Our honeymoon was our first time out of the country as a couple. We both grew up in the Midwest and dreamed of more exotic lands. So, we both spent a significant portion of our twenties wandering about the planet looking for adventures. Eventually, we found each other. Ironically enough, we found each other back in Ohio. Sometimes the biggest adventures lie right in your backyard. When we started imagining our honeymoon, we decided that we wanted to A) visit some place that was uncharted territory for both of us; and B) travel somewhere that we thought we would never have a chance to see without the help of others. Shane's father had raised him on a steady diet of National Geographic, which probably contributed to his wanderlust. He remembered an article they had done years ago about a "stone forest" called the Tsingy de Bemaraha located in a remote region of Madagascar. The photos from that spread had always haunted his imagination, so he tracked down the images and shared them with Rachel. She found them equally intriguing. Moreover, she had also been dreaming about Madagascar, too. As an artist, she had drawn inspiration from the beautiful geological oddities that can only be found on the shores of this island nation. So, Madagascar, it was! With a little bit of research we found that June seemed like a good time to visit Madagascar. It's after the rainy season when many of the roads are impassable, but just before high season when things get more crowded & expensive. Plus, it gelled pretty well with our May wedding date. So, we flew out on May 31 and returned on June 30 - a nice solid month to play with. In retrospect, it seems that we chose well. The weather was pleasant and there weren't many tourists infringing on our romantic getaway. Once we had decided on Madagascar as a destination, we thought it would be shame to fly half way around the around, and not visit Victoria Falls. It just seemed like such an immanently honeymoon-worthy destination. So, we set out to find a way to work Zimbabwe into the plans, and this made South Africa the ideal hub for our travels. Bleary-eyed from our 24-hour flight from Cincinnati to Johannesburg, we unpacked just long enough to make a quick trek out to a lion park on the outskirts of town, where we were able to pet lion cubs, hug giraffes, and bond with wildlife in a way that isn't really allowed at the Cincinnati Zoo. Sure, it was a bit contrived & touristy, but petting lion cubs was too adorable pass up... The next day, we caught a flight to the capitol of Madagascar, Antananarivo. Tana, as it is affectionately known, is a crowded, chaotic, bustling hillside sprawl of people & traffic - not entirely without charm, but not exactly honey-moony, either. But this is where we met Jimmy Nandrasanela & his cousin Jean Claude, who ended up being our guides for the journey through the rugged countryside of Western Madagascar. Jimmy also helped us find a room in a peaceful little refuge called the Hotel Tana-Jacaranda. Normally, we tend to be more DYI, chart-your-own-path-type travelers, but it turns out that the Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park is a bit...well...let's just say off-the-beaten path would be something of an understatement. We could have just booked a small regional flight to get us there, but then we worried we wouldn't get much of a feel for the country & it's people. Sometimes the journey is as important as the destination itself. Our journey started off somewhat anticlimactically, with two days travel by car, rumbling carefully along roads with pot holes the size of small dogs, weaving through rolling hillsides with terraced rice paddies, gazing out the windows as the colors in the landscape faded from verdant green to dry dusty orange. When we grew weary, we'd take a pit stop at a little roadside stand for 'rana mafana' (a traditional beverage of hot rice water that has a slight charcoal flavor to it & feels oddly comforting) and a warm plate full of rice & zebu du jour. We continued on this way until eventually we arrived at the banks of the Tsiribihina River. Here, we climbed into a long, narrow dugout canoe, and set out on a three day voyage down the river. Our pirogue (not to be confused with a "pierogi" which is mighty tasty, but not so conducive to river travel) was packed full of provisions, including several live chickens, but it was surprisingly comfortable. After the long, bumpy road trip, it was nice to finally stretch out, relax and enjoy the warm sun & the cool breeze. We floated lazily down the river while our guide, Jean Paul, who was like some sort of wildlife spotting superhero, pointed out the dizzying diversity of critters teaming all around us-- lemurs, sifakas, crocodiles, birds of every imaginable variety. Seriously, this guy was amazing! The man could spot a chameleon on a tree limb 50 feet away from a moving boat. It was pretty impressive. Along the way, we stopped to bathe in a waterfall which cascaded into a pool of bright turquoise. Alien-looking lizards sunned themselves on the rocks alongside bright blue dragonflies the size of your hand, while a family of lemurs watched curiously from the safety of the treetops above. We felt deliciously far from home. At night, we would pitch our tents in the middle of a sandbar, and stop to enjoy good conversation & fresh food cooked over an open fire (remember those chickens?). Eventually, we'd fall asleep to the sounds of the river & the forest. The sunsets & sunrises were unbelievable, and the mist rising off the river in the early morning felt...well...mystical. After three days on the river we disembarked at some nondescript location, and clambered up the steep riverbank to a small hut. This was where we hired a zebu cart to transport us to a location hospitable enough to accommodate a four wheel drive vehicle. A zebu looks something like a cow with a large camel's hump, and they are ubiquitous in Madagascar. Not only do Malagasies look to zebus as a source of food & transportation, but also as sort of a rural version of an IRA. As we waited for the driver to hitch up the trusty zebu, Shane passed the time by making origami animals for the gaggle of tweens hanging about, and we all enjoyed swapping smiles and laughs. We bounced around on the back of a zebu cart for 30 minutes or so until we got to our rendezvous spot, then we hopped into the back of a dusty SUV for some serious off-roading. It felt sort of like we were in a boat being tossed around on a rough ocean - the jeep would see-saw back & forth, up & down, as it traversed huge chasms where the road should have been. After several teeth-chattering, bone-rattling hours of adventure & two river crossings on makeshift ferries, we stopped for the night in Belo Sur Tsiribihina, a dusty town near the river delta, centered around a handful of dirt roads. That evening, we discovered an ancient-looking foosball table on the street in front of a storefront arcade where kids can pay to play X-Box by the hour. We had also discovered a nice Danish couple who shared our passion foosball, and we all squared off in a spirited foosball competition as the sun started to set. Without realizing it, we gradually attracted a crowd of curious on-lookers. A group of children & adults rallied around us, laughing & cheering for different sides, giving a fist bump or a high-five to whoever scored a goal. By the time we finished playing, we had grease up to our elbows from the decrepit table, but we felt like minor celebrities... After another day of four-wheel adventure, weaving through tiny villages dotted with small mud huts and smaller waving children, we finally arrived at our destination: Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. "Tsingy" is a Malagasy word which roughly translates to, "where one cannot walk barefoot." Which turns out to be pretty good advice. The park is a surreal sprawl of tall limestone spires up to 50 meters high. Exploring the park requires one to clip into cables to safely scale the high towers & cross shaky cable bridges suspended over deep chasms. When we arrived, it felt like we had stepped onto another planet or possibly into a Dali painting. There was so much to take in. The Tsingy has it's own unique ecosystem, hosting a variety of plants & animals that literally exist nowhere else on the planet. Every few minutes, we were tempted to point, and say "Ooooh, look at that." However, we had show a lot of restraint because the rock formations are sacred to the Malagasy people, and pointing at them is viewed as disrespectful. It was absolutely breathtaking & worth the effort it took to get there. And after a day of trekking, it was nice come back & relax in our cute little bungalow at the Orchidee Du Bemahara, a lovely little establishment with a nice pool for lounging and a beautiful view of the surrounding wilderness. After our visit to the Tsingy, we flew back to Jo'Burg for a night, and then on to Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. We found Bulawayo to be surprisingly laidback for being the second largest city in the country. We really enjoyed the local cuisine - the food was cheap & super tasty. Rachel's favorite was something called literally "meaty bones" with a side of 'sadze', a piping hot cone of corn meal that you pinch off and sponge up your meal with. The trick was not to singe your fingertips in the process. Most of our lodging in Zimbabwe was a bit rustic, but we splurged one night in Bulawayo & upgraded to staying in the Rainbow Hotel, which was suitably honeymoon-swanky. It was fascinating talking with people at the local restaurants about what life was like during Zimbabwe's economic crisis (about six years ago), when hyper-inflation was rampant and the government was printing 100 trillion dollar bills (yes, that's one bill with 14 zeros on it). People talked about taking literally buckets full of cash to buy bread & panning for gold in the streams to make ends meet. What was remarkable was how kind & friendly & open everyone was. Their resilience was both inspiring & humbling. Just outside the city is Matobo National Park, a rhino preserve dotted with large rounded rock formations that look something like giant bald heads jutting out of the earth. This was where we met Andy, an excellent guide & all around interesting guy. He told us stories about living in the bush for months at a time & sleeping in aardvark dens to surprise would-be rhino poachers. He taught us useful skills like how to make a battery out of indigenous plant life and how to properly interpret rhino dung (not quite as useful back in Cincinnati, but...). As we were walking, he would nonchalantly make observations like, "Oh, by the way, that thing that just slithered across the path in front of us was a Black Mambo (i.e. an extremely poisonous snake that could instantly kill you)," like this was just a typical day at the office for him. Shortly before sunset, we hiked up to the top of this steep sloping rock formation that was plastered with brightly colored lichens. The collage of neon oranges & yellows & greens reminded us of some sort of surreal paint-ball splattered moonscape. At the end of our climb, we were rewarded with an intimate viewing of cave paintings reported to be thousands of years old. In years past, Silozwane Cave served as a shrine to Mwari, the god of creation revered by the Shona & Ndebele peoples. For us, it was the most memorable art gallery we've ever visited. Gazing up at those huge figures of humans & animals locked in primal scenes gave us goose bumps. Andy wanted to introduce us to his family & have us join him on a family excursion to Hwange National Park up in the north of the country, but our timelines didn't synch up, so we settled for a ride to the train station instead. We arrived just in time to hop the night train up to Victoria Falls, and were fortunate enough to get a cabin all to ourselves. It wasn't plush, but it was cozy enough. The low rumble of the train & the cool night air through the window made for a pretty pleasant sleeping situation. The next morning, we woke up to the faint "shooshing" sound of Victoria Falls in the distance. It is fair to say that Victoria Falls is pretty much synonymous with honeymoon bliss -- the mist kissing your skin, the sparkling 350 ft high curtains of water, double rainbows stretched across the sky. Pretty breathtaking. If this weren't enough, we were walking along a path by the falls when a baby antelope leapt out in front of us & frolicked off into the distance. It felt like some kind of magical sign. Now, dodging the packs of roving baboons who want to claim the town for their own was a little less romantic, but the falls, themselves are about as romantic as it gets. There are all sorts of exciting, adrenaline-pumping activities advertised around the falls (e.g., swimming with crocodiles, bungee jumping, whitewater rafting, whitewater rafting with bungee jumping crocodiles, etc.). We elected for a more tranquil canoe trip on the Zambezi river. Soaking up the sun & coasting past lazy hippos was all the excitement we needed at this point in our trip. After our river trip, we were able to find a local guy who was willing to drive us four hours south to Hwange National Park, pretty much the holy grail of Zimbabwean game parks. Before we even entered the park we saw a herd of elephants walking alongside the road in a parade of family bonding. As we got closer to the park, a lone juvenile elephant approached the car and started shaking his trunk & rearing his head at us. He advanced about 15 feet from our car, and we were starting to worry. Getting gored by a wild elephant would certainly sour the mood of a perfectly good honeymoon. Our driver laughed, and assured us that we didn't need to worry because you can discern an elephant's level of hostility by the way the ears are tilted. All the same, it felt like a good time to roll up the windows. By the time we made it back to South Africa for the third time we were pretty worn out, and mainly just enjoyed wandering around Cape Town (which is a lovely city, by the way), and exploring the history of Johannesburg. We found a great apartment in a hipster neighborhood in Cape Town on Air B & B, so it was nice to just relax and merge in with the locals. In Johannesburg, we enjoyed staying at the chic yet affordable Bannister Hotel in the artsy neighborhood of Braamfontein. That said, the highlight of our time in South Africa was definitely cage-diving with great white sharks through Sharklady Adventures. Off the coast of Gansbaii (about 2 hours outside of Cape Town), there is a stretch of ocean known as "shark alley." It was breath-taking just standing on the deck of the boat, and watching the sharks breach the water, hurling their massive bodies into the air, a flash of teeth & fins & muscle. So, logically we decided it was the perfect place to put on a wetsuit & go for a soak. The water was pretty chilly, but it turns out when you're immersed in a cage being circled by multiple 12 foot great white sharks, you don't really feel it that much -- go figure. Now, twelve feet is not exactly Jaws-big, but when they're swimming about 6 inches from your face, it's plenty big enough...We were very conscious of where we put our hands because we noticed teeth marks on different parts of the cage padding. It would have been a shame to return from our honeymoon with nowhere to place our wedding rings. Our honeymoon was amazing, but a bit exhausting. We had experiences that we will always treasure, but it took a LOT of work. Zimbabwe & Madagascar may not have some of the infrastructure which makes for easy traveling like some of the more popular destinations do, but the treasures they hold are well worth the effort for folks who are willing to get their hands dirty. Zimbabwe, in particular, is a hidden gem. So, we would highly recommend these destinations to any other intrepid honeymooners out there. All told, including fun things like vaccinations, malaria meds, and travel insurance, our excursion cost us about $10,000. We couldn't have done it without our friends and family...and Traveler's Joy.