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A South African Spring Break to Remember

The cheetah's unflinching stare bore into my seven-year-old son. It seemed to be assessing him as it would a baby gazelle, already salivating at the prospect of that succulent, white meat. I never knew how much my protective, mother lioness instincts would kick in. But then I'd never seen a cheetah draw a bead on my son.

Cheetahs can run 60 miles an hour, and accelerate from zero to 68 mph in three seconds, faster than a Lamborghini. But they can be out run by a man over time. I know all this because my son, Skyler, was infatuated with cheetahs. This is how we found ourselves at the Ann van Dyk cheetah rehabilitation center outside Pretoria, South Africa. We were on spring break during our year living in Mozambique and knew we needed to design a trip around our seven- and ten-year-old kids. Otherwise, we might strangle each other.

The center's staff had carefully embedded Skyler in the center of the open-sided safari bus saying it was possible, had he been sitting on the edge, that the free-roaming cheetahs could mistake him for a tasty morsel. I didn't doubt they were right. As we left they instructed us, and Skyler in particular, not to make any sudden moves to prevent the cheetahs from springing and hitting their exceptionally light skulls on the chain link fence, and cracking them. We carefully crept away, newly in awe of their predatory power.

Driving our rented van (our claptrap jeep had broken down yet again), through the Karoo Desert to Capetown we found ourselves in Southern California, or that's how it felt after Mozambique. Minimalist, white condos perched over sparkling water, against brilliant blue skies; bouncers manned the doors of neon-lit nightclubs; pizzerias opened onto sun-baked patios and potted palms. In other circumstances, Peter and I would probably have found a spot with a view and settled in, wiling away the morning over coffee, sliding into a tantalizing East Indian lunch, slipping into an evening of wine and tapas until we melted back into bed. And, given a few more days, we'd probably have started working.

Well that was not going to happen; not with kids in need of entertainment. Instead, we took the cable car to the top of Table Mountain and skidded down a vertiginous, 3,500-foot ravine via stone stairs and dirt trails; we waited in interminable lines to plummet down the Ratanga-Junction-amusement-park waterfall in a plastic log and dangle upside down in the open air from a hundred-foot high roller coaster (the previous group of riders had been stuck there for a full five minutes, but our daughter Molly was not about to bail); and we drove twenty-nine miles out the Cape Peninsula to commune with African penguins. This was only the beginning.

Two days later, we found ourselves dangling again, this time more than one hundred feet up in the air from a zip line in Tsitsikamma Park along the Garden Route.

"Mom, you should look down. It's so cool!" Skyler eagerly urged me on. He looked ready to spill out of his oversized harness into the treetops below. But he probably would have thought that was fun!

He didn't seem to realize that if I had looked down, I'd have frozen to my little tree platform, paralyzed, as the others continued zig-zagging trunk to trunk, 1,000 meters down to the coast, dragging a gloved hand for a brake on the cable above so as not to slam into the next tree. Skyler's hands were so small they had to fasten the giant, adult-sized glove around his wrist with a rubber band.

Our next stop, Durban, boasts of an inordinate number of Great White sharks, so many that the city has sunk enormous nets so that people can swim off the beaches. But if that feels too tame, you can be dropped into shark-infested waters in a tiny cage for a heart-pumping, adrenaline-boosting, extra-close-up encounter; a prospect our kids found enchanting. We found it so sketchy we headed to the land-bound uShaka Marine World instead. Luckily, they quickly forgot the allure of shark jaws as they defied gravity, flipping in pulley-rigged harnesses for a few rand a ride.

The choice of our next destination was driven by Peter and me, though still by children's fantasy. J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings had been one of our favorite childhood series. Hearing Tolkien had grown up near the Drakensberg Mountains, we went in search of the Shire. Sure enough the thatched Zulu huts became round, and the hills started rolling until they rose into the not-so-distant, plenty forbidding mountains of "Mordor." Bedding down for a few nights at Didima Camp in our own thatched hobbit hut, we hiked up into goblin caves and found on their walls not the tracings of goblins but the remarkably clear San people paintings of running animals and spear-toting men from as long as 2,400 years ago.

Two weeks later, we picked up our jeep with its rebuilt engine and putted back over the border into Mozambique, tired but exhilarated. Although I might have liked more coffee houses and wine bars, nine years later that vacation still rates as one of the best. Our kids kept us moving, so that insidious magnet, work, didn't have a chance to suck us back in. And they forced us to be enterprising, to find active things to do. By the end, we felt rejuvenated by the physical activity and had got a real mental break. Thanks kids—for your contagious energy, your eyes-wide wonder, your curiosity about everything. You can design a trip anytime.

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Mountain Biking the Himalayas: The Annapurna Circuit

The hill just kept on going, and going, and going. Because that’s what hills do in the Himalaya. And the hill was headed my direction—down—through one of the deepest canyons in Nepal and some of the most extravagantly beautiful vistas in the world. And I was ripping through the landscape fast enough to make my eyes water.

An hour-and-a-half downhill mountain bike ride sounded unbelievable after more than a week of solo hiking, tethered to a backpack, on the Marsyangdi River portion of the Annapurna Circuit and across the 18,000-foot Thorung La Pass. And so there I was, flying down the Himalaya, dirt and a smile plastered to my face.

For purists at least, the completion in the past few years of a “jeepable” road from Pokhara to Muktinath, Nepal, has spoiled what some call the greatest trek in the world. But for mountain bikers, the new road can only be one thing: an increasingly massive draw. And for me, with an injured knee, the ride down the Kali Gandaki river valley was a no brainer.

Mountain biking is only a recent option for hikers trekking the Annapurna Circuit. Although small numbers of visitors have ridden the whole route on their own, outfitters have only recently begun to crop up. In 2011, Jurriaan Prakke and Tenzin Thakali started Muktinath-based Mustang Mountain Bikes. Situated at more than 12,000 feet, Muktinath is one of the holiest pilgrimage sites in the world for both Hindus and Buddhists.

Conveniently, you can rent Giants, Treks, and Montras with both front and dual suspension for the two- to three-day ride from Muktinath to Tatopani, or an epic five-day ride down to Pokhara. The outfit even transports your pack and gear from Muktinath down to your destination and supplies you with a helmet and a daypack.

In short, if you’re not worried about the speed, or of the drop-offs, or of feeling like you’re cheating the Annapurna Circuit by not trekking the whole thing, then this is the freest you’re going to feel during your trip. 

Because this is a relatively new option, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Don’t forget to set aside the essentials for your daypack when preparing your main backpack for shipment down the mountain: windbreaker, hydration pack, passport, money, socks, underwear, toothbrush, silk sleeping bag liner, fleece (it gets cold at night), and sunglasses.
  • Check your bike over before setting out and ask for a repair kit and extra break pads. Some of the down hills are decently serious and, although it’s not exactly a technical ride, there are steep bits.
  • Leave Muktinath early. The wind seems to be on a timer and starts really blowing at 9 a.m. Though the guidebooks warn of this, it’s a different animal on a bike. Bring along a bandana or something to cover your mouth and nose.
  • The road from Muktinath to Marpha takes about six hours, including a nice long lunch in the medieval fortress town of Kagbeni. From here, you can either do the steep ride back up to the main road and follow the busses (and dust) up over the steep, high bluffs, or ride down on the riverbed and be sandblasted when it turns into a wind tunnel at 9 each morning.
  • Hold out for Marpha. After more than an hour of wind in your face, you might be tempted to stay in the large town of Jomsom because you’ll have to stop here anyway to get your trekking passes stamped. But the much better choice is the small, pretty village of Marpha—about two more hours down a rocky road past some incredible peaks and valleys.
  • The second day of the ride to the hot springs at Tatopani is truly epic—and much more fun.You’ll pass from arid country, to high alpine, to dense forest, to jungle in the course of the day’s six-hour ride—much of it on fun down hills.
  • Leave around 6:30 a.m. and you’ll miss the wind and have time to stop for breakfast at a small roadhouse just past a beautiful pine forest around 9 a.m. Here you can watch as tired trekkers crammed into jouncing, beat up local busses pile out for fresh air and a bite to eat. That could have been you!
  • Get in touch with these guides. You can contact Jurriaan Prakke and Tenzin Thakali of Mustang Mountain Bikes at jurriaan.prakke@yahoo.co.uk or tzthakali@yahoo.com or by phone on +9779817196197, +9779846585755, +9779857650143, or +9779756703013.
  • Or try other guides. Tsheten and his brother Ganesh run a second outfit that opened last season. They can be reached by email at at tshetengurung@hotmail.com or by phone at +9779841259360+9779808654082, or +977014373152. Both shops are on Muktinath’s main drag, are near each other and hard to miss. A third bike rental shop is set to open in the 2014 trekking season.
  • A two-day ride from Muktinath to Tatopani will cost somewhere around $70, but it is money very well spent. Other options are available—such as Muktinath to Pokhara, and with or without a guide. 

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