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11 tips for a successful photo safari September 30, 2009

Posted by Tracy in : Adventure, Africa, ecotourism , add a comment

Giraffe, Crescent Island, Lake Naivasha, Kenya (Fred Tooley)

Giraffe, Crescent Island, Lake Naivasha, Kenya (Fred Tooley)

Good nature photography takes years of painstaking study and practice, first-rate equipment and a great deal of patience. But as Houston architect Fred Tooley discovered, spectacular shots are there for the taking on safari, and you don’t have to be a professional photographer to get them.

I asked him to share his top ten photo tips, and he was generous – he even gave us an extra. For a more extensive collection of his photos, and other Houston safari travelers, see African Adventures, and keep an eye out for their story in Buzz Magazines.

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Hot springs hideaway August 19, 2009

Posted by Tracy in : Adventure, ecotourism, Utah , 1 comment so far

Kayaking the Great Salt Lake would have been adventure enough for some — particularly since our self-appointed wilderness guide had a bartending shift that began at 5 and ended at 10.

UTAH

But Anne De Long is no ordinary wilderness guide. She’s also a tango dancer, along with the rest of my group, which means that life really begins long after the sun goes down. And so I found myself at 1 a.m., pack strapped to my back, hoofing an hour upwards into the Uinta National Forest in the wake of a troupe of tango dancers.

I am reluctant to reveal the whereabouts of these hot springs. Let me just say that they were well worth the climb. (OK, I’ll give just one hint: its name is Diamond Fork. But don’t ask me how to get there. I couldn’t tell you, anyway – I was asleep!) By the time I’d huffed and puffed my way up the last switchback, Anne had set the scene with candles all around the secluded pool and Suan had set the “table” – a rock in the center of the pool – with olives and brie and crostini and red wine.

When we were sated from food, wine and laughter — among the many talents that Anne totes around in that backpack of hers is the persona of a slightly bawdy showgirl — she led us to the foot of the waterfall where we plunged into its icy torrents and shattered the peaceful night with screams of delight.

We soaked our cares away till nearly dawn, when we crawled into our sleeping bags and slept like the dead until the hot rays of the sun popped over the canyon wall and crept into our bags. Imagine our surprise to find a troupe of blonde, uniformed cheerleaders making their way into our open-air boudoir.

All good things must come to an end, as they say. Sigh.

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Kayaking the Great Salt Lake August 15, 2009

Posted by Tracy in : Adventure, ecotourism, Utah , 2comments

I’d never have believed you could pack so much life into two days. Salt Lake City and the surrounding countryside offer so much to the traveler, it really deserves a week or two. Possibly even a lifetime.

Antelope Island and the Great Salt Lake

Nonetheless, two days were what we had, and our friends worked overtime to show us some of the highlights: Kayaking on the Great Salt Lake; a twilight concert downtown with the originator of reggae; a midnight hike up a mountain to an unforgettable night under the stars at Diamond Fork Hot Springs; a vegetarian buffet at a Taj Mahal-like Krishna temple in the sagebrush-covered valley and a drive through the verdant aspen forests of Sundance and the Alpine Loop.

First was the kayaking expedition. Anne De Long, our guide, warned us that the brine flies might be out in force, but we decided to chance it. We were so glad we did. The spectacular vistas, the salty air and the strange sensation of bobbing effortlessly above the briny depths made for an unforgettable experience.

Here’s a little preview:

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Cultural Safari in Tanzania July 1, 2009

Posted by Tracy in : Africa, ecotourism, Food, Sustainability , add a comment

When I told people I was planning a trip to Tanzania, the first question was: “Are you going on safari?”

Well, I didn’t see giraffes and elephants and lions. But since “safari” is the Swahili word for “journey,” I can honestly say I did!

Look for the full story in the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News travel section, or just click here to read it online. Meanwhile, njema safari (happy travels)!

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TANZANIAFor more stories from this incredible journey through the real Africa, from celebrating the election of Obama in hubub of Dar es Salaam to making new friends in the Bukoba countryside, see Tracy’s blog, Postcards from Tanzania.

BUWEA women thumbnailFor a story about the amazing group of women who drew me to this remote region, and how they are changing it, see From Texas to Tanzania: San Antonio network changes African lives.

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Zanzibar thumbnailAnd for story and videos from an exotic little side trip to the legendary Spice Islands — a land of Omani towers, red colobus monkeys, sparkling white beaches and mahogany forests — see Hakuna Matata in Zanzibar.

Aventura en Potrero Chico May 30, 2009

Posted by Tracy in : Adventure, ecotourism, Latin America, Mexico , 6comments

POTRERO CHICO, Nuevo Leon, Mexico – Less than half an hour from the crowded metropolis of Monterrey, the mountains rise in a spectacular series of limestone peaks that have come to be known as a world-class climbing destination. It started as a municipal park with a swimming pool and barbecue pits, but it didn’t take long for climbers to discover the pitted limestone face of these towering walls.

EROCK
Click to see slide show

 Today at the base of the mountains there’s a cluster of businesses catering to the climbers from as far away as Australia and Japan. We chose the cozy Posada Potrero, a picturesque retreat with houses and rooms for rent, grassy places to pitch a tent under the trees, a commodious pool with hammocks and a big communal kitchen that at night becomes a lively community of climbers from all over the world.

We arrived at about 6 p.m., leaving San Antonio at 9:30 a.m. and stopping at the border to buy Mexican car insurance and get car and tourist permits. We’d seen the mountains for an hour or more on the approach, but the hazy blue in the distance gave little clue as to what we’d find: a dramatic series of vertically layered cliffs, pointing heavenward like vast curtains of limestone. I couldn’t imagine myself scaling them, ever. But German and Marco had promised me there were beginner climbs, so I didn’t panic.

There was time for one climb before dinner, so we packed our gear and made our way up to the area known as the Wonder Wall. It was so tall and so vertical that my neck ached from watching German make his way up, leading the way in placing the rope at the very top to secure us as we climbed. I tried not to think too much about it as I stepped into my harness and borrowed shoes.

Unlike Enchanted Rock, where I first learned to climb, Potrero Chico is a sport climbing site, where thousands of routes have been marked and bolted. The bolt fastens a hanger, or a steel loop, that allows a climber to insert a hook attached to his rope, securing his way as he goes.

German had reached an impasse in the climb, and he was retracing his steps to seek another way. I couldn’t see how on earth he was going to make it to the next hanger; it was two body-lengths up a sheer wall, even for a giant like German.

“This doesn’t seem like a beginner’s pitch to me,” I countered. “It doesn’t seem like there’s a way up.”

“There’s always a way,” Marco said, as German felt his way along the wall. “It’s just a puzzle, and you have to figure it out.”

Figure it out he did, and the next up was me. Face to face with the rock, I found my friends’ words to be true. This stone yields its secrets to those who persist. I climbed five pitches during my three days here, working my way up to a 5.9, an advanced beginner pitch, and this with an arm injured in my previous week’s beginner climb.

My guides were Andres and Karla, two young climbers from Monterrey who seemed as much at home on a rock face 100 feet up as they did on the ground. Andres began climbing at 12, and by the age of 19 had scaled most of Potrero as well as Argentina’s Aconcagua, the second tallest peak in the Americas. Karla, at 27, is the single mother of Samadhi, a winsome 6-year-old who carries her climbing gear in a little pink pack decorated with teddy bears. Samadhi’s name is taken from the Hindi word for enlightened consciousness, or, as her mother says, concentracion – an appropriate appellation for a child who began learning to climb before she learned to walk.

With the same care that she coaxed her young daughter up the limestone wall, Karlita coached me up a 5.8 and halfway up a 5.9, meaning I’ve progressed to the level of advanced beginner.

Samadhi and her mother taught me a great deal. After our day on the wall, I feel I’m coming to a sharper focus and a greater mastery of my fear — poco a poco.

Climbing is about more than having a good time, as Karla taught me. It can change your life.

Rite of Passage at ERock May 28, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in : Adventure, Texas , 9comments

ENCHANTED ROCK STATE PARK – Deep in the canyon between the two pink granite domes that give this place its name, there’s a world parallel to the one most of its thousands of visitors see.

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Jamie McNally and Kit Garcia, two veteran climbers from Austin, were my guides into the world of the climber, where this place is known as ERock. Climbing is a pastime I’ve been eyeing from a distance over the years, with various friends inviting me to accompany them. I’d always wanted to; I’d just never had the time. But now, as I approach the five-decade mark, I realize there’s no time left to procrastinate. It’s never going to get any easier. I’m never going to have any more time than I do right now. So I dropped my friend Jamie a line. And now, as I stood in borrowed climbing shoes, harness and rope, facing this near-vertical slab of granite, there was no going back.

A rope stretched from the knot at my waist, upward to an anchor somewhere beyond my view, and back down again to Kit’s waist. She was belaying me, pulling in the slack as I climbed, and gradually letting it loose as I worked my way down. She’d be my counterweight if I fell. Still, while the rope provided safety and psychological comfort, it wasn’t to be used as a climbing aid. For that, it was just me and the rock. 

“You guys have heard about gravity, right?” I quipped, tipping my head back to assess the situation and stalling for time.

“These shoes are anti-gravity devices,” Kit reassured me. “You’ll see. It’ll be easy!”

I heard a titter behind me and looked back. A girl and a boy, both under the age of 10, awaited their turn. Great. Now I had no excuses.

“But… where do I put my feet? I mean, there are no stairs here,” I pointed out, somewhat lamely.

“Here, you can start with your left foot here. Then you swing your right foot up to this ledge,” Jamie pointed to a tiny black knob protruding from the pink granite. “It’s huge!”

I wondered if my eyes were deceiving me. Nonetheless, I placed a tentative foot on the left ledge and another on the right, holding with my hands onto the rock in front of me for dear life. But there was nowhere to go from there. I was sure that if I lifted one of my feet, I’d slide down the face of the rock, shredding my exposed skin. I was stuck.

“Once you get up just a little further, it’s easy,” encouraged Jamie.

The onlookers urged me on. Clearly, I had become the center of a spectacle. There was no way to go but up.

I saw another place to step up, but only by using my right knee – a no-no for a climber, and I quickly discovered why as I left layers of skin on the rock. But I had gained ground. And suddenly, I realized he was right. The shoes were holding me fast to the rough face of the rock. I saw another ledge further up, then another, and soon I was clambering up like a 5-year-old.

“You’re a natural!” Jamie called up to me, encouragingly. “Keep on going!”

I stopped to catch my breath and looked down. Below me, Kit, the kids and their father cheered me on. Above me was Jamie, who had shimmied up by another route and was waiting for me at the top.

Gradually, as I began to relax and trust the magic shoes – and more importantly, my body’s intuition – I began to notice something strange. Gravity didn’t have quite as much power over me as I’d thought it had. It didn’t feel quite so absolute. I worked my way up to where Jamie awaited like a proud coach, snapping photos of my first baby steps as a climber.

“You know what?” I gasped, taking my eyes from the rock to look up at him for a moment. “My body’s not as heavy as I thought it was!”

That’s not to say it was easy. The next route we climbed, called “Jacknife,” was more than twice as tall as the first one and required negotiating an inwardly sloping wall. Jamie coached me to straighten my legs and lean back, keeping my body’s weight over my feet.  Fear of falling generates a tendency to hug the rock, which paradoxically causes the body’s center of gravity to shift forward, taking weight off the feet. This makes your feet more likely to slip out from under you. You have to let go of the fear to let your body work with the rock.

It was perched on a tiny shelf of rock atop the Jacknife, breathless, bloodied and bruised, that I began to understand why people endure what they do to enter this world. I looked across the canyon at the tourists toiling up the side of the main dome’s gentle slope and realized I had changed. What had once seemed a perfectly lovely, even strenuous outing climbing the dome now seemed — well, pedestrian. For a brief instant, I had become one with the rock. Now I realized that nothing would ever be the same.

Exhilaration!

Exhilaration!