Sunday, March 31, 2019

Red sand dunes of Namibia

We have come to Namibia to see the magnificent red sand dunes, and this is the day.
The sand takes on a red hue as the morning sun rises.
We leave Kulala Lodge, which is located on the edge of Namib-Naukturt National Park, early in the morning. Despite its remoteness, the more developed part of the Namib Desert, which includes the awesome dunescapes around Sossusvlei, are surprisingly accessible by aircraft or by road. From our camp’s location, we take a shortcut to access a private entrance into the park and arrive there before most of the crowds.

Sossusvlei comes from the native words sosses meaning “land of no return” and vlei meaning “dry place.” It’s an apt description of the place where the Namib desert’s dunes come together and prevent the Tsauchab River from flowing to the Atlantic Ocean. The result is a large salt-filled pan surrounded by enormous mountains of golden sand in the heart of the Namib.
For perspective on how high the dunes are,
notice the people climbing this dune.
As the sun begins to rise, the magic show begins, turning ordinary sand into a fiery spectacle. Dramatic shadows appear, with the scene constantly changing as the sun moves higher in the sky. Yellow and grey hues of the drab salt pan landscape contrast sharply with the fiery dunes, the highest of the desert. It’s a glorious scene featured on countless travel brochures and calendars, so expectations are high.

It does not disappoint.
Dawn and dusk provide the best opportunities for spectacular photography, and we didn’t let the morning light go to waste. We snapped photos of classically curved dunes from numerous angles. Every few minutes as we drove along there was another majestic dune to photograph.

We walk in footsteps before they are blown away by the wind.
After driving by the park’s first dune and seeing a full parking lot because many people had stopped there, we decide to go further and soon are rocking and rolling through the deep sand. Only four-wheel drive vehicles are allowed as it’s easy to get stuck in this terrain.
Arriving at the dune called Big Daddy, we choose an “arm” or extension to hike. About halfway up, the wind begins to blow hard, spraying sand on our cameras and stinging our faces. In single file we chug through the steep climb, balancing in our steps in the soft, moving sand.

Below the dune in the dry salt pan.
The key is to step in footprints left by another hiker. Getting off the path could mean getting stuck in the cavernous, quick-sand-like surface.  The problem is that these footprints disappear quickly in the strong wind. In fact, a sandy fog is created by wind at the top and subsequently hampers our view of stunning landscapes.
At the top of the dune, we remove our shoes and socks and step gingerly off the ridge onto the shadowy slip face, sinking to mid-calf in the warm, fluffy sand. Despite walking slowly (our guide is quite practiced and scampers down in a matter of minutes), at one point I falter and catch myself with the hand carrying my hiking boots, thus filling them with more sand.

Vegetation cannot survive in the harsh conditions of the salt pan.
At the bottom we find ourselves wandering around a portion of the huge salt pan. Any trees that had grown there are now merely ghostly branches. But we have a chance to look back up where we had been—a truly mesmerizing sight and a highlight of the day’s adventure. My bucket list just got shorter.
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier


Monday, March 25, 2019

Tackling a tough travel problem?

Today’s post is courtesy of Christopher Elliott, consumer advocate and author of “How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic). This column originally appeared in the Washington Post.

The phone — by which I mean voice communication — puts travelers at a significant disadvantage when it comes to problem-solving. But there’s a notable exception, a time when you should pick up the phone and then maybe hang up. If you understand the difference, you’re well on your way to resolving almost any travel problem.

When trying to solve a travel problem, a phone
can sometimes be helpful; other times you should
just hang up and negotiate through email.
A report by Invoca, a call-tracking company, found that 65 percent of consumers would rather use a phone than email to contact a business. A survey by Google showed that on any big-ticket vacation expense, which it defines as a purchase for more than $320, consumers prefer contacting an airline, hotel or cruise line by phone. Attitudes are slowly shifting, but for many travelers, the phone is still the primary means of contact when there’s a problem because it’s convenient and fast.

Travel companies seem to like the status quo, too. When there’s no paper trail, it becomes much more difficult for you, the consumer, to resolve a travel complaint in your favor. That’s because when you contact a company about a service lapse or a delay, you have no evidence of your previous contact, no record of any response. It’s the company’s word against yours.

Travel companies hold all the cards. Bigger travel businesses, such as airlines and online travel agencies, have sophisticated call-center systems that record each customer service interaction. An employee can review the call, but unless you recorded it yourself, you have no access to it. A new federal law giving customers access to these recordings might tip the scales more toward travelers, but that seems unlikely.
Communicate by email and keep all exchanges when
working through a travel issue.
A quicker fix: Get everything in writing, either on paper or email. “Whenever possible, get it in writing, and document everything,” says Meg Aidekman, co-founder of D.C. tour operator Trip Tribe. But many readers offer excuses like, “I’m not good with technology” or “I’m a senior” to

“.A paper trail can be used to follow up on and hold companies to their terms and conditions and promises made,” Aidekman says.

Customer service expert Chip Bell, author of “The 9½ Principles of Innovative Service,” says putting negotiations in writing can help retrieve facts that both parties can innocently and easily forget: “We all say things that fade from memory as other facts crowd them out. Think of a written record as your reference library of what was agreed.”
Put it in writing!
A written record is possible even when you have an immediate request that would generally require a call. “Use private digital channels like Facebook Messenger and Twitter Direct Message to seek issue resolution,” advises Joshua March, CEO of Conversocial, a company that tracks airline performance on social media. “These channels are not only secure but offer a fast and convenient way to try to solve the issue while you’re on the go.”

More important, you can store and retrieve Twitter DMs and Facebook messages when you need to remind a company what it promised.

But sometimes a phone call is the best way to reach a company such as when you’re planning a complicated cruise itinerary or trying to book an award seat. In both cases an agent can sometimes offer options in a real-time phone call that you might not know about if you were booking online. Of course, after an airline cancellation, passengers instinctively dial the carrier’s toll-free number to get a seat on the next flight. That’s unlikely to change even if every passenger has a smartphone with the airline’s app on it. The phone still rules.

Rescheduling flights may still be handled best by phone.
“When you have a travel problem, call the company, and if you don’t get it resolved, hang up,” says Greg Trosko, an office manager from Princeton, N.J. “Call back later, and speak with someone different. You’d be surprised how often you get a completely different answer.”

Now that integrated caller ID systems provide corporate call centers with information that gets attached to your reservation and loyalty program number, there’s a critical modification. The big companies are on to you, so you can’t just hang up the phone and try again. That’s especially true for travel insurance companies, which document every call.

For smaller companies, though, if you’re trying to negotiate a refund and find yourself talking to someone who is less than cooperative, the hang-up strategy still works. They won’t track you because they can’t, and unless the agent you’ve just spoken with documents the call in your reservation, you can start over. Restate your case, and see if the company changes its answer. It just might.

Whether you’re trying to negotiate a refund on an airline ticket or push for credit on a future cruise, the phone can be your best friend — or your worst enemy. It all depends on how you use it. If you know when to hang up, you might get what you deserve.





Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Grand Canyon National Park celebrates its centennial

Magnificent colors of the Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon National Park celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2019. So this is the perfect time to visit this widely visited national park.  Its jaw-dropping views draw in more than six million visitors annually, and these will be highlighted with diverse historical, cultural, and natural public events throughout the year.
The Colorado River cuts through the canyon.
Grand Canyon is a favorite destination for families, adventure enthusiasts, and travelers from all over the world. On the popular South Rim, there are many shuttle stops that allow visitors to see and marvel at the deep and rugged canyon and ribbon of Colorado River at the bottom. (I’ve taken an amazing 10-day journey braving the river’s rapids and camping along the river).

Hikers may try reaching the bottom at Phantom Ranch, a nine-mile trek down. However long that takes, be prepared for the trip back up to take triple the amount of time. Or ride a mule down, which is quite an unusual experience.
Sunrise and sunset are the best times for such striking views.
For an especially scenic splurge, consider taking a helicopter flight over the canyon. You’ll see an awe-inspiring perspective of this geological wonder. Take advantage of park ranger talks and guided walks that are available most days and in various locations. Experience the wonders of night skies during summertime star parties, or rise early to watch sunrise paint a golden portrait on the canyon walls. Sunrise and sunset are especially great times to observe how changing light illuminates the canyon’s walls, revealing changing contours, colors, and depths of this incredible wonder.

View of Grand Canyon from a helicopter.
The North Rim offers different views and is only open during summer months as its elevation results in colder temperatures and snow for many months of the year.
On the Western side is a Skywalk that allows visitors to stand above the canyon on a glass viewing platform, and they can take a zip line across the canyon for a bird’s eye view. Additionally, in 2019 the centennial celebration will bring special events, festivities, demonstrations, special exhibits, and travel deals including the Grand Canyon Centennial Star Party in June.  So be sure to check online or with your travel agent and book early if there are specific events you don’t want to miss.
The North Rim is extremely rugged and has higher elevation.
Shadows are long in the afternoon.
On February 26, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill that officially created Grand Canyon National Park, the country’s 17th. With this act the famous landscape and archaeological artifacts left behind by Native American tribes will be protected and preserved for generations.

Called one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the Grand Canyon is a mile deep, 277 miles long, and up to 18 miles wide. Few places on earth are as majestic and awe-inspiring as the Grand Canyon. If you haven't been there, this is a great year to go. Or go again, if you have.
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier


Thursday, March 14, 2019

Getting outdoors in Austin, Texas

One of many features in
Zilker Botanical Garden
Zilker Park.  2100 Barton Springs Road. Spreading over 360 metropolitan acres, Zilker is truly a park for all seasons and all ages. A prime attraction is Barton Springs Pool, a spring-fed swimming hole where constant 68-degree water attracts locals for daily dips year-round.  Across the street is Zilker Botanical Garden, 22 acres of plant lover’s delight—a showplace for native foliage, roses, ponds, formal and Oriental gardens, and 100-year-old dinosaur tracks.

Stevie Ray Vaughan overlooks
Lady Bird Lake in Austin.
Adjacent to the park is Town Lake Hike and Bike Trail—ten miles of downtown trails around the lake.  It’s a verdant oasis and social hub for casual walkers and cyclists as well as a popular training ground for serious runners. 

On the south side, you’ll see the famous statue of deceased blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, who still inspires countless wannabe musicians.  Thousands of professional and amateur kite-flyers enjoy competitions every spring; other attractions include summer outdoor theatrical performances and musical events, mile-long pedestrian holiday Trail of Lights and spectacular Christmas tree, and collegiate rowing competitions on Town Lake.

Outdoor sculptures at Umlauf
Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum.  605 Robert E. Lee Rd. Adjacent to Zilker Park is an exquisite sanctuary for anyone who loves beautiful art and peaceful landscaping.  More than 130 pieces by Charles Umlauf, world-renowned sculptor and former UT professor, are displayed in natural outdoor settings and indoors.  Wander leisurely on paths in this almost-secret wooded urban area while admiring figures of children, animals, and religious figures cast in bronze, stone, terra cotta, and exotic woods.

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.  4801 La Crosse Ave. Springtime bursts with gorgeous wildflower displays along roadsides of Texas, thanks to persistent efforts of Lady Bird Johnson.

A variety of wildflowers bloom at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin 
The Wildflower Center (now under the auspices of University of Texas) honors her dedication to highway beautification by promoting research and growth of native plants and providing a scenic viewpoint for visitors.  Linger on serene limestone porches or stroll paths that meander around gardens, waterfalls, and open fields of flowers.

Spectacular bat flight in Austin
Congress Avenue Bridge Bats. 10 blocks south of the Capitol Building.  Only in Austin would flying bats become a bonafide tourist attraction. From late March through early October thousands of people gather nightly on and around the Congress Avenue Bridge to watch a black cloud of 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats stream out from under the bridge at dusk. 

When the bridge was constructed over Town Lake in 1980, no one imagined that bats would consider crevices under the bridge to be a perfect roosting place, but the bridge now shelters the largest urban bat colony in North America. Once thought to be a nuisance, the bats soon gained honorary status as people realized that they eat up to 30,000 pounds of insects on their nightly flights.

Mount Bonnell is a favorite scenic spot
for both locals and visitors.
Mount Bonnell.  Viewing the skyline of Austin from Mount Bonnell is like seeing the city with a wide-angle lens.  After climbing 99 steps to one of the highest spots in the city, you can look over the Pennybacker Bridge, commonly called Austin 360 Bridge, and see landmarks like the University of Texas tower and the Capitol, a panorama of luxury mansions on Lake Austin, and gorgeous vistas in one of the most romantic spots in town.  The summit, at 785 feet, is a picturesque setting popular for picnics and sunset watching. 

Laguna Gloria.  Visit renowned Austin Museum of Art at Laguna Gloria, 3809 W. 35th Street, and enjoy art as well as beautifully landscaped grounds and an historic villa on Lake Austin.  Stroll this iconic lakeside destination, which is often the site of outdoor sculptures and displays.
The historic mansion at Laguna Gloria
Numerous hiking trails are scattered throughout Austin in parks and other venues. Since central Texas is known for its hills and rivers, you can find more outdoor fun within an hour's drive from the city.

Photos by Beverly Burmeier

Friday, March 8, 2019

Embracing the desert of Namibia

We leave Windhoek, Namibia and fly south toward Sosessuvlei to see the red sand dunes.  The landscape is desolate; metal roofs on scattered buildings glisten like diamonds in the sun. Cars below are few and far between as a dirt road snakes its way along the narrow paved two-lane road.
View out the window of our small transport plane.
The topography takes on a reddish tint, a hint of what is to come. After nearly an hour in the air, the terrain becomes more rugged and mountainous, although it is still dry and dreary. Then there is the desert—waves of unspoiled champagne-colored sand covering the ground and drifting over even the mountains below.

I marvel at jaw-dropping views of this spectacular landscape. Eventually I notice the long, gravel landing strip which fades into the vast emptiness as the plane's wheels touch down.
Getting to various camps requires transport via small plane.
The Namib Desert is a land of magnificent dunes to the west and rugged, mountains of the Namib escarpment to the north and east, with grassy plains filing the space between.

There is a simple beauty in the starkness of the desert.
We land and head in a safari vehicle for the private 90,000 acre Kulala Wilderness Reserve. Massive gold-orange dunes, shaped by wind into this unbelievably beautiful starkness, rise a thousand feet from the floor of the world’s oldest desert.
Stairs leading to our rooftop "hideaway."
We find our accommodations among 11 stylish thatched villas or kulalas (meaning “to sleep” in local Oshiwambo language). There is a large outdoor deck, indoor and outdoor showers, a private plunge pool and a rooftop “skybed” for romantic stargazing (We try this out later!)

We scan the landscape from our rooftop perch.
In the afternoon we set out to explore the Kulala Wilderness Reserve. Everything living here has adapted to the harsh, dry climate. Challenges include finding water, conserving energy (many are nocturnal), and finding food (hunt early morning or late evening). Trees have tiny leaves because of water scarcity or thorns as protection from grazing animals.
Spring bok can go a year without
water--desert adaptation.
On our first safari of this journey we see antelopes, Oryx, and spring bock (which can survive 365 days without water). Rocks are everywhere on the ground, leftover from wave action on a prehistoric ocean bed. Basalt and limestone are now prevalent in the dry river beds.

An ostrich egg left to nature.
Our guide points out “fairy circles” and explains that the origin of these rock formations on the ground is not really known. We find an ostrich egg that had been laid in the open on bushman’s grass. Most likely it will never hatch.
Our dining experiences were superb.
After driving for awhile, we stop for snacks and wine before heading back to camp and a sumptuous dinner.
Even better, we are treated to native singing, dancing, clapping, and foot tapping by the energetic staff. Their happy voices lift us all, till we forget what a long day it has been—and the early morning wake-up call we will have in order to see sunrise on the magnificent sand dunes of Sossusvlei.
Staff was very friendly, helpful, and accommodating--a real asset for remote camps.
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier