Secret Botswana

 Chobe hippos

Chobe hippos

Botswana has become my favorite African country to visit.  It exudes a fresh, progressive, successful vibe that distinguishes it from its neighbors.  The Chobe region, Botswana’s most famous and accessible wildlife area, is close to the borders of Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Namibia.  Compared to those countries, Botswana is a breath of fresh air.  In those other cases, European colonial powers extracted each country’s natural wealth and exploited their native peoples for labor.  After independence dictatorial rulers gained power and lined their own pockets rather than build institutions that benefitted its citizens.  The result can be seen in poor and deteriorating infrastructures, continuing graft and corruption in government, the squandering of natural resources, and the continued poverty of much of their citizenry.  For us visitors the hassle factor is high as the desperate target tourists for the sale of junky trinkets or bowls and clothe prints made in China.  As a visitor one feels the desperation, poverty, and frustration and sees the inequalities of their social system and the inefficiencies of a government overburdened by the ravages of red tape.

 Chobe National Park entrance

Chobe National Park entrance

But Botswana is and feels different.  It is immediately obvious at the border.  Entering Zimbabwe or Zambia is time consuming and trying while crossing into Botswana is easy and quick – plus no visa fee.  Easy-peasy.  The roads are in good condition.  Check-ins for national parks are smooth and efficient.  The accommodations are better kept and maintained (although there are still some challenges on that count).  Almost everyone speaks English and most speak it well.  Botswanans have an easy grace and air of confidence that is refreshing and attractive.  I swear even the skies seem a richer shade of blue.

 Okavango Delta accommodations

Okavango Delta accommodations

Being an “arm-chair” historian, I always look to a country’s history for explanations.  In the case of Botswana, the answers are quite clear.  It was an arid, resource-poor country during the period of European colonization.  Basically, no European powers were interested in claiming and administrating it.  When independence movements swept through southern Africa in the 19th century, Botswana sought client status with Great Britain to avoid being absorbed by newly independent and expansionist neighbors.  Hence the good English, good infrastructure, and efficient institutions.  Eventually, when its institutions matured sufficiently, Botswana negotiated its full independence in 1966.  Then, in an amazing case of great timing, diamonds were discovered shortly thereafter.  Botswana went from poor to prosperous overnight.  Moreover, the natural maturation of Botswanan society had paid dividends.  The resources were used to promote the public good:  infrastructure, education, environmental and resource protection, and solid social and democratic political institutions.

 Well-educated Okavango guide Master explains the flora of the area

Well-educated Okavango guide Master explains the flora of the area

Today Botswana is a beacon of success.  In every way measurable, it is becoming a leader in Africa.  Chobe National Park and the Okavango Delta provide two of the best game viewing experiences on the continent.  In 2014 Botswana banned all hunting, a lucrative activity in all of its neighbors.  Military bases have been moved to park borders to provide high profile deterrence to would be poachers.  The protected elephant herd is now the largest in Africa.  The friends I have made there are intelligent, well-educated, and thoughtful people.  Probably the best cultural connection experience of the tour is the Q&A we organize with Milton, the articulate director of our safari lodge in Chobe.  I love taking Imprint travelers to Africa.  Botswana is the secret surprise and, in my mind, the emerging jewel in the African crown.

 Classic Chobe River cruise

Classic Chobe River cruise

The Biggest Tour Day Ever!

I have been guiding tours abroad for almost a quarter century.  And I firmly believe we recently completed the fullest, most spectacular single day of any tour, any time.  I was still catching my breath the next day.  We were in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe where we began our Southern Safaris tour.  In a single day we visited the falls, had lunch in a locals’ home, took a helicopter ride over the falls, enjoyed the classic Zambezi River sunset cruise, and then completed our day with a riverside dinner.  Oh, and for good measure, the following day we got up very early for our Rhino Safari where we spotted 5 Black Rhinos.

Our first full day of the tour began with a fantastic hot breakfast at Ilala Lodge.  I had scouted Ilala on my previous tours to Africa and knew I wanted their fantastic cuisine, excellent location, and attentive service.  It is a lovely facility with comfortable public spaces, a huge breakfast or dinner terrace with views across to the falls’ mist plume rising above the jungle, and characteristic “boma-style” thatched roofs.  The lobby, common rooms, and hallways are adorned with prints of historic photographs or etchings of the falls, Livingstone, and other famous explorers.  It’s a great ambiance.  Moreover, each room has an espresso maker – an absolute god-send in Africa.  Although they famously grow great coffee here, they do not have a coffee culture themselves.  In other words – a good cup of coffee is hard to come by.

Shortly after sunrise we made the 5 minute walk to the falls.  After procuring rain ponchos, we entered the National Park before the usual hoard of tour groups arrived.  I took everyone to the spot where I had first seen the falls in 2014.  “Spectacular!” is the only, yet grossly inadequate description of this “Wonder of the World”.  And at that first viewpoint, over Devil’s Cataract, one sees only about 15% of the falls.  After many photos, we moved on to the statue of David Livingstone, the first European to see the falls and the one who named them for his queen.  We had a short installment of history and some fun facts about the falls (a mile+ across, up to a 340 foot drop into the chasm below, a million liters of water per second, etc.) and a brief geology lesson.  Next it was time to venture to the middle of the falls – Danger Point (DP).

DP is a spur of land that is the closest point to the falls and smack dab in the widest section of falling water.  Since we were there at the end of the rainy season the mist plume was simply tremendous.  The falls explode at the bottom of the gorge and the mist plum is redirected upwards by the gorge wall you are standing on.  The plum billows up like a nuclear mushroom cloud, creating the phenomena that gave the falls their local name: Mosi au Tunya, the Smoke that Thunders.  The best name for a waterfall ever!  DP is the place where one most feels the full, explosive power of the falls.  I love it!  You don’t see a thing – because the dense mist plume turns instantly to rainfall and returns to earth in a deluge.  Standing on DP in March is like being in the most intense torrential downpour one can imagine.  The force of nature is powerfully and viscerally felt.  It is an amazing experience.

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We retreated from DP and dispersed for free time.  Some ventured further along to view the famous Gorge Bridge while others returned to the various viewpoints for photography.  It was a great start to the tour.

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After the falls visit, our busy day continued with a cultural connection experience.  We went to a Chinotimba township home for lunch.  Our hostess, Flatter, welcomed us with a big smile.  As her helpers offered warm water and towels for washing hands she explained their traditional lifestyle and homelife.  Our modern American sensibilities were ruffled a bit when she invited the men to come to the table first.   We were served traditional foods:  boiled peanuts (in the shell) and black-eyed peas; roasted peanuts, fried Mopane worms, a mixture of the boiled peanuts and peas, corn, corn with peanuts, and a small local squash.  The tea served was Rohrbush tea, which we all enjoyed very much.  The biggest eye-brow raiser was of course the fried Mopane worms.  Crispy and salty, I rather enjoyed this excellent source of protein.  Not unlike popcorn.  Most in the group tried at least one but some just couldn’t do it.  After our light meal Flatter circulated around the group answering questions about her life in the township.

Next up was the Flight of Angels scenic helicopter ride.  The name comes from the Livingstone quote when he first saw the falls:  “The whole scene was extremely beautiful; the banks and islands dotted over the river are adorned with sylvan vegetation of great variety of colour and form . . . no one can imagine the beauty of the view from any thing witnessed in England.  It had never been seen before by European eyes; but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”  The 15-minute flights sounds too short but is actually a perfect amount of time in the air.  One is swept out over the mighty Zambezi, then on to the falls where the pilot does wide arching figure eights so both sides of the aircraft get great views of the falls, the mist plume, Zambia, and the descending zig-zag gorges that lead away from the falls.  With the immense mist plume that obscures much of the view from the ground, this is the only way to see the falls in their entirety.  And it is simply breath-taking.

We barely had time to freshen up in our rooms before we were transported to the nearby Zambezi jetty to board our Sunset River Cruise.  It’s a classic Victoria Falls activity.  Affectionately called the “Booze Cruise”, each boat is equipped with an open bar.  We drifted slowly along the mighty waterway, stopping to observe several hippos in a grassy pool, monitor lizards, and African fish eagles.  The conversations got more animated as the drinks flowed and we were treated to a picture-perfect African sunset of massive, billowing clouds lit up by the last rays of the sun.

Our final activity on this block buster day was our riverside brai, or African barbeque.  As we disembarked the cruise boat, we were welcomed by a troup of singers serenading us with traditional African songs and rhythms.  They sang and danced while we settled in at our candle-lit tables for dinner.  The Ilala staff had assembled a buffet of roasted meats (cooked on the open barbeque), salads, and local vegetables, potatoes, and rice.  The food was excellent, the ambiance superb, and the entertainment excellent.  It was a fitting end to what is indelibly imprinted in my memory as “The Big Day”.

Vietnam News

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Come to Vietnam with Imprint!

We're extending the Early Pay Discount deadline by a month.

Hello Southeast Asia fans.
If you have been considering our Vietnam tour next February we have great news.  The Early Pay Discount (EPD) offered on this tour was set to expire next month.  But we have extended the deadline to July 4 to give more of you an opportunity to save on this fantastic tour.  Vietnam is a jewel of Southeast Asia - spectacular scenery, friendly people, diverse and flavorful culinary culture, and interesting historical and cultural sights.  For more details on the tour, click here.

May 2018 Newsletter

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Travel with Intent

Hello from sunny Estes Park Colorado.  Our apologies for the long absence of communication as we transitioned to our new website.  We believe we've gotten all the bugs worked out, but if you notice any typos, inconsistencies, or incorrect facts, please let us know.  Now that we have the website up and running properly, in addition to a monthly newlsletter, we will resume our blogging (when we have something worthwhile to share).

2017 was a busy and challenging year for Imprint Tours.  We had a third tour of Thailand in February, a spectacular tour of China in March/April, a second Danube Cruise in September, and our second foray to the Indian subcontinent in November.  We barely caught up before heading out to East and Southern Africa for three tours this early spring.  The challenges included moving our offices to Colorado, staff health issues, one computer meltdown, and getting the new website launched.  For those of you who might have experienced some of the ill effects of those challenges, we apologize one more time.  But we have now increased our staff and implemented new systems to meet the challenges of growth and are ready for the future.

Meet the staff:  Tammi is our new office manager.  She worked for the Forest Service, home-schooled her children, and then opened a Montessori School in her Gunnison CO home.  She brings thoroughness and an eye for detail to the organization of our office.  My brother Neil has come on board to run tours, manage the website, develop an image sharing database, assist in marketing, and back up Tammi.  His guiding debut was on the Danube Cruise last fall and he also managed the recent East Africa tour.  Maia, whom many of you know, is still in school at Colorado State University but will continue to monitor our social media presence, assist on Imprint tours, and assist on administrative duties.  Additionally, she has been hired to assist on Family Friendly tours at Rick Steves' Europe this summer.  Reid's focus will continue to be tour development, marketing, and running as many Imprint tours as possible.

We have two new tours to announce:  India and Morocco! 

Next March, we are collaborating with Rick Steves colleague Chris Coleman on a yoga tour of India.  Chris runs a yoga studio in Minnesota, has studied yoga in India, and has had a vision for taking her yoga students to India for some time.  Although this tour has a yoga focus, it would still be a fantastic travel experience for anyone.  The tour includes Delhi, Agra (Taj Mahal), Jaipur, and Varanasi - must see destinations on any India tour.  Additionally, the tour has been scheduled to include Holi - India's Festival of Colors.  Click here for more details.

In April of 2019 we'll be returning to Morocco.  We find Morocco to be the perfect destination for experiencing the best of Islamic culture.  It is moderate, safe, progressive, and on the rise.  Not to mention, a country of great beauty, rich cultural heritage, friendly people, and fascinating sights.  For this foray we are collaborating with another Rick Steves colleague, Sarah Murdoch.  Check out her travel blog here.  Sarah has already led an Imprint Tour of Thailand back in February, and is returning to Southeast Asia for us again next year, repeating Thailand and adding Vietnam.  Morocco highlights include the Hassan II Mosque, the blue city of Chefchaouen, a camel trek among the dunes of the Sahara, and the mind-bending cities of Fez and Marrakech.  For further details, click here.

 

And here is the rest of our tour line-up for the next 18 months:

Greek Islands  Sept 12 - 23  FULL (waitlist)
Peru  Oct 20 - Nov 2  (possible $500 discount available)

2019

Vietnam  Feb 4 - 16
Thailand  Feb 17 - Mar 2
New Zealand  Mar 4 - 17  FULL (waitlist)
India Yoga Tour  Mar 11 - 24
Morocco  April 14 - 26

Not yet published on the website:  Rhone River Cruise Oct 10;  Guatamala – Nov  (both with Steve Smith)
Patagonia – date TBD (late 2019 or early 2020)
Possible 2019 or 2020 additions:  Bali & Iceland

If any of these tour destinations capture your travel imagination, send us an email and we’ll add you to their tour-specific mailings.  info@imprinttours.com

NOTE:  We just made the decision to return to Egypt/Jordan (with an optional extension to Israel) in March of 2020!

Other future projects include:  Ecuador & Galapagos (2020); China Off the Beaten Track; Volga River Cruise; Southern India; French Canal barging
Regular destinations we will be repeating soon include: Greek Islands (bi-annually); Thailand (annually); China; Danube River Cruise; Africa

You might also like to follow our Instagram and/or Facebook postings.

Lastly, if you are in the Seattle, Phoenix, or Denver area, and would like to join in on one of our potluck gatherings, we’d love to have you join us.  We do a couple per year and all who love to travel are welcome.  Let us know and we will add you to those mailings.  info@imprinttours.com
                                              Best, The Imprint Team (Reid, Neil, Tammi, and Maia)

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Maia on the Great Wall last year.

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Neil at Angkor Wat.

Imprint Poetry

On our tour of Morocco last November the beauty of the country, the kindness of its people, and the richness of its culture inspired several on the tour to express their impressions in poetry.  Some of them were serious, some were just for fun.  Some, require having been on the tour to completely appreciate.  But all of them were inspired and enjoyable.  I even took a hand at the end with "Ode to Imprint" - a recap of our many adventures.  "Its not a Competition" is an ode to one of our favorite sayings on tour (thanks Ron) and was inspired by our tour of China.  Here they are.  Enjoy! A Busload of Imprint Tour Friends

Huang Long - Sichuan China

Huang Long - Sichuan China

My second day at Jiuzhaigao I decided to make the trek to neighboring Huang Long, another National Park in the area.  I was too late to book a seat on the public shuttle, so I had to hire a car for the day.  Fortune smiled on me and when I came down to depart, another traveler had joined me.  So I spent the day with the lovely Anithra from Singapore.

Jiuzhaigao National Park - Sichuan China

When I arrived in China 6 weeks ago, my post-tour plans were not yet solidified. As I pondered how to best spend my research efforts, I debated whether the Jiuzhaigao region was worth the relatively expensive flights necessary to access this remote area of northern Sichuan.  In the end I decided to go for it, and the travel gods rewarded my boldness.  I’m sorry to retreat to my overused expression, but WOW!

Jiuzhaigao National Park (JNP) is tucked into a remote valley in the far north of Sichuan.  Primarily, it is culturally Tibetan, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  On my personal spiritual sojourn, Buddhism has been resonant the past few years.  Exposure to the Tibetan version was all bonus for me.  I liked the music, architecture, and art and the people were friendly and welcoming.  And the omnipresence of prayer flags and wheels were pleasant prompts to be mindful of loftier issues.  And for me, time in nature, particularly the mountains, is an aid to moral and spiritual centering.  As an added, more secular pleasure, the food was delicious.  My favorite was Yak beef – yum.

JNP consists of three valleys, two of which converge to form the third, forming a Y shape.  I was put in mind of New Zealand’s south island, parts of the Alps, and Plitvice NP in Croatia.  Pristine alpine lakes, surrounded by coniferous forests, granite mountains, and snowy peaks are connected by babbling streams and multiple waterfalls.  I arose early to be at the park entrance for opening, along with half the population of Sichuan apparently.  I jockeyed for position and got my ticket and joined the zig-zagging cattle chutes that funnel visitors to the entrance control gate.  As always, the Chinese have dealt with the tremendous crowds in commercial fashion.  Shuttle buses by the dozen line up to fill and depart, transporting a load (about 70 visitors) every minute.  The shuttles drive to the top of the two valleys, without stops, alternating destinations with every other departure.  Then the shuttles return to the Tourist Center at the confluence, stopping at scenic overlooks to deposit and collect visitors along the way.  I lucked onto the shuttle I wanted, taking me to Bamboo Lake.

At Bamboo Lake, I alighted with my 69 new Chinese friends, to join several hundred more already at the overlook, wielding their selfie sticks like sabers, chattering at the top of their lungs, and putting on Tibetan costumes for yet more photographs of themselves.  That sounds like a complaint, but I’ve learned about managing the Chinese tourist juggernaut – just walk.  The Chinese seem not to care about being in nature, just photographing themselves there (or in front of whatever tourist site is the current objective).  Their version of a perfect day in JNP, is to ride the shuttles down the two valleys, stopping at each scenic overlook for 10-15 minutes, take selfies, eat snacks, be loud, repeat.  Which is fantastic for me!  I left Bamboo Lake and started hiking down valley.  Within moments I was alone, treading the perfectly uniform planked walking trail, passing other equally pristine and beautiful lakes, vistas, and streams.  And it was all downhill – what a country!

Aided by the uber-efficient Chinese system, I spent the entire day on manicured walkways, accessing spectacular natural sights, strolling ever and always steadily downhill.  Highlights included Mirror Lake, Tiger Lake, Sparkle Lake, Five Color Pond, Long Lake (a mini version of Lake Louise in Banff NP Canada - see above), Lying Dragon Lake, and Nuoriling Falls.  You gotta love the Chinese penchant for flowery language and names.  I like waterfalls.  I like them a lot.  Some day I should analyze why.  But on this day I just indulged in the refreshing experience.  So the day’s big winner for me was magnificent Pearl Shoals Waterfall.  It is no Victoria Falls, but it is nonetheless splendid.  Hundreds of sparkling rivulets tumble down a sprawling travertine terrace.  In addition to viewing the great stretch of splashing streams from below, it is easy to get an up close and personal view/photograph from the steps built next to the falls.  I had to share the experience with hundreds of selfie sticks with Chinese tourists attached to them, but, you guessed it – WOW!

One last sight bears mentioning.  Next to Shuzheng Lake the Tibetans have built a series of water-powered prayer wheels.  Kept in constant motion by the flowing, living waters, the monks have created a perpetual prayer machine.  It is not terribly picturesque, but it is truly fascinating.

After my full day of walking, I indulged in a taxi ride back to my hotel, sought out a Chinese massage, and finished the day with a sizzling plate of yak steak and green vegitables, accompanied by some homemade barley wine.  Yum.

Sichuan - China

After the “Big Gun” sights of Beijing and Xian, our Imprint tour moved on to Sichuan Province. We had four nights in Sichuan and engaged in four top drawer activities while there.  An early flight departure from Xian was trying but bought us an afternoon activity on our way to the sacred mountain, Emai Shan.  After a spicy Sichuan lunch we boarded a boat on the Minjiang River.  Our waterborne excursion led us to one of those jaw-dropping sights most Americans don’t even know about.  We visited the Leshan Buddha.  Carved from a sandstone cliff, the LB is nothing less than the largest seated Buddha statue in the world.  The Buddha, which faces out over the river, is 1200+ years old and a whopping 230+ feet tall.  His big toes are 5 feet long.  Pilgrims and tourists climbing up, over, and around the Buddha are dwarfed by it's tremendous scale.  We had the perfect vantage from the top deck of our excursion boat. Leaving Leshan behind, we continued to Emei Shan, the Golden Mount. We settled into our hotel and had another spicy meal together before retiring.  The next day we made the long trek (OK, shuttle bus and cable car) up to the top of one of China’s most sacred Buddhist mountains.  ES has been revered by Buddhists for centuries as a place of spiritual enlightenment.  For the first time on the tour, the weather was against us.  It was lightly raining as we departed and dense clouds covered up the views as the shuttle bus wound up the switch back mountain road.  A brisk, uphill walk brought us to the cable car station and we were whisked to the summit in comfort.  At the top our positive tour karma exerted itself and a slight breeze swirled the clouds allowing peekaboo views of the surrounding landscape.  I’m sure on a clear day the views are truly stunning.  But the clear highlight of ES is the tremendous statue of Samantabhadra the crowns the summit.  It is spectacular.  The clouds parted several times for us, revealing the dazzlingly bright, gilt gold statue of Samantabhadra mounted on four immense elephants.  At the foot of the stairs leading to the religious figure are braziers of and for incense.  The faithful buy incense sticks, light them, and place them at the foot of the steps, much like Catholics do when lighting candles in a church.  Tourists mingle with monks and porters.  The porters carried building materials on their backs up, up, up the many steps to the temple.

The following day was had our cultural connection experience for the tour. At Imprint we always try to build in an activity that connects us as genuinely as possible with some everyday locals.  On this tour, we visited a rural Sichuan tea farm and learned about tea cultivation and preparation from the host family.  Another lightly rainy day did nothing to dampen our spirits as we were taken out into the terraces to pick tea leaves.  Then back to the farm to learn about processing and “roasting” the leaves.  A big highlight was the ancient patriarch who insisted on participating in the explanations though he knew not a word of English.  But his passion and pride were evident in any language, and he charmed us thoroughly.  We concluded our visit with a home-cooked meal, one of the best of the tour.  Traveling with Intent!

Our final Sichuan activity was a visit to the famous Panda Breeding and Research center in Chengdu. Chengdu is another Chinese mega-city of multiple millions. But the previous days’ rain had cleared the air, and we again had blue skies and clean air for our visit.  And the visit can only be described with one word (OK, two):  UTTERLY CHARMING!  My personal expectations were not great for the pandas.  It seemed like little more than a zoo visit.  But the Panda Center in Chengdu is a massive operation and one gets to see many pandas in nearly exact natural environments.  Our guide Dennis got us to the park early when the usually somnambulant bears are most active.  We saw very young pandas, full-grown adults chomping happily on bamboo, and adolescents wrestling and climbing trees.  It charmed my socks off.  And as a bonus, the park was crawling with school groups.  Each group marching along two-by-tow in their school uniforms.  Many wanted to engage and use their stock English phrases.  So the morning was vigorously punctuated by cries of “hello”, “how are you?”, and “What is your name?”.  Hand shakes or high fives often followed and the connection greatly enhanced the day’s delight.

We concluded our excellent Sichuan visit with classic Chengu Hot Pot dinner. My lips are still tingling two weeks later.