Sunday, April 6, 2014

Best Meals in North County San Diego

So...I'm just going to pretend this blog hasn't been idle for NINE MONTHS. Everyone good with that? Excellent, moving right along...

Today, I want to focus on some of my favorite restaurants and bars in North County...and more specifically, my favorite snacks/meals at each place that I think deserve mention in the blogosphere (does a blog that sits idle for nine months still qualify as "in the blogosphere"? Or do I have to re-apply for admission?). Anyway, I feel like a lot of times you get great recommendations for restaurants to try, but you don't always get tips on what to order. 


You will notice that two of my go-to places - Roberto's and Pizza Port - are not listed on this post, as I have given both of these establishments ample lip service on this blog over the years. But fear not, a California Burrito from 'Berto's or a half-Carlsbad, half-Monterey pizza from Port still top the list of must-haves when in North County.

No more disclaimers...let's do this.


CE Burger (Cucina Enoteca)
Menu - braised short rib + fiscalini cheddar + honey mustard aioli + truffle fries
I list this first because I went there last night and it spurred this idea. First off, if you have not been to this place yet, put it on your list. It is a very unique place, with modern (and somewhat bizarre) decor and excellent food. They pour a mean cocktail, and they have some great deals, including half off all pizzas during Happy Hour on Thursdays (I recommend the pancetta and brussels sprout leaf pizza). Anyway, this burger is outrageously rich and decadent. The short rib adds some amazing salty-goodness to this already perfectly-cooked patty, and the honey-mustard aioli gives a great zingy bite to the burger. Oh, and don't let your wife near the truffle fries. Trust me.

Pan-Roasted Brussels Sprouts (Priority Public House)
Menu - Brussels Sprouts, Caramelized Onion, Hickory Smoked Bacon
I know brussels are starting to be a trendy food, and I have fully embraced it. I used to think I didn't like brussels spouts until Mrs. Livin the Dream convinced me to give them a try. Since then we always look for good sprouts on a menu, and this relatively new Leucadia gastropub nails 'em. They roast and serve them in a small cast-iron skillet, and the addition of the onion and bacon just makes them insanely tasty. Yum-yum in my tum-tum.

Pineapple Fried Rice (Bangkok Bay)
Menu - Shrimp, chicken, pineapple, cashew nuts, mixed with egg and curry powder
The reason this makes the list? It was so good that, without my begging, Mrs. Livin the Dream went home and tried to re-create it. While hers was good, it will never match the taste of an authentic Thai place that probably uses more oil than we'd like to know. This is one of those bites that has many different ingredients, but somehow seems like one perfect taste. If you search for them, you can find each individual flavor, but what makes this so spectacular is the perfect combination of sweet/salty, soft/crunchy, and spicy/tame. Very few dishes have the same effect on me as this perfectly balanced entree.

Cilantro and Chipotle Beef Medallions (El Callejon)
Menu - Beef medallions topped with melted cheese in a cilantro or chipotle sauce
You will notice the odd use of italics in the name of this meal. When you order, they give you the option of the cilantro or chipotle sauce...and herein lies the secret. These two sauces are both outrageously good - packed with flavor. After waffling for what seemed like an eternity a year ago, the waiter told me I could have the plate split in half, with both sauces cut right down the middle. "I CAN?!" OMG, OMG. Yes, that meal deserves an "OMG". The beef medallions are super tender, and they bring hot tortillas and rice to make some phenomenal tacos if you prefer that route. But I would drink this sauce like a smoothie. The cilantro sauce has a tangy spiced flavor, and the chipotle sauce is creamy with a touch of heat. And if you haven't been to this place yet, you are missing one of the stiffest, tastiest margaritas in San Diego. Trust me, I'm a self-proclaimed expert.

Cheddar & Chive Biscuits (Solace and the Moonlight)
Menu - Warm cheddar and chive biscuits w/Orange Honey Butter, Smoke Tomato Jam
This one excites me the most on this list. In addition to having a great cocktail menu and unique high-end entrees, Solace might have the most ridiculously addicting, mouth-watering, guilty-pleasure appetizer in North County - the cheddar biscuits. On their own, the biscuits are peal-apart perfection, with a slightly flaky outside, but an incredibly teddy-bear soft fluffy inside. But the kicker to this meal are the spreads that come with. The smoked tomato jam (which they also put on their amazing burger) is an insane combination of sweet and tart, with an overarching smoky tone. And then that sweet/salty orange honey butter is otherworldly. You know an appetizer is good when Mrs. Livin the Dream says "We're definitely getting the biscuits"...on the car ride to the restaurant.

Shrimp & Grits (Union Kitchen & Tap)
Menu - Andouille, roasted tomato, cheese grits
My wife will tell you I love this meal a little too much. Obviously I love all the meals on this list, but this is one of the few meals that I always seem to have a "moment" with. We're talking all peripheral noise and nonsense vanish (which is no easy feat at a trendy place like Union). Julie knows to not even talk when I take the first bite. First off, the sausage has some great spicy heat to it. The roasted tomato really forms the main flavor profile of this dish, with the tart tomato juice cutting the meat and grits. But without question, the best part of this meal is the cheddar grits. Good grits are not a slam dunk, but Union throws them down like Lebron James. They are the right thickness, right texture, and incredibly flavorful on their own. As I type this, it may be time for date night at Union soon. But Mrs. Livin the Dream might not be invited...just me and my shrimp and grits.

Pastrami Burger (Bier Garden)
Menu - swiss, sauerkraut, caramelized onions, BG secret sauce
Full disclosure - I have never ordered this burger for myself, but it is my wife's favorite thing on the menu, and I think I agree with her now. The pastrami alone is fantastic and could be a stand-alone meal, but thrown on top of a burger patty with all of these other ingredients of's absurdly delicious. We're talking saliva floodgates people. Combine this with a great beer from a diverse selection, and your stomach owes you a high-five.

Breakfast Tacos (Bull Taco)
Menu - Eggs, bacon, chorizo, cheddar, onion/cilantro, Tater Tots, Sriracha Sour Cream
Oh my goodness, oh my goodness. Shout out to my boy Peter for exposing me to these tiny wonders of the world. I have eaten many-a-meal at Cardiff's hidden gem, but had never thought to try their breakfast. And breakfast tacos are actually a relatively new concept for me...but that is a thing of the past. The sriracha sour cream is intoxicating, the chorizo is outrageous, but the key are those tots. I have trouble describing this one because it's such a unique flavor for breakfast. The tacos are incredibly savory. The only down-side to this meal is that you only get two of them (I wish it was ten).

So there you have it. I may have forgot a meal or two, but hey, I gotta post something nine months from now, right?

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

DAY #9 - London, Why Not?

After watching a ton of movies on the flight from Johannesburg to London, we finally landed in Heathrow around 7:15am. We had around 8.5 hours to kill (which we scheduled on purpose), so we wasted no time getting off the plane and planning our next step. The best part was that we had checked our luggage all the way through to Los Angeles, so we didn't have to wait for a baggage carousel to spit out the bags, then go find a locker to store them. Nope, Julie thought of it all, and already had her iPad out and ready to guide us to the hub of London.

We jumped on the Heathrow Express to get into town, then we jumped on to the Tube and made our way to Westminster to see the most iconic of all London landmarks - Big Ben. As soon as we got out of the Tube station, we were hit with some warm weather (and it was still only 8:00 in the morning. We walked around the surrounding area, doing the touristy taking photos of the Parliament building, some statues and cathedrals. From there we walked down to Trafalgar Square where we went in search of Julie's favorite thing - snacks. We stopped at a local cafe chain and grabbed a pastry and some juice and walked over to the fountain in Trafalgar Square and did some people watching.

Kinda odd that the only Nelson Mandela statue we saw was in London...

Big Ben

Beautiful building in London

Not wanting to waste any time, we finished our snack and started walking down the beautiful streets and alleyways that led us to the main street that looks straight down to Buckingham Palace. We angled left and walked through the park along the water, watching as people fed birds, napped on the grass and enjoyed the nice weather. The park was extremely quiet and peaceful. We followed the pathway all the way to Buckingham Palace, where there was an inordinate amount of people standing around as if they were waiting for something. We at first thought maybe the Prince and his wife Kate had their baby, but that wasn't it. We never did find out what it was, but Julie, having been there before, said it was way more people than she had seen last time she was there.

What's wrong with this picture?

Buckingham Palace

We sat down in the neighboring park and planned our next move. Julie had done a ton of research in the lounge at Gomo Gomo before we left, and did something that I thought was incredibly smart. She knew we most likely would not have WiFi walking around the streets of London, so every Google Map or website she pulled up, she took a screenshot and saved it as an image on her iPad. She had about 25 pages of websites and maps saved, and it made it very easy for us to navigate around town. We jumped on the nearest Tube station and set out for St. Paul's Cathedral.

Being there on a Sunday, St. Paul's Cathedral was not fully accessible as there was a mass while we were there. We were able to go inside and see the intricate architecture, stained-glass and rich history seeping out of the walls. After a short tour, we walked down to Leadenhall Market, the area that supposedly served as the inspiration for Diagon Alley, the magical street in Harry Potter. Unfortunately, being a Sunday, it was completely deserted, and we didn't quite get the effect we were hoping for with the hustle and bustle of the local businesses.

Blue trees outside St. Paul's Cathedral

We made a quick walk down to the water where we were able to see the London Bridge. The weather was getting increasingly hot, and the jet-lag was slowly starting to set in for me. We made the decision to ride the Tube back to the airport, go find one of the nice restaurants inside and have dinner, then wait for our flight.

Lego map of the Tube stations!

We boarded our flight with no issue, and before we knew it we were on our way back to Los Angeles. Julie slept a bit, and I watched another four movies to pass the 11 hours of the flight. After a long flight, some frequent trips to stand and stretch my legs, some bad airline food, and weak attempts at napping, we finally landed in Los Angeles. We made our way through customs relatively quickly, and then the moment of truth came...

Would we get our luggage?

For those of that know our travel history, my only two international flights have resulted in the airlines losing at least one piece of our luggage. So as we sat there, watching more and more bags spit out of the baggage carousel, are suspicions began to rise. But then, as if a mirage, our two bags popped out within seconds of each other, and we had everything that belonged to us! A minor victory seems so much more important when you're jetlagged and wanting to get out of the airport.

After an uncharacteristically long shuttle ride back to our car (the airport was slammed and our driver had to make more stops), we got to our car, loaded the trunk, and settled in for the two-hour drive home. It didn't take long for the wife to fall asleep, and I would be lying if I said I didn't have to slap myself in the face a couple times on the drive to keep me awake as well. But we hit no traffic and the drive was very easy. We pulled up to our house around 10:30pm on Sunday night, after having left Gomo Gomo Saturday afternoon (and gained nine hours in the process). 

It was the trip of a lifetime. Neither of us would do anything different if we did it all over again. We had great food, great people and great experiences over the entire trip, and within days of being home, it didn't take Julie long to ask the question...

"So where do we want to go next?"

Friday, July 19, 2013

DAY #8 - Our Last Hurrah

There is something very unique about that feeling when you wake up on the last day of your trip, knowing you only have a little bit more fun scheduled before you begin your long trek home. That unique feeling is amplified when the morning starts with an incredibly loud lion roar. That'll make you forget your upcoming plane flight!

After the routine stop to the lodge for tea and concrete scones, we huddled into the vehicle for one last game drive on an uncharacteristically cold and cloudy morning. We drove a while in silence, just taking in all the sights, sounds and smells as we reflected on the past few days on safari. It truly had been amazing experience, and we both had developed a huge respect for our guides and trackers and the lifestyle they lead out in the bush. We were definitely going to miss this place.

While taking in the setting, we stumbled across an elephant all by itself. This is incredibly rare, as they almost always travel together in a herd as protection from predators. But as soon as this elephant took a step, we could see why he was alone. He had a broken leg, hurt sometime the night before with the herd, and he was left behind. It is a very sad thing to see an animal of that size hobble around on three legs, as they have so much weight to support, with one less leg to alleviate its weight. One of our British friends was a vet, and it killed her to not go out and try and fix its leg, but H.J. told us that they had strong healing powers, and within days the leg would reset and he would find his way to the herd. When asked about predators, H.J. told us that because the elephant was still standing and eating, he had enough strength to ward off any attacks. We watched him eat and hobble for a bit, and then we slowly drove off, wondering how the poor guy would fare in the days to come.

Poor lil elephant

We got a radio call from another vehicle that said they had found the lions again, so we bolted across some dirt roads back to the main paved road, where we quickly found a male and female lion laying together and spooning on the side of the road. H.J. explained they were in the process of courting and mating, and that it wouldn't be long before we saw the male try and "make his move." Sure enough, within 15 minutes, the male stood up and tried to get frisky with the lioness, but she was having none of it, and gave him a quick growl to let him know to back off. They both stood up and started walking down the paved road together, watching the slow moving vehicles as they passed by. It definitely was an odd experience watching two lions walk on a paved seemed out of place (either the lions or the road). We spent a good amount of time with them before we pushed off to go find some other animals for our new guests in the vehicle.

 Lion spooning

 The male being unsuccessful in his mating attempts

 Taking a stroll down the paved road

 Love this guy

During the next 45 minutes we saw lots of small animals, including another stork, two warthogs, a ton of guinea fowl (football-shaped birds), and two more honey badgers. H.J. said it was rare to see the honey badgers as frequently as we'd seen them during our stay. The animals were super quick on the ground, and you could tell that, although they were small, they were not to be messed with. After we saw those little guys, we found another area for morning coffee and tea, and Julie and I took some photos, talked with H.J. and just listened as we heard the roars of the lions in the distance.


Baby warthog and its mother

 Taking off away from the vehicle

 Guinea fowl (they look like footballs with heads)

Last snack stop of the trip!
We ended the day by going back to visit the buffalo we'd seen the day before. They were in a huge thick portion of the bush, so H.J. turned the steering wheel hard and pushed deep into the plants and grass, and within seconds Julie and I heard an all-too-familiar "pop" and "hiss" sound.

We'd popped another tire.

In the front of about 30 buffalo. Whereas the first time we got a flat, H.J. had instructed us to get out of the vehicle and stand away from the rhino...this time we were so close to the herd of buffalo that he changed the tire with us in the vehicle. For fear of stampede and being deep in the bush, H.J. told us to stay put and within seconds he and Caswell were pumping up the car-jack and sending us into the air. Definitely an odd experience to be in a car while it's being jacked up, and even more odd when you're in an open-air Land Rover, in front of a herd of buffalo, on safari, in the middle of Africa.

Cape Buffalo watching us change our tire

Changing the tire took up the rest of our time on the ride, so we drove back to the lodge for breakfast. H.J. knew we were leaving the lodge around noon, so he agreed to squeeze in an early bushwalk so we could tag along. This walk was led by the other guide, Bernard, with H.J. serving as his backup rifle. We had about 12-14 people on this walk, so it was much less personal, but still fun. They went through the same set of instructions, and within minutes we were in our single file line behind our guides, headed out into the bush. We spent most of the time just walking and looking at tracks, repeating a lot of what we'd done with H.J. the day before. While out on the walk, we saw warthogs, steenbok, and some impala, while we found tracks for giraffes and jackals. It was nice to be out walking one more time, just being totally detached from the hustle and bustle of the world back home, with our biggest concern being "What if we walk into a lion?"

The fact that I even get to write that sentence makes this the coolest trip ever.

After the 45-minute bushwalk, we went back to our room to finish packing, bring our bags to the lodge, and wait for Bernard to chauffeur us back to the Hoedspruit airport. While we waited, we thanked H.J. for being such a tremendous host. I can't say enough about how much H.J. enhanced our experience at Gomo Gomo. We would have had a blast regardless of who our host was, but H.J. was the right mix of funny, responsible, macho, knowledgeable and understanding. We will always have fond memories of H.J. and the lodge, and will never forget the day we stalked a lion on foot with him. #tryandtopthat

We somewhat gloomily loaded up the truck and set out for the airport, and we both sat in the back seat looking out the windows taking in the final scenes of the Greater Kruger National Park. We chatted with Bernard about what it was like to be a guide and his decision to enter this type of work. We then talked about all the animals we'd seen, and Julie said she wished she had seen more zebras. As if on cue, Bernard said "Well, look out to your left then, cuz this is where they normally hang out." And sure enough, within seconds we saw six zebras grazing off the side of the road, sending Julie into one last excited tizzy. Bernard kindly pulled the car over so Julie could snap a couple more photos, and with that, our journey felt complete.

Bernard dropped us off at the airport, we said our goodbyes, and waited in the small airport for about 20 minutes for our plane to arrive. We loaded up our luggage, strapped in, and as we took off, I looked over to see Julie's face pinned against the window, hoping to catch one last glance of an animal running free below us. She had a smile on her face, and I knew I did too. The trip was amazing. So amazing in fact that it made the prospect of the 30+ hours of travel home seem not so daunting.

The flight from Hoedspruit to Johannesburg was short, and then we killed a decent amount of time in the Jo'Burg airport before it was time to jump on our red-eye 10+ hour flight to London. Now, since I'd never been to London, we purposely scheduled a 9-hour layover so we could take the Tube into town (we were due to arrive around 7:00am London time) and go see some of the sights before we finished our journey home. Hey, better than spending time in an airport, right?

*NEXT UP* - London in 5 hours, and we finally come home.

Thursday, July 18, 2013


Another night at the lodge, another morning of lion roars!

Excited to embark on the next set of adventures on our last full day at Gomo Gomo, we quickly threw on a couple layers for the cool morning and made our way to the lodge. Same routine as the morning before, with the tea-and mega-hard "rusks" waiting to be eaten. We all climbed up into the vehicle (with two less people in our Land Rover because some guests checked out), said hello to H.J., and we were off.

As soon as we left the lodge driveway, you could tell H.J. already had an idea where he was going. Apparently the lion roars we heard in the morning were quite close, and he was ready to go track the group of lions (called a "pride"). As soon as he mentioned the lions, the mood of the vehicle became quite excited, and within minutes we came across five female and two male lions lazing about the grass. As with many of our other animal encounters, it amazed me how they did not react negatively toward our beastly vehicle. Despite the loud engine, human smells, and metal frame, the lions gave us a cursory "I see you" glance, and that was it. Similar to a house-cat, these lions sleep about 18 hours per day, so finding them in the relaxed, lazy position was no shock to H.J. The manes of the male lions were absolutely beautiful, and the front paws of those guys were mammoth.

Let the photo obsession begin!

You lookin' at me?

Yeah, we were that close

In what seemed like quite the cavalier move, H.J. drove close to the lions, then a bit closer, then he actually put the nose of the vehicle about 5-6 paces from the lion and threw it in park and turned off the engine! Well, okay then! On this particular day, Julie was sitting on the side closest to the huge male lion, and judging by her ultra-slow movements and constantly gawking mouth, she recognized the fantastic nature of this moment. It probably goes without saying that it was during this portion of the trip that my camera lens spent a lot of time near my face. We were so close that with my zoom lens, I was literally looking at the lion's eyeball. I could not wrap my head around how comfortable the lions were with us, and soon, how comfortable we were with the lions. They got up and walked a couple times, but never more than 30-40 steps in one stretch. I honestly could have sat there all day and just observed them, but H.J. had informed us that there were some other vehicles waiting to come in to see the lions, so we bid adieu to the lions and continued our morning adventure.

If you look closely you can see some blood from an earlier kill

Getting up for a stretch
Bit of a mohawk

*SIDE NOTE* - I really like the protections and rules the guides have built into place to protect both the animals and guests. No more than two vehicles are allowed at one "sighting" at any one time, and if you are a third vehicle, you wait far away from the sighting until you get radio confirmation that the other vehicle has left the area.

Not more than five minutes removed from having left the pride of lions, we were reunited with Julie's buddies, the wild dogs! Another vehicle had been tracking them for some time, and we joined up with them, and very quickly noted the pinned ears of the dogs, on the prowl for some animal. Similar to the day before, they took off in front of us, and this time we had a wide open valley in front of us, so we followed them as they sprinted, then stopped, smelled the air, and bolted again. This went on for about 20 minutes before they went deep into the bush and we were forced to leave their side. We would find out later that soon after we left, they would find an impala and catch it. Damn, that would've been sweet.

Wild dog patrol

As we trekked along we ran into yet another elephant, this time with one infant by its side. The adult male was very unsure of us, so H.J. kept a safe distance, probably remembering back to the day before when he had to ward off a charge from another of the elephant's brethren. While we were there, he did put on quite the show with his trunk, which I was able to get on camera. Gotta love an animal action shot!

 He liked the camera

Since we'd seen quite a few elephants, we moved on and had our morning coffee and snacks, Julie's daily highlight. I swear by the end of the trip I saw H.J. look at Julie every time he said "Ok, now let's stop for snacks," just to get her reaction. After a short stop, we continued on re-traced the steps of the buffalo we'd seen the night before. As they do not move quickly, we quickly caught up with them near where we'd left them earlier. H.J. kept a safe distance with them since there was a large herd and he didn't want to cause a stampede (thanks H.J.). He explained how hard the top part of their head is, and we watched as they protected their baby buffalo. It wasn't long before H.J. told us that since we had spent so much time with the lions and wild dogs, it was already time to head back to the lodge! Man, what an action-packed morning. Definitely the best overall drive of the trip.

Cape Buffalo

After being dropped back off at the lodge and having some breakfast, H.J. came over to our table and let us know we would be having a bushwalk today since the winds had subsided. And on top of that, the rest of the guests at the lodge had checked out, with the exception of us and our British friends, so we would be going on a fairly private bushwalk! He told us to meet him out front in about an hour, so Julie and I went back to the room and hung out for a bit, and then spent some time on the observing deck before it was time to head out.

The four of us got to the front of the lodge just in time to see H.J. finish loading his rifle. Right then and there, we knew we weren't messing around anymore. We asked what the plan was, and he said we were going to pick up those lions where we left them this morning...

Wait, what?

Yep, we were going to go stalk the lions on foot. In the bush. In Africa. With our trusty guide and his rifle the only thing between us and those meat-hook paws I referenced earlier.

H.J. then went through a long series of rules and instructions for the bushwalk, reminding us that we no longer have the appearance of a big animal like we did in the Land Rover. Here are the rules H.J. recited:

-No talking unless I tell you it's okay to talk.
-Do exactly as I say, always.
-No photos unless I tell you it's safe.
-Walk in a tight, single file line directly behind me at all times.
-DO NOT RUN unless I tell you to run.
-If we get approached by an animal, do not freak out. Just do what I say.
-If a lion charges, I will walk away from you, so he charges me, since I have the gun.

You get the picture about not running? Yeah, we did too.

With the safety sermon firmly implanted in our brains, and some hand signals to follow, we set off. We immediately collapsed into the single file line, and occasionally looked back at one another using our newly discovered hand signals, basically saying with our eyes, "ARE WE REALLY TRACKING A LION?!" H.J. moved at a brisk pace, and we all instinctively kept up, not wanting to have a gap between us. After about 15 minutes of walking downwind from where we had last seen the lions, H.J. came to a complete halt, put up the stop sign and motioned us to look forward over some tall grass. We raised our eyes to follow his gaze, and sure enough, through the reeds, there were two female lions and one male laying down in an open area. All four of us completely froze. H.J. told us we were going to try and get closer, so he told us to follow him, duck down, watch our step so as not to step on any unnecessary branches, and move very slowly. So we slinked our way behind some trees and got ourselves into a great viewing spot.

...80 meters from a male lion...

Re-read that last sentence again. Imagine standing on one end of a running track, and having an adult male lion just 80% of the way down the straightaway from you. We were totally in awe of this moment. As we all sat still, at one point the male lion looked up, glanced our way and saw us...and we collectively held our breath as he slowly turned his head away and laid back down. That single moment he looked at us was probably the most intense, heart-pounding, scary moment I've ever experienced. Julie would tell me later that it was so intense and phenomenal that she actually got emotional watching this all unfold. I can't say I blame her, cuz I was feeling the same way. 

After a bit more viewing, H.J. signaled us to start backtracking and take the long way away from the lions. But of course, he said, make sure we remember to check over our shoulder every now and then to make sure the lions haven't moved (and no, he wasn't joking). We followed instruction, with me being the most frequent "over-the-shoulder" checker of the group. Ain't no lion sneakin' up on me!

Fully away from the lions, and been given permission to speak, the four of us all exchanged "Oh my god's" and "Holy hell's" with one another as we were finally able to vocalize and fully recognize what we had just done. H.J. smiled and laughed as we all explained how we were scared in the beginning. You will note here that I have said nothing about photos of this experience. After I got the rules from H.J. about photos, we really didn't have much opportunity for photos, so well decided just to enjoy the moment and leave the cameras in the bags. As much as I'd love to share with you the photos of that male lion on foot, I will always have it ingrained in my memory. We spent the rest of the walk playing "tracker", trying to identify tracks and H.J. explained how to tell the difference between the different cats, antelopes and dogs. It was a lot of fun, and made for great conversation as we trekked back to the lodge.

We spent some time watching the watering hole before and after lunch, with sightings of vultures, warthogs and vervet monkeys darting around the area. We took a short trip to the room to rest for a bit and digest everything that had happened over the morning drive and bushwalk, and before we knew it, it was 3:15pm and time to get back in the Rover for the evening game drive. Man, this schedule rocks!

Warthogs and a vulture

 Grey vervet monkey in the tree (dead center of the photo)

Our last evening ride of the trip started off similar to the morning's ride, with us catching up to the nearby lion pride. We had a couple new people in our vehicle, so everything was fresh and new to them (not to us seasoned veterans who just stalked lions on foot), so obviously the lions were high-profile sightings. The lions were exactly where we had left them after the bushwalk, and looked to have no intention of moving any time soon, so after snapping some photos, we pushed on.

After driving for about 30 minutes without seeing much, we turned a corner to find a rhino blocking the road! He looked quite ominous, being slightly up the hill and directly in our path. We cruised up to him and watched as he begrudgingly moved off the trail. He was standing by himself, but off to the right there were three more rhino, with one of them being a young baby. The lone bull was quite ornery, and H.J. informed us that this particular rhino was a little off his rocker and had a reputation for charging vehicles. So it didn't take long before he started getting antsy, and H.J. quickly said we had worn out our welcome, so again, we moved on.

Thou shalt not pass!

The rest of the herd

The rest of the evening we had random animal sightings, including impala, kudu, elephants and a unique antelope called nyala. The nyala is a beautiful antelope with unique markings on its face, back and legs. We never got a great view of him, but I liked him anyway.

Beautiful Nyala

As we looked for a spot to stop for our last round of evening snacks (Julie cheered), we came across a large watering hole where more elephants were drinking and playing in the water. We stopped on the opposite side of the water and had our snacks and drinks while we watched the big guys romp and play. Off in the distance we also saw a lone giraffe eating away at some tall trees. Yep, just another casual stop for drinks with elephants and giraffes...NBD.


 The lone giraffe after sunset

Last evening drinks on the game drive

On our way back to the lodge, we came across the two lion cubs that were part of the pride. We had been told there were two male cubs, but had yet to see them on our trip. It was very dark out, but the car headlights illuminated them enough for us to see them playing in the grass, then move along, as they were slightly less comfortable with the large vehicle as the adult males were earlier in the day. This was the last sighting of the night, so we set out for the lodge to have one last set of drinks at the bar with our loyal guide, H.J.

After spending some more hilarious exchanges with H.J. and Bernard, and seeing a honey badger run through the lodge grounds, we trudged over to the dinner fire-circle for one last entertaining meal with the lodge staff. We shared some more stories and jokes over dinner, and just as we had the previous two nights, we grew tired. But before we could flag down H.J., one of the cook staff hurriedly approached H.J. and quickly took him away from the table to speak with him and show him something. Being the nosy, curious kids we are, we got up in time to see him pointing out a large shadowy figure across the watering hole. At first the staff had thought there was a leopard or cheetah in the camp, but it ended up being a large jackal, which quickly scurried away when H.J. shone a flashlight on him. Apparently the staff is asked to inform the guides of any large animal sightings at night, as it makes it less safe for the guests as they walk around. Always an adventure, right?!

After the jackal left, we hailed H.J. for our last escorted-stroll to our chalet. We thanked him for a great day and said we were excited for our last game drive in the morning before we checked out to head home. Before crashing to sleep, we packed up our bags and got everything ready, as the upcoming day would be packed with game drives and lots of travel.

*NEXT UP* - Mating lions, a wounded elephant, our goodbye to Gomo Gomo, and the start of a long trip back home...

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

DAY #6 - What Animal DIDN'T We See?

I couldn't sleep!

Just the thought of getting to go on another drive kept me antsy and rarin' to go for the next morning. At about 5:00pm both of us were awake enough to hear a lion moan not far from camp. Now that is a way to start your morning! Thirty minutes later we got the courtesy knock on our door from the guides to let us know it was time to get up and get ready for the morning drive (it was still dark at this point).

We made our way to the main lodge (we were allowed to walk alone in the morning, albeit cautiously since we had just heard a lion). They had set up some "tea and rusks" for all the guests, which we soon learned were really, really hard, crunchy scone/cake type things. We're talking put it on the side of your mouth and crunch down, hoping you don't break a tooth. But, it was snacks, so Julie was happy. All the other guests slowly filed into the room, and as we waited for the guides to load up the vehicles, we all chatted about the sounds we heard during the night and early morning, including the lion roar.

The same group of nine people jumped into our vehicle, and with that we were out on our second game drive, this time before the sun had even risen! One thing I forgot to mention in the last post was that within minutes of being on our first game drive, Julie immediately compared it to being on the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. It flung us around side-to-side, there were animals all around, and it felt like we were on some odd, rickety track the whole time. As much as I hated to agree with her Disneyland-Africa analogy, she was right.

 Julie ready for action!

Anyway, the morning air was cool as the wind hit our faces when we sped up, but with jackets and hats, we were totally fine. The weather the whole trip was comfortable and easy to dress for (no extreme heat or cold). Similar to the day before, it didn't take long before we came to our first animal sighting of the day. We came to a clearing where a couple elephants from the herd we saw the night before were eating some trees, and they had a small baby calf with them as well. H.J. daringly drove us up close to the elephants for some amazing photos, but it didn't take long for the big bull of the group to get fidgety about our distance. He faced us directly, and as he pawed the ground as if to charge (we would find out later he was about to "mock charge"), H.J. smacked his hand loudly against the side of our vehicle and yelled "HEY!" at the elephant. As if scolded by his mommy, the elephant stopped his hissy-fit, and went back to eating trees. We almost had an elephant charge us, but he didn't. Why? Because H.J. is a badass.

 Sunrise with the elephants

This is the one that thought about charging us

Since we'd spent a lot of our time thus far with elephants, H.J. convinced us to move on to see what else we could find. So we drove on, and we went from my favorite animals of the trip (elephants), to seeing Julie's favorite animal...wild dogs! Wild dogs are a unique breed, with similar attributes to hyenas and wolves, but with the biggest ears I've ever seen on a dog! They have incredible hearing, and have beautiful markings on their bodies, and especially their legs. We followed them for a bit, and before we knew it, all of their ears went down and it was obvious they had caught scent of an impala, and they tore off as a group out into the distance. Julie was about to say she was gonna miss those guys, but before she could even think it, H.J. revved the engine and gunned it into the bush to follow them! This was one of the most exhilarating moments of the trip, as we powered over bushes and small trees pursuing the dogs, and the other vehicles on the radios said they were on the other side watching the impala run. After a valiant effort, H.J. finally lost the dogs in some thick bushes, and we parted ways with our hunting friends.

Here come the dogs!

 Check out those ears!

 On the prowl
We slipped back on to the one paved road in the park to get to another dirt road H.J. wanted to hit, and as we drove we passed another vehicle stopped on the side of the road, with all the guests looking at the base of a tree. As soon as we pulled up, we saw why. A large leopard was laying down and stalking a family of warthogs nestled under a tree. We watched as the leopard lay motionless for a while, and then, with no warning sign, bolted out of his stance and darted for the warthog den. The family darted out, with a huge pile of dust kicked into the air. But the leopard was quick enough to snag one of the baby warthogs in his mouth, and in one motion retreated back into the bush to go enjoy his kill in solitude. That was pretty intense.

After the kill, we found a nice place to set up for morning coffee in the bush. H.J. and Caswell once again brought out coffee, tea, and hot chocolate, as well as some excellent muffins for a morning snack. I know you're already thinking it, so I'll say it: Yes, Julie loved the snacks.

Julie loves snacks!

The rest of the morning drive was spent observing less active animals who let us watch them as long as we liked, including a giraffe, some more impalas, kudu and a saddleback stork. As we rode animal to animal, we got to know our vehicle-mates a bit better, including a British couple our age who were on the honeymoon. We ended up spending most of our meals seated with them, and we enjoyed their company the entire time, as they stayed at the lodge the same days we did. After watching all these animals and driving around, it was time to head in for breakfast, so we drove back to the lodge at about 9:00am. We spent some time out at the observing deck, with a now routine sighting of the resident crocodile (he rarely moved from 9:00am-4:00pm), and then were hailed by the bongo drums to come in and eat our morning eggs and bacon.

Kudu female

During breakfast, H.J. came by and informed us that, because of the high winds, there would be no guided bushwalk today. With the lion pride so close to camp, it was unsafe to go out when the winds could quickly send our scent their way. We were pretty bummed about this, as we were excited to walk into the bush and find tracks and follow animals. But we made the most of the day, enjoying our time on the observing deck, taking some naps, and just relaxing. In addition to the crocodile, we also saw impala, terrapins (turtles) and vultures make visits to the watering hole. We also had very frequent sightings of the southern red-billed hornbill, the bird who Julie and I referred to as "Zazu" from the Lion King. Now this bird was black and white, and Zazu was very blue, but it was obvious the Disney character was adapted from this bird. Geez, two Disney references in one post...what's happening to me?! Everywhere we went, be it to our room, on the deck, in the vehicles...a Zazu was there.


 Zazu photo shoot!

After another light lunch at 2:00pm, Julie and I went back to the room to rest up before the afternoon drive. This was when I walked into the bathroom to find a scorpion in the sink. I made the mistake of telling my wife, who spent the rest of the trip looking everywhere before she took a step. I also made the mistake of rinsing him down the sink, instead of killing Julie was equally paranoid that he would just crawl right back up the drain. My bad Julie, my bad.

Impala at the watering hole

As quickly as it probably seems in this blog post, we looked at our watched and were surprised that it was already time for the afternoon game drive. Now savvy safari veterans, we packed up the essentials and headed to our vehicle to meet our friends for another round of animal adventures. We were greeted by H.J., who introduced us to our new tracker, Caswell. We drove around a while to start this drive before we spotted anything. It was actually quite fun going on these drives, as we became obsessed with trying to spot the next animal before H.J. or Caswell did. We rarely did, but it was still fun to try.

After about twenty minutes of driving, we came to a screeching halt as Caswell pointed to the ground. He immediately jumped off the hood of the car, got down to the ground and called H.J. out of the car to look as well. They spoke in Afrikaans, so we had no idea what they were saying. And then H.J. walked back to the car, grabbed his rifle, and said "We will be back in 10 minutes." And with that, they disappeared into the bush, leaving the nine of us sitting there, with no idea where they went or what they were looking for. We sat and chatted, looked at birds, killed time the best we could. After about 15 minutes they came back, saying they didn't find anything, so we moved on. We think they saw some cheetah prints.

Caswell and H.J.

After our guides momentarily abandoned us, we came across a single rhino in the bush, all by himself. We stopped and watched him for about five minutes, when all of a sudden, we saw Caswell motioning for us to direct our eyes to the ground. We looked down to see a uniquely spotted, mid-size cat burrowed under a tree and some bushes. H.J. told us it was an African Civet Cat, and it was extremely rare to see them in the daytime. He said it was the first time since he'd worked there (four years) that he'd seen one in the light. And then, as if on cue, the cat got nervous and bolted away from us, spooking the rhino as well, so we drove on.

African civet cat

Very soon after this we spotted a pack of 5-6 huge rhinos, including a young one. We kept a safe distance from them (20-25 meters), and we saw them change their formation upon our arrival, pushing their butts together and forming a defensive circle so they could see all angles. It was great to see them from inside the vehicle, as opposed to our flat-tire adventure the day before. We spent a long time watching them, and had some beautiful light as the sun began to set during this sighting.

Rhino circle

 The guard

We finally pushed along, and decided to stop for evening drinks in an open meadow with some impala off in the distance. With another beer and some snacks to hold us over until dinner, we were ready to embark on the last hour of our evening drive. We saw an incredibly large kudu with beautiful horns, and then as it got dark, we got a call on the radio that there was a huge herd of buffalo making its way through a valley near where the elephant herd was the night before. We high-tailed it over there in time to catch glimpses of their dark bodies in the moonlight. They were incredibly loud and clumsy creatures, with every step being audible to anything with ears. Those suckers weren't about to sneak up on anyone.

Beautiful kudu

As dinner time approached, we angled our way back to the lodge, taking one last detour to chase down a hyena. He was very dark and slinky, and was definitely a fast animal. We tracked him for a while, with his beady eyes flashing in the headlights every now and then. He finally darted deep into the bush, and we did not pursue due to lack of light. We drove back to the lodge around 6:30 and H.J. said we had about thirty minutes before dinner time. Our entire vehicle bypassed the trip to the rooms and headed straight for the outdoor bar, where H.J. and the other vehicle guide, Bernard, doubled as our bartenders. We knocked back a couple drinks, told some stories, traded barbs with H.J., and had a great time talking with all the guests. I will remember the time at the bar as well as any other part of the trip. H.J. was an incredible host to us during our stay, and we owe him a lot for making it such an incredibly enjoyable experience.

The bar

For sake of brevity and avoiding repetition, I will just say that we once again had an entertaining dinner listening to the funny cook-staff, talked some more with H.J. and our new British friends, and after dessert, we once again felt the weight of our eyelids growing by the second. We hailed H.J. for our nightly escort to our room, dragged our feet to our chalet, and got ready for bed. We were still on a high from our first full day on safari, and we couldn't wait for the next day, with our fingers crossed we could go on a bushwalk!

*NEXT UP* - Two more game drives, stalking a lion, and learning to read animal tracks!