Welcome to SKJ Travel ... my narrative photo blog where you can join me vicariously as I adventure around the world. People say to me all the time, "You should write a book about your travels." Well, my friends, this is essentially it. And in this age, an online blog is easier, displays a bajillion more photos, needs no publisher, and reaches a broader audience than in print. The down side: unlike a formal book or essay, I'm just writing casually off the top of my head, but I hope, dear readers, you will feel as if I'm having a conversation with you. In the archives you'll find posts from some of my travels ... these are often "letters to home" style accounts of what I did. To read my formal articles, they're listed in each Archive home page, or visit one of the blue buttons above, or see the Travel Essays section (right side below archive -- mostly documentaries). If you're joining me on a mobile phone, click HERE to quickly access the archive and essays. Friday Photos are updated weekly, and Tuesday Tales are updated sporadically. You can follow SKJ Travel on social media at:
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One evening in Chobe National Park in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, we came across a dead elephant, a young bull, in the bush. Alone, collapsed on his side. There were no predator marks on it nor any other animals near it. The scene was spookily quiet. We asked our guide what happened to the elephant, he said perhaps some illness or perhaps just the heat if the elephant had gotten dehydrated, it wasn't uncommon. (in case you’re wondering if it’s hot there, see my post, "A Typical Day") He said we should come back in the morning, the local lion pride would surely be feasting on it by then. The death of this elephant, lying all alone, seemed intolerably sad, although it was nothing more or less than the natural course of a life in the wild.
We drove back to camp at dusk. We could make out lappet-faced vultures and other carrion eaters perched silently on the bare branches of skeleton trees nearby. As night unfurled her cloak around us, their features melted away to become ominous silhouettes in the dusky sky.
The phrase, "the dark heart of nature," kept floating around in my head. This is the first safari I've been on where I noticed so many injuries on the animals and saw so many dead. I've seen some injured zebras before (from lion attacks) and maybe another injury or two, but the beauty of this place, the Okavango Delta, was regularly balanced with the harsh underside of that thriving grace. Is it that I simply saw more animals? That we spent more time in the parks (the longest safari I've been on)? Is it a harsher place? Looking through my photos, even aside from the obvious injuries we saw, I found many animals with smaller wounds and infections. Maybe my camera is just better? Even the little lions in Khwai had boo-boos all over their legs and paws.
Some of these animals I didn't even take a picture of, it felt awkward to capture the suffering. In Savuti, we saw a wild dog with a broken front leg, it was just dangling down uselessly from the completely broken bone. Another guide said a hyena had injured it in a scuffle for food almost a week earlier! And yet that dog was still leading the pack like an alpha on three legs, though it must be in excruciating pain. One of the mornings in Khwai when we were watching the wild dog pups, the entire pack abruptly took off chasing an impala and one little puppy was left behind, looking all around for his mates. Then one more came through the bushes and so it was two of them frantically looking around like precious lost souls; they had expressions of panic on their little faces. I felt so bad for them, they eventually disappeared together into a bush -- at least they had each other. Our guide said the previous year the pack lost all its pups.
The first baboon has a large gash on the underside of its forearm; the second mother baboon is thriving in spite of her injury (or perhaps a deformity since birth).
There was one day in Chobe that I thought of to myself as "the morning of death." We saw two dead elephants -- the one mentioned above and one in the river -- a dead and half-eaten genet on the ground, a dead impala in a tree that a leopard had stashed, a zebra that had been attacked by a lion, his hind quarter just a big square of red raw flesh. And later that night a baby elephant limping and falling behind its mother, putting no weight on its front foot. Our guide said it wouldn't last.
But I did take pictures of the elephant that collapsed next to the bush. Everyone, including myself, was keen to see the local lions feed on the elephant. Why should we be yearning to witness something so gruesome? We wanted to see the raw side of nature for ourselves; we wanted a proximity to reality, beyond the pretty perfectly-posed animals, to see how they stay alive, watch them feasting with the savagery of an apathetic nature.
But in the end, it wasn’t savage at all. The young lions were playing with the trunk like a toy and gnawing on the dense tusk. It was hard to be much more upset about that than watching a domestic cat play with an insect or a dead mouse.
It was fascinating to get a sense of scale for the elephant when a lion’s head would practically disappear inside the hole that had been opened up in its neck.
One little cub was bloated into a food coma, his tummy stuffed taut like a balloon. That was downright adorable. He won’t be needing to eat for a few more days!
A hopeful black-backed jackal kept his distance from the lions, waiting patiently for them to leave or fall asleep before stepping in to grab a meal for himself. He stood in the distance and eventually curled into a ball and took a nap to pass the time until it was his turn at the feeding trough.
Seeing the dead elephant the night before lying unmolested, untouched, simply collapsed, from heat or thirst perhaps, was profoundly more sad than seeing it torn and burrowed into, lying partially eaten in the sun. To have fallen alone seems more tragic than to be a part in the proverbial circle of life, the epic dramas that result from the struggle of predator against prey. I was glad to see him taken into this circle.
Still, "the dark heart of nature" kept running through my mind. It still does. Is it a dark heart or an apathetic heart that beats in the wilderness? It seems dark because there is life and therefore joy in death, and we would feel like monsters if we saw human death in the same way. But to be left alone in indifference, for such a majestic animal to decompose and disintegrate, to be embraced only by lifeless forces -- wind, rain, sun -- feels more emotionally brutal. Which is weird that a lack of emotion in the universe evokes a stronger emotion in me. So I guess I'd rather there be a dark heart than no heart.
And the young lion cubs live another day. :-)
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I feel I hardly need to provide an introduction to this post ... but if this the first Mexico trip you've joined me on, the following are photos from my favorite little lagoon at Playa Linda, Ixtapa, Mexico. It's known by several names: the crocodile farm (but it's not a farm), the crocodile refuge, the crocodile reserve, Popoyote lagoon, and probably by others. It's a reserve, vaguely fenced off from the public, designated originally for the protection of the American crocodile. However, the lagoon ecosystem is also home to many beautiful species of birds, iguanas, turtles and other creatures. Since I started visiting there, I've watched the roseate spoonbill population explode. I've gotten more adept at spotting smaller birds such as the green heron, which has become a favorite of mine. And I've become fascinated by two types of lizards ... perhaps the most amazing thing of all since I am not a lizard kind of gal. Mostly I am repulsed by them. But these crocodiles and iguanas have opened my eyes and my heart to watching them more closely and appreciating them in their natural environment.
So without further ado ... not much text to accompany this post, just enjoy my menagerie of lagoon creatures. Yes, it's MY menagerie! To see my encounters with them in years past, please see the Ixtapa archive HERE. It feels like my personal little lagoon, haha.
Who to start with? Well why not start with my favorite photo between these two years. A green heron, the light shining on his opened wings to show their impressive iridescence. But I think its little head playing peek-a-boo from under its wing is cuter than all get-out. One of those wonderful surprises, I only saw this detail after getting home and looking at the pics on my large computer monitor. Yet another lesson in not deleting anything on your camera until you get home!
I think one of the most interesting things about the green heron is how different it looks depending on the lighting and the bird's posture. More green herons .....
One exciting thing about 2018 was that I saw a brand new species, the wood stork. We visited a couple weeks earlier than we historically have, and caught the migration of wood storks passing through the area. As I've gotten pretty used to the same cast of characters, it was a really nice change.
Whilst on the topic of new sights ... I've taken hundreds of photos of the crocodiles by now, but this is the first one showing a remarkable gradation of pastel colors inside the crocodile's mouth. And it's not just a one-off anomaly ... I took several shots of this open mouth, all came out the same. Who would have guessed the mouth of such a fearsome, vicious creature would be a sweet and gentle rainbow?!
Now this guy, while not as large, is a better example of the terrifying perception we have of these ancient reptiles.
Although crocodiles are one of the few animals who can eat turtles because they're able to crunch through their hard shells, the turtles still like to use the crocodiles as water taxis and sunny resting spots. Hard to know if they're simply blasé about the danger or if the crocodiles are so adept at being incognito that the turtles are oblivious.
The iguanas continue to fascinate me. I also get a kick out of the other tourists around me who are visiting for the first time when they spot their first large male iguana. They get quite excited, and because I've taken so many pictures of iguanas already, I am often looking at something else. So a lot of them tap me and say, "Look, look, there's a big one right there!" as if I cannot see it.
This guy looks so pensive, perhaps daydreaming of some pretty green female he's smitten over.
What I like about the first pic below is the shadow cast on the ground. The iguana in the second pic is looking pretty mean, maybe going to have a few words with somebody .....
Here is a, umm, brown bird. I was pretty happy to get a shot of it tossing a fish up in the air before gulping it down.
Even though they are common birds, I find the egrets to be elegant creatures with their pristine white feathers, and I enjoy watching them with their long toes and slender beaks.
And last, but very far from least, a few photos of the roseate spoonbill birds. New visitors to the lagoon have the same response to the spoonbills as to the male iguanas, often poking me and pointing them out while I'm busy photographing something else. But it's OK; sometimes it's a tourist who has gotten me to swivel my head back to the birds out of politeness to their poking just in time to catch a new behavior. Like a spoonbill having a standoff with an iguana. The look on the iguana's face cracks me up -- he looks like he's saying to me, "Do you see what I have to put up with?"
A spoonbill gathering sticks for its nest.
And a classic spoonbill pose, preening his feathers. Or her feathers ... unlike some birds, the males and females have the same coloring.
Perhaps, dear reader, you are beginning to feel like this little lagoon belongs to you, too, by now! Hope you enjoyed another round of photos with these beautiful creatures.
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Nothing but pics in this post. Please enjoy the animals. Savuti is part of the Chobe National Park system in the Okavango Delta region of Botswana. Of the four parks in the Delta we visited, Savuti was the most dry, and I often found the word "desolate" bouncing around my head, even though that's not really apt. But there's something lonesome about the scenery. And it was littered with elephant bones, which gave it kind of an ominous feel, like we were stepping into a more wild frontier.
But there were plenty of alive elephants, too! We watched them at a very nice water hole one evening.
Daytime water hole. Man-made hole, water pumped in. Seems like a good idea to quench parched elephants and other critters in the brutal dry season, and works well for safari visitors to see a nice clump of animals. But our guide pointed out that it disrupts the animals' natural migration and wandering patterns and they may stay around the area when they really should be moving on, when nature would take away the water and coax them into their traditional patterns. So there are good and bad aspects to it. The second pic down, it's not even in focus but I really liked how the branches stick up behind the elephant's head like a little wacky hairdo. Mad scientist elephant.
But even in the dry season, beautiful flowers make their way into the landscape. This is a rather indelicate name for a delicate flower: knobbly combretum.
And they are super yummers to the giraffes.
My favorite African bird ... really my favorite bird, period ... is the lilac breasted roller. We had some gorgeous lighting on it one morning.
Here's a new bird for me, a korhaan doing a mating dance for a rather unimpressed female. Our guide said he'd never seen that bird in mating form before. It was hilarious to watch him chase the female around and subject her to watching the big red bloom open up on his head. She just didn't care and would scamper off, only to be pursued and re-subjected. Poor guy. I personally think his flower-like hat is rather dashing!
Savuti was the second place we witnessed the grace and intensity of a leopardess (read more about that amazing, magical experience HERE). Here are a couple more shots of her.
The terrain in Savuti was more rugged than the other parks we visited in the Okavango region. Can you pick out the elephants here walking up the rocky hill? Not the typical landscape for an elephant.
This little elephant on the side of the road says, "good night!"
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Chobe National Park in northern Botswana is renowned for its elephant population, particularly dense during Botswana's winter months, May-September. The Chobe River attracts herds of them who come to drink, swim, and frolic in the mud. The best way to see this is to take a boat ride. And so we did. It's truly great fun to watch them playing in the mud. This was the best viewing I've had on any safari yet of baby elephants ... something I'm always craving to see more of. Simply glimpsing them standing beside their mothers and family is an adorable sight.
But watching them play and wrestle with each other in the mud was a delight of a whole new order.
But it's not as if the adults weren't getting a little goofy and playful themselves. I think this might be my favorite photo from the whole trip, this adult elephant in this comical position, head-first in the mud, back leg up in the air.
Naturally, we ran into several of one of the African waters' primary inhabitants: hippos. I always like seeing their titanic bodies out of the water. This one has a little egret friend with him.
And the other more sinister ubiquitous creature lurking in the African waters: a NIle crocodile. I've become rather fond of crocodiles as a result of all my trips to the crocodile reserve in Mexico. But only when they are lying still and not menacing anybody! I like how the sun lit up his scales to a rather golden hue.
The elephants do not seem to mind these sets of vicious teeth all around them as they frolic. What a joy to see a whole family joining in the muddy fun all together. Some other creatures stood along the banks during our boat ride. A young waterbuck, quite adorable, I must say, looking all shaggy and fuzzy, his white target ring just beginning to show on his butt. Next pic down, his mom and dad (presumably, though they could be complete strangers in the same place at the same time) -- a male and female waterbuck, and a couple impala in the foreground.
An African darter.
We also had some more delightful southern carmine bee-eater sightings throughout Chobe National Park, whom we'd first spotted in Moremi. How can you not be smitten with these colorful creatures?
And this was unexpected to me ... another animal I love from my contact with them in Mexico: the spoonbill. These, however, are African spoonbills rather than roseate. You can probably guess that they're the guys standing on either side of the yellow-billed stork. I like when birds are given practical, obvious names ... much easier to remember!
Marabou storks ... hard to get a sense of scale here, but they're huge birds, standing about four feet high, and can have wing spans approaching 8 feet. They're also creepy. They're also cool. They're also little devils. I had to contend with them while I worked in the UWEC (Entebbe zoo). There was one who sometimes stood around the cafe patio where I ate, and he stole a big piece of chicken right off my plate. I was so diligent to keep an eye on the vervet monkeys so they didn't steal anything, and then that marabou walks by and snatches up my dinner.
And of course the ubiquitous red-billed hornbill. I still think they're neat.
A very non-ubiquitous critter is the honey badger. I caught a glimpse of one running away in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve the previous year, but we had two very nice sightings in Chobe. Difficult to photograph as it was surrounded by tall weeds and was mosting moving. These are very clever creatures ... I saw a TV show about one in a sanctuary who ingeniously figured out how to escape from an enclosure first by simply climbing the fence and unlocking the gate, then by digging a tunnel underneath a cement wall, then by rolling rocks over to the wall, stacking them up and standing on them until he was tall enough to climb over the wall, then by moving branches to form a ladder and climb over the wall, then any tools like rakes or shovels left by workers in the enclosure he used as ladders. Very funny. But they are also quite renowned for their ferocity.
Sable antelope are quite shy and not terribly common to see either. We saw some up in northern Namibia in Bwabwata and the Mahango Core Area. But these were the only ones we got a good, if fleeting, look at in Botswana. Their latin name is kind of funny: hippotragus niger. They don't seem very hippo-like to me, haha.
Another little creature not terribly common to see was a slender mongoose. In these poses, I'd call him plump before I'd call him slender! But his long tail seems like his most distinguishing feature! Were it me, I think I'd name him a black-tipped mongoose.
Botswana's Chobe National Park borders Namibia along the Caprivi Strip, the two countries divided by a ribbon of water. We spent our evenings down near this stretch of water with elephants and lions all around us. The lions were typically on our side of the water watching the elephants typically on the opposite side.
Not the grandest photo in quality, but I just really like how that whole line of elephants is drinking. Obviously a thirsty bunch.
Now ... are you ready for some lions?? We watched this pride come back from the water to their homebase in the bushes as the sun was setting. Something magical about a big family trotting home after a hard day watching elephants and zebras and other potential prey. But first, before heading back, this little lion practices his fiercest expressions. Gotta be ready for when the day comes he's old enough to hunt himself!
So as we're sitting in the vehicle, the water at the Namibian border is on our left, we're parked just outside a kind of wall of low bushes along the edge of the marsh on our right. Baboons are sitting along this same strip quietly grooming each other as the sun nears the horizon. The lion pride reaches the bushes in front of us and disappears into them as if it's some kind of magical doorway, like the fabled hole in the back of the wardrobe. The bushes don't seem dense enough or extensive enough to hide a pride; I expected that when we drove our vehicle back through the bushes toward camp, we would see them on the other side. But we didn't. They vanished somewhere. We saw the same thing the following night. And driving by there another time during the middle of the day, a male and female emerged as if by magic from that same doorway. It was peculiarly mysterious. Sisters sit near the "doorway" here.
This is from a different part of the park and at sunrise rather than sunset, but you know how I love capturing a critter with its tongue out. Even very large, intimidating critters.
And guess what: We weren't done seeing leopards! So in three of the four parks we visited in the Okavango Delta, we saw leopards. Considering I had hoped to see this animal in particular on this trip, I think we did pretty well! Can you pick out her face in the first pic below? :-)
While the leopard is the manifestation of stealth and grace, the cape buffalo can generally be taken as the dictionary illustration of "cantankerous." The males in particular being notoriously ill-tempered. But sometimes they look sweet as can be, like they would never scare a fly. The first one below calmly lets his oxpecker friend clean his hide, not minding the indignity of having a bird perched on his face. And I think the last buffalo is hoping to get on the cover of GQ Buffalo. Maybe he's singing, "I'm a sexy beast!"
OK, dear reader, thanks for hanging out with me on yet another virtual safari! If I'm still maintaining this blog next year (2019), you'll probably get to join me on a whole new set of safari adventures. (and p.s. if you're not already a subscriber, if you don't want to miss when a new post goes up, enter your email address into the "Updates" bubble on the right!)