. This wasn’t the pristine rainforest I had imagined. But that changed once we docked upriver.

Everything–including mattresses–goes in and comes out of Sacha by small canoe.

After leaving the boat, we walked inland for about 30 minutes along a boardwalk through thick forest to the edge of a narrow waterway, where we climbed into a smaller canoe paddled by Sacha staff. We passed a similar canoe tenuously loaded with a double-size mattress, which reminded us that everything that goes into or out of the lodge must go by small canoe.

Ten minutes later, we slipped into the open lagoon across which lay the lodge, a beautiful sight, surrounded as it is by intense green foliage, blue sky, and still, dark water. Now, we were in the Amazon!

(To be continued)

Blackwater lagoon, home to Sacha Lodge.

Calidris Reads: Atlantic Canada

 

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

The Shipping News

  1. E. Annie Proulx

Read for: Nova Scotia

5 knots Highly recommended

First sentence: “Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns.”

I cheated a bit on this one, because the book is actually set in Newfoundland, but I couldn’t find a book that interested me and that was set in Nova Scotia. Had already read Barometer Rising and didn’t want to read another about the Halifax explosion. This was one of those novels I had always resisted because when it came out, it seemed that everyone was reading it, so, being contrary, I didn’t want to. I was afraid it was going to be a dreary slice of life thing, but it was a good solid read, with well-rooted characters that you wanted to know more about.

I loved the cover art on this edition because it’s intriguing and you go through a good part of the book puzzled, waiting to find out what it means. Then you get to enjoy an Aha! moment.

Have you read The Shipping News? What did you think?

Gadgets: The Cotton Carrier

The Cotton Carrier camera harness for single camera. Photo from cottoncarrier.com.

The problem with photography as a hobby is that the more “into” it you get, the more and heavier the equipment you have to shlepp around. You may start with a modest little point-and-shoot weighing a few ounces, but before you know it, you’re staggering down the trail with multiple camera bodies dangling from your neck, extra lenses the size of oil drums stashed in your pockets, and a tripod crushing one shoulder. Of course, all that weight in the front is balanced out by your 50-lb photo backpack and you can use your monopod as a walking pole to keep you upright.

I am, therefore, always keen to check out gear that promises increased efficiency, accessibility, and/or ergonomics.

A couple of months ago, I began shopping for a camera harness, a rig that is designed to carry a camera (or cameras) close to your body with comfort and security. The idea is to take the weight off your neck and distribute it more evenly around your torso while ensuring that the camera does not swing around awkwardly, damaging you, it, or anything else. Knowing that during an upcoming trip I would be doing a lot of climbing in and out of small, tippy boats, as well as some challenging (by my standards) hiking, I thought the harness might be just the ticket.

After some research, I settled on the Cotton Carrier CCS G3. I was about to order it from a US online photo-specialty supplier, when I realized that the manufacturer is located in my own city. This meant I could avoid paying duty and the exchange rate while supporting a local business. Bonus!

On opening the box, first impressions were good. The materials are sturdy and of high quality. I had the straps fitted to my body in a few moments. Attaching the special mount (hub) to my lens mount took a bit of thought, but wasn’t difficult. As I used the supplied Allen wrench to tighten the screw, I wryly calculated how long it would take me to lose that vital tool.* Small objects tend to go missing easily in the flurry of highly-focused activity around a good bird sighting in the field.

I followed the diagram to slide in and lock the camera/lens in place, snapped on the safety tether (which is your final line of defense in case the camera somehow comes loose from the harness), and clipped the lens strap across my long, 300 mm lens so it wouldn’t jiggle from side to side, and voila, I was ready to hit the trail.

On that test hike, I found wearing the harness and camera took a bit of getting used to: I’m pretty soft and having the straps over my shoulders was tiring. The weight of the heavy lens right on my diaphragm made me uncomfortably conscious of my breathing. As it began to rain, I smugly pulled out the supplied rain cover, only to discover that it isn’t long enough for a camera + 300 mm lens. Gnashing of teeth. I wondered if I would actually use this gadget enough to make it worth the investment.

Happily, I had the opportunity to put the harness to a more definitive test on a month-long photo trip to Ecuador.

I quickly became accustomed to wearing the harness. It was easy off and on with one snap buckle (although you do have to lift it over your head if you only release one buckle). I really liked the twist-and-lock attachment; secure even when I was clambering in those aforementioned small canoes, yet allowing quick access to my camera. I did carry a plastic bag in case of rain (and boy, did it rain!)

Using it when sight-seeing in the city felt a bit pretentious but there was no way anyone could snatch my camera when it was locked in place.

I worried about transferring the camera onto my monopod. You can do this without removing the Cotton Carrier “hub” but I wasn’t sure how secure it would be, as the screw that anchors the whole assembly is quite short. However, I didn’t have any problems with my 300 mm. A larger lens might be an issue.

During this trip, I used my heavy rig so much that I actually developed repetitive stress and numbness in my right thumb, so I was very glad to be able to relieve that strain by carrying the camera on the carrier rather than in my hand. That alone was worth the price.

The harness in use, showing the safety tether. Note how the camera hangs downward when locked into the harness, keeping it close to your body.

Most importantly, I had the gratifying experience of receiving assessing looks and some queries from other photogs at the birding lodges where we stayed. Considering that most of them nonchalantly toted lenses three times the size of mine (yes, size does matter), I desperately needed some edge in the cool gear department.

My single-camera harness retails on the Cotton website for $153 Cdn. For those who want to access a second camera or binoculars, Cotton carries a harness for you, too.

*As it turned out, about six weeks. However, it’s not hard to replace. Maybe carry a spare, just to be safe.

Got gadgets for photography or travel? Share your favourite in a comment.

Ecuador’s Magic Birding Circuit

San Jorge de Tandayapa Lodge

 

Arriving in Ecuador, our first stop, San Jorge Quito, was part of the “Magic Birding Circuit,” a group of lodges under single management. Including Quito, Tandayapa, and Milpe, we spent a total of nine nights on the Circuit, a considerable investment of time and money. Would I recommend it? Yes—but with qualifications.

Things I loved: comfortable rooms (big bonus points for the in-room fireplace at the Quito lodge, a necessity for drying wet shoes and clothes after a wet hike), friendly staff (although most speak/understand little English), lovely locations, reliable transfers, feeders to attract birds, Milpe’s three-level bird-watching “tower,” Tandayapa’s views over a sweeping valley and into the treetops. From what I observed, the guides associated with the Circuit (freelancers, I believe) were knowledgeable and handled their groups well.

Sometimes there were little annoyances, like the person servicing the room carrying off all the towels for washing without giving us any new towels. In one lodge, they provided a single roll of toilet paper in the room and failed to notice when that roll was about to run out (which it did in the middle of the night, of course), so we had to dip into the emergency supply we carried in our luggage.

The first night at Tandayapa, we returned to our bungalow to find that someone had helpfully turned on the light beside our door. Unfortunately, this meant that our door was now covered in hundreds of moths. Although we turned off the light and shooed away as many as we could, it was impossible to open the door and enter without taking a cloud of insects with us. We spent much energy that evening capturing critters and throwing them outside, but I still woke up several times during the night when some large moth blundered into my face.

The food was fine, wholesome and plentiful. However, after several days, we found the Ecuadorian-based menu became a bit monotonous, and by the end of our nine days, I was ready to kill for a pizza or sandwich. It would have been nice to have more variation in the menu.

Tables and chairs in the open-air dining area of San Jorge de Milpe.

Speaking of meals, I’m not one to pay much attention to dining room furniture; as long as it’s functional, I take it pretty much for granted. However, in this case, it was as if someone who never actually used tables and chairs had chosen them. I began my relationship with the chairs at Tandayapa by immediately toppling over and dumping myself onto a very hard floor. Examining the chair after this painful encounter, I discovered that the legs of the chair were set so far in that anyone who did not sit exactly in the middle of the seat would suffer a similar ignominy. At the Milpe lodge, the chairs, constructed of raw, natural tree branches, are so assertively knobbly and uncomfortable that guests dubbed them The Iron Throne. The tables are perfectly constructed to the specifications of some alien race with no anterior limbs, as there is a spindle under each situated in the exact position to torture bipeds: too high to get your feet over it, too low to get your knees under it, so you are forced to sit far back from the table with your legs indecently splayed. In addition, these tables are also cleverly made of free-form tree limbs, creating such an uneven surface that guests’ drinks are constantly falling over.

But these are minor things.

More importantly, because we did not book as part of a tour with a guide, we found that sometimes we lacked useful information about the lodges. We would be shown to our room, told when the next meal would happen, and that was it. For other info, we had to dig around on our own or ask other guests. For example, we didn’t realize that we could request coffee/tea between meals until we saw other guests doing this. At the Tandayapa lodge, which is quite remote, we were unaware that there was a nearby hummingbird reserve that we could visit via some simple arrangements. Luckily, I overheard one of the other guests mentioning it, so we didn’t miss out on this beautiful site, but the experience did leave me wondering what other things we weren’t told. I understand that in a situation where we don’t speak Spanish and the staff speak minimal English, communication can be limited. However, the lodges could easily provide a sheet of basic information available in a variety of languages.

A few other suggestions for improvement:

  • I feel that if you book nine nights with the same company, they could provide free transfers between their properties. Currently, there is a significant charge for this service.
  • Similarly, I think they could offer a small discount for booking so many nights.
  • For Gawd’s sake, put extra rolls of TP in the rooms. I promise I won’t steal them.
  • Bread. No one wants to eat eggs for breakfast every morning, nor should they. (Can you say high cholesterol, boys and girls?) Guests were joking that they couldn’t wait to eat toast again. I was craving bread like you wouldn’t believe. Give me a fresh-baked roll and I’m a happy camper.

In summary:

Although it was interesting to stay in the old hacienda at San Jorge de Quito, we didn’t find it particularly “birdy.” We used it as a rest stop to acclimatize to the altitude and recover from jet lag, but you could find cheaper places to do that in Quito. I know that the tour groups did day trips from the lodge, so perhaps that made the location a better option, but for us, with no car and no guide, three nights was definitely too long. I wouldn’t recommend this lodge for avid birders.

If traveling without a guide, two nights at Tandayapa and two at Milpe would be enough. Perhaps if you’re far fitter than I and relish the prospect of hikes along dark, rough, muddy, slippery, hilly trails, you might enjoy an extra day in Milpe. Being a Lazy Birder, that really isn’t my cup of tea. Since the weather was bad, we spent a lot of time there sitting in the (covered) tower space waiting for the birds to come to the surrounding trees. Pleasant enough, but an expensive way to idle away your time.

We liked Tandayapa the best, although, to be fair, we had better weather there than in Quito or Milpe, so I’m sure that makes me biased.

Overall, the three lodges of the Magic Birding Circuit that we visited provide an enjoyable introduction to birding Ecuador. However, I’m not sure they are any better than similar lodges that may charge less. While it is tempting to embrace the “easy package” approach offered by the San Jorge lodges (and I fell for that myself), I would suggest you do further research and don’t rule out alternatives.

Toucan barbet photographed from the viewing lounge/dining area at Tandayapa.

Calidris Reads: Australia

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

In a Sunburned Country

Bill Bryson

5 knots Highly recommended

First sentence: “Flying into Australia, I realized with a sigh that I had forgotten again who their prime minister is.”

My first, and still favorite, Bryson. Literally laughed out loud reading this. His descriptions of the many and varied ways that Australia can kill you are priceless. “I was particularly attracted to all those things that might hurt me, which in an Australian context is practically everything. It really is the most extraordinarily lethal country.” All three of us traveling together read this book and we all loved it.

5 knots Highly recommended

A Fringe of Leaves

Patrick White

First sentence: “After the carriage drew away from the Circular Wharf Mr Stafford Merivale tapped the back of his wife’s hand and remarked that they had done their duty.”

Author Patrick White had already claimed the 1973 Nobel Prize in Literature (“for an epic and psychological narrative art, which has introduced a new continent into literature”) when this novel was published in 1976, but it’s generally regarded as one of his masterpieces.

Based loosely on the story of Eliza Fraser, who was shipwrecked off the eastern coast of Australia in 1836 and taken in (or taken prisoner, depending on whose version of the story you read) by Aboriginal people. Not an easy read, but compelling in a strange way. The heroine is strongly painted and White’s writing is intriguing.

4 knots Recommended

I couldn’t imagine two books more different than these. Hey, it’s a long flight to Australia. Why not read both; I can guarantee at least there won’t be any overlap!

The Getty Center

If you think Los Angeles symbolizes everything kitschy and facile, and serves only as hub for the cult of 15 minutes of fame, you haven’t visited the Getty Center. Who would have thought La-La Land could boast a world-class museum that impresses in so many ways?

First, there’s the gorgeous location, perched on a hill, overlooking LA one way and out toward the hills of Santa Monica the other way. One is so tempted to say it literally rises above the surrounding city, but I wouldn’t stoop to such a cliché.

Second, there’s the architecture and design. They’ve created an inspiring, welcoming space to relax outdoors in the courtyard, intriguing nooks and crannies between the buildings that frame the surrounding landscape, and galleries to rival any that I’ve seen.

Portrait study, 1818, Theodore Gericault

Third, there are wonderful tours to help you navigate and better appreciate the art. After many expeditions to many museums around the world, I know that it’s all too easy to get exhausted, lost, and numbed, stumbling around like a zombie, wanting to see everything and not seeing anything properly. You can get away with doing this for a quick visit, but if you’re there for the day, you need to find a way of focusing your attention and budgeting your energy. Tours are a great way to do this: someone else chooses the pieces to view, plots out the best course to navigate the galleries, and spoon-feeds you useful information. On our recent visit to the Getty, we did the Highlights of the Collection Tour, plus the Curator’s Tour of the special exhibition, “Eyewitness Views: Making History in 18th Century Europe.” This title might lead you to think the exhibition was a real yawner and pass it by; however, with the enthusiastic and knowledgeable guidance of the person who actually envisioned and put together the exhibition, it came alive as we gained real insight into commemorative paintings.

Last but not least, there is the art itself, representing a wide spectrum from paintings of all periods to sculpture, tapestries, illuminated manuscripts, furniture, photography, and decorative arts. The paintings of masters such as van Gogh, Manet, Rembrandt, Goya, Cezanne, and Fragonard are all included in the Getty collection. I wandered from gallery to gallery finding familiar works that I remembered from books and discovering new pieces that I will never forget.

The tapestry rooms literally took my breath away; I’ve seen tapestries on exhibit before, but never in rooms that are designed to emulate those in which the tapestries originally would have been hung and admired.

I was equally enraptured by a special exhibition titled “Illuminating Women in the Medieval World,” which explored how women’s roles in the Middle Ages are documented in the precisely detailed illustrations of illuminated manuscripts. The brilliant colours and shimmering gold leaf bring the Medieval world to life.

Peering in at a display of Sevres porcelain took me back to my university days and a research paper on Madame de Pompadour’s patronage of the ceramics manufacturer. It gave me a quiet little thrill to actually see some of the Sevres pieces from that period.

 

When your mind is saturated with great art and your feet are sore, take time to rest and refresh in the courtyard next to the water feature, where you can sip a cool drink and admire the architecture.

After a full day at the museum, I still had not seen the garden or the villa, and there were many unexplored galleries calling me back for future visits.

The icing on Mr. Getty’s cake is that his museum is free, such a rarity for anything in the U.S. (Thank you, J.P.) They do charge a parking fee, but that’s it. Which allows you to spend your money instead at one of the cafes or at the gift shop. Another perk is that you are allowed to photograph most of the art, so Snapchat away and share your favourites with all your “friends” who think you’re visiting the City of Angels for shallow pursuits like Rodeo Drive shopping and bus tours of celebrity homes:

Jeanne Kefer, 1885, Fernand Khnopff

“Adored this little girl i spotted at the Getty! Dont u just heart culture?! ”

Do you have a beloved museum or gallery? Have you visited the Getty? Share your thoughts in a comment.

Calidris Reads: A Guide to the Birds of East Africa

 

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

A Guide to the Birds
of East Africa

Nicholas Drayson

Read for: A longed-for return visit to Africa

First sentence: “’Ah yes,’ said Rose Mbikwa, looking up at the large dark bird with elegant tail soaring high above the car park of the Nairobi Museum, ‘a black kite. Which is, of course, not black but brown.’”

The comparison to Alexander McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is inevitable, so let’s tackle that straight off. This book is very similar in length and in style to Smith’s hugely successful franchise. A Guide is equally character-driven and provides the same fascinating glimpses into the idiosyncrasies of African life. So if you are a fan of Mma Ramotswe and her world, you will very likely enjoy Mr. Malik and his.

There are some differences, however. I welcomed the fresh perspective of a “person of colour” (that is, in African terms, someone who is neither black nor white; in this case, Indian in origin). And, being a birder, I enjoyed the link to the often-wacky world of “twitching,” although I would have been even more impressed if the characteristics of the many bird species mentioned somehow contributed to the plot rather than simply being catalogued.

I found fewer laughs in A Guide, either because there was less humour intended or because I didn’t find the writing particularly funny. The book is quirky and amusing but has less out-loud chortle moments. The picture painted of Kenya—and Nairobi in particular—is darker than Smith’s bucolic Botswana. I suspect that Botswana tourism tripled in the wake of the No 1 Ladies’ TV show, as busloads of fans who had never previously heard of Botswana eagerly sought out the dusty roads, sleepy towns, and friendly people drinking bush tea who feature so prominently in Smith’s books. A Guide, however, is more likely to make visitors shy away from Kenya. (Unless they are birders, of course. But birders are crazy, and have no survival instinct, as we all know.)

I really liked the way Drayson slowly unfolds the character of Mr. Malik throughout the novel and I’m looking forward to more adventures arising from his various strengths and weaknesses.

4 knots Recommended (non-birders) 5 knots Highly recommended (birders)

7 Tips for Reading Online Reviews

“Worst experience ever! I’ll never stay here again.”

“Cheerful staff, good pub-style food.”

“Slept like a baby. A real find!”

“Terrible. We waited an hour for our food and then they got the order wrong.”

Oh, those online reviews. TripAdvisor, Yelp, Urban Spoon, Google Reviews, Expedia, Airbnb, VRBO, blogs, and travel sites; there are more every day.

Every time I read an online review, I wonder what it’s worth. How can I allow anonymous opinions to influence decisions that may involve thousands of my precious dollars? But I do. It’s hard not to. In pre-Internet days, I relied heavily on recommendations in travel guides. I still read those guides, but the sheer volume of online reviews and the specifics of those opinions make them irresistible.

Is there any way to be sure that reviews are fair and accurate? The simple answer is no. You can never be sure. However, with a willingness to invest some time and basic common sense, I think those reviews can work for you. Here I’ve listed some ideas for sifting through online reviews.

  1. Don’t believe everything you read, bad or good. This is the crucial point. Read every review with a critical eye. Stilted, “bumpfed-up” language that sounds suspiciously like promo copy is a red flag that the review may be a fake posted by the business owner or her mother. On the other side, a review that runs down a business in vague terms and suggests you patronize a specific competitor instead may come from the rival (or his mother).
  2. Read between the lines. Is the reviewer complaining about a situation beyond the business’s control? Could it have been a one-time problem? Is the reviewer so angry about something that he or she is completely unfair? Sometimes a negative review is clearly based on a situation where any reasonable person would side with the business; e.g., I’ve read a review where the writer complained that the manager shut down their fun late-night party “just because” other guests were disturbed by the noise. This is not a legitimate basis for a negative review.
  3. Match your own expectations and standards against those of the reviewer. What you want from a hotel, restaurant, or tour may not be the same as what the writer wants. He might complain that meal portions are small, but if you’re a light eater, you might prefer small portions. She may be thrilled that an establishment allows smoking; you may not.
  4. Watch the numbers. The more reviews, the better. It’s unlikely that the manager will fake 50 reviews. Also, if there are 100 reviews and 97 say it’s great and 3 say it sucks, that’s significant. Read the ones that buck the trend: sometimes it will be clear that the dissenting reviews are unreasonable. Sometimes they will make a valid point.
  5. Notice the specifics. A long review with many details is more believable than a one-liner. In addition, the details can be very interesting. A review based on a visit during a specific time period could yield valuable information about what it’s like to be there during that time. If you’re planning to visit the Amazon during January, try to find reviews from people who went in that month. They may mention how bad the mosquitos were, what the weather was like, or how the humidity affected their electronic devices, great things to know in advance.
  6. Check the room tips, if they are included. Again, your preferences for noise/quiet, front street/back courtyard, clawfoot tub/walk-in shower may not align with the writer’s, but you can still use those room details to make a better choice.
  7. Flip through the photos. Photos can be faked, but for most people, it’s too much bother. Looking at photos can give you an idea how far the official business description veers away from reality. The classic case is references to “views.” Many properties will tout their “ocean view” or “mountain view,” but when you look at the photos posted by guests, you may notice that the “view” is a tiny sliver of distant horizon visible only when you stand in one corner of the balcony and lean way over the railing. This is the kind of truth-stretching that disappointed guests love to jump all over with photos revealing the actual picture.

Booking anything sight unseen is a risk, but it’s hard to avoid doing that when you travel. Reading reviews is just one way of reducing that risk. While reviews must be approached with a healthy degree of caution, ignoring the collective experience and knowledge of the online community would be foolish.

PS: Don’t forget to post your own reviews. It can be fun and certainly helps other people—some of my reviews on TripAdvisor have been read over a thousand times! It can even help the business in question if you provide a great review or point out a problem that they can fix. If you’ve used review sites yourself, it’s only fair to contribute to them.

Do you read or post reviews? Have you had a bad or good experience with an online review? Let me know in a comment.

Snorkeling Cruise on the Reggae Queen Part 2

Sunset from aboard the MV Reggae Queen.

Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the boat’s name, the Reggae Queen. Being the naïve person that I am, I merely thought, Oh, reggae music. How nice! The connection between reggae and smoking slipped my mind completely. I should not have been, but was, surprised to see that the guide was a chain-smoker and six of the 15 passengers smoked as well. The dining area was frequently filled with smoke. Thank goodness it was open air or it would have been intolerable.

They didn’t smoke during meals, but as soon as they finished eating, they would all light up, so we would flee. As a result, we missed some of the social chitchat and the guide’s information. The passengers quickly sorted into two unspoken camps: puffers and non-puffers. The puffers mainly stayed on the dining deck and the non-smokers hung out on the top (sun) deck. There was no animosity, we were all very friendly, but since the guide was in the other camp, we did miss out on some stuff.

What else to say about the tour leader? One online review read: “R who runs the trip is…a great character.”  A “character” is a good way to put it. You either enjoy his style and think he’s a barrel of laughs or you find him brusque and annoying. Let’s look at a couple of other online comments.

“The snorkeling tour…was very disappointed [sic]….We believe that in this island the only one that enjoy were Mr R and those who spent the time drinking with him. Instead of making the guests happy, he spent his time drinking and smoking a lot of reggae style.”

Another customer complained:

“The German owner smoked and drank beer the whole day long (even started before breakfast and smoked at the same time the guests were having breakfast).”

Our most generous interpretation of his behaviour was that he has probably been doing this tour too long and is simply burnt out. He didn’t seem to care much whether we had a good time or not and he certainly wasn’t going out of his way to ensure that we did.

When we all had to cram ourselves into a small zodiac, he literally screamed at people to move, even though we were already packed in like sardines and the boat was madly tossing about on the waves. As we climbed into the zodiac, instead of telling us the safest way to get down, he waited until after several people slipped and nearly injured themselves before yelling at us not to do it “that way.”

The Thai crew, on the other hand, were very solicitous and helped everyone on and off the boats as much as they could, and we passengers helped each other as necessary. R never once bothered to help anyone (as far as I saw).

Although there was a white board on the ship for him to leave notes on each day’s schedule, he didn’t bother doing this, so we never knew when to show up for lunch or dinner.

Brahminy kite off Koh Bon island.

This was all in contrast to a couple of other guides that we had in Thailand and Cambodia, who went out of their way to make sure we enjoyed ourselves and couldn’t have been more polite and helpful. We aren’t looking to have someone hold our hands, but we expect clear information, courtesy, and concern for safety.

Having some mobility issues (I have a total knee replacement with some limits on range of motion and my other knee is also not 100%), I inquired prior to booking about the ladder for climbing out of the water onto the boat after snorkeling. I have encountered many boat ladders that are impossible for me, as they are too short or angle away, requiring the skills of a rappelling rockclimber to scale. The person who answered my inquiry sent me photos and a description of the boat ladder which reassured me. In fact, I had no trouble with that ladder. However, she did not mention that half the time we would not be using that ladder, but would be climbing from the water into a small zodiac instead, one with a very different kind of ladder. In the end, I was able to manage—awkwardly and with help—but it would have been nice to know in advance.

Transferring between the boat and the zodiac was another challenge. Two vessels leaping and plunging in the waves on separate schedules x slippery decks on both sides + two shaky knees = disaster waiting to happen. Again, I have to thank the Thai crew for their steady hands always ready to aid. I got the definite feeling these young men viewed me with the respect they would give to their infirm and slightly dotty grannie.

Our final run to the harbor was fairly short, disembarkation was quick, and we were all loaded into various vehicles for transfer to our next destinations. I think we had the longest journey and we were at our hotel in time for dinner.

In summary, there were a lot of great things about this trip, but those who book should go into it with their eyes open. This not a mini cruise ship. You can expect hard beds, rough and ready conditions, and lots of smoke. Don’t expect clear information or much concern for your comfort. You must take things as they come, stay on top of what’s going on so you don’t miss out (i.e., don’t relax and expect to be taken care of), and adapt to the conditions on board, especially the moods of the guide. If you have any mobility challenges, be doubly cautious about booking.

Have you done any small-boat cruises? Share your experience in a comment.