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Welcome to Part 2 of safari through the Nxai Pan national game reserve in Botswana. Get your safari shirts on, and let's get up in the pre-dawn to see what's out there! You won't need binoculars for this one. ;) All pics in this post can be viewed larger by right-clicking on them to open in a new tab.
So in Part 1, I shared mostly photos of lone animals we encountered. (we = me and my guide, Jane, of Ulinda Safari Trails) This time I'll present mostly groups of animals. Nearly all our elephant sightings were of lone bulls, and most of them were in musth at the time (full of hormones for the ladies, often extra aggressive, easily visible by leakage from glands on their temples -- you can see their skin is wet, like these glands are crying). But our first day, we did see this trio at one of the water holes. A drinking force! But the one guy must have scored some particularly delicious water, as his companions seemed eager to get in on his trunkful!
A few more waterhole elephants ... I just never tire of watching them interact with their environment. Using their trunks and feet and floppy ears .....
Here's something I hadn't quite seen before. These are the creatures that thrive on elephant poo: dung beetles. Sure, I've seen them rolling their dung balls all over Africa, but I usually see just one at a time cruising around on his peculiar mission (and they cruise at a remarkable speed pushing their balls along). This was the first time I'd ever seen a whole party of beetles swarming and digging through a huge pile of dung. This reminds me, when I participated in the Walking With African Wildlife census project, my friend and fellow volunteer, Conrad, said one day, "It should be called Walking Through African Poop." Or something along those lines ... because between the huge piles left by elephants and rhinos, and the copious animals in zebra, wildebeest and antelope herds, the ground really is covered in animal excrement. You can see why it is a dung beetle's paradise.
But on to some larger, less Juraissac creatures. Although, only a step further in time comes the explosion of our feathered friends. And ostriches do look like one of the more prehistoric specimens, walking around on such tall legs, not even bothering to fly. I have yet to score a guinely good photo of an ostrich. I can never get them in crisp focus, not sure why. But here are a couple hanging out near a waterhole whose behavior was amusing me. In the first pic, the male seems to be having some choice words with the female. And in the second pic, it looks as though the female has just given up in exasperation.
My first morning in the park, setting out before dawn, as is usual for game drives, we came across a pride of 13 lions sleeping near the road, with several of them sleeping smack-dab in the middle of it. We stopped and watched them for about 45 minutes even though they weren't particularly spritely, it was still awesome to me to watch even their slightest interactions, for I've witnessed very little of this in the wild. As I said in Circling the Nxai Pan Part 1, there were few other people in the small park, so even though this was pretty much the highlight going on, there were only half-a-handful of other vehicles watching them with us. One of them was a fellow from BBC who had been stationed there in the Nxai Pan for 6 months to film the big cats in the park. Lucky him, he had a special permit he could drive off the roads wherever he pleased. However, in this case, no off-road necessary! The accommodating lions came right to us.
Something of interest at the perimeter! This intrepid young one heads out to check it out. He has a lot of growing to do, judging by the size of his big, floppy paws!
This little guy was so adorable, the most sociable of the pride, at least on this morning, jonesing for some love and play time. He went up to each lion in the pride one by one and nudged their head with his. Then sometimes he pawed at the other lion and tried to get it to play with him. A couple young ones complied and they tussled about for a bit. But what was most adorable was just the affection you can see between the lions, just as clearly as you can see it between humans.
Here's a little lion with a great big roar! Or, well, maybe it was just a yawn. In any case ... he's growing a nice set of canines!
Someday he will be a big boy watching the sunsets all alone. I don't know if that's sad or not. It's nice to see the lions grow up, but then the males are so often alone. Well, this majestic fellow looks like he's having a pleasant enough evening all by his lonesome, watching the sun set in the Nxai Pan.
So off we went to dinner and bed as well. The following morning, we got up pre-dawn for the morning game drive, and it turned out to be one of the most magical mornings I've ever experienced. It was on account of the perfect lighting and still water at this waterhole where a herd of zebra were gathered around. We tried to repeat the experience the next morning, but it wasn't even close. This morning all the right ingredients came together to make a stunning pink light in the air with a dark blue, brooding horizon, and the water in the hole was perfectly still, casting beautifully-rendered reflections. It got a little chaotic at times with all the stripes both on land and on water.
And this below is perhaps my very favorite capture from my time in Botswana. A profoundly magical morning.
When we went back the next morning in hopes of finding another dream at the waterhole, not only was the light flat and the sky and water gray, but there weren't very many zebras near the water. They were clearly very spooked over something. They kept their distance from the water, then occasionally a few would step in briefly to drink and then run back, all skittish. We presumed there had recently been a predator there, provoking their caution. And eventully we saw the clear evidence that our theory was correct, as we could see a horrendous, fresh gash in the hind quarters of one of the zebras. I guess he's lucky he got away, but I imagine that wound stings a bit.
The zebras were entertaining to watch, as the males would abruptly get all rambunctious and nippy, and start little scuffles that most of the time were over before I could get my eye to my camera. This is probably the best action shot I managed, with the back end of an elephant in the audience in front of me.
This time I got the front end of an elephant framed by zebras on the sides. :)
And some deceptive zebra love ... it looks like they're all friendly and I just presumed that if they're touching their muzzles together, it must be out of affection. But then in the blink of an eye, two affectionate muzzles would be biting each other and whining, and then the zebras would start kicking and bucking, and I'd get all excited and get my eye to the camera, which was their cue to settle down again and be temporary friends!
And now may I have a drumroll, please. ............ Thank you. There was one animal in particular that I had particularly high hopes of seeing. I have seen them in the wild before, in South Africa and Namibia, but they were either brief or very far away. Cheetahs are my favorite of the big cats, and I was just really keen on seeing some close-up. From the descriptions of the Nxai Pan in the rainy season, it seemed not completely unreasonable to carry this hope. However, by the end of our safari time there, we had not seen any. We had packed up and were heading out to Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Neither Jane nor I was in "safari mode" with eyes peeled for wildlife. We were nearly at the park's gate. I was playing back in my head all the marvelous animals I had seen, comforting myself that the lack of cheetahs had not spoiled or lessened the safari in any way. Then Victor yelled out, "Cheetah! Cheetah!"
"What? Where?" I bolted upright in my seat and began looking around frantically. I presumed he had spotted one far off on the plains, and I was scrambling to find binoculars. "Where? Where?"
"Right there!" Victor said, sounding incredulous that I couldn't spot them. But neither had Jane.
"Right where?" I was desperate.
"Right THERE!" and then the other staff gasped. "To your left!"
There were two cheetahs to our left (my side of the vehicle), most likely brothers. And if I'd looked at them with binoculars, all I would have seen would have been a whisker or two. They really were right there. In the shade of some trees and bushes finishing up some springbok, blood still on their mouths. The springbok was not there; they must have drug some of the meat off from the kill into the shade. I squealed like a pig, I was beside myself with joy and excitement.
We stayed for nearly 30 minutes watching them. As we finally pulled away, my eyes literally began welling up with tears, I was so damn happy.
So a week of safari in the Kalahari region was stellar; I enjoyed every minute of it, even if those minutes weren't packed with the numbers of animals one might see in other game reserves and national parks. But there was one little episode that was highly unpleasant and could have been and should have been worse. I didn't deserve to be as lucky as I was ... near disaster for a vain photo of myself with my two cameras and new lenses. About a minute after this picture, the camera on the left with my 150-600 lens fell onto the ground.
If you can believe it, the only damage was to the battery door on the camera. I had a large hood on the lens, and the ground had some give, being the rainy season where it had some moisture in it. The camera continued to work for another couple days. But then the battery door was too loose, it couldn't maintain contact with the batteries. So I only had one working camera for my whole trip in Namibia (where I traveled to after Botswana), but at least I had one! Can't wait to come back to Botswana next year!
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I had heard about this relatively obscure, off-the-beaten-track park from a Facebook friend. He had posted a couple photos, and I thought to myself that if I ever found myself in the vicinity, I would have to go check it out. The Paint Mines Interpretive Park is located on the eastern plains of Colorado, pretty much due east of Colorado Springs, near the town of Calhan. It's a small affair and you can see the whole thing at a leisurely, discovery pace in three hours or less. From the highway near it, you would never guess such a magical little world exists a stone's throw away. (well, a pretty strong throw ... a pro in Scottish athletics could maybe manage, haha)
It's a fantastical world of colored clay beds capped in white sandstone. The canyons and the spires and hoodoo formations are relatively small now, but a million years from now, who knows!
For a sense of scale of most of the formations, here's Erik for a ruler. You may have to look kind of hard to find him in the first pic!
But the super cool parts are the colored, "painted" rocks of yellow and orange, pinkish-red and purple. It's kind of hard to believe it's natural geology and not actually painted by human beings like some elaborate outdoor art exhibit. Instead, it's nature's resource that humans have come here to use as a material for color in their own art and craftwork -- mining the paint, so to speak.
You can walk paths through the formations (if you are respectful, you'll stick to the paths and not climb all over the formations, as the park regualtions request). And I really thought this was a special brand of fun, exploring whimsical nature, imaginative nature. I know that I often refer to Mother Nature's exceptional imagination, but really, she knocked herself out on this one.
Here's what HistoryColorado.org has to say about the paint mines: "Archaeological investigation, funded through a State Historical Fund grant, has substantiated prehistoric and historic American Indian occupation as evidenced by the finding of stone dart tips, arrow heads, and petrified wood used in tool manufacturing. The local clay was mined for use in ceremonial paint as well as pottery making. A homestead site within the boundary confirms the use of the property by Euro-American settlers in the 1800’s. The significance of the site has led to the designation of the Calhan Paint Mines Archaeological District by the National Park Service. Used by hikers, birdwatchers and as an outdoor laboratory by geology students, the site has come under the protection of the El Paso County Parks Department."
A close-up view of erosion starting to take place beneath the white sandstone cap ... a miniature world from a lavish dream. Or from a Dali dream!
On the high ground above the mines (which have eroded from the land surface downward), there's a large wind farm. One can easily see why they chose that location, as there was a strong and steady breeze throughout our visit. They looked a bit majestic up there. Hopefully this little bird flying near was smart enough to stay clear! (he's between the pole and lower-right blade)
I've certainly never seen anything quite like this park in my life. I was truly enchanted. And we had a few critters for company, too!
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I had the hardest time deciding how to divide up the photos for two posts on the Nxai Pan, because to put them all in only one post would result in a behemoth. I could choose to include fewer photos, but what's the fun in that? I had such a good time with my new cameras and lenses, I see no need to restrain myself. So do I divide up into different types of animals per post? Chronological order of my three days there? Close my eyes and select a random assortment from my file folder with my mouse? Honestly, it's such an inconsequential decision, I mean it doesn't really matter at all, that I can't even admit the exact amount of time I spent thinking about it. In the end, I went basically with the last mode of selection. An assortment of different animals, but with a loose theme of lone animals, or at least alone in the photo.
The Nxai Pan (pronounced "nigh" pan) is part of the Kalahari desert region of Botswana. It's a relatively small national game park situated in a salt flat (a "pan"). The title of this virtual safari is "circling the Nxai Pan" because that's basically what we did every day, as there are only a few routes through the small park, unlike some places such as Kruger NP where you can drive for days without retracing your steps, we mostly just circled through the park over and over. Traveling as a one-girl private safari with my awesome guide, Jane, of Ulinda Safari Trails, Jane secured a private camping spot available only to guides who belong to a particular guiding association, far away from the public campground -- just a clearing in the trees in the middle of the bush. I can't tell you how refreshing it was not only to get back to Africa but to be out in the quiet bush in my little tent (well, actually the size was quite generous) with no people around save the safari staff (who were all there to cater just to little ol' me).
My first night, though, I spent in a hostel in Maun and Jane picked me up the next morning to begin the safari. It was a lovely place with huge tents for accommodations, and a river to view right outside the tent. So I spent that first evening split between drinking Tafel at the bar and testing out my new lenses. There was a pied kingfisher on a tree branch above the river that I tested my 150-600 on (below). There were hippos in the river, but too far away to get a picture of.
So off to the Nxai Pan. I had low expectations for seeing wildlife, which are not numerous in the Kalahari region to beging with, and in the rainy season animals are more scattered throughout the parks rather than gathered at waterholes as they are in the dry season. But there was reputedly a reasonable chance of spotting the big cat predators during this time, and also, unlike the Central Kalahari Game Reserve which was my other destination, elephants were said to be a possibility to see here as well. These are all of my favorite animals in Africa, so it was at least worth a shot!
And how pleased was I when we saw an elephant almost immediately?!? Well, I'll let you guess. And look how friendly he was, to boot! Erik captioned this photo that the elephant just needed a top hat and cane, as he looked like he was about to break out into song -- "hello my baby, hello my honey, hello my ragtime gal ..." He was easy to identify when we ran into him again in the future because of his lone tusk. And he really was a performer! I almost wonder if the animals have a Far Side-esque Broadway production unit, and this guy was at the waterhole practicing his performance for the humans before his big night on stage with the animal audience. Check out his dance moves in the second photo.
And then this fella came along, friendly as could be, as well. He was very interested in us, indeed, getting a right proper sniff of us at close range.
And then I was super excited to get a photo of a giraffe with oxpeckers on its face. It's not an original subject by a long shot (heh), but it's one that having seen other peoples' captures of this common scene, I have for whatever reason always felt envious and wanted a shot like that for myself. So, yay, I finally got one.
But the awesomeness only ratcheted up as time went by. I had seen few lions on my prevous safaris to that point ... which was a little disappointing, but not severely so, since I had seen at least a few. I had seen only one male, in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi National Park in South Africa, but he was old and emaciated and it was dusk and I only got one blurry photo of him. So I was a joyous little me to see this beautiful specimen standing underneath a tree looking at me. He walked on close enough to the road that we could follow him (he was still quite far in the distance, below, zoomed at 550mm and cropped in). He stopped to mark some territory.
Jane tried to predict his trajectory and we drove faster past him to a spot where she thought he might end up crossing our path. And so my joy meter just about maxed out and broke when indeed he did show up, and not just that, but came directly toward our vehicle in a slow, regal pace. A male lion at close range! I couldn't ask for much better.
Lionesses are regal creatures, too! We saw a pride of 13 lions, and I'll show more of them in another post. But what a beautiful couple the lion above and this lioness would make!
This young lion knows how to pose! He and his pal were snoozing in the road. And you might know by now that I love pictures of animals with their tongues out. I have no idea why, I just get excited everytime I see that I captured a tongue. :)
It's understandable why so many people call the lion "the king of the jungle." I always presumed it was an accurate title until I volunteered in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi national park in South Africa where we walked on foot through the park taking census data on the herbivores. Each volunteer was paired with an armed ranger to protect us from dangerous animals. One of the first things we were taught by the Zulu rangers was that there was another animal who trumped the lion. They would ask us, "Who is the king of the jungle?" And we quickly learned to reply, "The elephant!" One ranger was fired for telling the volunteer in his charge that if they came across an elephant, the volunteer was on his own, the ranger intended to run. (read another ranger account, "Run!" in my Tuesday Tales) No other animal would cause a ranger to call off a transect than an elephant. Lions they would walk by, no problem -- cautiously, but without any real hesitation. Elephants ... different matter.
So I had to laugh at this scene one evening at a waterhole in the Nxai Pan when a male lion was hanging out peacefully, all relaxed and chill. Then a male elephant came sauntering up to the hole while the lion eyed him warily, and it was as if the lion had an invisible line in his head that if the elephant crossed it, that was it for him. Well, the elephant crossed it, and the lion jumped up and walked away, a bit annoyed at having to leave his cozy spot. I wish I had had a wide-angle lens on so I could have captured both ends of the scene, with the elephant and lion in the same shot. But I couldn't, so here's the elephant approaching, and the lion leaving.
Now here are some more elephant performances. Allow me to recommend this troupe for top-notch entertainment whenever you are in the area!
Well since we're on the theme of solo animals ... here's one of solo traveler me beside an 800-year old baobab tree. We had to drive quite a ways from our campsite in the Nxai Pan to reach them, they're known as Baines Baobabs after a painter who made a famous painting of them in the 1800s. Pretty impressive specimens. Apparently, baobabs grow vigorously for the first 250 years and then slow down. This grove of trees looks almost identical to the way it looked in the 1862 painting. This grove isn't special to have lived this long, that's just the normal life span of a baobab if left alone. I've seen pictures of them on the internet so big that people have carved out of the trunk whole rooms such as a bar and a post office.
I'd never really seen a vulture up close until now. This is a lappet-faced vulture, whose head, although it spends its time inside of rotting carcasses all day, is rather pretty.
He had been hanging around waiting for another scavenger to finish his meal -- a black-backed jackal. Unfortunately I botched the photos of this scene, but it was interesting to watch the jackal with this fresh springbok carcass (probably eaten by lions in the night). He really wanted to drag it off, probably to his den, and he tugged and tugged at it and managed to drag it along for a short distance. But finally decided it was easier to just sit down and eat there.
There were many zebras in the park, and typically we saw them in close quarters with one another in sizable herds. But of course there are always the loners. But if the zebra below was hoping for a solo portrait, he was photobombed by the little zebra poking his head up behind him.
And we'll close out today's virtual safari with a look at my sweet digs, at our private campsite inside the Nxai Pan national park. Wherein I kept Jane up far too late drinking wine and chatting after dinner.
Goodnight! You can just glimpse my bed inside on the right where I fell alseep each night so peaceful and content, so free.
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 right-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! (the springbok's scientific name is actually Antidorcas marsupialis. 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.