Octobers in Africa


Looking for wildlife on a safari in South Africa in 2009

October is my favorite month, so it’s no surprise that I’ve been to Africa three Octobers in a row. 

In 2017, I was lucky enough to visit my favorite continent for a National Geographic magazine story on parrots. I wasn’t sure if I was going to see any in the wild—South Africa’s endemic parrot, the Cape parrot, is critically endangered—but I saw them several times, each experience equally thrilling.

Reporting abroad is always a bundle of emotions for me. There’s the excitement of being in another place, coupled with the anxiety of wondering if I’ll get the story I’m hoping for. As with every travel experience, there are always disappointments.

But that’s what makes travel so addictive—the unknown, coupled with the newness and the fact you’re forced to live in the moment and not dwell on future or past problems. You’re in the thick of it, right now, and you better take advantage or you’ll lose your opportunity.

On this particular trip I spent several days in Hogsback Village, a mountain town in southern South Africa that feels more like a funky Oregonian outpost than a place in Africa. J.R.R. Tolkien was rumored to have visited, and so the town is infused with a folksy, fairy-like spirit, including whimsical gardens and pubs, like the cozy Hog and Hornbill, where I had a nice dinner by a roaring fire.

Adding to the spiritual feeling of the place, if you walk down the dusty main street at dusk, you’re likely to hear a flock of noisy parrots above you, calling to each other as they make their way back to their evening roost.

The area is known for its many waterfalls and hikes—I didn’t get to do the more challenging walks, due to an episode of food poisoning (no need to elaborate on that!) but managed to see several, and, with it being a rainy period, they were at full blast. I enjoyed birdwatching and added a whole host of new species to my life list.

The October prior, I visited Botswana, where I reported on elephants fleeing poaching into Namibia, and the one before that was my amazing East African honeymoon

This October, I have no travel planned, and it makes me sad. Hopefully 2022 will bring some more adventures!


Goal Accomplished: All 50 States!

I’m a collector, but not how most people envision—I collect memories. It’s partly because research shows that as you get older, your experiences make you happier than the material goods you’ve acquired, but it’s also because I just love to travel.

My absolute favorite thing is waking up early in a new city with nothing ahead of me but a day of exploring. In February 2011, on my first day in Istanbul, I woke up to fresh snow coating the mosques, making them look like snowglobes, and felt jolts of happiness seeping into every corner of my body.

I suspect a lot of it has to with the fact we’re happiest in the present, not brooding over a difficult conversation at work or stressing over when we’ll finally refinish the bathroom. I know this intellectually, yet (at least for me) it’s not easy to stay in the moment, especially in the quotidian doldrums of work, laundry, etc.

All of this is to say that traveling forces me to be in the present, to really observe where I am and surrender my senses fully. If I’m, say, walking down the main street of a new town, taking in the storefronts, the people that pass by, the types of trees and plants, my restive mind is preoccupied, and calm.

It’s an addiction, really, a new-experience addiction.

And so I travel. Last September, I achieved one of my travel (well, happiness!) goals—visiting all 50 states. I wrote about my journey for the Washington Post, and I’ve gotten an amazing amount of tweets and emails from people who are either inspired by my article or have done similar feats.

After the rough, bruising year the country’s been through, I had wondered if readers would really be all that interested in something like touring the country. Divisions are deep.

But instead, I realized that many people, of all walks of life, welcomed the chance to think about a pasttime as simple and wholesome as going to another state and meeting new people. I think it was healing for them, in some small way.

And, convinced as I am about the power of travel to heal and make us happier, my advice is to always to plan another trip! Even if budgets are tight, watch for cheap fares on discount sites (I just got a $48 one way fare to Charleston, South Carolina, on Jet Blue), stay with a friend or family to cut down on hotel costs, and even bring food with you (if you’re traveling by car).

My next goal is to visit all 59 national park units, a much greater challenge than visiting all 50 states—it requires a longgggg haul to American Samoa in the Pacific and puddlejumper rides to remote parks in Alaska. (I’m at 22 parks so far; my next one will be Crater Lake National Park in Oregon.)

But I chose a difficult goal on purpose—it’ll keep me on the go for many decades to come.

My Own Private Beach

As a native Marylander, I’ve gone to Ocean City, on the Atlantic Ocean, every year of my life. It can be crowded and loud and sometimes just too much, but I still look forward to it each summer. You could say I’m an “everything bagel” sort of person: I like pretty much any kind of travel, with the exception of cruises on enormous ships. (I admit I have never taken one, but I have claustrophobia and don’t like the idea of spending most of my vacation on a floating United States.)

So the idea of visiting a secluded strand on the Chesapeake Bay piqued my interest.

In April my husband and I spent a weekend camping at Janes Island State Park, where the only way to get to their several miles of beach is to take a boat. That’s right—canoeing or kayaking on one of the park’s water trails is how you earn your beach time.

The day we went wasn’t exactly warm and sunny, but we still enjoyed beachcombing and soaking in some nature sans humans.

I wrote about my experience for the Washington Post. The paper didn’t include any of my photos, but here a few of my faves!



My African Honeymoon

I’m not a beach-bum honeymoon sort of person. So when I got married in September, my husband and I decided to go big: A three-week trip in East Africa, most of it camping in the wild. In doing so I fulfilled a promise I’d made to myself six years earlier: In 2009 I traveled through South Africa, Zambia, and Botswana, and loved it so much I’d vowed I would be back soon. Better late than never!

A view of the Serengeti from our truck.

A view of the Serengeti from our truck.

Our two-week camping tour started in Nairobi, Kenya, in October, and right off the bat we were immersed in animals. In Nairobi, we visited an orphanage for baby elephants (my hiking pants are still stained from their energetic mud wrestling!) and a giraffe-conservation center where we got to kiss the tall beasts. Basically that meant putting a little grass pellet in your mouth and waiting for one of the giraffes to swoop down and seize it with its muscular purple tongue. (See more pictures of my trip on Flickr.)

First destination on our national park extravaganza: Lake Nakuru National Park, which houses one of the famous lakes of the Rift Valley (northwest of Nairobi). It’s often home to flamingos (not when we visited, sadly!) and is also famous for black AND white rhinos, both of which we saw on our evening game drive. 

We had to put up our tents and take them down, often in the dark!

We had to put up our tents and take them down, often in the dark!

Next: Lake Navaisha, another Rift Valley lake. There were lots of hippos! Our campground was very close to the lake, and you couldn’t go to the shore in the evening because the hippos come out of the water to eat (and are dangerous).

We saw a ton of birdlife, including a fishing eagle (which looks a lot like a bald eagle), reed cormorants, grey herons, and white pelicans. 

I really enjoyed our visit to Hell’s Gate National Park, a small park south of Lake Navaisha with lots of wildlife and some really interesting and striking geological formations, including some towers. The park gets its name from a narrow sandstone gorge that you hike down into and walk along for several minutes. It reminded me of a miniature Petra! Also it wasn’t hellish at all.

We came across this male lion panting in the heat under a tree in the Serengeti.

We came across this male lion panting in the heat under a tree in the Serengeti.

One of my favorite parts of the trip was the day we spent with the Masai people in Loita Hills, an area near the Masai Mara National Reserve. The Masai are one of Kenya’s 42 tribes, each of which have a unique culture, identity, and language. The Masai are among the most traditional, though some of them are modernizing. The common language among all the tribes is Swahili.

Brian got to try his hand at manly tasks such as spear throwing and the warrior jump—done to impress ladies—and also was brave enough to try drinking fresh goat blood from a goat we’d donated to the community. (I stuck with the herbal tea made from boiling the goat’s stomach contents.)

Masai men jumping as high as they can, an ancient tradition meant to attract the ladies.

Masai men jumping as high as they can, an ancient tradition meant to attract the ladies.

Then it was on to Masai Mara National Reserve, the iconic park in southern Kenya. Its name comes from Masai, for the people, and Mara, which is the Masai word for dotted, since the clouds make dramatic shadows on the landscape. We saw so many animals, from the secretary bird to lions to jackals to elephants to zebras to hippos to hyenas to even the endangered cheetah! It was baby season, with many moms taking care of wobbly youngsters. My favorite was a teensy little warthog, probably only two pounds if that, which emulated its mom by kneeling on the grass on its front legs.

Undoubtedly the star attraction was Serengeti National Park, 5,700 square miles of wilderness. We saw some serious action here—a mother leopard dragging her fresh kill into the tree, cub at her heels, and four brother cheetahs killing a Thomson’s gazelle right in front of us.

We came across two giant bull hippos bellowing at each other in this primordial way that sounded like dinosaurs.  At our campsite, in the middle of the park, a leopard visited one night to drink some of our water.

This foursome had just hunted a gazelle in the Serengeti. Their mouths are bloody!

This band of brothers had just hunted a gazelle in the Serengeti. Their mouths are bloody!

Not far from Serengeti, we drove in our trusty truck to Ngorongoro Crater, the longest uninterrupted caldera—a type of crater—in the world (100 square miles). It was formed when a volcano erupted millions of years ago.

The perfect habitat for many animals, the caldera has a dense concentration of predators. We witnessed a sad (for us) experience of a hyena pack slowly eating a buffalo calf alive. We also saw some gorgeous birds, including kori bustards, grey crowned cranes, a pair of ostrich, and Egyptian geese.

We saw these beauties in the Ngorongoro Crater.

We saw these beautiful grey crowned cranes in the Ngorongoro Crater.

Our final stop was four days in Zanzibar for some R&R—and yes, some beach time. I have to say I was happy to sleep in a bed again after two weeks of waking up around 5 a.m. to take down a tent.

We toured a spice farm, went snorkeling in the Indian Ocean, and roamed the historic streets of Stone Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Zanzibar is famous for its dhows, a traditional fishing boat.

Zanzibar is famous for its dhows, a traditional fishing boat.

We’re already talking about going back to the continent someday to see the mountain gorillas of Rwanda, the ancient churches of Ethiopia, or the gorgeous coast of Cape Town. Maybe for our tenth anniversary!

A Bully Good Time in North Dakota

Some travelers avoid bucket lists, but I love a good challenge! So it’s no surprise I’m trying to make it to all 50 states, and this summer I visited my 48th: North Dakota.

Being nature people, my husband Brian and I decided to base ourselves in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, a place we’d heard offers amazing wildlife experiences. Plus, it’s off the beaten path—always a plus.

An overlook in the national park, which houses some of Roosevelt's former ranchland. The president said the badlands have a "grim beauty."

An overlook in the national park, which houses some of Roosevelt’s former ranchland. The president said the badlands have a “grim beauty.”

We hiked and drove through the gorgeous badlands of the 70,000+-acre park, and the wildlife did not disappoint—we saw pronghorn, elk, a prairie rattlesnake, prairie dogs, feral horses, mule deer, turkeys, and of course plenty of the star attraction, bison. (One old male even decided to hang out near a visitor center, causing quite the stir!) The only wildlife species I wasn’t so crazy about was the deer fly, which left some seriously itchy sores on my legs. (I’m a bug magnet of epic proportions.)

We took a ride on this authentic stagecoach—it was pretty bumpy.

We took a ride on this authentic stagecoach—it was pretty bumpy.

Overall though, we relished being out of doors for four days straight, a sensation that unfortunately is all too rare in our lives. We also learned a ton about the incredible history of the area, much of which is rooted in Theodore Roosevelt and his affinity for the remote landscape.

The town of Medora, near the national park, is famous for its country-western variety show called the Medora Musical. This was its 50th year.

The town of Medora, near the national park, is famous for its country-western variety show called the Medora Musical. This was its 50th year.

We met some beautiful domestic horses while we were staying at a cabin in the Little Missouri National Grasslands.

We met some beautiful domestic horses while we were staying at a cabin in the Little Missouri National Grasslands.

I was lucky to write about our North Dakota adventures for the Washington Post—the story published this weekend in the Travel section.

In case you’re wondering, states 49 and 50 are Iowa and Hawaii—I hope to visit both in 2016! I’ll keep you posted.


Beware the iPhoto/Flickr Bug

If you sync your iPhoto with Flickr, you should read this.

I recently found out the hard way that this sync has a known defect—if you delete even a single photo from your Apple iPhoto that’s included in a Flickr photo album, it will wipe out the entire Flickr album (or most of it).

This happened to me when I was trying to be a responsible data owner and move my 15,000+ photos onto a backup disk. Suddenly, my Flickr albums disappeared before my eyes.

I had backed up my pictures, thank goodness, but at first I thought I’d also lost all my captions. Traveling is my main hobby, and I’m somewhat obsessive about knowing where I’ve been (down to the name of the temple in that tiny village in Thailand, for example). So the idea that all those details, not to mention hours of writing the captions, had been destroyed was horrifying.

I went through several weeks of despair and unproductive Apple Store visits until I discovered on my own that most of the captions are actually saved in iPhoto—either in the Flickr folder or in the Info that’s embedded in each iPhoto photograph.

Then began a lengthy process of rebuilding my 30+ albums: Moving all the photos from iPhoto to my desktop, re-uploading them to Flickr, and copying and pasting all the captions back in.

Though it took a lot of work to get my albums back and running, I did enjoy immersing myself back in my past adventures, from herding cattle in rural Nebraska to ziplining in New Zealand. I’m pasting a few of the memories I relived here.

Wetland near Houston, 2012

Wetland near Houston, Texas, 2012

Deadwood, South Dakota, 2011

Deadwood, South Dakota, 2011

Tubing the Shenandoah River, 2013

Tubing the Shenandoah River, West Virginia, 2013

Sunset in Seoul, Korea, 2012

Sunset in Seoul, Korea, 2012

Biking Isla Holbox, Mexico, 2011

Biking Isla Holbox, Mexico, 2011

Climate change artwork in Copenhagen, 2009

Climate change artwork in Copenhagen, 2009

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul, 2012

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, 2012

Oh, and I have unsynced my Flickr and iPhoto, including on my iPhone. From now on, I’ll still upload my photos to iPhoto, but when I want to do a Flickr album, I’ll move copies of the pictures to the harddrive and save them there too.

I’ll probably also save a Word document with my captions as a backup. If anyone else has advice on this front, let me know!

Now, on to planning my next adventure… 🙂

Alaska: Bears, Berries, and Mountain Beauty

After I visited Alaska as part of a journalism fellowship in 2008, I admit I hadn’t given the state much more thought. Not to say I didn’t have an incredible time during my two weeks at a scientific research station in the remote Arctic, a place most people never see. I hiked the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, saw muskoxen in the wild, and swam in the Arctic Ocean.


But I’m one of those “once and done” people—there’s so many places to see in the world, I’m hyper-focused on getting to as many as I possibly can. So I rarely repeat, with the exception of Paris (I have family there, and well, it’s Paris) and sentimental spots like Ocean City, Maryland.

But I was extremely lucky to get another chance to explore Alaska when my clever boyfriend won an organized trip there. And not just any organized trip–a pricey seven-day journey that we would never be able to afford.

And man am I glad I rediscovered Alaska. Like last time, I flew into Fairbanks, but then traveled south instead of north, going through Denali National Park, Talkeetna, Girdwood, Prince William Sound, and then Anchorage. At each place, the scenery is truly knock-your-socks-off, and it’s relatively easy to see wildlife, whether you’re in the backcountry or just biking along downtown Anchorage.

Alaska Wildflowers

My picture album has a lot more details of what I saw, so I won’t repeat it here, but suffice it to say I’m definitely making an exception to my repeat rule with Alaska and going back a third time—after all, I haven’t seen the Inside Passage and the cool towns of Seward and Homer. Who knows when that will be, but it’s officially on my bucket list!

I usually close out my blog posts with a hint of my next trip, but I don’t have anything major planned at the moment. I am going to Minnesota next month, which will mean I have only three states left to visit: North Dakota, Iowa, and Hawaii. I’d love to visit the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota—we’ll see if I can make that trip happen sometime in 2015!

Exploring Copenhagen and Brussels

In June I went to Copenhagen to cover the 2014 Euroscience Open Forum, where many of Europe’s foremost scientists get together to share their discoveries. I’d been to the Danish capital once before, in December 2009, to cover a major UN climate conference. The memories that stand out from that trip are navigating a giant and confusing convention center, trudging up seven floors to my rented room in improper footwear, twilight at 3:30 p.m., and lots of cold and snow.

So I have to say I liked Copenhagen better in summer, when it stays light until past 11. I stayed in a residential neighborhood just a short bus ride from downtown, and this time my conference was in the former grounds of the Carlsberg Brewery, which is a tourist attraction in its own right.  Carlsberg doesn’t brew that beer on site anymore, but they do have a microbrewery, which I visited one night (and tried their product, Jacobsen). I got some great NatGeo stories from the conference, including new findings on the mysterious bog mummies of Northern Europe, and had a little bit of free time to explore.

copenhagen bike tourFor instance I took a bike tour through the city, which stopped at some of the highlights like Nyhavn (a 17th-century port where the fairytale writer Hans Christian Anderson lived), the famous Little Mermaid statue, and the Christiansborg Palace, the “White House” of Denmark (see above).

The food didn’t disappoint, either—I had some fabulous fish, and the pastries… Let’s just say I would never eat breakfast at home if I lived in Denmark! Every coffee shop has this incredible array of baked goods, not the anemic and slightly stale offerings you get at our coffee chains. copenhagen coffee After my conference ended I flew to Brussels for the weekend, which I’d never visited during all my adventures in Western Europe. I happened to be there during one of the World Cup games, which had turned downtown into a fracas full of young people with the Belgian flag painted on their cheeks. Probably my favorite activity was wandering in all of the chocolate shops.

Belgium chocolate shop

Even if I was stuffed to the gills I couldn’t resist just wandering through the shops, breathing in the sweetness and admiring the wares. I bought more chocolate than was probably necessary (I found myself justifying the need for more every few hours), but it was worth it. I took another bike tour in Brussels, which took me out of downtown and to some of the other parts of the city, including the very business-like neighborhood where the EU does its business, and a famous place that sells French fries, or frites (verdict, a little too thick for me).

I also loved the Magritte Museum. I didn’t know much about the surrealist painter before I visited, but I was fascinated by his history—his mom drowned herself when he was young—and how that influenced how he looked at the world. Some of his paintings were so absurdist but welcoming at the same time, like you wouldn’t mind stepping into that odd world and leaving the current one, if only for a little while. I suppose that’s why he made his paintings—to escape the reality of the world where he had lost his mother. (See my complete album on Flickr here.)

Brussels at night

Now that I’ve been to Belgium, I’d like to visit more of Eastern Europe—Croatia, maybe—and Norway and Finland. There is always a trip to plan! In a few weeks I’m heading to Alaska to go on a National Geographic tour. Very much looking forward to that! I’ve been to Alaska before, for a journalism fellowship, but I went north of Fairbanks, to the Arctic. This time I’ll be flying into Fairbanks and then going south, to explore Denali, Anchorage, and Prince William Sound. I’m sure I’ll have many a story after that trip!

‘Til next time!

Texas and New Mexico, From High to Low

The response I usually get when I tell people I’m going to hike in Texas is, “There are mountains in Texas?” Yes, and they’re quite the lookers—imagine the deserts of Utah mashed with the Rocky Mountains and you get the idea.


McKittrick Canyon, Guadalupe National Park


In May I spent a week camping in far western Texas, mostly in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, one of the lesser known national parks and the only one in Texas other than Big Bend NP (which I visited in 2012). Guadalupe is nice and remote—nearest town, 30 miles or so—with lots of hiking and no easy way to just “drive through.” So if you go, you gotta be committed to walking. And walk we did—all the way to the top of Texas, in fact, 3,000 feet of elevation gain to 8,751 feet. The trek was long—nine hours—but beautiful, with lots of Indian paintbrush and pretty mountain views to keep us going.

We also went underground to Carlsbad Caverns NP in nearby New Mexico, which has an incredible network of caves, including the biggest cave room in the world. Walking through the Hall of Giants pretty much dwarfed any other cave I’ve ever been in. I admit though, after a few hours down there you’re itching to be back in the desert sun.


We also saw some good critters (my definition of a successful trip) including a western diamondback rattlesnake, horned lizards (mating, no less!), a Texas giant centipede, lots of beetles, ground squirrels, and Maggie the famous painting bear (the latter at a zoo in New Mexico). 🙂

Another highlight was exploring the rock art of Hueco Tanks State Park & Historic Site, where native peoples have left their artistic mark over the millennia. Here I’m in the middle of rock scrambling in search of ancient masks!


Hueco Tanks State Park & Historic Site

I’m heading for the other end of the travel spectrum this week when I go to Copenhagen for the Euroscience Open Forum; I’ll write again when I get back.

Here are some more photos from my Texas and New Mexico trip:

Queen's Chamber


2014 Winter Adventures

I’ve heard a lot of complaining about the interminable winter, but I’ve actually loved it—no oppressive heat, no mosquitoes constantly attacking my legs, and plenty of opportunities for outdoor adventures.

This year I hit two new ski spots, Bretton Woods in New Hampshire and Canaan Valley in West Virginia. Bretton Woods was awesome; I especially liked the preponderance of blues, including in their glades (seems most glades I’ve encountered are blacks and extremely challenging). I got to practice moguling a bit and dealing with rough terrain, as well as speeding down fresh corduroy. 🙂 Canaan Valley was more challenging, but I could hardly complain because the snow was incredible—fresh and powdery and mostly not too deep, like floating on a cloud.

We also went snowshoeing (Bretton Woods) and cross-country skiing (near Canaan Valley)—I’d forgotten how challenging cross-country can be when navigating down hills, since the skis don’t have edges. There were a few falls but otherwise we left sore and happy.

Here are some pictures from winter 2014.

cabin picture

A cabin in Blackwater Falls State Park. Photo by Christine Dell’Amore


Now, on to spring!