Top Highlights of South Africa

1. Go on safari in Kruger National Park. There are a number of safaris geared for budget travelers where travelers on any budget can find some tour geared towards their needs. While Kruger may be more built-up with dazzling campsites and resorts than other safari parks on the continent it's for good reason; the amount of wildlife in the area raises your chances of seeing the Big 5 (lion, elephant, cape buffalo, leopard, and rhino), as well as other animals that are even harder to spot (such as cheetah, hyenas, or African wild dogs). I always recommend at least two full days on safari, but even on a time-constrained trip, a simple day in Kruger gives you a good chance to see some extraordinary animals.

2. Go backpacking, hiking, and rock climbing in the Drakensberg Mountains in the North and the Fynbos on the Western Cape. The Drakensberg ("Dragon Mountains" in Afrikaans) are famous for their glorious peaks, thick pine forests, trails that snake along riversides, and of course, world-class rock climbing. Down in the Fynbos, you'll be mesmerized by the flora that's unique to only that region of the world, with nearly 6,500 plant species here being endemic (not found anywhere else except for this small corner of South Africa). Known for its exceptional beauty and rolling hills painted with wildflowers, it's a backpacker's heaven.

3. Go surfing along the coast. Jeffreys Bay is the most popular spot for surfing, as it hosts some of the world's most renowned surfing competitions, but it’s pretty packed with tourists and noise; often times in JBay I felt like I was walking through downtown Jersey Shore. However, just up the coast to the East from JBay is the hidden gem Tshani, where there is a small backpackers hostel/campsite called Mdumbi. Mdumbi is serene, isolated, really breathtakingly beautiful, and probably my favorite spot in all of South Africa. It's a homey spot to pitch a tent, have a braai, and go surfing without bumping elbows with partiers, tourists, and a thousand other surfers competing for the same wave. Also, Mdumbi often has massive campfires on the beach, which hey, that's pretty fun. (PS- I accidentally lost my glasses in a fire there once, so if you happen to find a blue pair of glasses in the sands, you may just be my hero).

4. Visit Cape Town. Marvel at how colorful it is, how friendly and proud the locals are, how big the music and food scene is (especially along Long Street, which has so many artisanal coffee roasters and thrift shops you’ll think you’re in San Francisco). Enjoy the sidewalk cafes on the harbor, the sweeping view from the summit of Table Mountain, and the lively nightlife.

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5. Road trip along the Garden Route and Western Cape. You’ll feel like you’re driving along California’s Big Sur as you snake along roads that hug the dropping cliffs that form the Cape, leading to hidden beaches, rolling vineyard, and charming wine towns adorned with stone churches, pastel-painted houses, and cobblestone lanes. (And if you’re more of an adrenaline junky, here's your chance to go cage diving with great white sharks in Mossel Bay.)

6. Kayak (or raft) down the Orange River as it snakes along the Namibian Border. Of course it’s a haul to get up there, but you’ll feel like you’re in another world as you drop into orange canyons, topaz rapids, and camp underneath the stars in an amphitheater of red desert walls. It’s spectacular. It’s uncomfortable. It’s weird. It’s like Mars. It’s isolated. It’s something else.

To Climb the Highest Mountain in Africa

Mount Kilimanjaro.

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The highest mountain on the African continent, and one of the world's Seven Summits.

With its peak residing at a soaring altitude of 19,341 feet, Kilimanjaro has beckoned thousands of trekkers to attempt to reach its summit, surrounded by a amphitheaters of glacier, monstrous rock, and oceans of clouds thousands of feet below where the summit looms. 

Routes

The climb up Kilimanjaro can take anywhere between five to nine days, depending on the route you choose to take. Deciding on the right route can either make or break your climb, depending on how much time you allow yourself to acclimatize to the altitude (the #1 reason why people turn around on the mountain isn't because it's a difficult hike, but because they ascended too quickly and became sick from the altitude).

Each route varies, depending on rate of ascent, scenery, crowds, and, of course, price. The run down for each route follows:

Marangu
Duration: 5 days
Crowds: Extremely high (most popular route)
Scenery: Considered least scenic route
Accommodation: Sleeping huts
Recommended for: No one, honestly. The quick ascent, crowds, and packed sleeping huts make this an unsuccessful and unenjoyable route, despite it being the cheapest choice.

Machame
Duration: 6-7 days
Crowds: High
Scenery: Extremely scenic with varying landscape
Accommodation: Camping
Recommended for: Budget travelers who are confident in their ability to have long days at rapidly increasing high altitude

Lemosho
Duration: 8-9 days
Crowds: Low until route joins with Machame
Scenery: Considered overall most beautiful
Accommodation: Camping
Recommended for: Anyone who wants to spend ample time enjoying the views, generally low crowds, and is hellbent on reaching the summit (highest success rate)

Shira
Duration: 7-8 days
Crowds: Low
Scenery: Varied and beautiful
Accommodation: Camping
Recommended for: People who want to do Lemosho but don't have the time. It's essentially the same route as Lemosho except you begin the trek at 11,000 ft, which causes the rate of success (and risk of altitude sickness) to increase significantly.

Rongai
Duration: 6-7
Crowds: Low
Scenery: Vastly different from other routes (it's the only path that begins in the north)
Accommodation: Camping
Recommended for: People climbing in the rainy season, or people who want a similar climb to Marangu (long uphill slog) but want to avoid the crowds and prefer remoteness.

Finding the Right Company
(and paying the right price)

Like most mountains of this magnitude, to climb Kilimanjaro you'll need to go with a licensed guide, porter, and pay a park entrance fee. However, because Kilimanjaro is not a technical mountain and a staggering 50,000 people attempt the mountain each year, there is a large amount of bootleg "companies" aimed towards budget travelers that offer attractively cheap prices. But the thing with Kilimanjaro -- as with any guide or company anywhere in the world -- is this simple truth:

You get what you pay for.

When you are spending over a week climbing one of the tallest peaks in the world, you will want to fork over extra money to ensure that you have a safe climb. When you find a company that has an attractive, low price, get in touch with them and ask them some very important questions, such as:

  • How many times has the guide(s) summitted the mountain?

  • Does he have a license (and can you see it)?

  • What kind of food should you expect? How will your meals be prepared? How do they keep the food fresh? Are they willing to accommodate to any dietary restrictions?

  • Will drinking water be provided, or will you be required to carry your own water purification system (such as iodine or a SteriPEN)?

  • What camping gear will they provide? What's the quality of the tent? What about the sleeping mattresses (if you're not carrying your own)? A good company will have strong, functional equipment.

  • How is their safety record? Do they know how to care for a client who may become sick with altitude? Do they know what to look for? (Altitude sickness is more common than you may think; read about it more here).

If they seem to skirt certain questions, are unsure of specifics, or are more interested in signing you up instead of answering all your inquiries in detail, odds are they're more interested in grabbing clients rather than ensuring a safe and successful climb.

Picking a Budget Company

You can either hunt for budget companies online (but again, be extremely vigilant about frauds and ask the questions I listed above), or you can wait until you arrive in Tanzania to do the hunting, depending on how comfortable and lenient with time you are.

Fly into Tanzania's Arusha Kilimanjaro airport (JRO) and spend a few days visiting tour operators in Arusha to talk to guides in person and compare prices. You can also take the cheap two-hour bus from Arusha to Moshi (the town at the base of Kilimanjaro) to speak to operators there. Either way, it will only take you a few days to pick a company out, as Tanzania's tourism industry thrives on climbers, so advertisements and operators will practically be flinging themselves at you.

In the end, expect to pay between $1,000 and $2,000 for a safe budget climb. 

While it's possible to go under $1,000 if you do the Marangu or Machame route, tips will most likely bring your Kilimanjaro experience to over a grand. 

And although, like I said, it is important to pay for what you want to get, there are some ways to keep the cost down, such as carrying your own sleeping bag and sleeping pad as opposed to renting them, bringing your own durable (and broken in!) hiking boots, and opting for a company that safely cuts costs by not carrying extra luxuries: such as a dining tent, private toilet, or chairs.

A budget climb up Machame route meant no communal dining tent; instead, the four of us on the climb piled into one sleeping tent to eat our dinners and breakfasts

A budget climb up Machame route meant no communal dining tent; instead, the four of us on the climb piled into one sleeping tent to eat our dinners and breakfasts

What Can I do to Help Raise My Odds of Reaching the Summit?

Unlike the other Seven Summits, Kilimanjaro is not a technical mountain; meaning that there aren't any ropes, any rock or ice climbing, or any need for past mountaineering experience. Simply, Kilimanjaro is a multi-day trek. 

So why the low success rate of only 45% ? Even as low as 27% on the 5-day routes, such as Marangu, which happens to be the most popular?

There is no need for a climber to have any skills to climb Kilimanjaro, so tourists of any age, health, and fitness flood through the Kilimanjaro gates every year with hardly any training or concept of the danger they're putting themselves into. While Kili isn't technically challenging, it still holds an estimated 3-7 deaths per year due to altitude sickness and unfit tourists underestimating the strength that it takes to climb thousands of feet for hours on end.

The best way to ensure a safe, successful, and enjoyable summit is to train. In the months leading up to your climb, focus on working out 3-4 days a week. When I was training for my climb, my favorite strengthening workouts consisted of several hours on the stair master during the busy work week, and then taking a day on the weekend to go for a hike where I'd carry a backpack with weights in it (anywhere between 10 to 20 pounds). The key to enjoying an uphill slog trek, such as Kilimanjaro, is to be fit enough to not feel shaky and out of breath within a few hours, or even minutes. A successful climb coincides greatly with how much you enjoy it, because if you feel physically unwell, then you're going to become physically unwell, leaving you more susceptible to the effects of high altitude backpacking. Preparing for Kilimanjaro doesn't have to be back-breaking, but you want to depart knowing that your physical capabilities won't limit your chances to summit; after all, you paid a lot of money to get to East Africa and to attempt this magnificent peak. Every day training is putting more odds for a summit in your favor.

Climbing Kilimanjaro is a right of passage for any backpacker, trekker, or person with a love of getting up close and personal with one of the most iconic peaks in the world. While the crowds can be deterring, the mountain makes up for it in its sheer magnitude and beauty, whether you make it to the summit or not.

Walk on.

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To read more about the super-specifics of climbing Kilimanjaro, and to learn more about each of the routes, visit the website Ultimate Kilimanjaro.

Guide to Packing

When packing, there are three main considerations: 

    1. What luggage am I bringing? 
    2. What are my absolute must-haves (for any trip)? 
    3. What do I need to bring that's unique to this trip? 

Let's start with #1. 

What Luggage am I Bringing? 

Finding the right luggage for traveling is crucial. You want something that's roomy enough for trips where you may be carrying extra bulk, but you also don't want something that will be too heavy and cumbersome for occasions where you're carrying it for significant portions of time. Most travelers find that they need two kinds of luggage: a large backpack for carrying your clothing and gear, and one small daypack for essentials that you want on you at all times. When picking out your luggage backpack, I recommend shooting for anything between 60 to 80 liters in size. While it's easy to compress a backpack if you don't use up all 80 liters, it's much harder to stretch it and force everything to fit into a small pack that simply doesn't have enough space.

When you're picking out your backpack, shop around, and try things on. Don't buy something blindly online without having tested it out first. Head to your local outdoors store (such as REI or Eastern Mountain Sports) and work with a specialist who will find the backpack that's most formfitting, comfortable, and viable for you. 

As for the daypack, you want enough room so that it can fit anything you would need on a flight, in transit, or in any situation where you're out an about. A good test for a proper daypack is that is has compartments for pens, wallet, papers and documents (such as your passport), and room for a book or two, a rain jacket, sunglasses, a small toiletries/first aid kit, and a pocket for a water bottle or two. If you think you'll be carrying a laptop with you on your travels, look for a daypack with an internal laptop pocket. If you're carrying a DSLR camera, look for camera backpacks that can safely hold your camera gear, while still having ample room for necessary documents, transit necessities, and day items. Typically, daypacks run between 20 and 40 liters, and can also be tested and purchased at your outdoors retail store. 

On a road trip through Eastern Europe, I decided to bring a duffle instead of a backpack because it would be easier for living out of a car

On a road trip through Eastern Europe, I decided to bring a duffle instead of a backpack because it would be easier for living out of a car

What Are My Absolute Must-Have's? 

No matter where you go or what you're doing, 99% of the time, you will have to pack the same constant necessities. These include: 

    •    Toiletries (including: toothbrush, eye mask/ear plugs for sleeping, hair ties if necessary, just one small bottle each of toothpaste, shampoo, and soap -- remember, you can purchase these things abroad if you run out) 
    •    A converter if you're traveling abroad and power outlets are different from your own. It's worth investing in a universal converter so you don't have ten different ones for ten different countries. These can usually be purchased online. 
    •    Medications & copies of prescriptions. Along with medications, be sure to bring a broad spectrum antibiotic (which can be given to you from your travel doctor), as well as staples such as Ibuprofen, Tylenol, and Dramamine (if you get motionsick) 
    •    Guidebook and a small phrasebook.  
    •    Headlamp with spare batteries. 
    •    Nalgene water bottle.
    •    Sunglasses and glasses (with your prescription, in case you lose your glasses) 
    •    Pack towel 
    •    Rain jacket 
    •    Rain cover for your backpack 
    •    Rubber sandals for communal hostel showers
    •    Sleeping bag and sleeping bag liner. The liner can be washed, which will make you feel cleaner throughout your trip, and it can also be used in places where it's too hot to sleep in your sleeping bag, or you don't want to sleep in the provided sheets. 
    •    Laundry bag 
    •    Basic First Aid Kit 

Optional (but recommended): 

    •    Headphones (and a spare pair, in case yours are broken or lost) 
    •    eReader and Book 
    •    Notebook & pens 
    •    Plastic bags for items that may be wet or muddy
    •    Deck of cards 
    •    Sunhat 
    •    Bandana 

Insider Tip: Using your shampoo or body wash is a great substitute for washing clothes, so ditch bringing laundry detergent. Pack along a clothes line and pins for drying, too. 


What Do I Need to Bring That's Unique to This Trip? 

When deciding what clothing, shoes, and gear you should bring on your trip, consider your trip's location, climate, activities, and culture. The best way to get an idea for what kinds of clothes to bring is by looking through a Lonely Planet guidebook on the region you're traveling to. In every Lonely Planet, there is always a section devoted to telling you about what clothing is culturally acceptable or unacceptable, as well as also giving you a month-by-month look at what climate is generally like in certain regions at certain times of year. For example: you may be traveling to the Sahara Desert in August, but you'll also want to bring a warm sweater and hat because it can drop to freezing temperatures in the desert at night. In another case, you may be traveling to northern Norway in January, which requires a serious amount of extreme cold-weather appropriate clothing. If you're going trekking in Nepal, you'll want a mix of both cold-weather clothing and even warm weather clothing, such as hiking shorts and a short-sleeved shirt, as it can get surprisingly hot and humid in the Himalayan trekking regions. 

Once you've picked up your guidebook or have turned to Google and you have an idea of what kinds of weather you'll be facing, you'll want to find clothing that's as versatile (and, again, culturally appropriate) as possible. Especially for long-term trips where you may be traveling to multiple countries and will have to pack for a variety of climates, you're going to really want to snoop around your outdoors retail store to find clothing that's as lightweight, durable, and compactible as possible. 

Here are some tips for packing light and versatile: 

    •    Bulky fleece jackets should be replaced with synthetic down coats that were designed to compress to save the most space as possible. 
    •    Clunky sweatshirts should be replaced with lightweight (but just as warm) alternatives, such as SmartWool and/or Patagonia pullovers and zip-ups that are well-fitting and designed to easily be packed away. 
    •    Jeans are not only cumbersome and inefficient with their size, but are difficult to wash and dry efficiently when on the road. Swap them out for comfortable lightweight pants that are easy to travel in, hike in, and explore in. 
    •    Dresses and skirts are excellent for formal occassions, for hot locations, or for when you just feel like dressing up. Just be sure that you're well aware of the cultural expectations regarding dresses and skirts. Do they need to at least cover your knees? Do they need to cover your ankles? Can they be spagetti-strap style, or will you need to cover your shoulders, or your chest, or both? The same rules apply when deciding on bringing shorts and tank-tops. Cultural awareness needs to be acknowledged when packing.
    •    Only bring a handful of underwear and socks. Remember, you can (and should!) do laundry on the go, whether you pay for it to be done, or whether you do it in a hostel sink. You shouldn't bring a month's worth of these things, as they can take up a significant amount of room, and are easy to clean and quickly dry. So just pack a bare minimum (I usually bring a week's worth). 
    •    Find the right shoes. Usually a pair of supportive hiking boots are efficient for most traveling, hiking, and walking you'll be doing, and rubber sandals are good for swimming and showering. Some people opt for bringing along a third pair of every-day shoes, such as Toms or Converse, that are subtler than hiking boots and are nice for casual days where you aren't carrying a heavy backpack. 
    •    Don't go shirt crazy. It's easy to find yourself wanting to pack a shirt for every occasion, but you'll find just how little you actually need. Instead of bringing your whole wardrobe, pick out three or four shirts and stick to that. Something for cooler weather, something for warmer weather, and anything that can be layered.  
   •    Finally: use compression sacks! Everyone has their own method of organizing their backpacks, but using compression sacks to organize clothing allows more space in the backpack for extra gear, such as bulky hiking boots or a sleeping bag or tent equipment. 

Insider Tip: When women are traveling to more conservative regions, it's always a good idea to bring along a shaul or scarf if you ever find yourself in a situation where you need to be considerably covered up (such as visiting a mosque). 

an introduction of sorts...

Welcome!

I admit I never know how to begin these things or how to write about myself, but I guess I’ll start with this:
My name is Tate. I’m a traveler, photographer, and writer living on the coast of northern California, and this is my blog.

I've felt for awhile now that I need a new space to put all my thoughts, photographs, tips/advice, writing pieces, and resources about travel, so here it is, and for those of you who don’t know who I am: hello!

  • I was born and raised in New York and now I live in a small, sunny house on the coast of Northern California, on the quiet shores of San Francisco.
  • I’ve been a self-employed travel photographer for the past five years now, working for various publications and selling photos and stories as I go (including National Geographic, but I’ll make a full list eventually)
  • I've been to 57+ countries, and I hope to never slow down.
  • I’m a published author of a novel and am currently in the process of writing my second book. I also freelance writing pieces for various publications, mostly online.
  • I’m on the road to being a full-time photojournalist where I’ll be focusing on documenting international environmental conflicts and issues / violations of human rights. I’m currently studying Swahili and have hopes to learn Arabic in order to focus on regions in Africa and the Middle East.
  • I’m a passionate vegan and am often extremely outspoken about animal rights and the conflicts that surround animal agriculture, abuse, and controversies. When it comes to travel, transitioning from being a meat-eating traveler to a vegan traveler has been a unique experience, so you’ll probably hear about that a lot. (But spoiler alert: yes, you can be a vegan traveler, and yes, it is cheap and easy and worthwhile).
  • I’m madly in love with anything in the wilderness that gets adrenaline pumping, although mountaineering, ice climbing, kayaking, and backpacking hold special places in my heart.

I hope you all find something to take away from these ramblings, even if that something is something small.

Abisko, Sweden, 2015.

Abisko, Sweden, 2015.