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9 Sep 2015

WWII American Hero Dies at 96

“These young Gestapo guys don’t even check papers well anymore.”

~ Irv Refkin

A young Jewish-American OSS (Office of Strategic Services) spy during WWII, Refkin spent a lot of time behind enemy lines, usually disguised as a German corporal (“No one has ever noticed a corporal,” he said).

On this occasion he was having drinks with a Wehrmacht colonel in a Paris hotel when a Gestapo officer asked for their identification. The colonel expressed such indignation that the frazzled Gestapo officer stalked off and Refkin sardonically said the above to the colonel as they continued to quaff drinks.

Refkin said the OSS encouraged its field agents improvise as needed. “They told you what they wanted to get done, but they didn’t tell you how to do it.”

During the war, among other exploits, Refkin, aged 20-23, smuggled explosives to the French Resistance, infiltrated Nazi Germany and killed specific targets integral to the war machine, and sabotaged rail tracks that slowed down the German armored response to the Normandy/D-Day landings.

Refkin passed this week at 96. God speed, American hero.

9 Sep 2015

Founding Fathers: A Cuba Travelogue

EHE partners Dr. Brian DeToy and Sheryl Rankin Shafer were recently published, along with several of Sheryl’s photos, in Destinations Travel Magazine! Check out the article entitled Founding Fathers: A Cuba Travelogue! http://destinationstravelmagazine.com/September2015/#/86

Cuba is hot this year. The Pearl of the Antilles is anticipating an influx of Americans out to discover this country so tantalizingly close yet prohibido for so long. Under the slight lifting of restrictions, my wife and I recently traveled there. As a retired history professor, I wished to visit a number of sites. We also operate a history- and culture-based tour company, Essential History Expeditions (www.historyexp.com), and were eager to determine if Cuba should be in our portfolio of fascinating tours.

Fidel Castro looms like a sine qua non presence in Cuban history, overshadowing all who came before. However, we found two Cubans who should hold equal sway. One, Jose Marti, (1853-95), is known as the “Apostle of Independence,” and his writings have formed the basis for nearly all Cuban political groups over the past 120 years, including Castroites and their arch-enemies. The other, Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, (1819-74), known as the “Father of the Country,” is almost forgotten. On our trip we saw places important to each and began to understand how their images were created and why they diverged over the past century.

Our first stop was the southern city of Santiago de Cuba. A cradle of insurrections, Santiago is called the “City of Heroes.” Its lively heart is the Parque Cespedes, in the center of which is a bronze bust of its namesake. A wealthy, well-educated man, the sugar plantation owner was a first-generation Cuban or criollo (as opposed to a Spanish-born peninsulare) who sought the independence other Spanish-American colonies achieved a generation earlier.

In the centuries-old Santa Ifigenia Cemetery, Cespedes and Marti lie a hundred yards apart. Cespedes’ grave is an attractive memorial, fitting for a founding father. Marti’s is something else again. It is a gigantic, ornate mausoleum of Italian carrara marble. Think Grant’s tomb in Manhattan or Napoleon’s in Paris. Every half-hour soldiers conduct a ceremonial changing of the guard. Why the difference between the Padre de la Patria and the Apostol de la Independencia? The answer would come as we headed, like Castro in 1959, along a route through the provinces leading to Havana.

Driving in Cuba is a Back-to-the-Future endeavor. The roads are abysmal outside the cities and free-ranging farm animals often cross paths with a wide assortment of vehicles. Horse carts and huge buses, and tiny Trabants, tractors and trailer trucks. And hundreds of 1950s American cars, many gorgeously maintained. There are many billboards, most with messages from 1962 — Long Live the Glorious People’s Revolution! Or The Revolution Dignifies the Life of the Countryperson! Or Socialism or Death! Mile-after-mile on the highways, block-by-block within the cities, the billboards continue to . . . inspire. More numerous than billboards are busts of Marti. Invariably made of white-painted concrete, these stand by the thousands. Throughout our drives and walks, Marti’s head appeared in front of nearly every public edifice and park.

Cespedes finally has his day in our next stop, his birthplace town of Bayamo, capital of history-rich Granma province. Here is the square where Cespedes began the War of Independence. Here the National Anthem was written and first performed. Here is the town center, with buildings still fire-marked, where the citizens set their village ablaze rather than surrender to the Spaniards.

Cespedes reigns in Bayamo. His statue dominates the gorgeous town square, officially the Plaza de la Revolution but called Parque Cespedes. A plaque memorializes his reply to the Spanish when they captured his son. They wanted to exchange Oscar’s life for Céspedes’ resignation as President of the Cuban Republic. He famously answered that Oscar was not his only son because every Cuban who died in the revolution was also his son. The Spanish duly executed Oscar.

Like Santiago, Bayamo is a center of Cuban revolt. From Cespedes and Marti to Castro. Nearby is the field where Marti fell in battle and became a martyr as he initiated the second phase of the War of Independence in 1895. Fidel gave his penultimate public speech, in 2006, in Bayamo – memorializing the Revolution and the role of this province. Granma is named for the yacht that brought Castro’s 30 revolutionaries, including brother Raul and Che, from Mexico in 1956 to start the fight from a hideaway in the Sierra Maestre.

From our balcony overlooking the square, we could see the mist-shrouded mountains in the south. That night we sat on a park bench and watched men play chess and checkers as they sipped rum, observed single goats pull gaily-painted carts with several small children, and saw teenage lovers holding hands.

The next morning we entered Cespedes’ house, now a museum on the park and one of the few buildings to survive the 1869 immolation. We engaged the historian in a two hour give-and-take on the meaning of Cespedes. In an impassioned discourse, the young man explained Manuel’s coming of age as a reyoyo or second generation criollo in the 1820s-40s, his Barcelona university education and travels through Europe in a revolutionary age. Cespedes was a changed young man when he returned to Bayamo and took over the family sugar plantations, merchant houses and fortune. A generational split between those who supported the traditional Spanish power structure in Cuba and those who were emboldened by the revolutionary ideas of Europe and South America was occurring throughout Cuba. A full-blown revolutionary, with a plan for a free, independent Cuban government, Manuel was soon under close watch by the Spanish authorities and imprisoned several times.

The ground shifted in the mid-1860s. Demand for Cuban sugar plummeted and many plantations failed. The island was primed for revolution, and in 1868 the spark was a coup in Madrid that led to governmental change across the Atlantic. Cespedes exhorted his fellow conspirators: “This is the time and this is our chance. Gentlemen, the hour is solemn and decisive. The power of Spain is decrepit and worm-eaten; if it still appears great and strong to us, it is because for more than three centuries we have contemplated it from our knees. So … Rise! This is the time!”

The Governor, hearing of impending revolt, sent a telegraph message on October 8th across all of Cuba which said, in essence: No matter who rules in Madrid, Cuba must remain Spanish; arrest all conspirators. When the Bayamo operator, Cespedes’ nephew, received the telegram, he quickly informed Manuel that he was on the arrest list. That night Cespedes and a few close compatriots wrote their “Manifest of the Cuban Revolution Joint to its Country Fellows and the Nations of the World.” On the 10th, Cespedes went to his sugar mill at Demarra and, joined by 250 men, free and slave, he addressed the crowd and unveiled Cuba’s founding national document. Independence! Cespedes then went a step further. “My brothers,” he proclaimed to his slaves, “Until today I have been a Lord of Men. From today on, I will be a servant of the people! You are all free!” The call to freedom and action is known as the Grito de Yara (Cry of Yara, after a nearby town).

I had one last question — Why is Jose Marti so much more prevalent than Cespedes? “Ahh,” said the young historian, “that is because Fidel, he is a bicho.” A bicho? “Yes, a buck; a very clever and capable man, one who can read the people. Fidel recognized that the Cuban people have a greater love for Marti than any other man. He spoke to their hearts and spirits as no one else had.” Further, the disgraced Batista regime, overthrown in 1959, had appropriated both Marti and Cespedes, as all Cuban governments must; but, in their higher elevation of Cespedes, they allowed Fidel to wrap himself in Marti’s mantle. The Castros have maintained their revolution was the logical outgrowth of all Marti wrote and aspired to: Latin America for Latin Americans, without Yanqui interference. Yes, they say, Cespedes is important; but Marti is the true embodiment of Cuba.

Marti was born in Havana to a Spanish father and a Canary Islands mother. Young Jose was influenced by ideas of liberty and independence. Importantly, he thought about what type of society Cuba would have in that independent state. When Cespedes’ War of Independence began, Marti contributed to the cause in debate and poetry and was jailed as a traitor. At 18, exiled from Cuba by the Spanish, he began a nomadic existence across both sides of the Atlantic, constantly in support of the Cuban cause. He spent over a decade in the US as a poet, novelist, pamphleteer, journalist and editor. Marti’s time in America, especially in New York and Tampa where he organized the expatriate Cuban community, gave him strong feelings for and against US-style democracy and economic rights. He saw much to admire and much to deplore, and developed a philosophy for a Cuban system. His prolific writings kept the embers of rebellion going and eventually led to renewing the War for Independence. Carlos Manuel de Cespedes organized and fought for a free Cuba. But Jose Marti put a philosophy behind his dream and led through inspiring words and decisive action. And although both men died in the cause, Cespedes’ revolution failed, while Marti’s triumphed. And nothing succeeds like success.
From Bayamo, we traveled the length of the country, spending nights in rough Camaguey, beautiful, French-influenced Cienfuegos and Playa Larga on the Bahia dos Cochinos (Bay of Pigs). Each location brought more of the same: a park or statue named for Cespedes and a multitude of references to Marti.

The Bay of Pigs, scene of the ill-fated CIA-backed counterrevolution in April 1961, is an hour’s drive from Cienfuegos and enroute we observed farm workers drying rice right on the roadway. The museum in Playa Giron, a main invasion beach along with Larga, is over-the-top in terms of propaganda with little perspective balance. But the heartbreaking stories of Cubans in the region under the Batista regime are nicely juxtaposed with inspiring ones of what has happened in the area since 1961.
Departing Larga, we headed to our final destination on this incredible journey – La Habana. We spent three days and nights in the capital and were overwhelmed with its beauty, vibrancy and history. We walked the famed oceanside Malecon esplanade, climbed about the El Morro and La Cabana fortifications, and visited the Tropicana nightclub and the art deco Hotel Nacional. We dined at phenomenal paladars, privately-owned restaurants emerging since Raul Castro provided a small opening in the prohibition of private enterprise.

Again, Jose Marti dominated the personality debate. A fairly new statue stands before the American Embassy along the Malecon – Marti is holding a child, Elian Gonzalez, and pointing accusingly at the Americans. Gonzalez was the boy whose US immigration in 1999, and subsequent repatriation to Cuba the following year, caused an enormous international imbroglio. A few miles away, the Plaza de la Revolution lies in obeisance before a tremendous monumental hilltop tower. At the base, looking downhill at the plaza and the city beyond, is a large, brooding Marti. Facing him, across the plaza, are two iconic artworks dedicated to Castro revolutionaries. One is the world-famous Argentinean, Che Guevara. The other is the more enigmatic Cuban Camilo Cienfuegos. A young Cuban told us, “Che, as a foreigner, was no threat to Fidel, and would soon be off to fight in other lands. Camilo, however, was almost as important to the Cuban people as the Castros.” A famed guerrilla, Camilo was associated with revolutionaries who were not enamored with Fidel’s seemingly abrupt embrace of orthodox Communism. The young man continued, “Most of us believe Fidel had Cienfuegos ‘disappeared,’ as Camilo took off on a flight in 1961, on a mission directed by Castro, and no trace of plane or man was ever seen again.”

An old adage opines ‘revolutions eat their young.’ Perhaps. What is not in doubt is that Castro embraced a cult of Jose Marti and, essentially, ‘disappeared’ Manuel de Cespedes. In the US we have our own sense of ambivalence towards the “Father of our Country.” George Washington is seemingly marble, aloof, unknowable. We do not memorize his speeches and writings. We admire him for leading our armies in the War of Independence and guiding our early years as a republic. But we do not love him. Instead, our affection is pointed towards the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln. We love his coming-of-age tale, his homespun western sensibility and his steely grit in carrying the nation through its most harrowing days. We know Lincoln’s stories, his brilliant writing and, more than anything, his heartfelt speeches. He is the embodiment of America. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that in downtown Havana’s Parque de la Fraternidad, in which each American nation placed a bust of one of its leaders, the United States sent one of Abraham Lincoln. Maybe each country has its Cespedes and Marti, its Washington and Lincoln.

Biographies

Dr. Brian DeToy is a retired Army officer who most recently ran the Defense & Strategic Studies program at the US Military Academy, West Point. He is an author and historian, with an undergraduate degree from Notre Dame and a PhD from Florida State in European History. He has appeared on numerous television documentaries focused on various aspects of history. Brian has led more than 150 tours of over 50 cities and battlefields on three continents.

Sheryl Rankin Shafer is a freelance writer, researcher and editor focusing on educational leadership and business marketing communications. She has leadership experience in the start-up phase of multiple corporate and nonprofit businesses, both as a consultant and as a member of the board of directors. She is currently president of an education software company; her published work focuses on the education field. She holds an MA in in Leadership, Policy and Politics from Columbia University’s Teachers College and a Master of Nonprofit Management from Regis University.
Together, Brian and Sheryl own and operate Essential History Expeditions, a small tour company focusing on high-end guided travel to explore the history and culture of countries, cities and battlefields around the world. For more information, including upcoming trips to Cuba, visit www.historyexp.com.

9 Sep 2015

Exploring the Big Island

Sheryl and I had our first anniversary approaching and so we set off for the Big Island of Hawaii to celebrate. I had lived on Oahu, at Schofield Barracks, as a kid aged 7-10, and have returned to that island several times over the years. But I had not been to the Big Island or, indeed, any of the others. Sheryl had visited Kauai and Maui several times but had also never been to Hawaii. So, this was truly an adventure for us – a new place! We had a weeklong trip planned and were going to be staying on the west side, the Kohala and Kona coasts. It was a cool Colorado day as we drove to Denver International Airport for our Tuesday flight. The trip out was smooth sailing through San Francisco and on to Kona International Airport, just outside the largest west island town, Kailua-Kona. We came in from the north over the coast about 7:30 pm on St Patrick’s Day. Sheryl waited for our baggage as I hopped the shuttle to get our rental car. A new Nissan Altima was ours for the week and I swung back over to the terminal, picked up Sheryl, and we headed out to the main road. It was 20 miles up Highway 19, and we turned left at the first traffic light, into the Waikoloa Beach complex. Our hotel for the next six nights was the world’s largest Hilton, designed in the 1980s in partnership with Disney (and so there is a monorail tram and canal boats to carry you from place-to-place within the village). We checked in and took the tram to our hotel building – the Palace Tower. The room was nice though fairly standard. It was now past 9 o’clock and thus past 1 am Boulder time.

Wednesday morning dawned gloriously. I know that because I was awake at 4 am and standing on the lanai with a cup of steaming black Kona coffee as the sun rose over Mauna Kea just to the east. At 13,796 feet Mauna Kea is 117 feet taller than her more massive neighbor to the south, Mauna Loa. From their seabed floor base, these are the tallest mountains on earth at over 32,000 feet. We saw Mauna Loa only once during the entire week, mainly because from our angle at the beach, she was masked by the 8,000 foot Hualalai Volcano, but also because mists often shrouded her. Meanwhile, Mauna Kea greeted us nearly every day and stayed visible nearly the entire time. A week before we arrived, there had been a massive snowstorm on her and she kept a solid white cap during or trip. People are known to ski her in the morning and scuba dive later in the day. Anyway – it was a beautiful sunrise to start our first day on the island! We headed out the door by 7 and explored the vast Hilton property, the nearby beach at Anaeho’omalu Bay (known colloquially, for some reason, as “A Bay”), saw the upscale shopping in the Queens’ Marketplace and Kings’ Shops, and had a workout in the gym. On our walk we saw a number of feral cats that seemed to have the run of the property and appeared to be in fine fettle. Signs at A-Beach said they were cared for by a local group. They lived in symbiosis with a number of mongoose, as well. These sleek little creatures had been imported to kill rats decades before and have proliferated. We also saw feral goats of all shapes and descriptions on the island, and signs along the highway gave us warning of upcoming donkey and cattle crossing sites. Additional wild animals we saw on the trip included the Hawaii state bird – the large Nene, other fowl, geckos and, of course, numerous fish, turtles and whales and dolphins. At 10:30 we met with one of the concierges who explained the amenities at the Village and gave us some good advice on things to see and do, once we had told her our interests. Then we slipped into our swimsuits and went down to the beach and pools on the property. During lunch, we overlooked the large inlet blocked off for dolphins and watched the trainers put about 10 through their paces. Some of the trainers and dolphins swam into another area and met up-close with several groups of kids; some pretty cool displays. Regardless, it wasnot as cool as the display Sheryl and I got as we observed the four dolphins left to their own devices: mating. We then spent the afternoon reading books and soaking up the bright Hawaiian sun next to the water. I went to get us some tropical drinks at one point and overheard two locals talking – a man had been bitten just hours previous by a 12 foot Tiger shark just a few miles up the coast; he had been evacuated to Honolulu. Hmm – we were going scuba diving the next day. Food for thought. At 6 we went to Kirin, a Chinese restaurant and sat on the upstairs deck outside as the sun set beautifully, sinking like a huge lozenge in the blue Pacific. And then off to an early slumber as we caught up on our travel lag.ba0ec5_eac2b2e83cbe46c09b8e767c2a3d36afOn Thursday morning we worked for several hours (our only departure from our ‘vacation’ this week) on our plans for upcoming expeditions to Washington DC and Antietam/Gettysburg, as well as our Cuba reconnaissance for our first expedition there this fall. Then, for lunch, we ate outside at The 3 Pigs, a solid restaurant in Kings with a celebrity chef from one of the Food Network shows. In the early afternoon we drove 10 miles up into the highlands to Waikoloa Village and shopped at the Market, which had a Whole Foods feel to it. We picked up fruit (pineapple, mango, kiwi), cheese & salami, hummus, crackers, carrots and yogurt; we figured we may as well eat breakfast in the room and save on the exorbitant resort pricing. After dropping these back in our room refrigerator, we headed back south on Highway 19 towards the airport. Sheryl had arranged for us to make two scuba dives this afternoon and evening. We checked in at Kona Dive Shop in Kailua-Kona, showed our paperwork and signed theirs. Then back up the highway for about five miles to Honokohau Harbor. We pulled in, parked and walked over to our boat where we were warmly greeted by the crew of four and the other eight divers. After a brief intro, we were underway. Enroute to the dive site a few miles to the south, we encountered a sea turtle and stopped to observe a pod of Humpback whales about a 100 meters to starboard. Pretty darn neat to watch their huge backs glide up and out, the expression of their breath, and their slide back under, finished by the flukes. Soon we arrived at our dive location a few hundred yards offshore and anchored to a buoy. Other boats joined us with their divers. This was a popular site. Our last dive had been in the Denver Aquarium in November and it had been a year since our previous open ocean dive; and we are, still, novice divers. I say this to preface our dive experience this day. For one, I sucked down beaucoup oxygen on the first dive and was back up at the surface about 12 minutes before Sheryl! But it was a great 45 minute dive and we saw some amazing stuff, most wonderfully a big Manta ray. One minute there was nothing above me and the next there she was, seemingly gliding without waving her big wing-like fins. One thing we found on the dives, though, was that there did not seem to be as much wildlife or beautiful coral as we had experienced in Belize the previous March. Still, though, it is an amazing thing to dive 60 feet below the surface. Back on the boat, we had a dinner and relaxed for an hour till it was dark. A few more boats arrived for the night Manta dive. The idea for these dives is to place lights on the seabed and each diver also holds an underwater flashlight. The divers are weighted more than usual so that you sit still on the ocean bottom and shine the lights above you. This attracts the plankton and krill that the Manta then swoop in to feed upon. Or so goes the theory. And, I guess, it usually works. But not tonight. About 60 divers were in the proximity, the bottom was well lit and plankton and krill swarmed. But the Manta did not come. Oh well. After a 30 minute wait, we simply continued the dive and looked about the area. Very cool to swim that deep in the dark with nothing but a little flashlight. Our favorite sighting was a large spotted Moray eel. He came out of his hole and hunted about 50 yards. We followed. He finally snuck up on a large Yellow Tang fish, struck and immobilized him, and then slowly ate him whole – from the head first. Nature at its best! We also heard, very loudly, the songs of the Humpback whales this night – booming through the miles of ocean. After the hour long night dive we returned to the surface and cruised back to the harbor. Diving is pretty exhausting for us newbies, so we crashed as soon as got back to our room.

It was another beautiful day on Friday but we spent a good chunk of it in a resort vacation home sales pitch. Good folks, though, and some nice condos. Since we didn’t get out much today, let me describe the area that the Waikoloa Beach complex occupies and the Hilton itself. The hotel has three different lodging towers and an attached convention center. Canals and trains connect everything and it all surrounds a lagoon with ocean beach and several large pools. There are over 10 restaurants, including Chinese, Japanese and Italian along with American and Hawaiian. Most have spectacular views over the Pacific at sunset. All along the open air walkways are pieces of art – paintings, ceramics, statues, mosaics, tapestries and more. And much of it is original and hundreds of years old. The Village has been carved out of the landscape over the past 35 years and is now lush and green. But the surrounding miles and miles of the Kohala Coast are dominated by black lava fields. The volcanoes to the east have created this field over the millennia, with recent flows in the 19th and 20th centuries. But the enclaves along the water are like green jewels. Tonight, we sat on the patio at the Italian restaurant, Dona & Toni’s, and watched another glorious sunset. After the golden orb had set, we did get a few sprinkles of rain – the only we had on the west coast during the entire week, and not enough to have us take shelter. We had an early night of it as we had a big day planned for the morrow!DCIM100MICROWe woke early on Saturday and wished each other a wonderful first anniversary! It has been an amazing journey and we have packed five years of adventures into this first year; and we have no intention of slowing down! We packed some hiking shoes with us and hopped in the car for a drive down the coast. Highway 19 gave way to Highway 11 at Kailua-Kona and we continued another 20 miles south on it. The black lava fields of the coastal plain gave way to cool mountain air as the road climbed 3,000 feet into the famed Kona coffee plantations. Roadside coffee shops were everywhere and the tourist-centricity of the Kohala coast was replaced by a more ‘authentic’ Hawaiian experience (at least through the cultural amalgamation of the past 150 years). Finally, we turned off and descended the steep escarpment on a switchback road that took us down to sea-level and brought us to the edge of Kealakekua Bay. This is a sacred place to natives and means ‘pathway to the gods.’ We pulled into a small parking lot in a bayside park and a local man asked if we intended to snorkel or kayak. We said we’d like to kayak and he offered a very reasonable price for a couple of hours and, so, he jumped in our car and we drove to a nearby sheltered cove, Ke’ei Bay. He and his two partners there had about 10 kayaks and we picked one out – a two person boat. I have kayaked once before, on a Virginia lake, and Sheryl had never. Even so, we were soon on the water and paddling out of the cove and through the crashing surf of the Pacific. Turning right, northward, we were soon in the broad mouth of Kealakekua Bay proper. To our left, the wide open ocean stretched to the horizon (and New Zealand!) and over a mile across the bay stood a lonely stretch of beach that was our objective. As we paddled, Sheryl in front, I kept glancing below us (the clear waters allowed me to see down 40 feet to the bottom) and to the open ocean, as we had been warned of strong currents off the island that take unsuspecting folks out to sea. No worries, however, and our kayaking was a smooth cruise as we found our rhythm. Just off the north shore, we pulled in close and I hopped out, as boats are not allowed to land on this beach. But there is a monument here that I wanted to visit. As I walked up to it, Sheryl paddled offshore and observed the fish. The famed British explorer, Captain James Cook, had ‘discovered’ these islands in 1778 and returned in early 1779 for supplies. A dispute broke out with natives and Cook was killed on this spot in the ensuing melee. A monument in his memory was erected about 100 years later. The naval officer that I write about, British Admiral Sir George Berkeley, had served with Cook off Newfoundland in 1767. I slipped back into the kayak and we began paddling back across the bay, but this time closer to shore, to see a large pod of Spinner dolphins. We soon found them, about 100 yards off-shore and we spent a wonderful ten minutes following them as they cruised back and forth across this part of the bay. A lone snorkeler joined us and swam among them, too. Afterwards, we stroked our way back across Kealakekua, rounded the headlands and re-entered Ke’ei Bay. We had survived a three-mile open ocean kayaking adventure! Our next stop, just a couple of miles down the coast, was the province of ancient Hawaiian princes. Now a US National Historic Park, Pu’uhonua O Honaunau is an evocative experience of old Hawaii as it contains royal property, and a place of refuge for warriors and others. A 1,000 foot long wall, 10 feet high and many feet thick, separates the two and was built in the mid-16th century. Another thing the visit taught us, through a discussion with a park ranger about the name, Pu’uhonua O Honaunau, is that Hawaiian words never have two consonants side-by-side! From the park headquarters, after walking the grounds, we took the 1871 Trail for a two mile hike along the coast – past lava fields, a lava sled (where ancient princes raced down to the sea), abandoned temples, feral goats, and a spectacular lava cliff, seemingly frozen in mid-flow, that sparked remarks from visitors in the 1800s like Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson. At the end of the hike lies the ruins of one of Hawaii’s last aboriginal villages, finally abandoned in the 1930s. It was an amazing trek; and we were the only tourists on it. It was now mid-afternoon and we drove back up the winding coastal road towards Highway 19. Halfway up, we pulled off onto Painted Church Road and soon found ourselves in the lot of St Benedict’s Roman Catholic Church. A Belgian priest, Father John Velghe, arrived in 1899 and created a beautiful little church, filling its interior walls with his wall-sized paintings of various biblical themes. A gentle rain began as we sat inside and made it even more charming. From there, it was back up the coastal highway, through the Kona coffee plantations and back through the lava desert to Waikoloa Bay. We showered and dressed in the clothes we wore on our first Belize wedding night a year ago. We drove about nine miles up the road to Hapuna Beach which, by the way, is where the man had been bitten by the Tiger shark three days ago – he is doing fine, with some nice bites on his left arm. He punched the shark in the gills and it swam off. He described the shark hitting him like a truck. For our visit to this beach, we enjoyed a fantastic anniversary sunset dinner at the Coast Grille. Now, that was a good day!
Sunday was a quiet one for us. After breakfast in bed we headed off with fins and snorkels to a nearby beach (about six miles up the coast) in Puako Bay. This is off the tourist track and the beach we went to is called “The 69s” because you park at the wooden power pole numbered 69 and walk down to the surf. It was a gorgeous day and we set our towels in the shade (we have come a long way from our teenage years of slathering on the baby oil while broiling in the sun!) and read for a bit. I finished a book on the plague in 1666 England and started a re-read of Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm.’ Sheryl was reading ‘The Light We Cannot See.’ Then we slipped on our snorkeling gear and explored the waters by the lava rocks just off the beach. More fish here than we had seen on the scuba dive a few nights previous. In the afternoon we headed back to the Village and had an early dinner and drinks at Tropics Ale House, while we watched the Notre Dame women’s team victory that catapulted them to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen. Just before sunset we walked out to Buddha Point (a large statue of Siddhartha sits there) and watched the incredible light and color show of the sinking orb. Then, just after the setting, a pod of Humpbacks just off the point began surfacing and diving. Pretty cool. Another early night to bed as our biggest day yet awaited tomorrow.

Monday proved to us that Hawaii is not only the Big Island of this chain but is, indeed, a big island! We set off early, by 8 am on what we knew would be a long day. We first drove north on 19 along the coastal lava plain and then turned at Kawaihae and followed 19 up from the ocean and onto the high northern plains. Over the next 20 miles, we continually gained elevation until we were at nearly 3,000 feet when we entered Waimea. With 10,000 people, it is the largest town in central Hawaii and the center of paniolo cowboy culture. Beef cattle had been introduced in 1793 as a gift from King George III to Kamehameha I. The cattle soon proliferated and threatened to overrun the district. An American whaler had recently left ship in Hawaii and was hired by the king to take control of the herd. John Palmer Parker of Massachusetts proved adept with horse and rifle, as well as with the arts of diplomacy (as he soon married into the royal family). Today, his land, The Parker Ranch, remains the largest private ranch in the United States (and 5th largest overall) at over 250,000 acres and over 12,000 mother cows. The entirety of the Waimea district is given over to cowboy and ranch life. It feels so different than the rest of the island. Mountains tower nearby, hillsides are covered in pines, wide open fields of green pasture stretch to the horizon, it is 10-15 degrees cooler than the coast and the ocean cannot be seen. A large statue in the center of town has a paniolo on horseback throwing his lariat to rope a steer that is crashing down an island gulch. The rider is Ikua Purdy who, along with two other paniolos, attended the 1908 Frontier Days in Cheyenne, Wyoming – the cowboy Super Bowl. The island boys wowed the crowds and won 1st and 2nd in steer roping. Continuing on Highway 19 (also known as Hawaii’s Belt Road) we dropped down off the high ground and onto the northeast coast of the island. Everything became quite lush as we were now on the wet-side of the island. While the Kohala coast, where our hotel was located, receives an annual rainfall of seven inches, the east averages 120 and the town of Mountain View receives over 200 inches! The water made for some beautiful hikes and vistas today. Our first stop was Akaka Falls just inland off the Hamakua coast. Set in a lush, jungle state park (Cecille De Mille filmed a Claudette Colbert jungle film here) the falls drop a dramatic 422 feet from Kolekole Stream into a deep pool below. Lots of visitors here on a warm, sunny day. Next up, a few miles down the road was the Hawaii Tropical Botanic Garden. To get here we traversed the four mile Pepe’ekeo Scenic Drive, across seven one-lane bridges over steep ravines next to the ocean. The park itself was stupendously beautiful, with a trail leading through over 2,000 species of trees, flowers and other plants in a gorgeous seaside location. Now it was time for lunch and so we headed into the island’s largest city, Hilo. Alongside the water, we ate a superb meal at the foodie-celebrated Hilo Bay Café. Thus fortified, it was on to our next destination – the volcano! About 35 miles south of Hilo, on Highway 11, lies Volcanoes National Park. The drive to it took us ever upward, to over 4,000 feet, and into misty regions of lush flora. Entering the park, established in 1916, we checked in at the Visitor’s Center, picked up trail maps and headed in to see Kilauea, the active volcano; the other, the massive Mauna Loa, is not currently erupting lava. The overlook of the main caldera presents and amazing sight. Suddenly, the lush growth is gone, completely gone, and what is left is a stark, moonscape for miles and miles with smoking vapor spewing forth from many hotspots. It was much, much larger than I had expected. Mark Twain wrote of it, “I have seen Vesuvius since, but it was a mere toy, a child’s volcano, a soup kettle compared to this.” An amazing vista, indeed. We then drove along its edge till we found a trailhead that would take us down closer. Parking at an overlook, we descended 400 feet through lush jungle on a muddy path until, in a blink of an eye, the rain forest disappeared and was replaced with a smoking moonscape. We were now on the floor of the solidified, yet still steaming Kīlauea Iki Crater lava lake. This particular vent last exploded in 1959, shooting geysers of molten lava 1900 feet into the air. We now set off across the ‘lake.’ The path was marked by stacked rocks about one to two feet tall, called Ahu stones. Signs instructed us not to disturb them, or make new ones; you do not want to get lost or off the trail in this crater! What a phenomenal hike across the lava lake, very rugged and beautiful in a pre-historic way. At the far end, nearly a mile away, we headed back into the rainforest and climbed back up another 400 feet and hiked back to the car. In all, it was a little over four miles and took us under two hours. We felt fortunate that it was an overcast, misty day as it made the hike much more pleasant than a sunny day in the 80s on that black rock. It was now approaching nightfall and we still had one more adventure ahead of us today – to get to the international observatory on Mauna Kea and see the sunset and the stars – supposedly one of the absolute best places on earth for both. Back down the road to Hilo and then a turn west on Highway 200; the famed “Saddle Road” cleaves the island and runs between the two massive volcanoes, Kea and Loa. As we climbed ever higher from sea-level up to over 6,600 feet at the saddle’s summit, the rain turned to a deep blanketing fog. I mean tremendously thick. Hard to believe that down below, just 20 miles away, it was a clear sunny late afternoon. The landscape appeared positively foreign. Well, there would be no sunset or stars for us tonight. So we continued down the steep western slope, past the Army post of Pohakuloa and the lands of Parker Ranch. We drove down to Waikoloa Village in the dark and stopped for dinner at the #1 TripAdvisor-rated restaurant on the west coast (of 39). Pueo’s Osteria is a wonderful Italian-Hawaiian place and the meal finished off a fantastic day that saw us drive nearly 200 miles as we took in the sights of this truly amazing island. And what changes in weather we experienced in this one day, too. We were not surprised to learn that of the 18 climate zones that exist worldwide, you can experience 16 of them right here on the Big Island! We drove back down to the coast and checked in at the Mauna Kea – the island’s first true resort hotel, opened in 1965 by Laurance Rockefeller and still a place of understated grandeur. Tonight, however, we simply collapsed into the great wonderful bed.


Dawn arrived on our final day in Hawaii and we luxuriated in it. First, we explored the hotel and found it just about perfect for a repeat vacation someday – it has, perhaps, the finest white sand beach on the island, too. After a waterside lunch, we drove the Kohala coast northward and, at Kawaihae, turned northwest along Highway 270. A mountain range inland rose just above us on the right and the blue sea beckoned just scant yards to our left. Almost immediately after we turned onto this new road, we spied Humpback whales just off the coast. Over the next six miles, we pulled over several times to watch them swim, blow, dive and, best of all, breach out of the water. Perfect. Further along, at the absolute northwest point of the island, Upolu, we saw the birthplace of King Kamehameha, the man who unified not only the Big Island but all the islands. A statue of the warrior king stands in a tranquil roadside park. There is also a stone, a little further on at Kapa’au, called Kamehameha Rock. Legend has it that the king carried this rock uphill from the beach to demonstrate his great strength. Not so long ago, a road crew was moving the rock when it fell off the back of the truck and rolled to its original location. Apparently, it did not want to be moved and the crew decided they did not want to disturb the King’s mana (or spiritual essence) and so the stone is back where it wanted to be. This part of the island was, in a previous incarnation, vast sugarcane plantations but is now an eclectic mix and includes numerous good restaurants and art galleries. What we had come for, though, was neither of those – but, instead, another hike. At the end of the road, literally, the very end of Highway 270 on the northwest of the island, lies Polulu Valley. A gorgeous, isolated vale, surrounded by tall mountain ridges that have reached all the way from the interior to the sea, Polulu presents amazing views in all directions. We hiked down the steep, ¾ mile trail, on innumerable switchbacks, till we reached the valley floor, which is bisected by a meandering stream. The beach is an amazing black sand and the waves broke nicely on it. We walked out into the surf and the water temperature, compared to the west coast of the island, was warmer and the sand extended for a hundred yards offshore instead of the rockier ones on Kohala. Our guide book, “Lonely Planet’s Discover Hawaii,” recommended against going into the surf here because of strong currents and tides, but we found it perfectly safe. Just a perfect beach! After a half hour or so, we walked up the valley a bit and then returned to the trail for the hike back out of Polulu. We then drove back to Ka’wi and turned left in the town center on Highway 250, also known as Kohala Mountain Road. Over the next 20 miles or so, as we rose in elevation from the sea to over 3,500 feet, we were treated to spectacular vistas of ocean, mountain and verdant pastures – we were heading back into cattle country. We understood why the guide book calls this the island’s best scenic drive. Descending into Waimea, we pulled up in front of the town’s social center — the Big Island Brewhaus & Tacqueria, and had a wonderful dinner of nachos and refreshing microbrew. Our flight was at 9 pm and we had to have the car turned in by 7:30 so we headed that way at sunset. It was exactly the same time as we had arrived a week previously. Wow, the days had passed ever so quickly and fully! A flight delay meant we didn’t take off till just after midnight and we saw the lights of the coast disappear as we winged our way eastward. We landed in San Francisco on a beautiful sunny NoCal morning and were soon on our way to Colorado where we were welcomed with sun and temps in the 40s. As always, we had loved our adventure but were glad to be home, as well.

9 Sep 2015

A South African Journey

In April 2013, Brian and Sheryl had the magnificent opportunity to explore South Africa for two weeks. The following article, along with many of Sheryl’s photographs, was pushlished in Destinations Travel magazine in a three-part series.
http://destinationstravelmagazine.com/March2014/#/94
http://www.destinationstravelmagazine.com/April2014/#/98
http://destinationstravelmagazine.com/May2014/#/102

South African Exploration
April 16-20, 2013
Brian DeToy & Sheryl Rankin Shafer

South Africa. Few countries have seen such incredible change in recent decades and yet maintained a sense of continuity, too. The December 2013 death of Nelson Mandela, truly one of the great citizens of the world, once again brought international focus on this magnificent land at the tip of the continent. This past spring we embarked on what we thought might be the travel adventure of our lifetime. I had just retired from the Army after 28 years of service, and Sheryl, meanwhile, was on a two-week trip to the east African countries of Tanzania and Uganda to examine nonprofits and their impact on local economies and communities. I had read a lot of James Michener as a kid; his novels assisted in opening the world to me. I read “The Covenant” when it came out in 1980 and had wanted to visit South Africa ever since. The changes wrought in the country since 1990 by the release of Mandela from prison, the ending of apartheid and the birth of the Rainbow Nation all added to the sense of an epic adventure. What we discovered in these two weeks met, matched and overawed our hopes and dreams for the trip.

In early April, I flew from New York on a 6pm flight to South Africa by way of Amsterdam, and landed at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo airport at 9pm the following evening. I was just late for the currency exchanges and asked at the taxi stand about the cost for a ride to our nearby hotel, indicating that I had no rand. The old taxi master told me the price, which was reasonable, and said if I would wait a few minutes he knew a black market rand dealer. I agreed to wait. A few minutes later, he reappeared with a teenager of Indian descent who said he would exchange my dollars for a rate of 8 rand to the dollar, which was slightly lower than the official rate. But who am I to argue at 11 o’clock at night. Standing in the middle of the airport terminal, I exchanged $40 for rand with the young currency entrepreneur. Meanwhile, the old taxi master was watching and said “Black market is good, like Chicago.” The young man rolled his eyes at me and smiled. Rand in hand, I awaited Sheryl, glancing at the board to see that her flight from Kilimanjaro, via Nairobi, had arrived. Soon, she appeared and we headed outside and, before we were able to hail a cab, a young African instead hailed us. He initially asked for 160 rand but when I told him the taxi master had said the ride should be 100, he agreed to that rate. His ancient, dilapidated van finally started after much groaning and grinding of gears. Looking at our expressions, he laughingly told us the van would get us there. During the ten minute drive, we had a nice conversation, learning that he was from Soweto, a sprawling urban poor township on the far side of Johannesburg, and we tentatively made arrangements for a tour when we returned at the end of our journey.

We spent two nights and a day relaxing in Johannesburg, recovering from my flight and Sheryl’s intensive Tanzania and Uganda trip. The Protea was a very nice, newer hotel with a conference center. We did not know this at the time, but we would stay at several Proteas across the country during our 15-day trip; they were always very comfortable. On the second morning, we grabbed a cab back to the airport to pick up our rental car. OR Tambo, by the way, has a wonderful new gleaming terminal built just prior to the 2010 World Cup held in South Africa. It is named for Oliver Tambo, a president of the African National Congress and one of Nelson Mandela’s great compatriots in the struggle against apartheid. Previously it had been named for the Afrikaaner Field Marshal Jan Smuts. At Europcar, we rented a Hyundai Tucson ix35 SUV, placed our luggage in the back and headed into the terminal for lunch at the enormous and diverse food court. Leaving at noon, we got in the SUV where I was surprised to find the vehicle was a standard (which I had not driven in seven years) and the steering wheel was on the right side. Just kidding; I had been aware this would be the case months ago when we made plans. But still, the idea was a tad daunting. So much so, that I spent five minutes driving around the garage getting used to driving on the right side of the car and the left side of the road. And then, with Sheryl’s hesitant blessing, we were off. Or so we thought. For neither of us could figure out the signage and we went round and round the airport for twenty minutes. And then, we were off. Or so we thought. For, once on the main highway, we still could not understand the signage and, instead of heading east, we headed west on the N12 right into the heart of Johannesburg mid-day rush hour. Finally after 10 minutes, we recognized our wrong, got ourselves turned around and headed back to the east towards our destination for the first part of our visit. For all intents and purposes, however, this was not a lost half hour as the intense driving of Jo’burg traffic tested my skill and gave both of us a sense of confidence in our ability to navigate our surroundings.

South Africa is undergoing a transformation of road and town names at this junction in its history with African names replacing or receiving joint billing with European names and, so, many of our mistakes were often a result of unclear signage. For instance, in this initial failure, the name Witbank, the city towards which we were driving, was replaced by eMalahleni. Once we had this detail figured out, we were much more observant and had zero problems with this issue the remainder of the trip. This experience also highlights the nature of the way we often travel. Other than the initial few days solidly locked in place visiting the famed Kruger National Park and driving the expansive Panorama Route, we had a list of possible places to see and things to do. We realized we were in an incredibly rich country in terms of history, geography and natural beauty. In this way we maximized our flexibility and we would learn as we went along and let the adventure drive us. We had a splendid little SUV, our cell phone, guide books and maps.

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At last we were on the main highway leading east out of Johannesburg, the N12, later merging with N4. This was a major up-to-date highway, resembling any found in the United States and off we sped at 140 kilometers per hour. The initial couple hours of our journey east were across the highveld, rolling hills and plains that reminded us of the Great Plains of America. Farm and cattle land. Interestingly, we also passed three very large coal-fired power plants—testament to South Africa’s energy sufficiency; from its coal plants, the country produces 95 percent of its own electricity and 45 percent of the continent’s. Just east of eMalahleni, we stopped at a modern rest stop, used the facilities and grabbed a coffee and a cola. We also observed a small nature park adjacent to the stop – complete with rhino, ostriches, emus and other animals. While intriguing to view, we did not count this as yet seeing true African “wildlife,” and continued on our drive. A few hundred kilometers into the journey, we began to descend from the high plateau upon which Johannesburg and the highveld stand at over 5,000 feet. Down the escarpment we went on the winding, rolling path, dropping several thousand feet. On this descent into the lowveld, we saw our first wild African animal. Coming around a corner, a lone black baboon trotted across the highway (two lanes at this point) and stopped to gaze at us as we passed. We tittered excitedly at our first sighting.

At about 5:30pm, we pulled into the largest city in the lowveld, Nelspruit (Mbombela), passing a dynamically artistic World Cup stadium and kilometers of new luxury auto dealers. We then headed north on the R538 in the gloaming to Hazyview, our rest stop for the night. Up and down winding mountain roads through forests we went. Held up for about 20 minutes by the side of a forest lake by construction, the African night fell upon us and our last 30 kilometers were travelled in the dark to the town of Hazyview. We found our exceedingly quaint riverside guest lodge, charmingly named Hippo Hollow. Boy were we glad to be off the road after a 500 kilometer drive on the opposite side of the road in the dark. It was an adventure in itself. We both felt confident in our abilities to navigate the country. A delicious South African buffet dinner, with a bottle of Cape cabernet, awaited our arrival.

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A South African Journey
February 25, 2015
In April 2013, Brian and Sheryl had the magnificent opportunity to explore South Africa for two weeks. The following article, along with many of Sheryl’s photographs, was pushlished in Destinations Travel magazine in a three-part series.
http://destinationstravelmagazine.com/March2014/#/94
http://www.destinationstravelmagazine.com/April2014/#/98
http://destinationstravelmagazine.com/May2014/#/102

South African Exploration
April 16-20, 2013
Brian DeToy & Sheryl Rankin Shafer

South Africa. Few countries have seen such incredible change in recent decades and yet maintained a sense of continuity, too. The December 2013 death of Nelson Mandela, truly one of the great citizens of the world, once again brought international focus on this magnificent land at the tip of the continent. This past spring we embarked on what we thought might be the travel adventure of our lifetime. I had just retired from the Army after 28 years of service, and Sheryl, meanwhile, was on a two-week trip to the east African countries of Tanzania and Uganda to examine nonprofits and their impact on local economies and communities. I had read a lot of James Michener as a kid; his novels assisted in opening the world to me. I read “The Covenant” when it came out in 1980 and had wanted to visit South Africa ever since. The changes wrought in the country since 1990 by the release of Mandela from prison, the ending of apartheid and the birth of the Rainbow Nation all added to the sense of an epic adventure. What we discovered in these two weeks met, matched and overawed our hopes and dreams for the trip.

In early April, I flew from New York on a 6pm flight to South Africa by way of Amsterdam, and landed at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo airport at 9pm the following evening. I was just late for the currency exchanges and asked at the taxi stand about the cost for a ride to our nearby hotel, indicating that I had no rand. The old taxi master told me the price, which was reasonable, and said if I would wait a few minutes he knew a black market rand dealer. I agreed to wait. A few minutes later, he reappeared with a teenager of Indian descent who said he would exchange my dollars for a rate of 8 rand to the dollar, which was slightly lower than the official rate. But who am I to argue at 11 o’clock at night. Standing in the middle of the airport terminal, I exchanged $40 for rand with the young currency entrepreneur. Meanwhile, the old taxi master was watching and said “Black market is good, like Chicago.” The young man rolled his eyes at me and smiled. Rand in hand, I awaited Sheryl, glancing at the board to see that her flight from Kilimanjaro, via Nairobi, had arrived. Soon, she appeared and we headed outside and, before we were able to hail a cab, a young African instead hailed us. He initially asked for 160 rand but when I told him the taxi master had said the ride should be 100, he agreed to that rate. His ancient, dilapidated van finally started after much groaning and grinding of gears. Looking at our expressions, he laughingly told us the van would get us there. During the ten minute drive, we had a nice conversation, learning that he was from Soweto, a sprawling urban poor township on the far side of Johannesburg, and we tentatively made arrangements for a tour when we returned at the end of our journey.

We spent two nights and a day relaxing in Johannesburg, recovering from my flight and Sheryl’s intensive Tanzania and Uganda trip. The Protea was a very nice, newer hotel with a conference center. We did not know this at the time, but we would stay at several Proteas across the country during our 15-day trip; they were always very comfortable. On the second morning, we grabbed a cab back to the airport to pick up our rental car. OR Tambo, by the way, has a wonderful new gleaming terminal built just prior to the 2010 World Cup held in South Africa. It is named for Oliver Tambo, a president of the African National Congress and one of Nelson Mandela’s great compatriots in the struggle against apartheid. Previously it had been named for the Afrikaaner Field Marshal Jan Smuts. At Europcar, we rented a Hyundai Tucson ix35 SUV, placed our luggage in the back and headed into the terminal for lunch at the enormous and diverse food court. Leaving at noon, we got in the SUV where I was surprised to find the vehicle was a standard (which I had not driven in seven years) and the steering wheel was on the right side. Just kidding; I had been aware this would be the case months ago when we made plans. But still, the idea was a tad daunting. So much so, that I spent five minutes driving around the garage getting used to driving on the right side of the car and the left side of the road. And then, with Sheryl’s hesitant blessing, we were off. Or so we thought. For neither of us could figure out the signage and we went round and round the airport for twenty minutes. And then, we were off. Or so we thought. For, once on the main highway, we still could not understand the signage and, instead of heading east, we headed west on the N12 right into the heart of Johannesburg mid-day rush hour. Finally after 10 minutes, we recognized our wrong, got ourselves turned around and headed back to the east towards our destination for the first part of our visit. For all intents and purposes, however, this was not a lost half hour as the intense driving of Jo’burg traffic tested my skill and gave both of us a sense of confidence in our ability to navigate our surroundings.

South Africa is undergoing a transformation of road and town names at this junction in its history with African names replacing or receiving joint billing with European names and, so, many of our mistakes were often a result of unclear signage. For instance, in this initial failure, the name Witbank, the city towards which we were driving, was replaced by eMalahleni. Once we had this detail figured out, we were much more observant and had zero problems with this issue the remainder of the trip. This experience also highlights the nature of the way we often travel. Other than the initial few days solidly locked in place visiting the famed Kruger National Park and driving the expansive Panorama Route, we had a list of possible places to see and things to do. We realized we were in an incredibly rich country in terms of history, geography and natural beauty. In this way we maximized our flexibility and we would learn as we went along and let the adventure drive us. We had a splendid little SUV, our cell phone, guide books and maps.

At last we were on the main highway leading east out of Johannesburg, the N12, later merging with N4. This was a major up-to-date highway, resembling any found in the United States and off we sped at 140 kilometers per hour. The initial couple hours of our journey east were across the highveld, rolling hills and plains that reminded us of the Great Plains of America. Farm and cattle land. Interestingly, we also passed three very large coal-fired power plants—testament to South Africa’s energy sufficiency; from its coal plants, the country produces 95 percent of its own electricity and 45 percent of the continent’s. Just east of eMalahleni, we stopped at a modern rest stop, used the facilities and grabbed a coffee and a cola. We also observed a small nature park adjacent to the stop – complete with rhino, ostriches, emus and other animals. While intriguing to view, we did not count this as yet seeing true African “wildlife,” and continued on our drive. A few hundred kilometers into the journey, we began to descend from the high plateau upon which Johannesburg and the highveld stand at over 5,000 feet. Down the escarpment we went on the winding, rolling path, dropping several thousand feet. On this descent into the lowveld, we saw our first wild African animal. Coming around a corner, a lone black baboon trotted across the highway (two lanes at this point) and stopped to gaze at us as we passed. We tittered excitedly at our first sighting.

At about 5:30pm, we pulled into the largest city in the lowveld, Nelspruit (Mbombela), passing a dynamically artistic World Cup stadium and kilometers of new luxury auto dealers. We then headed north on the R538 in the gloaming to Hazyview, our rest stop for the night. Up and down winding mountain roads through forests we went. Held up for about 20 minutes by the side of a forest lake by construction, the African night fell upon us and our last 30 kilometers were travelled in the dark to the town of Hazyview. We found our exceedingly quaint riverside guest lodge, charmingly named Hippo Hollow. Boy were we glad to be off the road after a 500 kilometer drive on the opposite side of the road in the dark. It was an adventure in itself. We both felt confident in our abilities to navigate the country. A delicious South African buffet dinner, with a bottle of Cape cabernet, awaited our arrival.

In the morning, we were delighted to see our cottage surrounded by smallish monkeys who scampered and scattered when we opened the door. We breakfasted on the veranda overlooking the Sabie River, checked out and drove back into Hazyview where we fueled up the SUV (gas was double the cost in America) and exchanged more dollars for rand at the local Ned Bank. Here we encountered the ubiquitous South African custom of parking attendants in public places. What I mean is a man, often in quasi-uniform, directs you to a spot and immediately approaches asking to watch and/or wash your car for a few rand. It is not required to pay, but it is the custom. Sometimes we paid and other times we did not. Finally, completely ready, we headed east on the R536 and in toward the Paul Kruger Gate of the famed Kruger National Park. Under bright blue skies, the temperature was rising to a very comfortable upper 70s. Our adventure was truly beginning.

Kruger National Park, one of the most magnificent conservation endeavors of the world, was to be our home for the next three days and two nights. Kruger runs 80 kilometers in width by 300 kilometers in length, approximating the size of the nation of Israel. Just about every conceivable animal of southern Africa is found within its fenced borders. About 30 kilometers from Hazyview, we turned off the paved R536 road onto a dirt track and drove toward the Newington Gate, the entrance to the Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve, which shares an open range with Kruger. Sabi Sand is the oldest (since 1934) private preserve in South Africa and comprises 153,000 acres at 1,150 feet elevation (or 4,500 feet lower than Johannesburg). An epicenter of sustainable wildlife tourism on the continent, it is not open to the general public and a visitor will share the experience with only a few other guests of the neighboring lodges. Animals, however, can move freely between Kruger and the reserve. When we planned this portion of the trip, we were not absolutely certain that the price of the private lodge would be worth the investment versus taking our own rental car into Kruger or taking public bus tours. The private game reserves are fairly expensive. Essentially, would the juice be worth the squeeze? Would we really see more animals and, those, more closely? Suffice to say, we were overwhelmed by the accessibility to the animals and wilderness through the incredible professionalism and knowledge of the guides and trackers at our lodge.

At Newington, our credentials appraised and confirmed as guests of one of the lodges, the gate swung open and we were off and into the park along a 13 kilometer drive on a sandy, single vehicle dirt track. Immediately, it felt to both of us as if we were entering a sort of Jurassic Park. We were within an electrified fence area in the midst of large and wild deadly animals. The sign had said to stay in vehicles and keep the windows rolled up while driving to the lodge. As we drove, we rotated our heads left and right and within minutes were rewarded with the truly incredible sight of a lone, large African bull elephant. I said, “Whoa, there’s an elephant!” Sheryl punched me in the shoulder and gleefully shouted, “Stop!” and, before I could say “What are you doing?” Sheryl had lowered her window and clambered out upon the door with her telephoto lens. As she proceeded to snap away, a sound that would become very familiar in the next few days, I strained my eyes for approaching lions and wished she would climb back into her seat, which she soon did, all smiles and sparkling eyes. We laughed excitedly and continued our drive. This was really it! Over the next 10 kilometers, we passed within feet of numerous impala, drove over dry streams and creek beds and finally found the final turn of the trail to our lodge. Pulling off the track, we made our way down a sloping trail and entered the Inyati compound, a collection of several bungalows and a few main buildings unobtrusively situated on a grassy hillside overlooking the Sand River valley and an open grassy ridge on the opposite bank.

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At most, Inyati can house 22 guests and during our stay there were seven to sixteen guests. The lodge has an amazing view and location in complete harmony with the environment. The statuary at the gate to the lodge gave honor to the African name Inyati signifying the Cape buffalo, one of the famed “Big 5.” Pulling into the small and unobtrusive parking area right at noon, we were greeted effusively by the highly effective tandem of Vivian and LeAnn. They showed us to the main lodge veranda, provided welcoming refreshing fruit smoothies, and explained the rules of the camp, some of which we will relate as we go along. Vivian led us to our bungalow, number 8, which was closest to the river, only a few yards away. The efficient staff had already carried our luggage down and placed it in the room. A beautiful four-poster bed was canopied with mosquito netting, reminding us that we were indeed in the malarial zone of South Africa, for which we had already been taking the appropriate medicines provided by our physicians in the US. Arriving back at the veranda, the staff had prepared a beautiful display of cheeses, smoked salmon and carpaccio for our lunch. The kitchen, led by a solicitous South African-Indian chef, was well prepared and stocked to meet Sheryl’s dietary restrictions (a strict gluten-free diet) that we had sent them a couple of weeks in advance.

During the next three days, we engaged in four three-hour safari rides, from 7-10am and 4-7pm. Guests are assigned to a guide and tracker team and spend each drive with the same, getting to know them as well as the wildlife and terrain. Our team was comprised of Khimbini Hlongwane, Inyati’s senior field guide, and Nelson Valoi, who sat on a jumpseat jutting in front of the hood of our ten-seater, open-air Land Cruiser. Sheryl and I spent much time talking with Khimbini over these three days and nights, in the bush and at meals. He is a fascinating young man in his 30s, incredibly knowledgeable about his work, very deeply engaged in his local community and a highly involved father. He is a savvy entrepreneur, too, as a writer and photographer, and has multiple pages on Facebook and LinkedIn among others. With respect to his driving and guiding, we nicknamed him the ‘Honey Badger’ after that most intrepid and unstoppable of bush animals! He took us places and showed us animals that we would never have seen otherwise. All the guides and trackers of the various lodges and parks in the area seemed to defer to Khimbini’s experience and insight. It was truly a privilege to spend this time in his company

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On these drives, we witnessed an amazing diversity of wildlife, almost too numerous to name. Highlights include the Big 5, of course: elephant, rhinoceros, leopard, lion and Cape buffalo. We saw a male rhino mark his territory the first night and then ‘hoover’ clean a large swath of savannah grass as he grazed. We saw three reclusive leopards during the dusk and dawn periods, two females and their shared male – all beautiful in their spotted coats. There were large herds of sleek and athletic impala. These are comprised of females and young, and one solitary male buck. Some bucks have herds of up to 80 to rule. During our second evening drive we watched as a leopard stalked a herd in the open. The buck spotted the female cat and gave a warning bark. All the impala heads pricked up and soon the impala were ‘hunting’ the leopard, as Khimbini told us. They actually ran towards her, getting and keeping eyes on her, following her and barking their awareness until she disappeared into the bush again, at which time the impala quickly retreated to the relative safety of the center of the open fields and the larger herd. Khimbini called these dawn and dusk encounters, between hunters and the hunted, the ‘rush hour’ of the bush – it’s the time when it’s most dangerous for the prey animals.

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The following morning drive proved his wise point – as we raced to the report of male lions in a dense thicket. The Land Cruiser rocked like a boat at sea as we crashed through the brush and along barely recognizable tracks. During these types of hell-for-leather races we felt for the safety of poor Nelson on his seat way out in front. Khimbini soon brought us to within 10 feet of four large male lions, brothers all, and we watched in rapt fascination (and, frankly, a bit of trepidation at the closeness) as they devoured an unlucky impala they had caught at dawn. We could hear every crunch as their jaws ripped through muscle and bone. For the most part they ate in solitary as they had ripped the poor impala into pieces. But two of the brothers ate side by side and would, from time to time, roar and growl and slap at each other. So – this is the face of nature, we thought. And at any second one of these lions could have turned and in a single leap been in the Land Cruiser and on us. However, Khimbini explained that the animals were habituated to the vehicles after many generations in the park. And they were accustomed to the sight of humans in the vehicles, sitting and snapping pictures. We were warned, however, to remain seated throughout as a standing or moving human looked different to the animals and they may react unpredictably. Food for thought.

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Later that morning, perched on the high most-rearward seats, Sheryl and I experienced a ‘whumpf” and felt the irregular motion of the Landcruiser driving on a flat tire. Nonplused, Khimbini continued to drive through the sandy brush until we reached a larger open space. In wild Kruger you want some ‘stand-off’ from the natural inhabitants. And thus we had our morning coffee and tea while Nelson and Khimbini changed the tire. Soon we were driving within 20 feet of huge, awe-inspiring African elephants, following them as they ambled through the trees and bush. One old fellow, perhaps 50-plus years, was particularly large and his technique for ripping tasty limbs off tall trees was fantastic to observe as he nimbly sat back on his haunches and then leaned upward and outward majestically to wrap the end of his trunk about an impossibly high branch to pull it down. We learned that elephants are one of the few animals that never stop growing and that is why the oldest are the largest. We saw many birds – owls, eagles, herons, guinea fowl, numerous songbirds and the water-walking Jesus bird. We observed numerous types of deer from small impala to larger waterbucks and Nyala and huge Kudu. We saw dwarf mongoose, numerous zebra and a large water monitor lizard sunning himself by a waterhole filled with five hippo bobbing their heads up from the water to peer at us. We saw tall, graceful giraffe languidly moving through the savannah, eating their prized acacia leaves while keeping a sharp lookout from on high. On our second evening we found ourselves in the middle of a large, 300 member, Cape buffalo herd. These animals are magnificent individually but to be in the midst of such a number of them, moving slowly through the bush, eating at dusk as they traveled to their next watering place, was amazing. Later on the drive we saw Sir Richard Branson’s impressive Ulusaba Rock Lodge. We told ourselves we couldn’t really imagine his safari experiences were any richer than ours. Each day at Inyati was a treasure. A staff member would stop by our lodge and wake us at 5:30 for the morning drive; after the drive we had an immense buffet brunch on the veranda overlooking the Sand River. The afternoons were spent at the small gym or relaxing in the hot sun by the cool pool. Following a high tea at 3 we were off for the evening game drive. While on the drives we had a small snack and drinks at dawn and dusk – coffee, juice or tea in the morning and wine, whisky or beer in the evening. The atmosphere could not have been more perfect, and time flew by in this almost overwhelming sense of ‘place’ – the outside world was gone.

The night skies in Inyati were fantastical to those of us from the northern hemisphere. All the stars were different. It was precisely like the words in the Crosby, Stills & Nash song “When you see the Southern Cross for the first time / You understand now why you came this way.” Khimbini took Sheryl and me aside and explained the constellations and showed us how to tell north by using the Southern Cross and the bisecting two Centauris – Alpha and Beta; simple and exquisite.

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After the evening drive, dinners on the veranda were sumptuous and relaxing as the quieter evening sounds of the bush took hold. The food, drink and talk flowed among the guests as the night darkened. Khimbini would also join the group for dinner and the second night Sheryl and I sat by him to talk as we ate. We wanted to see what he thought of this ‘new’ South Africa. And find what we could do to help. Sheryl and I have thought of devoting some of our effort to literacy, specifically for young girls and women in areas of need. It was the most pleasurable conversation we had during the trip. Beyond his park ranger exterior lay a deeply thoughtful and engaging man. He had grown up nearby to Sabi Sand, just a few kilometers down the road from the Newington gate. His small village of Ximhungwe, through which Sheryl and I had passed on our drive in, had no school house when Khimbini was a child; he and his fellow students had taken their lessons from their one teacher underneath a large tree and had none at all when it rained. Now, the school had grown into a thriving, modern, multi-building enterprise. A large part of the credit for that could go to Khimbini and his friends. He had been raised with the expectation that he would be the first of his family to attend university. And a number of others from his village did go on and receive professional degrees. But his love of nature and animals led him to the decision to pursue rangering and guiding. And, truly, it seemed we were with a master botanist and zoologist every day. Meanwhile, he remained committed to education, including higher education, for his children and his community. Khimbini spoke passionately about how to address motivation issues within both the teacher and student ranks. Joining with 11 other members of his high school community, Khimbini is seeking to infuse the teachers and students with a greater sense of the importance of all students completing their education. The founding members of the alumni association, known as the Mabarhule High School Veterans, are doctors, teachers, business owners and a safari camp manager. Most are college graduates who have returned to their village to try to improve the community, including serving as role models for students regarding positive career options and for teachers regarding the importance of their role in preparing students. Their mission states “We are former students of Mabarhule High School since 1987. We are thankful of what was given to us and we are determined to give back to the community in any way possible. Join our mission of uplifting our community by better preparing the children.” By involving former school members who have successfully started new businesses as role models, students are further encouraged to start their own businesses, perhaps with fresh ideas. Khimbini smiled broadly and laughed his brilliant laugh as he talked about his daughters’ education and their complete expectation that they will go to Johannesburg and elsewhere for their university and graduate degrees. On our way out of Sabi Sand the following day, we made sure to stop by the village school and observe this community’s impressive investment in its children – the hope of the village’s future and that of its nation.

After dinner each night at Inyati, it was with an almost indescribable deliciousness with which we returned to our lodge, guided across the lawn by a staff member as wild animals were often about the property at night. And we would collapse into a deeply restful slumber.

Two of our most memorable experiences of these days in the Sabi Sand were on our final morning safari. First, we spotted the male and one of the female leopards we had seen on the previous drives. Apparently, the female was just entering heat as she presented herself to the male, who refused the offer and moved on. Khimbini explained that leopard mating is an intense business. Because leopards mate repeatedly at approximately 15 minute intervals — though more frequently at the beginning — for three days straight, not breaking for hunting or resting, the male must be well prepared to engage. However, upon the second offer, the male complied and we witnessed and heard the intensive growling of several successive encounters.

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Next, we spied three lioness sisters sauntering along a path after an unsuccessful early hours hunt. They were on their way to reunite with their seven cubs, ranging in age from five to seven months. At one point, the sisters spotted a warthog and the lions, with nary a sound, padded off in three separate directions to surround the beast. The smart little tusker, however, recognized his dilemma and promptly hid himself in a group of Daga Boys—a small herd of five elderly Cape buffalo bulls who, beyond their mating prime, voluntarily separate themselves from the main herd and travel solo or with other old bulls. According to Khimbini, these ancient bachelors remain fiercely dangerous warriors and, with lowered heads, promptly chased off the lionesses. Foiled in this hunting opportunity, the sisters shrugged off their losses and continued home, stopping at a watering hole for a cool drink. The joy in the cubs as they reunited with their mothers was awe-inspiring. The cubs traipsed across the trail and into a wide grassy field, mewling, playing and rolling with each other and the mamas. When they settled in some low grass, the cubs nuzzled the mamas, receiving licks of affection, before they moved in to nurse. From our vantage point just two meters away, we observed the warmth and love of this pride for about an hour.

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Back at the Inyati lodge at noon, we took our leave of Khimbini, Nelson and the rest of the staff, loaded up our SUV and headed out. Upon leaving the lodge, a large troop of baboons, the first we had seen in the park, crossed our path and we stopped to photograph them. From that point, we reversed our route and were soon in Hazyview, heading northwest toward the Drakensberg or “Dragon Mountains” – and their rugged spine truly does resemble the great serpent! Climbing the steep escarpment from the low or bushveld we stopped for lunch in the charming town of Graskop and visited the local tourism center where we picked up a map and chatted with a very helpful agent. We then embarked on the aptly named, beautiful Panorama Route. This roughly three hour drive took us along the escarpment edge of the high and low velds. We stopped and took short hikes to majestic vistas of mountains and far-distant forests. The 11 mile stretch of the Panorama on the R534 runs right along the edge of the 3,200 foot sheer drop off the escarpment and has some of the most beautiful and spectacular scenery in all of South Africa. With names like The Pinnacle, God’s Window, and Wonder-View one might think it rather fanciful; until you have seen it yourself. We stopped and took short hikes to view several spectacular cataracts that form part of the Waterfalls Tour. High ground and generous rainfall have created more falls in this area than any other in southern Africa. One, the Berlin Falls off of R532, has a small stream cutting through a natural sluice that appears to spring directly from the rockface and drop 260 feet to a dark green pool below. Just north of these falls we came to the headquarters of the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve. The confluence of the Blyde (“joyful”) and Treur (“sad”) rivers here led to a whirlpool effect of swirling waters carrying grit and stones that carved amazing cylindrical holes in the red bedrock. Bourke’s Luck Potholes are truly dramatic formations of falls and pools. This was a heavily visited spot; in fact, it was the most tourist-dense stop along the entire route that day and included busloads of schoolchildren.

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As the sun slipped lower in the west and our light began to wane, we drove through winding mountain roads through the Drakensberg and the towns of Blydepoort, Ohrigstad and Lydenburg (Mashishing). An hour after nightfall, we found ourselves in the quaint town of Dullstroom and halted for dinner. As we got out of the car, we immediately noticed a slight chill and smell of pine in the air. Right on Huguenot, the main street, we found the Dullstroom Grill in The Gables with a warm, rustic feel. We sat by a roaring fire and Sheryl had a traditional kingklip fish and I had a fabulous rumpsteak. Talking with the manager and lone waiter, the only other people in the restaurant that evening, we learned that Dullstroom is the trout fishing capital of South Africa and a very popular mountain destination. At 6,900 feet, the town of 600 (it swells greatly in season, which April is not) is situated at the foot of De Berg, the province’s tallest mountain and boasts the country’s highest railway station. Dullstroom’s unique sub-Alpine micro-climate, akin to a Scottish moor, allows a proliferation of flora and fauna in a small area. Meanwhile, the ambience, fireplace warmth and fresh mountain air, such a striking contrast to the heat of Sabi Sand, prompted us to take a room in the guest house above the restaurant. The following morning dawned bracingly cool and misty, typical for this time of year in the mountains. We looked into getting our morning drinks at the locally famed beansaboutcoffee specialty roasters but they were not yet open and, instead, we got coffee and chai from the nearby Seattle Coffee Company. The young South African owner showed us about the new place, into which they were in the process of moving. We then said our goodbyes to this pleasant town and began our trek back toward Johannesburg and, eventually, Cape Town and the Cape of Good Hope, the beautiful South African wine country, and the Garden Route. This ‘adventure of a lifetime’ had already exceeded our dreams and with glad hearts we raced westward in discovery.

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9 Sep 2015

West Point “Point of View” Article Featuring Brian

The following article discusses the end of Basic Training (“Beast Barracks”) for incoming West Point Plebes in August 2012. Brian was privileged to give the address at the end of the difficult Timothy Steele Challenge, named in honor of one of Brian’s former students who had been killed leading his troops in battle in Afghanistan the previous August.

Steele Challenge Honors Fallen West Point Graduate

August 16, 2012
By Mike Strasser, U.S. Military Academy Public Affairs

WEST POINT, N.Y. (Aug. 16, 2012) — The Steele Challenge Awards Ceremony was conducted Aug. 11 at the Camp Buckner parade field to recognize the top company and squad in the capstone event for Cadet Basic Training. It also honored the life and legacy of 1st Lt. Timothy Steele, Class of 2009, whose name was chosen for both the CBT Task Force and the challenge.

Attending the ceremony were family, friends, colleagues and instructors of 1st Lt. Timothy Steele, including his parents Mary Ellen and John Steele,


his sister Julie Maxwell, brother-in-law David Maxwell and nieces and nephews joining the official party on the stage at Camp Buckner.

During the ceremony, Class of 2013 Cadet Captain Cory Trainor, the regimental executive officer, presented the family with a memory book on behalf of Task Force Steele, containing photos from the Steele Challenge and personal letters from Commandant of the Corps of Cadets Brig. Gen. Theodore Martin, the regimental command team and company commanders expressing how 1st Lt. Steele’s legacy shaped this summer’s leadership experience. The book also includes all the signatures of cadets comprising Task Force Steele.

“We hope it can serve as a reminder of how your son continues to impact the Long Gray Line and the future officers of our Army,” Trainor said.

The ceremony was narrated by Cadet Nikki Hernandez, regimental S-4 (Supply) with the script written by Class of 2013 Cadet Erik Moore, the regimental S-1 (Personnel).

“His philosophy to lead by actions, not words, has inspired the Class of 2016 to test their internal limits and push themselves further than they’ve ever gone before,” Hernandez said. “With Lt. Steele as their inspiration, the Class of 2016 is ready to continue their journey toward officership.”

During the Steele Challenge, each squad visited a memorial for the fallen grdaute at the conclusion of the event Aug. 9-10. There, an audio message from Lt. Col. Brian De Toy, director of the Defense and Strategic Studies Program at West Point, described the Class of 2009 graduate who had once written:

“My favorite time of the day is at 2330 when Taps plays over the speaker in the hallway. For those 20 seconds or so all I think about are the men who have fallen fighting for this country. One day it will play at my funeral and when it does, I pray that I am deserving enough of that honor and the respect that it shows.”

De Toy was also present at the awards ceremony and addressed the CBT regiment again. As the cadets were preparing to gather their gear and ruck back to West Point, De Toy reminded them of a group of lieutenants who were presently carrying their own 40-pound rucks from the West Point Cemetery through a 65-mile route leading to the new World Trade Center site in honor of Steele.

“Remember this when you do your March Back on Monday (Aug. 13); you’ve been engaged the past two days in the Tim Steele Challenge and I hope it pushed you physically and emotionally, because Tim would have wanted it that way,” De Toy said. “One of the things I said at his funeral one year ago is that Tim was as tough as tough can be, but also soft as velvet. That was all part of Tim’s leadership style: tough and demanding, but very, very caring for his men.”

De Toy said Steele had struggled academically at West Point but never quitted when it would have been the easy choice.

“He persevered, and you will too,” De Toy said.

In one of Steele’s papers in De Toy’s capstone class, he wrote how he had realized his leadership development didn’t occur overnight, but was gradually instilled in him from the officers and noncommissioned officers he learned from at West Point.

“If I had to answer why I continue to grow, it is for my future Soldiers, that they are set up for success,” De Toy read from the essay. “It is also because I truly care for this organization and the people in it. I want to better myself so that I am worthy to be in it like all my role models, and in turn, when I am in charge myself, I will try to inspire the same desire in my subordinates.”

Steele was fit, athletic and smart, De Toy said, even if his grades didn’t always reflect his intellect.

“He was determined, and the light really turned on for him in his last two years here,” De Toy said. “He was a sponge. He made himself a reader and a lifelong learner. He was well-rounded and prepared himself as a leader.”

The Best Company Award streamer was presented to Company D for recording the best overall score and was the best performing company at the hand grenade site and marksmanship sites. Additionally, this company had some of the squads with the fastest movement times between sites.

The Best Squad award went to 2nd Squad, 4th Platoon, Company C. The squad, which recorded a score of 368 (out of 500 points) and finished the challenge in 6 hours and 49 minutes, included Class of 2014 Cadet Sergeant Alexander I. Abia, New Cadets Benjamin E. Barclay, Christian H. Considine, Dwight A. Dean, David A. Koerper, Wesley J. Loudon, William J. Mazzone, Joshua D. McGrath, Christian S. McKone, David A. Proctor and Si H. Yi.

“Not only did the Steele Challenge test the new cadets’ proficiency in Soldier skills acquired during Cadet Basic Training but it also built a sense of camaraderie and teamwork within their units,” Hernandez said.

Class of 2013 Cadet Captain Thomas Ott, the CBT regimental commander, congratulated the new cadets and Task Force Steele for their efforts throughout summer training which was reflected in the Steele Challenge.

“First Lt. Steele is a perfect example of the power and influence one individual can have on those he leads. Although he is no longer with us today, his spirit and character continue to influence his brothers- and sisters-in-arms,” Ott said. “His zeal and enthusiasm to be a cadet and Army officer have inspired each and every one of you to successfully complete one of many obstacles and challenges you will face as future leaders in our profession. I ask that you continue to carry this enthusiasm and desire to succeed with you the rest of your lives. Continue to embody the spirit of a Soldier that was so effectively displayed in Lt. Steele’s actions. Always remember the impact Lt. Steele had on the beginning stages of your character development. I could not be more proud of the efforts I witnessed from each and every person in front of me today throughout the duration of the Steele Challenge. Remember, actions not words, and you will always fight through all odds.”

Continuing on that reflection of a job well done, the regimental command sergeant major, Class of 2013 Cadet Orlando Sonza applauded the members of Task Force Steele for dedicating themselves to the challenge.

“…our ability to work as one team and our ability to put our actions much higher than our words and fighting through all odds is a direct reflection of the size, the depth and gravity of 1st Lt. Timothy Steele’s sacrifice,” Sonza said. “And this alone can only be a direct reflection of the measure of his life. We have done him proud. Well done.”

9 Sep 2015

Extreme Preparation: Pre-Expedition Reconnaissance

Extreme Preparation: Pre-Expedition Reconnaissance
January 9, 2015

Before every Essential History Expedition trip, one or both of us conducts an extensive visit to the sites where we will guide guests on the expedition. The purpose of the extreme reconnaissance is to ensure the entire experience will highly complete and enjoyable for all guests. Some trip aspects we examine on the recon include lodging, transportation, dining, museums and, of course, the historic and cultural sites that are the basis of the expeditions. Before leaving for the recon, we have already created a tentative expedition itinerary and compiled a list of potential lodgings, restaurants, etc., to visit and research further while on location.

For instance, in preparation for our expeditions in July 2015 (Normandy/D-Day, Battle of the Bulge and Waterloo), Sheryl and I conducted several recons. We had led two Normandy expeditions in May and June of 2014, and are very confident in our itinerary. But, we have decided to change the lodging location from the eastern beaches area to a more central spot. So, in September 2014, we returned to the Norman coast and visited a number of chateaus, boutique hotels and old farm houses. Many were wonderful and would suit our needs. In the end, we selected an incredibly charming 700 year-old farm that has been transformed into luxurious lodgings, between Bayeux and the coast right in the middle of the D-Day experience.

The Manoir de Mathan http://www.normandie-hotel.org/hotel-normandy.html is a 17th century chateau associated with the nearby larger 13th century Ferme de la Ranconniere farmhouse http://www.ranconniere.fr/?lang=en where we will enjoy four-course sumptuous meals.

On that same recon, we made our initial visit to Waterloo and the Ardennes in Belgium. I had been to both some years ago and am very knowledgeable regarding the battles and campaigns. However, we needed to find lodging and the rest. For five days, we checked out numerous castles, chateaux, hotels and restaurants. We also drove the Bulge battlefield and I walked the fields of Waterloo and Quatre Bras. We selected an amazing lodge (http://www.ardennes-resorts.com/lodges/les-contes-de-salme/introduction/) in the central forested town of Vielsalm for our base in the Bulge expedition. Situated on a lake in the mountains, it promises to be a spectacular setting in the summer.

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With side trips to Avignon in the south of France, Paris and Prague, Sheryl and I ceased our first recon with work still to do. We still needed lodgings in Brussels and I needed to walk Agincourt, Ligny (pre-Waterloo battle) and the northern shoulder of the Bulge.
In December, I returned to Germany, arriving at Ramstein, picked up a rental car and headed out into the cold Northern winter. I had intended to start east to west; however, it was raining pretty heavily that first day so I decided to spend most of it driving the longest distance. This trip took me through the Saar region of Germany and the Siegfried Line border that then became the Maginot Line facing it in France. I was then driving through the Lorraine region and past countless battlefields from over the centuries. It was an historian’s dream drive! Some of these fields we will visit on future EHE expeditions. These include several for the centennial commemorations of the First World War. In 2016 we will do a combined Verdun-Somme expedition, for instance, to mark two of the biggest and most important battles of 1916. Then, in 2017 and 18 we will visit many of the iconic American battles, such as Cantigny, Chateau-Thierry, Belleau Wood, St Quentin, Argonne Forest, St Mihiel and Second Marne. Many of these towns and woods I passed as I sped west in the rain. It made me think of the horrible conditions for those soldiers in the trenches throughout those long winters. I also drove by a number of sites associated with my studies of the French Revolution and other periods of European history – Varennes (to which Louis XVI and his family had fled; when captured and returned to Paris, the end was near), Reims (in which cathedral the Kings of France were always crowned), Crecy from the Hundred Years War and many, many others. You cannot drive through Europe without being made aware of its dense layers of history around every corner and bend in the road.

At nightfall I made it to the tiny hamlet of Azincourt in the Pas de Calais. I could not walk the fields that evening, so I continued to the coast and checked into a hotel in the old walled city of Montreuil. This absolutely charming village was the British Expeditionary Headquarters during the second half of the First World War. I explored it and we will consider it as a base for some of our WWI trips. In the morning, in a light drizzle, I returned to Azincourt, examined its museum and then walked the battlefield of Henry V’s great victory. Next summer we will spend a little time here, on our way between the D-Day and Battle of the Bulge expeditions. 2015 will be the 600th anniversary of the battle and so it is appropriate we stop and visit. The Easy Company, 101st Airborne of World War Two fame participated in both battles we will see and it is fitting that Shakespeare’s Henry V gave the famed St Crispin’s Day speech at Agincourt, in which he calls his men his “band of brothers” and provided an appellation that thousands of soldiers have used ever since.
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From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
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My feet sank into the soaked clay soil and I well-imagined the difficulty the heavily armored French knights had in their attack against the English. It proved yet again the great utility of walking a field in the conditions that existed at the time. Afterwards, I continued east towards Brussels, driving past Arras (of First World War memory) and Douai where one of the most important translations of the Catholic Bible into English occurred in the late 1500s. Then, it was into Belgium and the battlefield at Ligny. Throughout the day the rain had increased in degree while the temperatures dropped in the same. It was a cold, wet slog through the various villages where Napoleon had confronted Marshal Gebhard Blucher’s Prussian army. I did get a good feel for the scale and scope of the battle, though, before I headed in to downtown Brussels.

In the morning, a Saturday, the dawn was crisp but mostly sunny and clear. I drove back out to Ligny and had the opportunity to really walk the various points of the battlefield in daylight and with vistas wide and far. All of my reading and prep truly aided me now as I traced the important movements and counter-movements of the two opposing forces. A return of a steady drizzle in the early afternoon did not hinder the recon at all. Returning to Brussels, I made my way down to the historic center of the city and visited several fantastic hotels that we may stay in during our time conducting the Waterloo at 200 expedition. After a phone call with Sheryl to confirm my findings, I wandered the beautiful old quarter and found a Christmas season wonderland, including a festive crowd at the famed Manneken Pis fountain. At the end of the eve, I found myself in a sports pub watching the Army-Navy football game with a number of other Americans and plenty of Europeans intrigued (or was that quizzical?) with US collegiate football. The next day was beautiful for my drive out a little over an hour and a half to the east and into the Ardennes forest and mountains. Once past the ancient fortress city of Liege, I turned south and entered the rugged woods. As I climbed, the sky darkened and the hills became clad in snow. I was coming in on the northern shoulder of the Bulge, as Sheryl and I had explored the southern shoulder and Bastogne in our September visit. I exited the autoroute near Malmedy and made my way into the village; I had not been in over 23 years and was happily pleased to find it such a spectacular town! A Christmas market festival was in full swing in the beautiful town square as I parked the car and checked into my apartment overlooking the same scene. I had a few hours before nightfall, so I drove out to the southeast and visited many of the sites associated with the opening days of the Battle of the Bulge – Losheim, Bullingen, Krinkelt-Rocherath, Elsenborn Ridge, Bucholz Station, Bagneuz, etc. My favorite spot was finding Lt. Lyle Bouck’s platoon’s position above Lanzerath. As I stood near their foxholes in the two foot snow and darkening eve, I imagined what that group of 20 young Americans felt at the end of their long day’s battle. Back in Malmedy, I explored all the sites and memorials around the cathedral and square and then joined in the town’s winter festivities! On Monday I continued my recon of the north shoulder and followed Kampfgruppe Peiper’s route through Stavelot, Trois Ponts, La Gleize, Cheneux and Neucy (where US engineers blew the bridge, effectively halting the German advance).

The date was 15 December, and I decided to end my recon by driving down to Bastogne, the most famous of all the towns in the Bulge fight. I arrived to find it festooned in welcome of veterans and visitors, as the battle had commenced 70 years ago on the next day, the 16th. I had lunch on the main square, walked the exhibits and spoke with a veteran of the 7th Armored Division. It was a fitting conclusion to a very good reconnaissance trip.

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The weather on this recon had been poor, which gave me a great glimpse into the state of the fields and troops during their respective battles, but the knowledge gained had been worth it. I felt our initial itineraries had been quite good, I had made adjustments based on timing and road conditions (for instance, finding that a low bridge would never allow the bus to travel one of the routes I wanted; so I adjusted the route) and I feel they are eminently solid now. The reconnaissance is just one of many portions of pre-expedition preparation but is an absolutely critical one. We continue to prepare up to the day we depart on a trip. In fact, we will also leave a week or so before an expedition – to conduct one final route recon and confirmation that nothing has changed, as well as confirming all the myriad details of arranging things before the first guests arrive. Then, we draw the curtain up and commence the show!

We hope to see you at a performance someday soon.

9 Sep 2015

Essential History Expeditions Featured in Notre Dame Magazine

Here is a nice start to our New Year with Essential History Expeditions !

Notre Dame Magazine just published a short article on our company in today’s Winter issue. It is called “Adventures in History” and is in the “Short Stories” section on page 68.

Adventures in history

Forget taking it easy. When Brian DeToy ’85, a lieutenant colonel, retired in March of 2013 after 28 years of Army service, he and his wife, Sheryl, decided it was time to open a business. So the following year they led family members and college pals on an educational tour of Normandy on the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

Essential History Expeditions was launched.

DeToy conducted numerous tours of battlefields during his military career, which included 14 years teaching history and military science. When Brian went “kicking and screaming from the job” because of mandatory retirement, Essential History Expeditions (historyexp.com) offered him and Sheryl a way to combine his love of writing, teaching, history and travel with her desire to explore worldwide cultures.

This year their company, billed as a way to “discover history,” is offering at least six tours. The expeditions include “Petersburg, Appomattox and the End of War,” “New Orleans: A Nation’s History in the Big Easy” and “Twilight of the Napoleonic Era: Waterloo at 200.” The trips, says Brian, “take advantage of things going on historically” and add the art, culture and heritage of the areas visited. So along with a visit to the 1815 battlefield at Chalmette, for instance, the New Orleans trip includes a sampling of the area’s signature music, food and architecture.

“I want there definitely to be a human face to these tours,” says Brian, whose talks include “telling a story through various characters.”

“Brian brings you into history, like putting you in a time machine and transporting you back in time to that historic moment,” one traveler commented. “Brian makes history alive and relevant.”

http://onlinedigitalpublishing.com/publication/?i=238904