Welcome to SKJ Travel ... my narrative blog where you can join me vicariously as I adventure around the world. In the archives you'll find posts from some of my travels ... these are very casual "letters to home" style accounts of what I did, with lots of photos. To read my formal articles, they're listed in each archive home page, or visit one of the blue buttons above: Articles/Guest Posts, Interviews, or Literary SKJ, or see the Travel Essays section (right side below archive -- mostly documentaries). Friday Photos are updated weekly, and Tuesday Tales are updated sporadically. You can follow SKJ Travel on social media at:
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Female lions are commonly called a lioness. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard reference to a “leopardess,” but I’d like to submit it for your consideration as an addition to the common lexicon of African wildlife.
At the time I began my latest safari in Botswana, leopards had been the big cat I least appreciated and knew little about. I’d seen only one in the true wild, from a distance, mostly hidden by tall grass. I can’t tell you why they were the big cat of least interest to me, why in contrast to cheetahs, lions and tigers, I was somewhat apathetic about them. The animal I most wanted to see close up on this particular safari was a leopard simply because I had essentially not seen one before -- something to tick off "the list."
Early one morning in the Kwai Concessions in northern Botswana, our studious guide got us on the trail of a moving pack of wild African ("painted") dogs, which are one of the rarer animals to encounter in Africa. We found them taking a break, ten resting adults and eight manic puppies romping and playing with the exuberance possessed by all species of children. We watched them until the adults abruptly got up and, upon some seemingly telepathic cue, all took off into the thick weeds. Our guide valiantly attempted to keep up with them and to forecast where they were headed in order to keep ahead of them so we could see them (we were hoping they were going to make a kill). It was a thrilling chase as we drove frenetically through the maze of vehicle tracks, catching glimpses here and there of the dogs running, trying to parallel them as they ran through the bushes where we couldn’t drive, hoping to intercept them up ahead.
Suddenly the vehicle stopped and our guide said quietly with great satisfaction, for he knew the dogs might lead us to this prize, “Leopard.”
I was so beside myself with excitement, squealing, “leopard! leopard!” that I actually did not see where it was. “Where? Where?”
“Shhhhhhh,” our guide had to counsel me. “You need to be quiet! She’s right there. A female.”
I scanned the bushes frantically and then … there she was, peering through a portal in the bush, standing on a fallen log like serenity itself, as if the word had just been created right then around her – she was its embodiment, as if she exhaled the concept and it enveloped her, and as she stepped out of the bushes, it lifted gently from her and escaped into the world. But she was the genesis of serenity. Silently, she stepped down from the log, placing her large paws gingerly on the ground. She moved with the measured grace of royalty, regal in a splendor not ostentatious, rather, of composure and gravity.
I had been practically panting with the thrill of the chase going after the dogs, careening through the bush in pursuit. When she emerged and strode toward me, I’d like to say that I poetically held my breath, that the world stopped spinning. But I was mouthing the words, trying not to make a sound, “Oh my god! Oh my god!” A curious juxtaposition of my wild and gangly excitement over her calm elegance.
She walked a short distance through the weeds right toward me.
Then she turned away and stood in profile, sleek and feminine with a fluidity of form, her tail artistically curled with the white tip pointed up. She sat down with a detached dignity as if nothing was going on around her -- no wild dogs on the hunt, no humans ogling and clicking cameras. She stood up and walked some more, her gait so smooth, like a puck sliding across glassy ice. The majesty of her presence wasn’t that of a queen, a matriarch, but of a princess, young and desperately beautiful. A leopardess.
The dogs, historically antagonistic toward leopards, came in closer and she prudently retreated into a tree, adeptly navigating the organic fractal of tree branches as if they were but ripples on water she parted like a porpoise.
She was not a cornered animal, frightened and cowering. She simply removed herself from the reach of her adversaries until they moved off, and then she descended to disappear into the bush like a whisper from the mouth of a dream.
While we continued to have many more outstanding animal encounters, this one of the leopardess emerging from the woods remained singularly magical because it was so much more than just a visual encounter to touch this animal's nature as if it were as tangible as her fur ... a nature which is calm but not gentle, for it is predatory. Within this contradiction of a powerful predator making such delicate passage through the bush, lies a profound poise.
A couple days later, we saw another leopardess posed on a trail sign, completely self-possessed, like the first one.
She alighted to the ground and began stalking an impala in the distance. Leopards can direct register, placing the back paw in exactly the same place as the front paw, enhancing their predatory stealth. With intense focus on the impala she lowered her body and lifted each paw slowly and purposefully, placing it back down as if the earth was an eggshell that would crack under a more careless weight.
She sat down in the bushes and pondered the unsuspecting impala until a pair of kory bustards bumbled in and gave her away with a set of alarm calls.
The impala left. And before she left, the leopard princess turned her spotted head back toward me briefly.
The milky eyes of a leopardess belie a dispassionate peace. They are like no other I've ever seen in the animal kingdom ... rendering her an impassive observer of her world. I don't know how to explain it or describe it, but this indifferent countenance is ethereal.
She stepped into the bushes and disappeared into her secret world. But I learned then that a leopardess is never completely absent from the landscape. For in the rounded contours of her paw print, she leaves behind a soft longing in the pith of the souls who watched her. I think if she were not to emerge from the bush again, she would break the heart of Africa.
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Well here it is ... another penguin post from Antarctica. It's the final post I'll make about penguins, and in fact the final post about my super phenomenal experience in Antarctica, which I leave with you just as I depart for a very different southern environment -- back to Africa, back to elephants and lions and all the safari animals, whom I love dearly, but I think at the end of the day, I'm going to have to go with penguins as my number one all-time favorite animal to be around and to photograph. (even if an awful lot of my photos didn't turn out so well) (and even if I have to breathe through my mouth sometimes to block out the stench) So this last post is titled "For the Love of Penguins" in recognition of that. There's no theme to this selection. Just some more pics and depictions of penguin life that I like for one reason or another. Haven't seen my other penguins and can't get enough? See Part 1 and Part 2 of the Penguin Diaries
There's something special about lone penguins. There's something special about penguin pairs. There's something special about penguin clubs. Let's see ... is there some kind of penguin number that is not special? Maybe clusters of 13?? I don't know. There's even something special about hundreds of them trilling, commuting and pooping in their metropolis colonies.
If I were forced upon some horrific pain to choose one of the above as the ultimate penguin number, I guess I'd have to say, "two." Because it's a compromise between the lone penguin and any other higher group number. So the charming individuality shines through comparably with the entertainment value of penguin interactions. I guess. I don't know. Honestly, I'm just making junk up to pretend I have a method to my posting mayhem and madness. haha. So here ... just please enjoy some penguin pairs.
This chinstrap pair was making their way along the volcanic beach together, the one tagging along just behind the other like a little brother saying, "Hey, I'm coming, too!" On the appropriately named "Penguin Island."
Penguin buddies at Mikkelsen Harbor. I always like a good reflection.
Penguins, as I've already mentioned a bunch of times, are so caption-able. Clearly in this captured moment below, the one penguin is asking the other for directions, and he's pointing with his flipper where to make a right turn.
I like it that the penguins are not species-ist. They all hang out together just fine ... such as this gentoo and adélie, interested in the same thing over their shoulders. Oh wait ... except the adélie seems to have spied me!
But probably the most adorable penguin pairs are little twins in their parents' nest. Gentoo penguin females lay two eggs each time they breed. They're incubated for a little over a month before hatching. It was about as common to see a nest with two chick as with one in the colony of gentoo penguins at Yankee Harbor. Supposedly the two eggs hatch within only a few days of each other. There were clearly a number of chicks who were still awaiting the arrival of their sibling, but here are some more shots of sibling chicks. All I can say is, what a joyous treat our last day with penguins to find the colony brimming with little fuzzball babies.
Here's another bird pair we had the privilege to see on Penguin Island ... the southern giant petrel. It's hard to get a sense of scale from the photos, but I assure you their wingspan is safely within the definition of "giant." I thought the white one looked somehow almost ethereal against the blue sky.
I haven't yet talked about the skuas -- the sinister birds that stalk the penguin colonies looking for unattended penguin eggs and chicks to snatch and dine on.
Here you see one swooping in (on the right) toward the rocks to scan for a meal.
Although penguins win the Oscar for anthropomorphic expressions and drama, this skua couple put on a good show. The one on the right is clearly getting a royal chewing-out by the one on the left and has had about enough, "Alright alright already! I get it; shut up! Leave me alone!"
It was very difficult (at least for me) to catch any good photos of the penguins swimming. It was so fun when they swam around our kayaks, flying out of the water in little pods. Here's one I got from the ship deck.
Whenever they congregate in calm, quiet groups (i.e. not stretching their necks and calling loudly into the air), they often make me think of some kind of gentleman's club, haha, like they're smoking cigars and drinking brandy and discussing the latest in politics. Or that smaller groups have gotten together "to discuss this in committee ..." whatever "this" might be. I think in the first pic below, someone said, "Check out that broad over there." Half of them are gawking and the others are like, "Whatever. She's not my type."
Some of the most charismatic penguins are those who stand out alone in a crowd. There is pretty much always one of them in any group -- somebody standing the opposite direction of everybody else, or looking straight at you when nobody else is, or like this adélie below standing alone. The look on its face is terribly funny to me ... kind of confused and quizzical.
But the adélies often have the most comical expressions, in my estimation. Their stark eyes and sunken cheeks I think help form their unique expressions, accentuating their beaks and eyes.
I've mentioned in the other two penguin posts how amusing the penguin highways are to watch. Just the fact that they're truly like little commuter roads similar to what people use is funny for these particularly anthropomorphic creatures. It's one of the most endearing aspects of their lives. So here are few more pics of their commuting life along the penguin highways.
Gotta look closely to see the little penguin head just sticking up above the surface of the snow, carefully making its way past a seal waiting like a troll on the highway. I envision that the penguin is carrying a little briefcase with him.
One thing particularly fun about holding my finger down on the shutter button on "continuous" shooting mode was seeing the sequences that emerged afterward like those flip-books we (people my age) had as kids or a stop-motion animation or something. Even if the photos come out unfocused and ill-framed, it doesn't matter, the event captured is still ... well, usually hilarious. Sorry, penguins, but everything you do just makes me laugh. For example, here is a sequence of a gentoo penguin biffing it as he's cruising a highway on Brown Bluff.
And he's back up! Like nothing happened.
And as we've already learned, all this commuting between their rocky nests inland and the ocean waters is to feed themselves so they can produce, incubate, hatch, feed and raise their chicks during the short summers in Antarctica. These little fuzzballs .....
..... will grow into these charismatic characters. I have to say I love the gentoos the most. They have a certain attitude about them that's just incomparable anywhere else in the animal kingdom with which I'm familiar. This guy: "I'm a penguin!" I've posted some of these pics on my Facebook page and they've received some excellent captions ... have fun making up your own. :)
Attitude! I got some good caption suggestions for these, but to me the first penguin is clearly scolding its spouse or child for messing up that rock somehow. "Look here, mister! Just look what you've done. I told you not to make a mess, now clean it up!" And the next penguin thinks he's a total bad-ass.
But this chinstrap is looking pretty confident with his dapper look. The Sean Connery of penguins?
The anatomical part of the various Antarctic penguin species that I love most is their feet. Why their feet? Well they do stand out for their size, and especially on the gentoos and adélies with their bright color. But their endearing quality is the sound they make slapping along on the snow or in the puddles of melted snow. I loved when I'd be looking one direction photographing, and then I would hear the pitter patter of penguin feet coming up behind me, I'd turn around and there they were, stopped behind me or carrying on walking beside me. I'll just never forget that special, unique sound. It fits their character so well. Here are a couple shots showing off those goofy floppy feet.
Probably the most revealing thing I can say about Antarctica is that I typically do not travel to the same country more than once. There have been exceptions. It's not because I think I've tapped out any one country -- heavens, no, I'm not even close, not even my own country -- it's just that the planet is so huge and there's so much more to sample. I guess I'm a gal who seeks the big picture. So I spend a few weeks in this country and then that country, and then I look at a globe and see how many others there are, and just have a hard time going backward. And if I do revisit a country, I generally see different regions and sights than the first time. However, I would happily repeat this Antarctica trip, even the exact same itinerary. To many people, Antarctica sounds like just a frozen wasteland, but oh my goodness, what silly people. It's truly a remarkable place.
Iconic Antarctica ... penguin on the floating ice. This fella looks rather forlorn, wondering what happened to his buddies. "Hey guys?" It's sad and comical at the same time. I just want to pick him up and hug him. Goodbye Antarctica!
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In the little bit of research I did before landing in Buenos Aires to decide what we should do, one recommendation I consistently ran across was a day trip to Colonia del Sacramento a short ferry ride away in Uruguay. (Well, "short" depends on which ferry you take.) So after a couple days in the hustle and bustle of busy Buenos Aires, we took the early morning fast ferry from Puerto Madero to spend a very laid-back, relaxing day strolling the streets of Colonia del Sacramento. We didn't have a map to tell us where to go to see the old colonial town center, so we just kind of wandered around a bit, but it was not difficult to stumble upon.
On our wandered-way winging it to the town center, we strolled down lovely tree-lined cobblestone streets in a kind of tree tunnel.
I had read somewhere that green Austral parrots made some of these trees their home. I wondered if they would be easy to spot up in the green trees. But there was no doubt when we came upon them because of the racket they made with their voices! No, unfortunately, they're weren't speaking Spanish, like you might expect a parrot in Uruguay would be, they were speaking Portuguese. The town was, after all, established by the Portuguese in 1680 as a defensive outpost. I know very little of this language, so the only thing I could really understand from them was "bom dia" ("good day"). hahaha. Kidding, of course. Nah, just a lot of bird language. I didn't get pictures of them but I was excited to find them. (I did manage a couple shots later in Argentina, in Patagonia.)
Eventually we saw signs on the road pointing us toward the historical central town square. Following those, along the way we walked through some interesting abandoned buildings. I like it when people take decay and turn it into an artistic canvas. Very common to see these days in my urban travels, and I approve of the evolution of graffiti.
Of course evolution is a slow process ... The vines and bushes may get the last word on this building.
A street in transition ... further down on the left you can see it kind of alternates being traditional slogan-ist graffiti and colorful contributions.
The historic colonial center is quite small, arranged outside a military fort around a central town square. There are a surprising number of houses (eight) that have been turned into little museums around this square, portraying the history of the area and the daily lives of early inhabitants with various artifacts on display. A visitor can buy a reasonably priced all-inclusive ticket to see all the ones that might be open that day. At the ruins of the old city fort, we climbed up a modern lighthouse for a nice view.
A meandering walk through the streets is at least as entertaining as a careful tour of a museum. The old city center seems to have decided that antique cars will be the signature "statues" along their cobblestone streets. I don't know the history behind this, when or why people started putting antique cars out and either spiffing them up to run or re-purposing them into planters. But it's a unique feature that draws the tourists' attention.
As we had left the dawn of winter in Colorado to come to South America, the profusion of brightly colored flowering bougainvillea trees was a delight that I particularly basked in.
This spectacular beauty below was in the yard of a house that doubled as an art gallery. Can you spot the kitty on the tree roots near the back? (try opening pic in a new tab). The gallery appropriately had kitties lounging on the furniture. I think they belong in a gallery as much as they do in a bookshop.
There are numerous cafes around the town square in which to enjoy a pleasant lunch and beer or the highly-caffeinated national drink, yerba maté. Erik was keen to try the traditional method of drinking it because he drinks maté chai and tea at home all the time, but in leafless mixes (like the chai or berry-flavored drinks, etc.) We stepped into a cute little tea shop and sat on the back patio, where, similar to the antique cars on the streets, they had re-purposed old kitchen appliances into planters and surfaces for flower pots.
This is the traditional set-up for yerba maté tea -- a cup, which is typically made from a type of gourd or other natural material, full of loose tea leaves, which comes with a thermos of hot water and a long, metal kind of straw with a strainer in it to suck the water from the leaf-laden cup. And by laden, I mean literally full of leaves. You can only pour a little water in at a time because of the density of leaves, hence the thermos to keep the water hot. You let the water settle a bit down through the leaves and then stick the straw in and suck up yerba-infused water, and then pour in more. It is not something you can slam ... rather, a slow and ritualistic process. We saw people walking along the streets with this whole little kit in their hands, drinking as they walked. And every single souvenir shop in the city sells these kits, and the gourds are usually engraved with various designs.
But we capped off our pleasant day in this town with a stop at a pub closer to the ferry terminal to kill time with some beer until our scheduled departure. We sat at a table on the sidewalk and made friends with the urban domestics. Erik made a particularly close pal with this sweet little dog.
So, I would echo the sentiments that I read and pass on the recommendation to take a day trip to Colonia del Sacramento if you have the time while visiting Buenos Aires. There is a lot to do in Buenos Aires, but it makes for a pleasant interlude in city life and bustle.
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As I was putting together my previous post on ice in the Southern Ocean, I realized that half of my favorite photos depicting interesting icebergs and noteworthy landscapes came from this one zodiac cruise in Cierva Cove. So I decided to dedicate a full post just to this one experience. I don't really have much text to go with it, not a whole lot to say that isn't self-explanatory, or a pointless list of adjectives that add little-to-nothing to the photo. Therefore, pretty much just sit back and enjoy the virtual ride ... I present Cierva Cove.
This was a place with whom my wide-angle lens made particularly good friends. Yet again we had glassy mirror waters and beautiful weather for this expedition. I'm so in love with the dynamic nature of the scenery in terms of color and "mood" -- look one direction and the skies are blue, reflecting on the mirror waters; look the opposite and it's a dark cloud-covered sky whose waters are subsequently that beautiful gray and even black that compliments the ice so splendidly. I have to say, the black waters were my favorite. While the photo just above is one of my very favorites from the trip, I think this photo below is pretty cool because it shows simultaneously both the bright blue water underneath the blue sky on the right and the dark water underneath the clouds on the left, as well as the beautiful aqua color that icebergs usually have just beneath the water's surface. Actually, the more I write about it, the more I like it. Add the snow-covered peaks and you've got pretty much the iconic colors of Antarctica. (missing just the yellow glow as I described in Wilhelmina Bay)
A member of the crew told us that the Norwegian polar explorer, Captain Fridtjof Nansen, could navigate through an ice field by studying the clouds because they reflect the surface below them differently depending on whether they are over open water or over snow and ice. As an explorer in the era of the "Golden Age of Discovery" in the late 19th century, there of course were no GPS or radar instruments to help him. Men admirably navigated the globe using the tools provided by nature herself.
Cruising around through the ice fields, whether the water be blue or black, often evoked a sense of adventure such as the early explorers must have felt when everything was a vast mystery, so uncharted, and their vessels were so vulnerable to the forces of ice and weather. Little corridors and alleys like these always made me smile with the excitement of wondering what lay on the other side of the corridor.
Although the black waters were my favorite, the blue waters, especially when cradling the reflection of a white landscape, were stunning. Especially on the mirror-smooth surface.
This one is a little difficult to parse at first; I like the scene for its chaotic composition of color and shape, the glassy reflections broken by the bits of ice in the water.
In spite of the dazzling glassy reflections, the fields of ice in the black water, and all the magical formations, probably my two favorite photos are the two below because I really like the icicles hanging down like a little forest of crystals. (and upside down forest, I guess)
Entering the slush zone!
The different textures of the individual icebergs were perpetually fascinating. And I love that deep, vibrant blue found specially in glacial snow.
And finally we head back to the Sea Spirit, where a hot towel and cup of hot tea awaits us as we re-board the ship, my eyes still wide with residual wonder.