Journey to the Edge of Africa – From Windhoek to the Namib Desert

Journey to the Edge of Africa – From Windhoek to the Namib Desert

Namibia had been on my radar screen for over a decade. On successive journeys across Africa, the name popped up now and then, usually around the fire at some remote camp. That is when strangers brought together for a day or two by the chance of converging itineraries exchange their most memorable travel experiences. The recurrent tales of parched deserts, mountain-high dunes and eerily fogbound coastlines insidiously worked their way into my mind. Namibia began calling my name in an insistent crescendo.

Namibia - Great Escarpment.

Going over the Great Escarpment feels like an encounter with the edge of the planet.

But there was a major catch. These rugged Namibia cheerleaders spoke of self-drive adventures and sleeping under the stars. My own idea of wilderness travel doesn’t include venturing into one of the most unforgiving deserts on the planet at the wheel of a rented four-wheel drive and pitching my own tent at the end of the day. It looked like Namibia might forever remain the top destination on my Africa wish list.

 

Wild About Africa

Then, while researching for a recent article on the economics of solo travel, I came across Wild about Africa, an offshoot of U.K. based Expert Africa, a trusted specialist in high-quality custom-made safaris, and a pioneer in Namibia travel since 1991.

Namibia-Kulala Adventurer_1.

The Kuala Adventurer Camp offers a unique experience of the Namib Desert.

This younger sibling (created in 2003) offers small-group (maximum 7 participants) road trips in custom-designed, guide-driven land cruisers. Accommodations are ideally suited to my idea of “roughing it”: fully staffed tented wilderness camps exclusive to the group, with the occasional hotel or guesthouse stay thrown in where required by the itinerary. Their “Namibia Wilderness Safari” includes everything on my wish list, plus a couple of destinations I haven’t even thought about. The virtually all-inclusive in-country pricing is reasonable and the solo traveler’s upgrade nominal (86 British pounds or 110 U.S. dollars at the time of my visit). I want in!

Namibia-Windhoek Schweringburg,

The capital of Namibia, Windhoek, retains incongruous of its German colonial past.

I promptly dispatch a query, and things keep getting better from here on. The response is near instantaneous, and in spite of the onset of the year-end holidays (admittedly the most awkward time of year to start planning a complex trip), all my questions are thoroughly addressed, often in real time. The amazing Sabina Hekandjo, clearly a Namibia expert in her own right, becomes my new best friend. Within a few weeks, an exhaustive personalized booklet recapping every point of information I could ever need to ensure a safe and enjoyable adventure lands in my mailbox. A detailed map of the country and a copy of the award-winning Bradt Guide to Namibia are thoughtfully included. Let the countdown begin!

Where It All Falls Into Place

It’s late afternoon when I land in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, dazed after 24 hours of non-stop travel from Europe via Johannesburg. A greeter from Wild about Africa’s local partner, Wilderness Safaris, takes over. Once delivered to my comfortable guest house in a quiet suburb of Windhoek, I manage to stay awake just long enough to meet my guide, Jimmy Limbo, who drops by to introduce himself and recap the main points of my journey of the next twelve days. I meet my traveling companions the next morning, two friendly couples from Australia and the U.K. respectively.

Namibia-Wilderness Truck.

Our custom-design Wilderness Safari vehicle is masterfully handled by guiding expert Jimmy Longo.

We pile into a custom-designed, extended-cab land cruiser with a pop-up roof, three stepped rows of seats and six slide-down windows, so each passenger gets unrestricted views and photo opportunities. In addition to the 12-volt cigarette lighter charger, the dashboard includes two USB ports to recharge cameras on the go. The rear of the vehicle features a locked luggage compartment and a refrigerator stocked with drinking water and picnic lunches. With its oversized tires and high off the ground chassis, this is one impressive all-terrain truck!

A Tropical Bavaria

For the moment, however, it is smoothly gliding over the asphalt of downtown Windhoek, and I get my first real look at this most unlikely African city. No colorful chaos here, cacophonic crowds or free-for-all traffic that define most African capitals.

Windhoek- Christ Church

A Windhoek landmark, the Lutheran Christ Church is a remainder of Namibia’s colonial past.

Namibia’s largest city (population of 368,000, close to 15 percent of the country’s total of 2,500,000) is a well-groomed, modern provincial town shaped by its colonial past when the country was known as German Southwest Africa. Along the neat avenues lined with palm trees, the orderly traffic flows at the regulated speed of synchronized traffic lights. I take in the skyline where new steel and glass commercial and public buildings incongruously mingle with crenellated medieval towers. Jimmy points out the neo-Romanesque Lutheran Christuskirche (Christ Church), topped with a sturdy pseudo-Gothic 24-meter (79-foot) spire, circa 1910. Spread across a verdant plateau of the central highlands, some 1,650 meters (5,400 feet) above sea level, and framed by the brush-covered Auas mountain range, Windhoek brings to mind a misplaced tropical Bavaria. I am hitching to get on with “the real Namibia.”

Off The Grid Into The Desert

Khomas Highlands-Rock Formations

Sculptural rock formations rise from roadsite brush.

I don’t have long to wait. Within the next 20 minutes, the asphalt abruptly gives way to to a dirt road that meanders through the soaring amber-colored schist ridges of the Khomas Highlands. In this landscape eighty million years in the making, the rock formations are eye-popping. Occasional ancient rockslides rise out of the brush like gigantic modern sculptures. I start snapping away non-stop.

 

 

Khomas Highlands-Meerkat.

A meerkat stands guard by the roadside.

We are heading southwest toward the Namib Desert, another five-hour drive on washboard gravel roads, so Jimmy tries to keep photo stops to a minimum. Nonetheless, a moment later he pulls to the side and points into the brush: “meerkat,” he announces. Two of them actually, their slender body erect on a rock, in their familiar standing-guard position. Scenery is definitely the main event in Namibia, but we get interesting wildlife sightings as well, birds mainly, such as a colony of social weavers busily adding an extension to their already tree-sized common nest, and bright russet-colored chestnut weavers for whom nest-building is all about hanging out (quite literally, upside down).

Namibia-Kulala rain.

The Kulala Wilderness Reserve after the rain.

After a quick roadside picnic lunch under a shady camelthorn tree, we continue on over the Great Escarpment, and down in the gravel foothills of the Nautkluft Mountains. Then the unexpected happens. Clouds start building overhead, and ahead of us a wide telltale opaque gray vertical stripe reaches down to the mountaintops. Rain! My heart sinks. I’ve been waiting for decades to experience to one of the most parched deserts on the planet. It cannot rain on the day I get there! Jimmy, on the other hand sounds excited as the clouds keep building and huge drops start splattering our windshield. He says something about the start of the rainy season. What rainy season? Isn’t this place supposed to get barely 100 millimeters of rain in a good year? I keep my peevish thoughts to myself.

Namib-Kulala light.

The landscape changes color with the light.

By now, we are steadily moving through a middle-of-nowhere landscape of lake-size puddles that the parched earth has yet to absorb, featureless save for the black shadow of a mountain range. But shortly after the downpour subsides, the topography returns. We are now in a broad valley, and the mountains on both sides go from black to purple to a warm golden brown as the sky clears up. A right angle turn reveals a half-dozen tents tucked along the base of the mountain. We are in the heart of the 18,5 hectare (46,000 acre) private Kulala Wilderness Reserve, at the edge of the Namib-Naukluft National Park. And this is the remote Kulala Adventurer Camp, our home for the next two nights, with its friendly staff of two.

Desert Advendure At Its Breathtaking Best

Namibia-Kulala Vista.

The setting sun turns the mountains into burnished gold.

My tent is a cozy three-meter by three-meter dome, raised on a large, canvas-covered wooden platform, with two comfortable cots clad in crisp white cotton bedding. At its rear, the full bathroom with a solar-heated shower and flush toilet is conveniently supplied with a stack of thick cotton bath towels and a full range of biodegradable toiletries. At night, lighting is provided by solar-powered LED fixtures. But the best feature of my desert abode is the front veranda, where I can take in the pyrotechnics of the African sunset on the valley, and the mountains and dunes beyond. The sun has returned just in time to bathe the landscape in burnished gold. Then the sky begins to blaze in every shades of crimson to purple before suddenly fading to black.

At dinner, a wholesome, freshly prepared three-course menu, Jimmy announces the morning schedule: wake-up call at five (!), breakfast at five-thirty, departure by six, which, he explains, will get us in the Sossuslvei dunes area of the Namib-Naukluft National Park just in time to watch the sun rise over the most famous sand dunes on the planet.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – For overseas visitors, Hosea Kutako International Airport, located a 45-minute drive east of Windhoek is the main entry point in the country. Visitors from most Western and Asian countries may enter Namibia visa-free for up to 90 days.
  • Wild about Africa is an established destination specialist focusing on moderately-priced quality small-group safaris in southern and eastern Africa. They are a fully-bonded member of the Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO). Wild about Africa, 10 & 11 Upper Square, Old Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 7BJ, U.K. Contact: e-mail enquiries @ wildaboutafrica.com, tel. +1-800-242-2434 (U.S.), +44 (0)20 8758 4717 (U.K.).
  • Wilderness Safaris is a major ecotourism tour operator in eight countries in eastern and southern Africa. They offer private access to over 2.5 million hectares (six million acres) of Africa’s finest wildlife.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Kulala Wilderness Reserve

Windhoek, Namibia

The Odyssey Revisited – From Meteora Back to Athens

The Odyssey Revisited – From Meteora Back to Athens

Today we visit Meteora (Greek for suspended in the air), one of the largest Orthodox monastic complexes in Greece, built from the fourteenth to sixteenth century on gigantic sandstone pillars towering over the northwestern corner of the Thessaly Plain. Of the original 24 monasteries, only six remain and are still home to small religious communities.

Monasteries in the Clouds

Meteorga Monastry Complex

The monasteries of Meteora overlooks the Plain of Thessaly

It is one of the most visited historic sites in Greece and we happen to be here during a long holiday weekend. Anticipating crowds, our Tripology Adventures leader Yoav Barashi, has called for an early start and arranged a mid-morning privately-guided tour for us at Great Meteoron (a.k.a. Monastery of the Transfiguration of Christ).

 

 

Grand Meteron

Steps hugging the chasm lead to the entrance of the monastery.

Perched on Platys Lithos (or Broad Rock) over 400 meters (1,300 feet) above the plain, Great Meteoron is the highest as well as the oldest and largest of the monasteries. It is slow going on the recently built road up to the nearby plateau. From the small parking area, the monastery is reached by a footbridge that straddles the chasm and leads us to the base of the 300 steps cut into the rock face.

 

Just a Basket on a Rope

Grand Meteoron pulley tower.

At Grand Meteoron the pulley system is still used to lift up supplies.

I recall a friend who had spent a summer roaming around mainland Greece in the mid-1970’s telling me how she had happened onto “a forest of colossal stone pillars topped with medieval monasteries” at the edge of the Thessaly Plain. It was a well kept secret then, with no visible mean of access other than an oversize basket pulled up and down by a basic rope and pulley system to transport the monks when they went down to the village for supplies.

After several days’ wait she was able to make contact with one of them and get a lift up for a visit. That was before James Bond gave Meteora its moment in the limelight by tracking villains to the Holy Trinity monastery for the suspense ending of its 1981 caper “For your eyes only,” and UNESCO anointed the complex a World Heritage Site in 1988.

 

 

Grand Meteoron Wine Cellar

Meteoron Wine Cellar

Much has changed since then. A licensed English speaking local guide leads us on a comprehensive tour of Grand Meteoron. With only three monks remaining in residence, the original kitchen, pantry, wine cellar and the artifacts of everyday life they still hold have become museum exhibits.

The original refectory with its elegantly vaulted ceiling now holds the monastery’s rich collection of ancient manuscripts and icons. The ossuary can also be viewed, with its grizzly display of skulls of the earliest residents neatly lined against the back wall. For me the gem of the visit is the katholikon (orthodox equivalent to a conventual church in Western Christianity).

A Repository of Hellenic Culture

Grand Meteoron Katholitikono Dome

The Katholiticon is topped with an elaborate twelve-sided dome.

Due to its isolated location, Meteora became an academic and artistic safe heaven during the four centuries of Ottoman occupation of Greece. Hellenic culture and traditions were kept alive here, especially at Great Meteoron. The monastery attracted among its early disciples Saint Iosaph, a Serbian king who became a monk here in 1373 and endowed his fortune to the monastery. The Church of the Transfiguration built in 1388 and the nave and narthex added in 1545 are in the Greek square cross floor plan and topped with a striking twelve sided dome. They are a fine example of orthodox architecture and a perfect backdrop for the icons adorning the sanctuary.

Ancient frescoes still decorate the passage way to the cloister.

Ancient frescoes still decorate the passage way to the cloister.

Painted in the late fifteenth century, the frescoes of the katholikon are in the Macedonian style, depicting the Virgin Enthroned and scenes from the life of Christ. I especially note images of Christ Pantocrator that remind me of the early Christian mosaics in Istanbul’s Agia Sophia. The nave and narthex frescoes, painted in 1552 are in the more rigid style of the Cretan school and recount the early gospels as well the gruesome martyrdom of early saints. They also include portraits of the monastery’s founders Athanasios and Ioajph. It is a rare pleasure to come across ancient frescoes that have been so well protected by their isolated environment that they are still in their original state and in remarkable condition.

Zebekiko Send-off

Athens - Acropolis at Night/

The Acropolis aglow against the night sky.

We head back to Athens to next morning. The smooth, multi-lane highway with its slick roadside rest stops and souvenir shops is a bit of a culture shock. After a detour for a long seaside lunch of freshly fished seafood at a small resort on the Gulf of Corinth we get back into our vehicles for the last leg back to the Hotel Alexandros. The mood is subdued. I trust I am not the only one to feel a pang of regret to have arrived at the end my Greek Odyssey.

 

Athens - Psiri Neightborhood Tavern

Psiri Tavern

But I am premature in my assumption. Izhar Gamlieli, the Tripology Adventures co-founder who has been in the background all week orchestrating our off-road expedition, has one more treat in store for us. As the starry night falls on Athens we follow our Tripology hosts through the trendy streets of the once gritty Psiri neighborhood to one of its oldest taverns for an epic farewell dinner of the best local specialties, live Rebetika music and laughter.

 

Athens - Zebekiko Dance

Nikos’ farewell Zebekiko

As the evening wears on, Nikos Manolis, our wonderful lead driver (and a national figure in the Greek rally racing community) who has led us though this unforgettable off-road adventure, finally breaks into the Zebekiko dance we have been begging him to do for us for the past week. Move over Zorba! Before long a couple of other patrons come to watch, respectfully waiting for Nikos to acknowledge them with the traditional tap on the foot before taking part in the dance. And then we, a group of reserved strangers a mere eight days ago and now a band of friends, all join in. And the Zebekiko (which traditionally is danced by men only) turns into a would-be Sirtaki kicking line with much joking and laughter.

After this unique opportunity to encounter the Greece of the Greek people, I have fallen in love with the country and can’t wait for a return visit. As for off-road touring? This experience was so intoxicating that I feel the Tripology Adventures logo should include a warning label. I am already poring through their itineraries for my next destination.

Good to Know

Tripology Adventures is an Israel-based road travel company that has been leading 4WD self-drive caravans across remote, culturally rich regions of Europe, Africa and Asia for over two decades. Tripology Adventures, www.tripologyadventures.com, email:info@tripologyadventures.com, or call 888-975-7080.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Grand Meteoron, Greece

Athens

The Odyssey Revisited – Karpenisi to Kalambaka

The Odyssey Revisited – Karpenisi to Kalambaka

Hard to imagine but the landscape keeps getting more dramatic as we zigzag up and down the dirt roads of the Agrafa, deep in the Evrytania region toward Lake Kremaston, the largest artificial lake in Greece. And I find it easier to enjoy the view now that my car mate Mary Bailey has asked about the tiny roadside shrines standing at the very edge of the most precipitous drops. They are getting more frequent as we go deeper into the wilderness. Since Mary is by now doing all of the driving, I understand her concern. They are kandilakia, and yes, they sometime commemorate fatal accidents, but they are just as likely to give thanks for catastrophes avoided, Yoav Barashi, the leader of our Tripology Adventures caravan, assures us. Or they can simply mark a spot for an instant of private devotion as people go about their daily business.

Of Olympian Gods and Judas Trees

Greece - Pindus. Lake Kremaston

Lake Kremaston and Episkopi Bridge.

Under a robin’s egg blue sky, the scenery is a riot of colors. When first revealed from high on a ridge, Lake Kremaston is a palette of greens from pale jade to emerald, turning to teal whenever the sun hides behind a cluster of puffy white clouds. The Judas trees are in full bloom, splashing the mountainside with random hot pink patches. This is a photographer’s paradise and every few minutes someone gets on the radio to announce an impromptu photo stop, until Yoav ends the chaos by telling us the best vantage point is just ahead. Once we are back in our cars, he finds a sure way to keep our unruly lot going. He entertains us with a story. Yoah is an Olympic-class storyteller. Whenever driving conditions allow, he takes to the radio and weaves mythological tales for us (with voices) with such an irreverent humor he has us all asking for more. Who knew that Greek mythology was all about testosterone-laden Zeus, all these demi-gods birthed from his various body parts and his wife Hera’s dim view of his shenanigans!

Greece - Pindus. Trikerotis River.

We stop of a break on the sandy shore of the Trikeriotis River.

By now we have crossed the Episkopi Bridge to the far size of the lake. We follow the tree-shaded shore of the Trikeriotis River where we reach a sandy beach and find Izhar Gamlieli, co-founder of Tripology Adventures, putting finishing touches to our morning break. The river looks like liquid rock crystal as it rushes toward the lake.

Greece - Pindus. Agrafa village.

We reach of small village high in the Agrafa.

It’s a long, steep climb out of this idyllic place. At times the road seems little more than a ledge not much wider than our cars and with lots of sharp turns. I wonder idly what would happen if we were to come face to face with an incoming car? Mercifully, I don’t have to find out. All we see are goats that bounce up the mountain at the sight of us. Eventually the road widens and flattens a bit and we come to a village. Yaov tells us to walk down to the platia while Nikos, our lead driver, takes the cars down. I pause to snap a few shots of the valley below, and almost get knocked of my feet by jet engine thunder. The culprits are already vanishing behind the next ridge before I grasp what just happened. Here I am in a remote village that has been clinging to its mountainside since the days of the Ottoman invasion, and I am getting buzzed by the Greek air force!

Into Monastery Country

The footpath down is so precipitous it could have been traced by the goats. Although well kept, the village looks deserted. I don’t see a soul until I reach the platia and find Izhar once again on catering duty setting up a buffet lunch.

Greece - Pindus. Proussos Monastery,

The Proussos Monastery is home to a sacred icon said to have healing powers.

Back on the road, and there actually is a proper road here, albeit narrow and hewed into the rock high above the Karpenisiotis River, we head to the Panaghia Prousiotissa (or Proussos Monastery). According to tradition this monastery partially overhanging the edge of a chasm traces its roots back to the discovery by local shepherds of a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary. Originally from Proussa (in Asia Minor) the icon is said to have found its way to a shallow cave here during the reign of the iconoclast Byzantine Emperor Theophilus (829-842 AD). Believed to have healing powers, it has remained to this day in its shelter within the monastery that was built around it starting in the twelfth century. It is a place of pilgrimage for faithful from all over Greece. In addition to the icon, the chapel that surrounds the cave also includes thirteenth and sixteenth century frescoes. With Karpenisi only 30 kilometers (18.5 miles) away, we are back at the Hotel Spa Montana in plenty of time for me to enjoy a water massage in the spa’s elegant glassed-in pool before dinner. Tonight we discover another of Izhar and Yoav’s favorite restaurants in a nearby village. That’s one of the pleasures of traveling with them; they know all the best places and have friends everywhere. This gets us invited to visit the kitchen and witness the unveiling of a delicious lamb and potato stew that has been simmering for hours cocooned in charcoals in an ancient oven.

One More Mountain Pass, or Two

Greece - Pindus, Niala Peak

From Niala Peak’s Kamaria Pass the view reaches the vast expanse of Lake Plastiras and the plain of Thessaly.

Although I have been happily loosing track of time recently, it’s clear than we are now bound for the end point of our expedition, the medieval monastery complex and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Meteora. But before we reach it, there is still an exciting day ahead. We start with a morning climb from the Karpenisiotis Valley to a mountaintop café for our morning break, followed by a steep drive down into a gorge of the Agrafiotis River where we enjoy a waterside lunch of freshly grilled trout at a local trout farm before the climb to the Niala Peak’s Kamaria Pass. At an altitude of 1,657 meters (5,436 feet) the pass is one of the highest in Greece and well above the tree line. Then it’s down again to the northwestern edge of the plain of Thessaly and our first jaw-dropping sight of the famed monasteries of Meteora atop their colossal sandstone pinnacles.

Greece - Pindus. Kalambaka Dusk.

In Kalambaka, our al fresco dinner comes with a glorious view the night falling over the Pindus Mountains

We settle at the four-star Famissi Eden Hotel in Kalambaka where my room has a large balcony with a straight up view of the monasteries. It is the start of the long May-Day Weekend in Greece and when we go for dinner at a lovely Main Street restaurant terrace, the town is lively with tourists, the first we have seen all week. An omen of what awaits us tomorrow when we visit the Meteora complex… to be continued.

Good to Know

Tripology Adventures is an Israel-based road travel company that has been leading 4WD self-drive caravan across remote, culturally rich areas of Europe, Africa and Asia for over two decades. Tripology Adventures, www.tripologyadventures.com, email:info@tripologyadventures.com, or call 888-975-7080.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Monastery of Proussos, Evrytania.

Karpenisi

Kalambaka

The Odyssey Revisited – Delphi to Karpenisi

The Odyssey Revisited – Delphi to Karpenisi

It’s Day Two of my Tripology off-road adventure through the mountains of Central Greece. We congregate in the parking lot of the Amelia Hotel in Delphi to carry on our departure routine. Yoav Barashi, the leader of our Tripology Adventures caravan, reviews the day’s itinerary, we eagerly pile our luggage and ourselves with into our designated cars (mine is # 3 and Tim Campbell is at the wheel today) and proceed with an all around radio check. The morning sun is dissipating the last of the early mist as we meander down a country road toward the sea. I marvel at the serenity of the bucolic setting, until Nikos Manolis, our lead driver (and a noted figure in the Greek rally racing community) leads us onto a narrow gravel road.

From Breathtaking to Hair-raising

Greece - Pindus - Lake Mormos

A first glance at Lake Mormos

This is Bauxite Way, Yoav explains, named for the aluminum ore mine on our right. And by the way, we are now on one of the best-known stages of the famous Acropolis Rally, which is part of the European Rally Championship schedule. The best time recorded on this 24 kilometer (15 mile) uphill, tightly winding trail is 13 minutes (that’s 110 kilometers-or 70 miles- per hour!). Mercifully, Tim takes it considerably slower but we are still stirring impressive clouds of red dust in our wake. Back on paved road high on the Giona Ridge, we catch our first sight of the turquoise waters of the Mormos Reservoir far below. We unanimously call for a photo op stop.

Greece. Pindus, Lidoriki wisteria.

In Lidoriki, main street balconies vanish under a riot of wisteria blooms.

The road snakes steeply downhill toward Lidoriki, a postcard perfect little village with just a few shops along a main street not much wider than our Jeep and lined with stone facades overwhelmed by riotous wisteria in full bloom. We stop for refreshments on the platia, the village square that is the heart of every Greek village before resuming our roller-coaster ride, uphill once more. The narrow rocky trail hugs the rock face to the right. The scenery goes from breathtaking to hair-raising as I consider the precipitous drop to our left and the conspicuous absence of guardrail. This is the wild, off-the-beaten-paths Greece I wanted to experience, but right now I wish for something a bit tamer.

Bonding with boulders

Greece - Pindus.Boulder.

Jessica telling the boulder who’s boss.

Greece - Pindus. Ridge view.

Picnic view at the top of the ridge.

A jarring rock-against-metal grinding sound interrupts my musings as our car comes to a decisive stop. The lead vehicle and Cars # 1 and 2 are already out of sight, Car # 4 has not yet caught up. I reach for the radio (as the non-driver in our car, I am the designated radio operator) searching for the appropriate words to admit that we have just bonded with a boulder. Deep breath. “Number Three to Lead. Do you read me?”. “Go-ahead,” Yaov prompts. “We have … hit a rock,” I squeak. Jessica, the unflappable Coloradoan in Car # 4 takes over with a businesslike “Getting out to assess and will report.” Within minutes Nikos’ big Land Rover comes to nose to nose halt with our Jeep (How did he manage to turn around and go past two cars so quickly?). The rock in question is firmly embedded into our front right wheel-well. Nikos and Yaov spring into action. A winch materializes from the front bumper of the land cruiser, the rock is lassoed with the capable assistance of Jessica and just as it is being dragged out of the way a nimble rally emergency vehicle zips to a stop behind us to offer a hand.

Greece - Pindus. Bee-hives

Tending hives under the Judas Trees.

We are off again in short order. When we reach the top of the ridge, we are greeted by Izhar, co-founder of Tripology Adventures, a copious picnic already laid-out and jaw-dropping mountain vistas to the horizon. An hour later, the camping stoves, plastic stools and assorted remains of our picnic stowed into his 4WD, Izhar zooms down the trail with a “see you tonight” wave. We start our descent at a much more sedate pace. Other than lots of goats, the occasional herd of shaggy sheep and now a pair of beekeepers tending to their hives in a roadside orchard, we have barely come across anyone on these remote roads.

Greece - Pindus. Sheep.

On these mountain roads, sheep have the right of way.

But by now I’ve realized that we are never left to our own devices. In addition to our leaders Yoav and Nikos, Izhar is always one step ahead of us, test driving our itinerary to make sure it is still passable (between weather and rock slides, conditions can change fast in these mountains), catering the occasional al fresco meal and checking that hotels and restaurants are ready for us. And there is road support at our back, ready to intervene in case of mishap. How else could the blue mosquito with its crew of two and the spare wheel strapped to its roof have found us so quickly? We didn’t need them this time, but it’s good to know they are here.

We dine and stay at the Elatou that night, a cozy country hotel in the mountain village Ano Chora surrounded by dense forests of fir and chestnut trees.

Into the clouds

Greece - Pindus. Agrafa

These remote mountains kept the Moors invasion at bay for four centuries.

The weather is drab and chilly as we leave Ano Chora the next morning, and even more so when we stop for coffee in Arachova, a village precariously perched on a mountainside. We are in the Evrytania now, a pristine region of steep, thickly forested slopes and rushing streams that have earned it a reputation for splendid scenery and the moniker of “the Switzerland of Greece”. But for now, clouds are blotting out the landscape and the going is slow. Yoav seizes the moment to tell us of the harsh history of the area and the fiercely independent people who left the cities to take refuge in these mountains; and succeeded in maintaining their autonomy and culture through the 400 year Ottoman occupation of Greece.

Greece - Pindus. Lake Evinos.

Lake Evinos fills a series of deep canyons.

The clouds finally part and we are treated to a bird’s-eye view of the brilliant green waters of Lake Evinos meandering at the bottom of deep canyons, and hills dotted with the bright fuchsia Judas trees in bloom. Our next stop is Krikelo, where after lunch at the cheerful Tavern Antigoni, there is time for walk across the platia to the village church. Behind its humble exterior of pale local stone, it is a treasure trove of gilded byzantine-style icons and dripping crystal chandeliers.

Greece - Pindus. Krikelo church.

Crystal chandeliers and rich icons light up the village church.

One more stop in Megalo Horio, a exceptionally picturesque village clinging so closely to the mountain that it appears to rise in layers from the platia, before heading for Karpenisi, a small town (population 13,000) best known for its popular ski resort. After two days spent exploring remote wilderness, there is something a bit incongruous to being greeted with welcome drinks at check-in and bellman service at the five-star Montana Hotel and Spa. But one look at my room with its king-size canopy bed and spacious seating area opening onto a large deck with a panoramic view of the mountains (plus an oversized whirlpool bath in my bathroom) and I am quite happy to re-enter the lap of twenty first century luxury. We have dinner in a tiny nearby village in a family-run restaurant where Izhar and Yoav are greeted like longtime friends. I never caught the name of the place, but I will long remember the warmth of the welcome and the freshly caught brook trout grilled to perfection.

The Tripology Fairies

We find our vehicles freshly washed and lined in formation when we leave the restaurant. It reminds me that we haven’t once had to stop to refuel since we left Athens. Tripology fairies must be servicing the cars while we eat or sleep. All this seamless planning and attention to details make our expedition feel so easy I would travel anywhere with these guys.

Tripology Adventures is an Israel-based road travel company that has been leading 4WD self-drive caravans across remote, culturally rich regions of Europe, Africa and Asia for over two decades. Tripology Adventures, www.tripologyadventures.com, email:info@tripologyadventures.com, or call 888-975-7080.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Karpenisi, Greece

Delphi

The Odyssey Revisited – Athens to Delphi

The Odyssey Revisited – Athens to Delphi

Blame it on Homer, my impression that Greece was all about the sea. Even before I ever set foot in the country I knew of its myriad islands and endless coastline. Accordingly, the Greece of my prior visits had mainly consisted of sun baked islands rising from aquamarine waters, warm sand beaches and gleaming white cubist villages punctuated by indigo domes. Add a plethora of archeological treasures in various stages of restoration, bountiful dinners of taverna fare and soulful rebetika music. I felt I had Greece covered.

An irresistible proposition

Greece - Pindus Mountains.

We are headed into the Pindus Mountains, the spine of the Greek mainland.

Greece - Triplogy Adventures driving.

Our itinerary wends up and down steep slopes on roads that are little more than dirt trails.

That was before I came across Tripology Adventures, an off-road travel company that has been leading self-drive caravans of four-wheel drive vehicles through Central Greece and other remote, history-rich areas of the planet for over two decades. The eight-day itinerary went from Athens to the Pindus Mountains, the southeast to northwest labyrinth of high ridges and deep valleys that forms the spine of the Greek mainland. The impenetrable forests of its central region, the Agrafa (Greek for unchartered), allowed it to maintain its autonomy throughout the four centuries of Ottoman occupation. During World War II it became a center of resistance against Italian and then German invaders. This wild, sparsely inhabited region remains relatively unspoiled to this day. And the roads that wind their way up and down its steep slopes are still little more than dirt trails.

This, combined with the self-drive bit causes me to pause. I am a highway driver, an erstwhile soccer mom. Although no stranger to off-road adventure travel, from the African bush to the Himalaya, I have always left the driving to local experts. But an opportunity to discover this other Greece I hadn’t known to still exists is hard to pass. Fortunately Tripology assures me that, while the driving on their itineraries is challenging, many participants actually want to drive. They’ll get no argument from me! There remains one last nagging doubt before I reach for my passport. We are talking group travel, my least favorite way to go. But this trip is so far off the beaten tracks that I could never undertake it on my own. Count me in!

In the beginning…

Greece - Athens. Ezvone changing of the guard,

Evzone Honor Guard march to Parliament building on Syntagma Square for the ceremonial changing of the guard.

Greece - Athens. The Acropolis.

The Acropolis glows against the Athens night sky.

We meet at our Athens hotel, the Alexandros, on the afternoon prior to our departure, fourteen of us ranging in age from thirty-something to twice that, three couples, the rest of us solo. After a short get-acquainted briefing led by Izhar Gamlieli, co-founder of Tripology, he shepherds us into the metro for an evening on the town. It’s just a couple of stops to Syntagma Square (Constitution Square), the modern heart of the city. We catch the ceremonial changing of the Evzones, the white-skirted honor guard in front of the Parliament building. Then, after a leisurely walk through the vibrant center of town and past the entrance of the ancient Agora, we settle at the terrace of Diodos, a popular Lower Adrianou Street taverna. Our reserved family-style tables are immediately piled high with the entire gamut of traditional dishes, salad topped with slabs of sweet fresh feta, hummus, melitzanosalata (eggplant dip), tzatziki (cucumber with yogurt and dill), calamari, tiropita (cheese pie), spanakopita (spinach pie). It’s all just freshly prepared and delicious. But it’s only the beginning. Next come platters of grilled chicken, sausage and lamb chops. Our group is starting to connect. It’s impossible to remain strangers for long while tucking into succulent Greek mezedes washed down with hearty local wine, with the Acropolis glowing against the night sky in the background.

The level of camaraderie goes up another notch the next morning as we pile our luggage into our assigned vehicle, one of four shiny late model Jeep Patriots lined up in the hotel’s driveway behind the lead car, a massive land cruiser. I meet my Car # 3 traveling companions: Mary Bailey, a cookbook author, editor of The Tomato Food and Drink and all around foodie from Edmonton, Canada, and Tim Campbell, a travel writer from the U.K.

Lead car, do you read me?

Greece - Delphi, The Archeological site.

The archeological of Delphi sits on the Western face of Mount Parnassus

Delphi's Temple of Apollo overlooks the valley of Phocis.

Delphi’s Temple of Apollo overlooks the valley of Phocis.

Our cars have two-way radios with a frequency dedicated for our convoy. Yoav Barashi, our tour leader and a passionate grecophile who has been guiding here for a decade and our lead driver Niko Manolis (who turns out to be a national champion rally racer) give us a brief primer on the use of the radio and the protocol for convoy travel and we are off. The instructions are simple enough: follow the car ahead, keep your assigned place in the convoy and above all follow the directions Yoav is giving over the radio. Also, when you make a turn wait until the car behind you starts its turn before continuing on. That one is a real challenge with traffic lights, determined drivers and motorcyclists buzzing all around us. But somehow we all fall into formation again at the tollgate to Highway #1. We can relax now and congratulate Mary for seeing us this far. Nothing could have us bond faster than a narrow escape from the Athens morning commuter traffic.

Greece - Delphi. Archeological Museum.

The museum at the archeological site of Delphi.

The hills are getting more rugged, especially once we turn onto a country road toward our midday destination, a lovely seaside restaurant tucked in a secluded cove of the Gulf of Corinth. After another Greek specialties extravaganza we continue on to the archeological site of Delphi. Perched high on the southwestern spur of Mount Parnassus, it was decreed the Navel of the Earth by Zeus himself. Yaov has begun sharing tidbits of mythological lore over the radio during the quieter moments of the drive with such an irresistible blend of wit and erudition that we will soon be begging for more at every opportunity. But for now, we are getting our first taste of off-road driving, on a rough trail that is getting rockier and narrower as we zigzag toward the top of the ridge. There is a modern paved road of course, for the busloads of visitors to the site. But not for us the road more traveled, that would deprive us of the ever-changing panorama of hills fading into of the distant sea and our first glance at Delphi and the temple of Apollo from a unique vantage point high across the valley.

The Navel of the Earth

Greece - Delphi Archeological Site.

Guide Penny Kolomvotsou eplains the overall site.

Dedicated during classical time to the god Apollo, an overachieving multi-tasker variously recognized as the god of truth and prophecy, healing, plague, music, poetry and more, Delphi was a seat of the Pythia. This priestess was believed to channel the pronouncements of the Oracle (itself the intermediary to Apollo) that would then be interpreted by the priests.

Yaov introduces us to Penny Kolomvotsou, a licensed local guide and perfect English speaker, who makes the site and the adjoining archeological museum come alive for us. Tripology Adventures has arranged private visits with her for almost two decades. To book a visit, Penny may be contacted at +30 6944 644427 or kpagona@hotmail.com

We spend the night in modern Delphi at the Amalia Hotel, a smart contemporary four-star property with glorious vistas of the mountains and the Ionian Sea. Gazing from my balcony at the valley below, covered with olive groves all the way down to the sea, I reflect that, off-road travel notwithstanding, this Greece still feels quite familiar. Little do I know the adventure of traveling Tripology-style has barely begun…

Good to Know

Tripology Adventures is an Israel-based road travel company that has been leading 4WD self-drive caravan across remote, culturally rich areas of Europe, Africa and Asia for over two decades. Tripology Adventures, www.tripologyadventures.com, email:info@tripologyadventures.com, or call 888-975-7080.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Delphi, Greece.

Athens

Darwin and Me – A Galapagos adventure

Darwin and Me – A Galapagos adventure

It all started with a ship. How else could it start when the destination is the Galapagos Archipelago? One hundred and twenty eight islands, most of them just slivers of sun-baked volcanic rock, sprinkled over 45,000 square kilometers (17,000 square miles) of Pacific Ocean, straddling the equator some 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) to the west of mainland Ecuador. Of the 21 large enough to deserve recognition as actual islands, only five are inhabited to varying degrees. So, as Charles Darwin had already figured out, there had to be a ship. For him, a young man fresh out of Christ’s College (University of Cambridge) in 1831, the choice was simple. It was a berth as the naturalist on the Beagle, a 27.5-meter (90 foot) sloop with a crew of 74 men on a survey expedition along the coasts of South America, or nothing. He chose the Beagle. His momentous visit to the Galapagos has captured the imagination of adventure tourists ever since.

Royal treatment

The M/Y Grace at anchor against the vivid backdrop of Bartolomé's red lava cliffs.

The M/Y Grace against the vivid red lava cliffs of Bartolomé’s.

My own visiting options were less obvious. There are literally hundreds of crafts plying the waters of what is now the Galapagos Marine Reserve, vying for the attention of more than 150,000 yearly visitors. A tedious process of elimination ensued. Ships that could accommodate up to 100 guests (the maximum allowed by park regulations)? No thank you. My enthusiasm for following in Darwin’s footsteps did not include embracing his crowded cruising conditions. A further look at said regulations revealed that access to some of the most prized islands such as Genovesa, the ultimate birdwatchers paradise, and Bartolomé with its iconic black lava rock spur Pinnacle Rock rising from a tranquil aquamarine sea, was restricted to much smaller ships.

Galapagos - M/Y Grace.

The upper deck lounge was a favorite spot to enjoy cooling sea breezes.

The list of desirable vessels was dwindling fast. Then I came across the M/Y Grace, a striking 44 meters (145 feet) classic yacht with a crew of ten, that could accommodate a maximum of 18 passengers in its nine luxurious staterooms Visions of exploring Darwin’s Enchanted Islands in relative solitude were dancing in my head. I had found my ship. I was on my way.

Galapagos - sea lion and pup.

A sea lion cow faned herself as she nursed her pup.

 

The elegantly streamlined silhouette of the Grace gave me an odd sense of déjà vu, a disconcerting thought since luxury yachts have never been part of my universe. Further research validated the flash back: throughout the spring of 1956, the yacht had been front-page news on all the French magazines and movies screens and in the fantasies of a generation of schoolgirls. It was named Deo Juvante then (Latin for with God’s help), the motto of the house of Grimaldi, and its owner was Prince Rainier III of Monaco. The yacht was a frequent backdrop in the celebrations of his wedding to American movie star Grace Kelly, and the couple’s floating honeymoon cottage for a seven-week cruise around the most romantic spots of the Mediterranean.

Galapagos -al fresco lunch.

Galapagos al fresco lunch on the stern deck.

Now this glamorous vessel, renamed M/Y Grace in homage to its most illustrious owner was the property of Quasar Galapagos Expeditions, and I too could call it home for a fabulous weeklong exploration of the Galapagos Archipelago, princely matrimony not required. And best of all, its current owner Eduardo Diez, a man with a passion for classic yachts, had undertaken a complete overhaul of the vessel to include such twenty-first century amenities as a state-of-the-art stabilizer system for smooth sailing, a hot tub on the sundeck and air conditioning throughout. Darwin never had it so good!

The rarest wildlife on the planet

Galapagos - Nazca booby.

On Genovesa, a nazca booby shades her eggs from the searing sun.

My Galapagos cruise delivered on all my Darwinian fantasies. It began just as his had, on San Cristobal Island (then Chatham Island). By some fortuitous happenstance, we were only seven lucky passengers to enjoy the unfailing pampering of the crew. Our outstanding naturalist guide, Rafael Pesantes, Rafa for short, ensured that we hardly ever encountered any other visitors during our shore excursions. A third generation native of the islands and an ornithology graduate from San Francisco University in Quito, Rafa coupled an encyclopedic knowledge of the fauna, flora and geology of the islands with the familiarity of one who has explored from an early age the crystal waters of its most secluded coves.

Galapagos-green turtle.

Galapagos green turtles were frequent companions during our snorkling expeditions.

Our daily land outings were filled with close encounters with some of the rarest wildlife on the planet. We wandered on white sand beaches festooned with colonies of sea lions and hiked along black lava rock paths to observe at close range the courtship ritual of Nazca boobies and waved albatross. We rode our panga to the edge of vertical cliffs teaming with blue-footed boobies and tiny Galapagos penguins, and watched frigate birds and brown pelicans nosedive for their breakfast. For me, however, the highpoint of the day was invariably our snorkeling expedition. Island after island, Rafa led us to a dizzying abundance of exotic marine life. A few minutes into our first swim, we sighted a hammerhead shark (that mercifully showed no interest in us). We swan surrounded by so many giant sea turtles that it was a challenge to keep out of their way.

On Isabela, the base of the cliffs were covered with bright coral formations.

On Isabela, the base of the cliffs were covered with bright coral formations.

Then there was the flightless cormorant that settled on my back, doubtless having mistaken the zipper pull of my wetsuit for a juicy eel, and expressed its disapproval by repeatedly pecking at my arm. Sharp beak!

Galapagos -Lonesome George.

Pinta Island giant tortoise Lonesome George was the last survival of its subspecies.

Toward the end of the week, I had blissfully lost tract of time by then, we stopped in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. With 15,000 inhabitants, it is the largest of the three cities in the archipelago and the home of the Charles Darwin Research Station where we paid a de rigueur visit to Lonesome George, considered to be the rarest creature on the planet. Believed to be over 100 years old, Lonesome George was the last known specimen of the Pinta Island giant tortoise subspecies. I was saddened to hear of his demise a few months after our visit.

Location, location, location!

Bartolome Island, Galapagos Island, Equador