Thursday, November 21, 2013

Enjoy the wild side of East Africa: Foreign Correspondence interview

Mark Wheeler, 42, is regional managing director for East Africa and South Asia for the luxury/safari travel firm andBeyond ( The British native has worked in adventure travel for about 20 years, and has been based in Nairobi, Kenya, for the last 3 1/2 years. AndBeyond holdings include lodges in South Africa, Botswana and India, tourism companies in Sri Lanka and Bhutan, and properties in Tanzania and Kenya.

Q. Does “adventure tourism” always mean “safaris”?

A. Safaris are a big part of what we do, particularly in East Africa. “Safari” is actually a Swahili word that means “to take a journey.” People usually think of being out in the savanna, seeing the big five – elephant, rhino, buffalo, leopard and lion – but there are other possibilities, like climbing Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro.

Or – in Uganda and Rwanda – seeing the only wild population of mountain gorillas left in the world: 780. And there are places such as Gombe Stream and Mahale in Tanzania where you can also find chimps.

An integral part of the adventure experience is the cultural side. There are about 42 tribes in Kenya and approximately 120 in Tanzania. The most famous is the Masai, known for a strong cultural heritage they still maintain.

One of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in East Africa is Ngorongoro Crater, an old volcano caldera that forms a natural refuge for wildlife and offers a unique game-viewing experience.

And of course you’ve got some wonderful beaches on the East African coast, primarily around Zanzibar. You may have heard of our private island lodge called Mnemba.

Q. What’s the most popular draw?

A. The safari, which in East Africa is different from other areas of Africa. You can see the great wildebeest migration in Tanzania and Kenya between the Serengeti and the Masai Mara.

It’s year-round, but the best times would be in the southern Serengeti in January through March, with 1.5 to 2 million wildebeest and antelope following the grass that comes up after the rains. In the southern Serengeti, you see them giving birth at that time, normally over a month. From an evolutionary standpoint, this results in higher survival rates: If you have 600 baby wildebeest arriving at the same time, they are so numerous that predators are sated very quickly, and a higher percentage of wildebeests survive.

Also, July through September in the northern Serengeti and Masai Mara, you get to see river crossings, with 20,000 to 50,000 wildebeests crossing at the same time, with crocodiles taking some of them. The scale of wildlife is such that you won’t see anything like that anywhere in the world.
In August, we drove through a herd of about 600,000 individuals. At 15 mph, it took me 20 minutes of continuous driving to get from one side of the herd to the other.

(Note: Photo of wildebeest migration at the top of this post is by Anup Shah - Washington Post)

Q. What’s the most rare animal you’ve seen in the bush?

A. Probably something like the bat-eared fox or another nocturnal animal. In several of our East African camps we have our own private concessions on the reserves, so we are able to offer night drives, unlike in some of the national parks where (doing that) can be illegal. This allows us to spot some of these rare species, such as cerval cats or bat-eared fox.

Q. Give what you do, do you view animals differently?

A. I think you have greater respect by having seen some amazing interactions – such as a mother hippo rescuing a baby wildebeest from a crocodile during a river crossing, or male lions fighting for domination of a pride. Seeing nature at its rawest, basically. It’s a humbling experience.

There’s another side to this as well. We can visit various projects, like the giraffe center here in Nairobi. There are giraffes you can feed and interact with; this proximity gives you a different level of respect. Also, the Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in Kenya’s Nairobi National Park. You can see and interact with orphaned elephants who have been rescued by the project. They come from all over the country, can be as young as 10 days old, and human custodians will feed them milk and care for them. This continues until they’re about 2 1/2 years old, when the elephants are able to care for themselves, and are released into the wild.

You realize how helpless they are without their mothers, and you gain a new appreciation for for some of the amazing animals in this part of the world.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Duffer deal in San Francisco for Panthers fans

Heading west to see the Carolina Panthers play the 49ers on Nov. 10? You may want to take in a round of golf before or after the game.

The TPC Harding Park --  site of the recent Charles Schwab Cup Championship -- is offering Panthers' fans a deal: 20 percent discount on a round of golf. With weekend rates ordinarily $175, they're giving you $35 off.

TPC Harding Park is a municipal course, co-owned by the city and county of San Francisco, in the county's southwest (Pacific) side.  The course's street address is 99 Harding Road. The TPC photo above gives you a preview.

The Panthers will play at Candlestick Park (490 Jamestown Ave,) on the county's southeast (bay-facing) side. The distance between them is 9 miles -- about 20 minutes.

The offer is valid Nov. 8 through Nov. 11.

To book, visit and use booking code NFL20.

Who knows? It could be a win-win weekend.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Meeting of travel club raises wine glasses to Normandy

The  Nov. 5 meeting of Charlotte's Magellan Travel Club offers a taste of France in more ways than one.

The 7 p.m. gathering will focus on Normandy, one of the most popular destinations in France. It is also one of the most timely, as two videos to be played at the meeting will show.

The first highlights the Chateau de Canisy which is nearly 1,000 years old: It was constructed during the days of William the Conqueror.

The second video is set at the American Cemetery at Normandy's Omaha Beach three days after the 9/11 attacks. It tells how the French government responded to what happened in the United States.

In June 2014, Normandy will honor the 70th anniversary of the invasion of D-Day. This particular celebration may be the last time that those who participated in that historic event will have an opportunity to revisit the site of their accomplishment.

So it's fitting that this Magellan meeting involve a wine tasting: It will be held at Total Wine, 5341 Ballantyne Commons Parkway  (in the Promenade on Providence shopping center).

Reservations are not required; there is no charge to attend and meetings are open to anyone with an interest in travel.

Club details: Contact Bob Taylor, at  704-906 6483 or e-mail: