Been There, Done That (But Would Do It Again)

On the wall of my office is a large world map, covering the majority of the available wall-space above my desk. I used to have one twice the size before I sold my home with the purpose of literally downsizing. In each case, the map was/is liberally dotted with color-coded pins detailing the places I’ve been – a badge of honor within the travel community; a lame attempt at looking cool to everyone else. While the act of pinning my map on the safe return from a voyage abroad is a great source of joy (See my blog post: Happiness is Pinning a Giant, Oversized Map), the greater joy comes from reflecting on which experiences were had on that particular spot, and the memories each pin represents.

With so many unpinned places on my map, I’m always quite reluctant to use my precious time and resources to go back to places I’ve already been. But experience has shown that there are some places that are most certainly more than worth it. Below I’ve compiled a list of five of my greatest travel experiences (in no particular order) and the wondrous places where you too can have those same experiences for yourself.

Hot Air Ballooning in Cappadocia, Turkey

This region in Central Anatolia is right out of another planet. With cities carved out of the soft volcanic rock and the giggle-inducing shapes of the so-called “fairy chimneys” it’s hard to believe you’re still on earth and not in a galaxy far, far away (See my blog post: The Witty Traveler’s Guide to Cappadocia). The best and most-awesomest way to take in this surreal landscape is by hot air balloon, which will allow you to alternately soar far above and skim the surface of this otherworldly wonderland. If it weren’t for parking and three-point turns, I’d say hot air balloon is the nicest way to travel, period.

Zip-lining in Jodhpur, India

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Zip Lining Mehrangarh Fort

I’m a fan of zip-lining in general, having done so numerous times; mostly in jungle settings. The only gripe I have about these “canopy tours” is that often there’s little to see other than branches and tree trunks as you hum along a cable to the next platform. It’s still an awesome experience, but in the city of Jodhpur, India, you can have the same zip-lining excitement with an entirely different backdrop – in this case the mammoth Mehrangarh Fort with the ethereal ‘Blue City’ lying at its feet (See my blog post: A Hyper-Inspirational Shade of the Color Blue). Starting and ending from the fort’s massive stone ramparts, participants will soar over and around an artificial lake and stare out at the boxy monochrome houses right out of an Escher drawing. So if you like your adventure with a side of scenery, this is the place to do it.

Cheetah Encounter in Livingstone, Zambia

Zimcon 1246As an animal lover, some of my greatest travel experiences quite understandably revolve around animal encounters (See my blog posts: Game On! A Rundown of What to Expect on a Safari Game Drive, and The Chobe Riverfront: Botswana’s Got Game). Of all these encounters, the most thrilling most far was the Cheetah Encounter excursion I had in Livingstone, Zambia (See more on the blog post: When a Cheetah Licks Your Head, Try Not to Laugh). Having the chance to pet, walk and get licked by these gorgeous giant felines was a thrill that still hasn’t worn off. Located near incomparable Victoria Falls, these spotted kitties almost made me forget about that ‘other’ attraction in town.

Shark Diving in Bora Bora, French Polynesia

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Lagoon of Bora Bora, French Polynesia

Continuing the animal encounter theme, the only thing I like more than seeing animals is seeing animals underwater. I’ve done a few shark feeding dives where a ribbon of meat is lowered down an anchor line to the sharks waiting below, and each time it was both thrilling and a tiny bit terrifying. What made the experience in Bora Bora so memorable was the appearance of a trio of 8-10 foot Lemon Sharks who nonchalantly snapped up a morsel of floating food just inches above my head. Being in the open water with creatures longer and fatter than I am is a humbling and exhilarating experience; so much so that it trumps my enthusiastic octopus encounter (See my blog post: To the Octopus I Chanced Upon One Early Winter’s Eve) for Best Undersea Experience.

Hanging Out in Brazil’s Costa Verde

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The idyllic harbor of Abraao, Ilha Grande, Brazil

I know hanging out doesn’t sound all that exciting, but if you’ve been to Brazil’s Costa Verde I’m sure you can understand. Whether it was a night out on the town in Rio de Janeiro (See the blog post: In Rio de Janeiro Save the Drama for the Scenery), a stroll through the rain forest on idyllic pedestrian-only Ilha Grande (See the Post: A Love Letter to the Island I Met a Year Ago), or an evening’s exploration of the cobblestone streets of supremely charming Parati (See the post: Parati, Brazil – The Whole Package), doing something or nothing was an amazing experience either way. In a perfect world, this is where I’d want to live. I would also have less grays and a six-pack but that’s a story for another time.

Insufficient Data…Sort of

To date I’ve visited 65 countries/territories across all seven continents. That said, according to the handy app Been (#beenapp) I’ve only covered 26% of total world countries (29% of Europe, 18% of Asia, 52% of North America/Caribbean, 42% of South America, 10% of Oceania and 100% of Antarctica). This means that however many pins might adorn my map, there’s still the majority to go. Knowing as I do that each future pin represents an as yet unrealized experience, the above list is subject to change and the activities mentioned are by no means an exhaustive compilation of all that awaits. The fun is going out and finding those experiences that will last a lifetime. That, and pinning it on my giant map.

How About You?

Do you have a Top-Five worthy travel experience that you’d like to share? Leave a comment and share your story to inspire the rest of us

When A Cheetah Licks Your Head, Try Not To Laugh

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Cheetahs are known for many things: superlative speed, feline gracefulness and remarkable agility. I would also like to add another trait to that list – they have tongues like 80 grit sandpaper, and if they lick you, it’s not polite to laugh.

I never knew about that last one until August of 2014 when I experienced Mukuni Big Five Safari’s Cheetah Walk program near Livingstone, Zambia. After that, there was no way I could forget.

What it is

Zimcon 1189The company’s stated objective is to conserve and breed the threatened cheetah through education and understanding. Both education and understanding are accomplished via the opportunity to interact with these magnificent creatures in a way that very few do. As an animal lover, I was impressed by the kindness and attachment they showed toward the animals under their care, which left me feeling good about the type of treatment they receive. With your consciences now clear, let’s move on to how you too can experience this bucket list item for yourself.

How to Get There

Complimentary hotel pick-up is included in the price (approximately $120 US per person) for those staying in the Livingstone area. If you’re staying in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, the camp is only a few kilometers from the Zambian border, but will likely require a 24 hour visa available for purchase onsite. See your friendly neighborhood Zambian customs control officer for current prices.

How it Works

Guests are ushered into an open-air reception center where they can enjoy a cup of coffee and pay their fees while waiting for their safari. This is also where you will be asked to sign a waiver exonerating the company of all responsibility in the event of being eaten, chewed upon, or trampled to death by any of the animals. If you chafe at the thought of relinquishing such rights, bear in mind that even the remote possibility of any of the above happening means that you are in for a special experience. Just sign it and leave the legal mumbo-jumbo for your lawyer.

The Introduction

Before you get to interact with the cheetahs, you will first be escorted to a large, fenced-in clearing where the guides will have them waiting for you. Your guide will then explain a lot of details that you will completely ignore as you admire the cats up close. From the little I can remember, you are advised to only approach them from behind, avoid making sharp noises (like laughing loudly when they lick your head) and for some reason refrain from touching the inside of their ears. I can only imagine how it was that someone figured out that last little tidbit. I’m assuming they’re the reason the rest of us have to sign a waiver.

Playtime

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Playing with kitties in Zambia

Once the whole introductory spiel is over, you’ll finally get your chance to pet the kitties. As the largest cats that purr, the sounds of the bush will be drowned out by the throaty rumble coming from the cheetahs as they sprawl out under your excited caress. I’d be willing to bet that my wife didn’t take her hands off the cats even once in the entire twenty minute session.

When it was finally my turn to join her, I was thrilled to run my fingers through their soft fur and exposed bellies. I should also mention that this is when the licking began.

Our guide had just finished explaining that as a sign of contentment, if you offer them your forearm they might lick you in return. This resulted in the exfoliation of a lifetime as the cheetah went to town on my right arm. I was both chuckling and wincing at the same time until I noticed that one of the handlers had one-upped me by offering the cheetah his head. Not to be outdone, and consistent with male-competitive stupidity, I too offered the cheetah my head, and soon enjoyed an abrasive tongue-bath along my forehead and scalp. As entertaining as it was, I think I’ll just stick to shampoo.

I will say that as that cheetah tested the limits of my remaining hairline, it was hard not to indulge in the aforementioned laughing as I considered the absurdity of the scene. If it were possible to ask my friends and relatives back home what they thought I was doing at that very moment, I’m pretty sure having my head licked by a cheetah wouldn’t even make the top ten. Signing away my legal rights for the chance to do something crazy, on the other hand, would certainly make an appearance.

The Safari

Zimcon 1246As if the interaction wasn’t already worth the price of admission, the next phase is to ‘walk’ your cheetah on a guided tour through the surrounding bush. While eager to do so, I did have some questions. Foremost, was what do I do if it decides to run? I won’t be able to catch it—it’s scientific. That extra twenty pounds I need to lose has nothing to do with it.

Fortunately, even if the cheetah did make a run for it, these particular cats would return on their own. So instead of worrying about a footrace, we were able to enjoy our bush walk in the company of predators, which was sort of like strolling through a rough neighborhood while escorted by local gang members—as dangerous as it might be, nobody’s going to mess with you.

All Good Things…

Eventually our time with the cheetahs, like all good things, came to an end. It was then that I realized how important it is that we conserve our planet’s natural habitats so that majestic animals such as these will have a secure home for future generations. It was also then that I realized that the next time I saw a cheetah, I probably shouldn’t let it lick my head. Either way, I felt like I walked away with a greater understanding to go along with my bucket list experience.

So if you expect to be in the area of Victoria Falls, regardless of if you’re staying on the Zimbabwe or Zambia side, do the cheetah walk excursion with Mukuni Big 5 Safaris. It will be the experience of a lifetime and likely make all your friends and followers insanely jealous. And if I’ve stirred feelings of jealousy in you, there’s no need to despair. If you really want to lick my head, I’m sure we can work something out. But first, please sign this waiver…

African family portrait, Livingstone, Zambia
African family portrait, Livingstone, Zambia

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