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:
Subscribe to the Updates newsletter to be notified when new posts go live
The best part of our week in Puerto Rico does not come with photos. The motivation to travel to Puerto Rico was to experience the bio-luminescent bays, where tiny organisms (dinoflagellates) emit a blue light when the water around them is agitated. The best viewing area is Mosquito Bay on Vieques Island. You can get there by ferry (near Fajardo) or small plane from the main island. We took the ferry and rented a car for 24 hours to explore the island with. A sunken ship remains in the harbor, damage from the last big hurricane.
There are many outfitters who run kayak tours of the bay, but we chose a company that uses glass-bottomed kayaks. The best time to go is on a moonless night; our night had only a sliver of moon, so it was pretty close to dark. For the most part, I keep expectations low about anywhere I travel, that way I'm seldom disappointed. But my expectations for the bay had started to creep up a little. Fortunately, I was not disappointed! It was sooooo cool (in the refined vernacular of one with a degree in English). Erik and I were in a tandem kayak, and as we paddled through the water and looked at the bottom of the kayak, it looked like we were traveling at warp speed through space, like is depicted in Star Trek or in Star Wars just before the Millennium Falcon jumps to light speed, where the sky (or in this case, the water) is just streaks of light. Sometimes we could see when a fish swam in the water beneath us, making blue trails in the water with its fins.
Swirling my hand through the water or dripping it off my paddle produced the prettiest results ... how much more simple can giddy delight get -- run your hand through water and let it drip off your fingers. All-natural trippiness, courtesy of the ever-imaginative Mother Nature. Truly, nothing short of magical. It would not seem poetic, only cliche and obvious, to say out loud while you're in the biobay that it's a reflection of space in the water or vice versa, but since we're not floating in it at the moment, I'll go ahead and say it. The black night sky is full of dinoflagellates, and the black bay waters are full of stars.
We followed that up with another trip from the main island to a different bay at Fajardo on board an electric pontoon boat. I wasn't sure how tiring kayaking would be (turns out not remotely, the trip was super easy), so I'd booked a motorized ride for the next night. If we had taken that trip first, maybe I would have been a tinge disappointed, but maybe not since I still would have experienced something brand new that included sparkly light. In any case, this outing into Lagunas Grande, which is supposed to be the second-best bio-luminescent bay in Puerto Rico, didn't match the blue glowing magic of the Vieques trip in any capacity. However, we did see sparkles and we could more easily pick out the individual organisms tumbling off our fingers as we let the water drip. We were with another family of three from the East Coast who had never experienced anything like it, and being around the kid and his excitement enhanced our experience. The neatest thing about that trip was that we had to travel through a very dense mangrove swamp to reach the bay, we went through a channel that was like a tunnel in the mangroves, with iguanas drooping their legs and tails from the branches above us. Erik and I both thought it was just like a ride you might take at Disney World.
But back to Vieques ... so during our day exploring this tiny island with the rental car, we spent most of our time in a most unexpected manner. I had projected the day would be spent looking at natural features -- beaches and jungles. Instead, we spent most of our time at ruins! First, the ruins of the Central Playa Grande sugar mill in Esperanza, just a short distance inland from the main tourist drag of the island (where most restaurants and hotels are). I didn't know about them beforehand; we just noticed these interesting-looking crumbling building fronts, and got out of the car expecting only to snap a few photos of the picturesque decay. But once we got close to the buildings, we realized there was far more to them.
There were a few pieces of old machinery in the yard. I always like this kind of stuff even if I have no clue what it is or what it does.
This building, in particular, you can't tell at all from the road how huge it is. It looks like just one little wall of a small building still standing, right?
We stepped inside and did one of those slow-motion blinks of "whoa!" It was huge! The way in which the jungle was so wholly overtaking the cement and metal was fascinating. It felt other-worldly. Sorry to bring up Star Wars again, but it kind of made me think of Dagobah, the planet where Yoda lives. I have since learned that the ruins date to about 1860. So this is what a century and a half does to a place here. In another century, there will probably only be rubble.
The next ruin seemed utterly out of place on this little island. It was such a mystery, but we were fortunate to stop by a visitor's center in an old fort before we left the island, where we asked about it. But first I'll let you see if you can figure out what the place is. This is what we saw from the road that intrigued us.
There was a sign saying it was public land, so we walked down to it and poked around under the grandstand. It was pretty neat, and we could see clear evidence that wild horses had been finding a pleasant refuge in here.
Then we walked up to the long cement building, and again, way more than we could see from the road unfolded as we explored huge rooms along a massive hallway. There was a rusted-out van at one end of the entrance to the grand hallway.
Perhaps now would be a good time to point out that I came to Puerto Rico with an injured foot and had to wear this big boot thing the whole time. As long as my foot was in the boot, it didn't bother me, and I actually got along just fine. Though, I hadn't been prepared to be walking through thorny bushes to reach mysterious ruins on this day, so actually what suffered the most here was my other foot in a flip-flop and my nylon skirt that kept catching on the thorns. Anyway, I think I'm going to adopt the photo of me below as my SKJ Travel logo. Kind of sums up why I even have a website and share my travels of the world.
Figured it out yet? What is this mysterious complex? It was supposed to be a community center ... with a swimming pool and basketball court and weight room, and two fields with grandstands for outdoor sports. A huge financial undertaking that apparently fell prey to corruption, as so many things with high financial stakes and values do in this imperfect world. So there was no money to complete it, and it fell into ruins. The man at the visitor's center pulled our leg at first when we asked him what the giant ruined building was; he said, "Where is that?" We told him, and he said, "Huh, I've never seen it. I don't know what it could be." But such a huge thing on such a small island ... his statement was quickly evaluated as impossible. Then he laughed and said what a misery it was, an eyesore, a constant reminder of incompetence and corruption. A pity -- it would clearly have been a great benefit to the community.
There were a few non-thorny bushes we passed by, such as this one. A flowering tree, actually. And below that is a quick pic of the hilltop fort, El Fortin Conde de Mirasol, where we spoke to the man who clued us in to the mystery.
One of the things we particularly liked about Vieques was all the free-range animals. Dogs, who were even chilling out on the rooftops, chickens, and most appealingly, feral horses. "Feral" often implies a skittish and maybe aggressive animal, but these horses are very docile. Locals ride them all the time -- no saddles, they just grab the manes; some kids we saw weren't even wearing shoes while riding. It's quite picturesque, the random grazing horses everywhere, even though I didn't get any good pictures myself. But if you like horses, Vieques would be a delightful place for you.
Puerto Rico, it turns out, has a major "cruising" culture. People driving their cars up and down the streets, back and forth just cruising, like I used to do in high school in the 1980s (haha, embarrassed to admit). One guy in Vieques was particularly amusing, as he was cruising the main street in Esperanza that fronts the ocean along which the restaurants are lined with their beach-facing patios. He wasn't cruising in a car, though, he was cruising on one of the horses, trotting and clomping up and down the street, back and forth, all by himself. I don't know if he expected a pretty lady to spring from one of the patios and ask for a ride, or what his purpose was. I guess in cruising it's just about being seen.
There was one alarming sign I saw ... Yikes!
OK, back to the main island. I imagined Puerto Rico was a small enough island that we might run out of stuff to do after a week, but in fact, we'll need to come back to do some stuff we didn't get to! Probably the most famous part of Puerto Rico (besides Old San Juan) is the El Yunque National Forest rain forest. We spent a day here. The only thing we couldn't do was swim in the waterfalls, as so many other people were doing, because of my injured foot encased in its giant black boot -- I couldn't get it wet and I couldn't walk yet without it.
It's a rain forest indeed, with all the fecundity one expects, the wild dreamings of the color green, as if it's secretly planning to take over the world. We could hear lots of birds singing in the dense trees, but caught very few glimpses of them. Snails, however, were abundant -- dynamic and dangerous creatures that they are! I stood for a little while and watched the riveting drama unfold .....
My fascination with lizards has grown from my time spent with the iguanas in Ixtapa, Mexico, each year. For the first time in my life, I was pleased to find little lizards all around me, and was anxious to photograph them. But they're speedy little boogers who often scamper away just as you get your finger on the shutter button. But actually, once you find a few and see how uber-camouflaged they are, you imagine that they are probably all around you by the dozens and you simply can't see them! (and I should note, I like them in the forest now; I still do NOT like them in my hotel rooms!)
A creature that I typically feel a range of emotions about from annoyance to fear to loathing, pretty much dependent on its size, is the spider. Yeah, I'm one of those arachnophobic girly girls. However, I cannot deny the glory of a well-rendered spider web. Truly, they are amazing and I give full credit to these creepy critters for their artistic merit. I was delighted to find this small guy in the middle of his web right in the middle of a very rare shaft of sunlight penetrating the dense rain forest canopy.
We didn't see an over-abundance of blooming flowers, but the ones we did see were lovely. And then I saw this crazy mass of branches that immediately brought to mind a Chihuly glass sculpture I saw at the Denver Botanical Gardens. If he takes inspiration from nature, surely the similarity of these two is no coincidence. Check it out -- what do you think?
These look like little people with their arms curled in, wearing skirts. OK, their heads aren't very attractive - little fuzzy stumps - but otherwise they're graceful.
There are two towers in the park that you can climb to the top of to get wonderful bird's eye panoramic views of the island. An old one, and a new one. I wish I received a dollar for every person who commented on me hiking through the rain forest and up the towers in my boot. Everyone was so impressed and amazed, but it honestly wasn't very difficult. I certainly wasn't about to stay home in my hotel room! Anyway, those dollars would have bought some pretty swanky meals in San Juan!
One thing I didn't realize is that the interior of the island is a spine of mountainous rain forest rising high up from the sea level. The roads through the interior were probably the windiest, twistiest roads we have ever encountered. And that's saying something. So if you love a tight turn, rent a sporty car in Puerto Rico! We didn't have a sporty car, but ours was good enough to have some fun. The main east-west route across the interior is the Ruta Panoramica. Do not travel it if you are prone to car sickness! For us, we loved it. You can travel right to the apex of the island and look down to the ocean on either side, north or south.
We stopped off at the main cultural attraction in Puerto Rico. I knew nothing about indigenous cultures on Puerto Rico. The Parque Ceremonial Indigena de Caguana was a small but very educational museum in the middle of the island. We even got in free because the man who normally sells the tickets was sick that day. Apparently no one else could do the job. There's a small museum with artifacts and informational murals about the Taino culture who lived here and built these ceremonial ball courts, in use from about 1200 to 1500 AD. Outside, there are two small courts lined with short stone "monoliths," which I put in quotes because that conjures images of something large, but they're quite small. It kind of looks like the courts are surrounded by tombstones. A few of them have their original petroglyphs still visible. My favorite is the one that looks like the iconic kid's ghost costume (far right) ... two eye-holes cut out of a sheet. It's just so simple and because of the Halloween similarity, so cute.
My inclination is to tell you a bit about the Taino people and the Caguana site, but this post has already gotten a bit out of hand, so you can Google it. Suffice to say, if you find yourself on Puerto Rico, even though it's a tiny monument compared to so many others of enormous magnitude that I've been to, I recommend stopping in. In my opinion, it's always worth knowing what came before you, before your own culture and your own culture's history. Step outside yourself.
These are the ball courts. I was enamored by the thought that these huge trees could be the same ones as the ancients stood under, but when I asked the security guard about them (the only guy on hand since the ticket seller was out sick), he said the trees in the site now are not very old, 50 to 100 years old. I was disappointed, but glad I asked because otherwise I might have waxed on like an idiot about the spirituality in standing beside the same living tree as the ancestors but looking at the ball court with utterly different eyes. The last part still is true, of course, but the poetry is reduced when there is nothing else held in common than the inanimate court and the eroded stones.
Here is the detail of some of the petroglyphs on some of the individual stones.
Just a short distance north from the ancient Caguana site is the Arecibo Observatory, home to the world's largest radar-radio telescope, probing the depths of space with modern technology. We drove from San Juan one day specifically to see this, as it was touted in my guidebook as a primary, world-class attraction on the island. Imagine our disappointment when we got there to find out it was closed until the summer! Some anomalous reason, I don't even remember what for now, but we were not the only disappointed folks who had driven a couple hours from San Juan to see it. I felt a little badly for the security guards, whose fault the closure was not, but who had to deal with disappointed visitors venting their frustration surely every hour of every day. This is as close as we got to the enormous dish.
Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that time when I was nearly eaten by a gigantic plant. That was hair-raising, but I survived. So all's well that ends well -- a week in April in Puerto Rico. I'll make a separate post about Old San Juan.
please note that photos in this post can be viewed larger by clicking on them to open in a new tab
Yes, I realize that the terms "wet" and "rainy" season may indicate something other than a desolate landscape, and therefore should have tempered my surprise. But my impression of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa was just so singular ... I'd only seen photos and TV shows depicting a land of barren bleakness, a harsh environment where any life seemed a little miraculous. I was going to Namibia in March to participate in the filming of The African Witchfinder. This is the off-season in terms of wildlife viewing. Seeing animals as a tourist in a huge park is most aptly accomplished by visiting waterholes, either natural ones or man-made ones (parks create them in order to concentrate the wildlife in areas designated for safari tourists). In the dry season, the animals congregate here freely and happily. In the wet season, though,waterholes are nothing special as there are plenty of water sources throughout the parks, so the animals are more widely dispersed and the odds of seeing them along the roads and waterholes are much slimmer. In fact, in Etosha National Park, Namibia, the off-season is so low in March that the park gives 75% discounts on accommodations to Namibian residents. That's how desperate they are to get business, the viewing is so dismal. While filming for the documentary, we secured amazing accommodations at the last minute, they were so empty. But more on that in another post.
So ... that is all to say that no one holds out much hope for wildlife viewing in southern Africa in February and March. I, however, was spending the money and effort to get to Africa and, off-season or not, I couldn't bear to travel there without at least taking a shot at seeing some wildlife. A little online research revealed that my best shot was the Kalahari region of Botswana. The wet season (also referred to there as the "green" season) was said to bring out the herds of zebras and antelope species upon which lions, cheetahs and leopards dine. So supposedly one had a reasonable chance of spotting these majestic predators. I like the zebras and wildebeest and springbok, don't get me wrong, but I admit that what excites me, as with many safari-goers, are the big mammals ... the predators and the elephants and giraffes. I knew my chances to see them might be slim, but I was compelled to try.
As this is a narrative blog about my experiences, I rarely spend time giving travel advice, endorsing hotels, guides, rental companies, etc. ... that's not the aim of my blog. However, you may notice that every once in a while when someone delivers a stellar experience that made my trip, I like to give them a little space. And so, if you're looking for a wonderful safari experience in Botswana, allow me to recommend my guide, Jane of Ulinda Safaris. Owing to a past highly unpleasant experience safari-going with strangers, I decided to forfeit the extra arm and leg to hire a private guide all to myself. And boy was it worth it. I had such a marvelous and relaxing time. So if you're looking for a moderate-priced safari (as opposed to a luxury-priced safari, which 90% of safaris in Botswana are, and there really are no "budget" ones), please contact me or Ulinda Safari Trails directly.
Anyhoo ... let's get on with the pictures! So, even if I'd never seen a single animal, I think it would have been worth my time to see the Central Kalahari Game Reserve simply to have my preconceived notion of the place rocked and completely upended. It was a cornucopia of grasses in shades of green and yellow, forests of acacia trees, incredibly dense thickets of green and blooming bushes. I had to keep asking Jane over and over, "So you're telling me that in the dry season, all these trees and bushes have no leaves and the grass and weeds are brown?" "Yep," she replied over and over. Even though that is what I presumed of the desert -- brown, leafless, lifeless -- once I was there inside the floral fecundity, I could hardly wrap my head around it. I understand why it's commonly referred to as "the green season." The CKGR is enormous, one of the largest game reserves on the planet. Some sources claim it as the largest, if you discount the transfrontier parks.
The other stellar aspect of a great big flat plain in the rainy season is the dynamic skies the weather produces. In the dry season, the skies in Africa are pretty much just pure, deep blue. Which is pretty, to be sure, but the skies the weather produced in the Kalahari were pretty remarkable. Here are a few photos depicting the sky in just one direction. But imagine turning in place 360 degrees and seeing several different skies around you. So take the photo below, you see this, turn 90 degrees and the sky is blue with patchy pillow clouds, turn another 90 degrees and a great wall of white cloud looms low over the land, turn 45 degrees and there's another curtain of rain like this one, 45 degrees more and it's clear blue sky, then complete the circle back to the scene below. Multiple weather/sky events at one time all around you. Where I'm from, the weather comes from primarily one direction. So, it might be totally cloudy and gloomy in the west and sunny in the east, but you only have two halves to the sky. Here, there were many sections to the sky. For me, it was remarkable. I'm sorry, but I must apply the word "epic" -- it's used appropriately so rarely these days, but I stand by the usage here. I loved it!
It's fortunate that I was so enthralled with the landscape and skyscape because in truth, the wildlife was pretty minimal. But it's OK. In addition to the natural features, we had a lovely campsite all to ourselves ... one of the awesome perks of traveling with Jane is that she gets access to special limited campsites in the national parks, away from the public campgrounds, which are completely private just for her own party. It was so much fun to genuinely feel that we were in the African bush. Anyway ... I also learned, with the paucity of the "big" animals, to appreciate more the antelope species and birds and less popular animals. I think that was a worthy upshot of the trip. Perhaps the coolest thing I saw was an open marsupium, or pouch, on a springbok's back ... technically referred to as a dorsal skin flap (I like "marsupium" better). I never even knew springbok had these! Jane said it's quite rare to see them open. I asked a very well-seasoned Africa photo-safari guide friend of mine if he'd ever seen this and he didn't know of the existence of these pouches either ... had never seen one. I think it must be pretty rare to see because even if you Google for springbok + marsupium, the lead entries are articles about this anatomical feature yet there are no photos of it! There are only photos of springbok with it closed, so it would be very hard to imagine what it looks like from all those articles. Lucky for you ... you don't need your imagination!
Each evening on safari, Jane and I had happy-hour G&Ts as the sun began to approach the horizon ... right at that time of day with the lovely golden light ("the golden hour"). Delightful. This little springbok was rather keen to join us, demanding to know where his G&T was..
These two springbok had a few words to say to each other .....
I saw a couple other rare-ish sights in Botswana (though probably not as rare as the springbok pouch!) involving animals with deformities. One was an elephant in the Nxai Pan I wasn't able to get a picture of (he moved too quickly into the bushes), who had two tusks on one side -- one was quite small and tightly curled upward, and the other was a huge one that almost touched the ground and was nearly straight (had no curve in it like most elephant tusks do). Another was this orxy, below, in the Central Kalahari with a deformed horn.
The oryx, or more commonly referred to as gemsbok (pronounced "hemsbok") in this region, is probably my second-favorite of the antelope species (favorite being the kudu). They are one of the largest antelopes and their straight, spiky horns can be terribly impressive in their length, but mostly I just like their coloring patterns, their black-and-white faces and black-and-white socks. They strike a most epic pose when they are crossing the plains (that's right, I said epic again). Below, an abdim's stork is keeping pace with a striding orxy (see it flying just above it?). Wildlife photos with multiple species in them are my favorites (as you may know by now) ... those are springbok in the background.
You don't know what an abdim's stork is? Well neither did I until I saw one! But they certainly have striking faces.
And look -- oryx kiddos! I'd never seen oryx tykes before; pretty darn cute.
Third in line after the springbok and oryx for most numerous antelope species in CKGR were blue wildebeest. Not claiming they're world-class photos, but these are by far the best captures I've managed to get of wildebeest to date ... their faces are just so dark, it's difficult to expose their faces light enough to see without blowing out the light on the rest of their bodies. But in the past I've been trying to photo them under piercingly clear blue skies, and here the sky was far more amenable with its diffused lighting through the clouds.
To me, what was most special about the CKGR in regard to animal sightings was the large number of bat-eared foxes. They were everywhere! I love these guys and I'd only ever seen one in the wild a couple years previously, and it was from a long ways away on a barren sandy plain (beneath a sand dune). This was the one animal in which Jane said she had pretty much complete confidence that we would see. I was pretty beside myself when we came upon the first group ... just little heads popping up out of the grass and then back down, up and down, up and down, all over the field.
They were so adorable and it seemed really special to me. After a few days, I realized they were a dime a dozen here, yet I never became jaded toward them! They remain in my book as one of the most darling creatures to watch in the fields.
Extremely high-energy critters, they are continuously running, scampering, skittering around until they find a little insect hole and then, ears pointed downward, paw frantically at the ground, then eat what they dig up and immediately run on. They are primarily insectivores, though occasionally indulge in fruits or rodents; their staple food is termites. Whole little pods of foxes would be moving across a field, all so quickly it was almost impossible to keep in front of them to try to get a photo of their faces rather than their behinds.
I mean seriously, can you deny that's one of the most precious little faces ever???
The first day in CKGR after we'd set up camp ("we" = everyone but me, haha ... the support crew of three, all just for little ol' me, set up camp in no time), Jane said, "OK, let's go back out on game drive and find a honey badger." I was a little surprised at this because it was my understanding it's relatively rare to spot a honey badger (and I'd never seen one before). I said, "Do you really think we'll see one?" Jane said, "Probably not." We chuckled. She was being optimistic, but what the hell. So we drove out of camp, we were hardly out more than a few minutes, and what crossed our path?? A honey badger! I will remain impressed for the rest of my life over that.
And so what did our camp actually look like, you might be wondering -- our private spot away from the campgrounds. Here, Jane is lounging in the "dining room/community hall" shall we call it, but we were only ever under there for shade in the afternoons, otherwise we ate all our meals outside next to a campfire. Had it been raining, though, it would have made a good dining room. My tent is in the background on the right. Below that is our lovely little bucket shower, the staff will warm up a bucket of water on the fire whenever you want a shower!
If you like bat-eared foxes and jackals, or ostriches and kori bustards, the Central Kalahari is definitely for you. Jackals are probably one of the lesser-appreciated mammals by safari-goers. They look similar to dogs rather than something exotic, and they are often proper pests at campgrounds, running off with not only campers' food but also shoes and any other items you might leave outside your tent on the ground. But I think they're quite pretty and I certainly can't begrudge them their adaptability to human environments -- after all, we're the ones invading their space. We never had one come in our camp, but they were all over the place on game drives. (and notice those LUSH fields not at all like a desert!)
But even less appreciated than the jackal, I wager, are the ground squirrels. Jane made a point of stopping beside some. They do look different from the ground squirrels we have in Colorado; these seemed almost more like meerkats in the way they stood up with their long, slender bodies. Watched them for awhile bringing food into their holes. As common as they are, they're still cute!!
But the little ground squirrels better keep their eyes peeled for this eagle! It's always hard to decide who to root for between predator and prey. You want the predator to eat and live, yet you want the prey to escape and live. But it can't be both ways.
The bird that I most wanted to see on this safari was the secretary bird. And we did see a number of them, both on the ground and in trees, but always at a great distance, too far for my camera lens to pick up -- we just looked through binoculars. So I was happy to see them, but a little disappointed I never got a photo. However, there was a kori bustard practically around every corner. Supposedly they are the heaviest flying bird in Africa, but I've never gotten to see one fly. Nor have I seen one with its neck all fluffed out ... that will be a goal for my next visit to Botswana! They're pretty cool birds in any case, whatever they're doing, but they are often hard to pick out in the weeds and bushes. Here, the light was doing me a favor.
Now if ostriches could fly ... that would be a sight, indeed! I swear there was an ostrich conference going on in the CKGR, there were so many and they hung out in large flocks. The best was that I saw a bunch of baby ostriches running alongside their leggy parents. (sorry, no good photos, though) These guys below are apparently heading toward Deception Pan ... even ostriches need to stop and get directions.
No safari is complete, of course, without a dose of friendly giraffes! I have yet to lose my awe at how tall and improbable they are. You probably didn't think a giraffe could hide in a tree! But this one probably has good reason to want to be incognito, you can see she has suffered a major injury on her face ... the skin scraped away across her forehead and then knotted up on the right side, plus a scar in her horn.
This one's too tall to hide in a tree!
This one is just a silly little fella ... I think he's got his mouth full. And the next two are simply sweet ... perhaps mother and offspring.
From the tallest of Kalahari creatures to one of the smallest ... Well, in context of the insect world, actually this dude is quite enormous. But compared to a giraffe, he's a wee bit on the small side. Hanging out on the hood (or bonnet, as they say in Africa), of our vehicle as we stopped for our daily tea halfway through each morning's game drive.
One animal I never thought of seeing here but which I always enjoyed getting out to inspect when Jane spotted one, was the leopard tortoise. The first time Jane stopped the vehicle and got out motioning me to come see, I couldn't imagine what she was looking at, for I could see nothing. I had a narrow mind, looking only for large, exotic animals. But I have to say, I think tortoises are rather fascinating.
I saw lions in the Nxai Pan, which I was extremely excited to see! I can't genuinely say I was disappointed at their absence in the Kalahari because I came into this area with very low expectations, so disappointment is kind of moot in the face of low expectations. But on the last day of my safari in Central Kalahari Game Reserve, late in the afternoon, Victor, one of Jane's camp assistants who accompanied us on most game drives as a spotter, yelled out he spotted a lion eating a wildebeest. What?!? I'd never seen any big cat actually eating recognizable prey before, so I was pretty excited. We got very near to the lion, to see that he was extremely elderly. Male lions typically die of starvation as they will have lost their pride (their family, not the emotion) and must hunt alone and eventually can no longer bring down prey. Who knows if this wildebeest was injured or if the lion managed a waning hurrah. But you can see how old and broken and missing his teeth are. I cropped this in and clipped off his lower jaw and lip because it makes me sad to see his whole head ... he must have gotten kicked in the mouth or something, his lower lip is just hanging down loosely off his jaw, way below his gums. Even so, I find him captivating in his wildness ... the look in his eyes is stunning. So intense.
Getting back to Africa and its wildlife was so refreshing. I know there are animals everywhere on the planet to see, and many interesting ones in my own backyard (literally), but there is something about Africa. I'm far from the only person who has been bewitched by it and forced to return again and again. Should I tell you? ... I already have my next safari booked .....!! Can't help myself. I think I am most contented when on safari; it's like a form of meditation -- just waiting for the wildlife to show up as we drive around slowly. I'm focused only on that; my mind is cleared of all else. I can stay focused because it's so massively rewarding when finally the animal-free space is punctured by an animal. It's super difficult for me to stay so focused and distraction-free in my normal life, I'm always so scatter-brained. On safari, my brain just slows down and absorbs and waits (I'm also typically an extremely impatient person, yet I can sit there with my eye near the camera, finger on the shutter button, for ages waiting for an animal to turn around and look at me). So here is me in my happy place. My very happy place ... on safari.
please note that all images in this post can be viewed larger by opening in a new tab
They say he was born standing up, that he landed on his feet and ran off like an animal. I've been told he's a very powerful witchdoctor and that he killed five people, at least, to gain their life-force for his own power.
They say that the ghosts of those people he killed began to haunt him and torment him, and that with his supernatural powers, he gathered those spirits and imprisoned them inside his sister, Ndjinaa. She became "the house of evil spirits."
He has been the chief of his regional Himba tribe for many years. Now the Namibian government officially recognizes him as the chief of all Himba in Namibia. When he met recently with the president of Namibia, he expressed no gratitude; rather, he told the president he was lucky to be alive, lucky to be surrounded by friends, otherwise he could kill him "just like that."
All of this was difficult for me to believe of the 80-something-year-old man that I met two years ago (he had not yet been given the title of chief of all the Himba) who vaguely raised a friendly but indifferent hand to me and my fellow photographers as we presented our gifts, who spent the duration of our visit to his kraal sitting in a chair with his neck folded and head resting on his chest, dozing in the afternoon sun. My impression of him was a benign portrait of advancing frailty. We spent our time mostly photographing the women and children (see my post from this day, At the Crossroads)
I found myself back in that village with the film crew to gather footage for "The African Witchfinder." We arranged for an interview with this enigmatic man, Chief Kapika, the man who ordered his sister, Ndjinaa, chained to a pole over 20 years ago because she was bewitched.
Unlike her brother, she didn't enter the world as a strong and magical animal. When her mother was pregnant with her, she started bleeding one night, which was not only a physically bad omen but a supernatural one as well, and she went directly to the headman. He decided a witchdoctor should be summoned to banish the evil that caused the bleeding and give her some traditional medicine to bring out the baby. But before the witchdoctor could treat her, Ndjinaa was born. From her first woeful days in the shadow of a bad omen, her fate seemed to have been foretold: the name she was given means, "I know your mother, but I do not know you."
And eventually she was known as the house of evil spirits. The community explains the source of her bewitchment as described above. But Kapika's family tells a different story which absolves the chief of any involvement. They say Ndjinaa never cared for her husband, matched to her through an arranged marriage, maybe she even had a lover on the side; the husband told Ndjinaa that if he died before she did, she would never be married again and she would no longer be a person. Upon her husband's untimely death, her husband's ghost came back immediately and made her crazy. However, if you talk to the chief, or indeed anyone, long enough, you will get a seemingly infinite number of variations on these stories as well as entirely different explanations. These are the primary ones I heard.
There was some debate about where to conduct the interview, and it was decided upon Chief Kapika's suggestion that we would set it up in the shade underneath a large mopani tree outside of his kraal. It was taking a long time for the chief to arrive and there was discussion that it was a long and inconvenient walk for him at his age (all told, to walk out of the kraal and around the fence to the tree, was probably no more than 400 feet) and that perhaps we should conduct the interview just outside his hut inside the kraal. This discussion confirmed my impression of frailty.
Eventually he came shuffling out of the gate, thin and shriveling, with a small group of younger men escorting him. Imagine my surprise when suddenly he erupted in rage, yelling venomously, and started chasing a teenage boy, swatting viciously at him and trying to grab him by the shirt. The young boy ran away from him toward the truck we were standing at with a rifle in his hand. This seemed a bit alarming, but it turned out the rifle was Kapika's and was broken; Kapika wanted to know if our host, Koos, could fix it. I have no idea what triggered Kapika's outburst, but suddenly the stories I had found hard to believe now seemed entirely plausible.
After he calmed down, he continued shuffling over to the chair we had set up for him in the shade; his two-piece loin cloth had slipped down in the back, and the chief of all the Himba, a simmering pot of aggression, tottered to the tree with his shrunken buttocks exposed like a patient who has forgotten to fasten their hospital gown. He slouched into the chair and resumed his mask of frailty. One of his wives helped him zip up his jacket as though he were nearly an invalid. I would have bought it had I not been lucky enough to witness the previous scene. Now I wondered if his concern over the working of the rifle was not idle, maybe he was still capable and willing to use it. After all, he thought he could kill the president just like that.
In light of his heartless behavior, you may wonder why, after using his sister as a vessel to contain the evil spirits that would otherwise haunt him, why didn't he just banish her, send those spirits far away. Enter another witchdoctor. He told Kapika that his life was chained to his sister's. That if she died, his death would follow within three days. After Ndjinaa came to be a house of evil spirits, she began to behave strangely and wander around, leaving the camp. Naturally Kapika needed to keep tabs on her given their new relationship. Under the veil of it "being for her own good" that she not wander out of camp, he purchased a heavy metal chain, put some straps around her ankles then shackled her feet together and chained her to a pole made of a tree branch. There she spent the next 20 years of her life, chained to this pole below, which still stands in the kraal.
I asked what will happen to the spirits if she dies first. They say Kapika can transfer them to someone else if he’s powerful enough ... but of course he would have only three days to accomplish this before he died. If he doesn't get them transferred ... who knows? Nobody seems to. Probably they will surface in the next person in the family who begins to behave inexplicably strangely. But here's the irony -- that person, right now, seems to be Kapika himself.
Over the years after Ndjinaa was chained, her cowhide bedroll became horrifically filthy and pretty much rotted away. But no one replaced it, so she slept on the dirt. Her clothes ran a similar course and no one replaced them either. She was never bathed. She was the last person in the kraal to receive food if there was any left over after everyone else and the livestock were fed. Naked, ostracized, hungry and demoralized, she fell deeper and deeper into bewitchment until her words no longer made any sense except for one phrase, "bring me tobacco from Sessfontain." It meant, essentially, bring me anything ... food, water, tobacco.
One time, people from a church who learned of Ndjinaa came to pray for her. They told Kapika they had cast out all the demons and she was free of curses and bewitching, and that she could be unchained now. Kapika believed them, and once she was unchained she ran straight into the woods and was missing for three days. She was eventually found hiding underneath a bush. Somewhere in there I also heard a variation that she killed several goats during her brief freedom. Kapika had her retrieved and immediately chained her back to the pole, as clearly, she was still possessed and still a threat. Then the chief declared that no more prayers could be said for Ndjinaa ... no praying, no hoping, and certainly no loving.
Around the time Ndjinaa was chained, I think a little after that, a man named Koos, a South African Afrikaner, an officer in the South African army who had fought against SWAPO (the Namibian forces fighting for Namibia's independence) moved to the area and received permission from Kapika to build a tourist lodge on the banks of the Kunene River (which is land owned by Kapika). He took a deep interest in the Himba culture, and when the chief's daughter, Kaviruru, was born to his youngest wife under the streaking light of Haley's comet, he promised her to Koos, promised that she would be his wife when she became of age.
Koos continued to live in close contact with the Himba and Kapika's family and eventually adopted a Himba girl as a daughter. (and now has two adorable granddaughters) In October 2012, Koos and Berrie crossed paths after more than 30 years of having lost touch. They were schoolmates growing up from the time they were little kids, and it seems very good friends. They were both drafted into the South African army during Namibia's war of independence. Berrie left the army as soon as he could while Koos stayed and rose to a very high ranking position until the war ended.
When they reunited, Koos invited Berrie to visit him at his lodge at Epupa Falls. He took Berrie to meet Chief Kapika in his kraal, and here Berrie saw Ndjinaa in her deplorable condition. He asked Koos about her, who explained that everyone said she was bewitched. He didn't know what was really wrong with her. But a light bulb went on immediately in Berrie's head and he explained what dementia was to Koos, who had never heard of Alzheimer's, knew nothing about dementia.
They agreed she was not bewitched, she was not a house of evil spirits, she was a human being who deserved a life of dignity, not one of a mongrel. She had likely fallen victim to dementia, which could have stemmed from a number of root causes, and in the Himba culture, such behavior can only be explained through the lens of witchcraft. Many different reasons seem to have evolved regarding the source of the bewitchment (it was Kapika, or her husband, I also heard it was Kapika's eldest wife, and Berrie has heard yet more versions). But as I have explained before in this series (for example, in Witchcraft and Dementia in Namibia), few things happen in Himba lives that are not the result of witchcraft in some form. With no knowledge of biological or psychological illnesses and disorders, the only logical explanation to them for a person's behavioral change is because they're bewitched.
Ndjinaa's misfortune in suffering from dementia was horrifically compounded by the supposed spiritual connection to her brother, which resulted in her being chained. But once Berrie saw the situation, he knew he had to right this egregious wrong. The next month he returned to Epupa Falls to ask Kapika if he could remove Ndjinaa's chains and arrange caretakers for her. To his and especially Koos's surprise, the chief agreed. So in December 2012, Berrie returned again and they removed the chains. Right away he also had her bathed and gave her clothes. After 20 years of being dehumanized, within a couple hours so much of her dignity was restored.
I've told Ndjinaa's story as it would have unfolded for her, living in the framework of her culture. She herself believed she was bewitched, that she was bad luck for anyone who spoke to her. Her life unfolded beyond her control, routed instead by her brother the chief and the witchcraft culture. Then rerouted by Berrie and the revelation she is biologically compromised, not supernaturally compromised. You can read Berrie's and Koos's own words about their part in Ndjinaa's story via the links on their names.
So many villagers who learned of her release kept asking Berrie what drugs he was giving to Ndjinaa to calm her down, to make her seem human again. Nobody could believe that simply unchaining her and treating her with respect was a plausible "treatment."
"We give her unconditional love," says Berrie. "That's it." The villagers still can't get past the bewitching mindset, they simply believe that Berrie was the one powerful enough to cast out the evil spirits from her.
After she was set free and lived in a hut outside the kraal, it was like a light switch had been flipped. Immediately everyone accepted her back into the family, back into their hearts, even. The children, especially, visited her all the time. No one was afraid of her anymore. One day the princess Kaviruru was not in her hut in the morning. Her mother went looking for her and found her curled up beside Ndjinaa, sleeping.
But even more touching than the family's acceptance and reintegration of her, is Ndjinaa's immense grace in her unconditional forgiveness. She spits venom at no one, instead she breaks bread with them, offers the children bits of her own food even after she spent 20 years being ignored if she cried in hunger.
Koos admitted when we interviewed him that when she was set free, it took awhile for the significance to really affect him. He told us that at the time, he felt it was a unique and even special day, but not particularly emotional. For Berrie, though, it was a very emotional day, and when the film crew interviewed him about it, he broke down in tears and they had to pause the filming. Broke down because his heart hurt so much for Njdinaa's despicable treatment, but then soared so high to see her walk freely again. As I was sitting and watching the interview, it made me cry as well, not only for Ndjinaa's sake, for what she endured and the glory of her freedom, but also for Berrie's, as his loving and compassionate heart was so deeply invested in her. (read more of Berrie and Ndjinaa in The Peace in Human Touch)
Berrie had the heart from day one, and the appreciation for what they had accomplished. But for Koos it had to settle in. Once it did, he became a vigorous champion for Ndjinaa, and from here the story involves a lot of negotiations between Chief Kapika and Berrie and Koos to get permission to build a special hut for Ndjinaa outside of the family's kraal, one for her and one for her caretakers. They eventually got the permission, in fact Kapika essentially deeded a plot of land to Berrie where he could bring other dementia patients, too, if he wanted. (and another woman, Kaputu, does live with Ndjinaa now ... read about her tragic story which, like Chief Petrus, involves the overuse of antipsychotics)
At long last, here is where I enter. In 2014 when I was visiting Kapika's kraal to photograph his family, we were staying at Koos's tourist lodge, he's the one who negotiated the terms with Kapika, i.e. what gifts we would bring for him to allow us inside the kraal. And after we'd been photographing for awhile, he insisted that we must come away and see something else. As tourists/photographers who paid to be there, we were a little irritated that we were being basically pushed out the door by Koos when we understood that Kapika said we could stay there however long we liked.
But what Koos wanted to show us, with great pride, was Njdinaa's hut, he wanted to tell us her story. Now that I know a little more about him, I understand his pride and his impatient desire to tell us this amazing story. This is how I learned of Ndjinaa. And her story stuck with me. Festered in me, needled at my heart and mind. Finally, I did a wee bit of research online and quickly found myself at Berrie's blog. I wrote to him, told him of my interest. Learned he was investigating more stories like Ndjinaa's. I asked if I could join him on one of his research missions. He agreed. The more I learned about Berrie and this daunting mission he had undertaken, a lone solider trying to educate people held prisoner to the witchcraft culture about the biological cause of dementia and to rescue people like Ndjinaa, the more I felt his story needed a wider audience than what I could provide for it. I met Mally, the CEO of Heehaw Films, told him the story, and without batting an eye, he signed on to come to Namibia and collect footage for a documentary. And so I found myself back with Chief Kapika and Ndjinaa in 2016 conducting interviews.
Ndjinaa and Kaputu now live in a different place than in 2014 (now on the ground deeded to Berrie), they have a large fenced-in area, room to add more huts in the future for others with dementia to keep them safe and properly cared for. Chief Kapika's behavior seems ever more erratic. For years he adamantly opposed the building of a dam on the Kunene River in his territory. Then suddenly last year he signed the papers to allow it. (I think it was at the signing "ceremony" that he told the president he could kill him.) One could speculate the government took advantage of his mental capriciousness to convince him, or bribe him, to sign the papers. They "crowned" him chief of all the Himba and gave him a new car (somebody else in the tribe drives him around in it).
Njdinaa's story is so remarkable, it's really become the banner story for all that Berrie and Alzheimer's Dementia Namibia (ADN) are now trying to accomplish ... to recognize people who are victims of dementia and have become further victimized by their family and community in the name of bewitchment and witchcraft; to inform the families and communities of the reality of biological illness; to show that the "bewitched" are not full of evil spirits and they simply need to be properly cared for, to be recognized as human beings and be granted their dignity. As you will have gathered if you've read the other posts in this archive, this is not a trivial battle, nor a mission whose goals will be realized any time soon, owing to the entrenchment of the witchcraft culture in everyone's psyche and worldview. But Ndjinaa's survival and her reclamation of freedom are the inspiration to keep trying.
note that all photos in this post can be viewed larger by clicking on and opening in a new tab
I'm not actually a birder, I don't have a list I'm ticking off. In fact, I had to ask a friend to ID almost all these birds pictured below for me. I can't yet say I "have an interest" in birds, but I can say that largely as a result of my yearly visits to wildlife refuges in Ixtapa, that birds have become more interesting to me. I used to overlook them in favor of more flashy or cute animals like mammals and the intriguing reptiles of Ixtapa. But slowly they grow on me -- I get a little excited when I see one I don't think I've seen before or one who thinks he's all incognito in the trees but I spotted him anyway.
The exception to my historically placid response to birds has been the roseate spoonbill, which captivated me from the first one I saw in the Popoyote Lagoon, a stone's throw down the beach from the hotel I stay in each year on Playa Linda in Ixtapa (Hotel Azul, if you want to check it out). Their population is practically skyrocketing inside this small refuge since my first year sighting them. Very exciting.
Every year I hope to be able to capture them on "film" in flight. Every year I end up with a few shots with blurry dots of pink flying into the mangrove swamp. Now there are so many spoonbills living here that my odds greatly increased this year. These aren't astounding pics, but they're the best I've gotten to date. Seven of them flew overhead in a little pod, if you can believe it! But I only managed to catch a couple. They make for a really interesting sight with their unusual bodies and beaks.
The next bird that I quickly learned to identify and therefore seek each year is the green heron. They are tricky little devils to photograph because they are always so deep into the mangroves ... it's like a photography obstacle course trying to get your lens to ignore all the branches and roots and leaves everywhere to get this one little bird in focus. But these guys are now ones that get me excited when I see them -- maybe for the sole reason that they're one of the few birds I can identify. I feel the first tinglings of what it must feel like to be a birder when I spot these guys. Check out this one in full size and admire the iridescence in his delicate feathers.
This year Erik and I took a little outing away from our resort to another small lagoon wildlife refuge, Barra De Potosi. Our boat driver seemed a wee bit impressed that I spotted the green herons and knew what they were, and subsequently made him cut the motor to get some shots! haha. I dunno, maybe that's my imagination because I felt all smart and cool over my vast knowledge of Mexican birds (bird).
Another little booger I see every year is this dainty yellow birdy, a tropical kingbird. As I spend a lot of time standing under the trees waiting for spoonbills, iguanas, crocodiles and other assorted birds to do something interesting, these guys are always flying overhead tweeting and twittering. I hear their songs first, then try to follow the sound until I spot them. But they're always high above me in the trees, back-lit and almost impossible to photograph ... that is, when I am even able to get my camera trained on them before they flit away. This year I finally got a couple decent shots.
But the most exciting aspect of 2016 was seeing a bunch of birds I had not seen before, or at least had not noticed before. These are great blue herons we saw on our boat excursion into the lagoon at Barra de Potosi. I'd recommend this boat ride to anyone ... no it's not adventurous, it's very mellow, but especially if you're a fledgling birder, here's a nice little trip for you. Not that I am such a person ..... These herons are pretty well camouflaged, at a swift glance looking like just part of the tangle of mangrove tree roots.
Here's a new guy I'd never seen nor heard of before, a tri-colored heron. Guess it's not too difficult to see where the name comes from.
And then I had the Pelican Epiphany. There were loads of brown pelicans at Barra de Potosi. But what I didn't realize is that adult brown pelicans are beautifully-beyond-brown! They have really lovely colors on their head and neck and beak. The opening sentence about them on the website, allaboutbirds.org, sums them up with perfection. But I'll include the whole first paragraph here, in case you, like I, don't know much about them ... "The Brown Pelican is a comically elegant bird with an oversized bill, sinuous neck, and big, dark body. Squadrons glide above the surf along southern and western coasts, rising and falling in a graceful echo of the waves. They feed by plunge-diving from high up, using the force of impact to stun small fish before scooping them up. They are fairly common today—an excellent example of a species’ recovery from pesticide pollution that once placed them at the brink of extinction."
There is something about their expressions that is so whimsical and comical that it just makes me laugh. Out loud, even. Looking at the photos after I got home, I swiftly came to find them very endearing. Here are a few of my favorite shots that to me somehow portray their whimsical, happy personalities. They often seem like they're smiling.
This guy is just coming into his breeding colors ... the back of the brown pelican's head turns to a dark rusty red color during their breeding period.
And this fella, on the other hand, is just a young 'un, not yet grown into any colors. But still sporting that pelican personality.
The other thing that I never much paid attention to until now was how prehistoric these animals look. Nearly straight out of a dinosaur book. While floating on the water or dive-bombing in the air, they look a little more like "just" birds. But when they strike a different position, they seem wholly Jurassic.
A new critter that I saw at the Popoyoti Lagoon was this yellow crowned night heron. Pretty neat bird. What blew me away was when I asked my birder friend for some ID on this bird and the little one below it, and learned that they are the same one -- this second bird is a juvenile. I would never guessed that one!
On the way out to the Barra de Potosi, we made a couple pit stops with our taxi driver/guide -- who, incidentally, we managed to track down from the last time we ventured out from our resort on a day trip (that time we spent the day in Petatlan) and he remembered us, too! We watched some bakers making traditional pastries and baking them in giant wood-fired ovens ... but the wood was not your traditional wood! Their fuel came from coconut husks. In their yard we found some other birds! OK maybe they're not the exotic wildlife in the lagoons, but frankly I find turkeys pretty fascinating with their brightly colored heads and wattles. Erik could apparently speak pretty fluent Turkey because every time he gobbled at them, they gobbled right back, quite excitedly ... which makes me wonder what he was saying in their language. Hopefully we did not fail to deliver on a promise that Erik had been making all that time ... "yes, we'll bring you a truckload of tasty seeds and then break you out and take you to Fowl Shangri-La, where the iguanas [lurking in the treetops above] will wait on you hand and foot ... no wait, umm, foot and foot ... and you'll sleep in nests made of silk." Yes, I hope he was not saying that.
Now don't worry, amid all these feathers, I haven't forgotten about my friends with scales -- my primeval pals, the iguanas and crocodiles. I consider them old friends by now, these creatures who de-creepified the reptile world for me. OK, I'm still not super keen on reptiles (particularly snakes), however, the iguanas in particular have convinced me to be more fascinated by than fearful of them.
Finally, a couple shots of the critters for whom this refuge and sanctuary was established -- the American crocodile. What I like about the first photo below is that it's a portrait of texture (look at it full size!).
And my favorite shots, you may know by now because I mention it often, are when multiple species are hanging out together. On African safari, such shots usually are comprised of compatible herbivores or omnivores, for example, elephants with springboks and zebras. I really particularly love the shots available here at Popoyote where the birds hang out so nonchalantly with their predators. And yes, the crocs do eat the egrets ... I've seen it. But hey, an egret's just got to go about his daily life!
But the egret has his own noms, and of course the fish he eats hang out in the water with him, going about their daily lives, as well. I'm not actually exactly sure what this egret was chowing down on. It looks kinda gnarly. But he did seem to be enjoying it.
Okay dear readers ... are you all birders now?? Well, I leave you with some seagulls in flight. They make me smile because the birds seem so terribly intent and they're like a little squadron flying together toward their intended target. At the Barra de Potosi.