Swiss Family Robinson, but French

Posted from Nosy Komba, Madagascar at 8:58 pm, September 28th, 2014

Holy mother of pearl did we score with tonight’s lodging. Nosy Be is an island off of the northwest coast of Madagascar that is famous for its beaches and marine life, and there are a number of tiny islands surrounding it that contain smaller lodges. We’re staying on Nosy Komba in the Nosy Komba Lodge, which has just three cottages, is empty of visitors at the moment aside from Audrey and me, and is run by the most lovely French family imaginable. They bought the place a year ago, we’re their first American guests, and we sat with Nathalie, her husband Marc, and their fourteen year old daughter Lea sipping drinks on a patio overlooking the ocean, talking about everything from growing up on Reunion Island to Lea’s daily boat trip to school to shark diving in Cape Town, and generally having one of the most pleasant evenings I’ve had in years. I don’t think the visit would have been any different had we been out of town guests rather than paying customers – these folks truly know how to run a lodge.

Our journey here was relatively uneventful. Air Madagascar sent us on a scavenger hunt around the airport trying to figure out how to pay an extra fee for having overweight bags, but once we figured that out (and went through security a few times as a result) our plane left on time and was (shockingly) mostly empty, leaving enough room to stretch out somewhat despite having just four inches of legroom. Once in Nosy Be we were shuttled into an ancient car that somehow still managed to make it across the island to the harbor, where we piled into a boat for the short ride to Nosy Komba. It took four people to unload the boat in the heavy surf at the island, but we arrived dry from the waist up and immediately settled in to enjoy the incredible hospitality. Tomorrow we’re off for some snorkeling at Nosy Tanikely, which is supposedly a world-class snorkeling spot, before returning to again enjoy a quiet evening with our gracious hosts.

Moving Right Along

Posted from Antananarivo, Madagascar at 9:37 pm, September 27th, 2014

Travel day. Air Madagascar used to be called Madagascar Air, but since that was generally shortened to the marketing-unfriendly “Mad Air”, a name change was deemed appropriate. Despite the new name the airline remains famous for last-minute schedule changes, cancellations, and overbooking, so for our twenty-eight days here we made sure to build a large buffer of extra time around any flight. The current plane journey is from Fort Dauphin in the far south up to Nosy Bay in the far north, but since we had to fly through the capital, and since the next flight to Nosy Be isn’t until early tomorrow afternoon, we’re spending about twenty hours in Antananarivo. Sadly our hotel for the duration isn’t in a particularly scenic part of town – the view from the street looked to be mostly stalls selling mobile phone cards and auto parts – so it may be a slow few hours until our flight (hopefully) takes us north tomorrow.

According to our guidebook, the north is the home of great scuba diving, so much of today was spent researching dive shops. Madagascar is a country without a hyperbaric chamber for treating decompression sickness, so I’m leaning towards the dive shop that’s run by a British guy – while my French has gotten better, I’m not sure what the translation for “nitrogen narcosis” might be, so putting our lives in the hands of someone who won’t require foreign language skills seems like a winning strategy. In addition, our journey north includes the last chance for lemur hugging, and with luck the lemurs of Nosy Komba will be feeling amorous when Audrey and I arrive tomorrow evening.

Lemurs at Breakfast

Posted from Fort Dauphin, Madagascar at 8:44 pm, September 26th, 2014

At dinner tonight, back in Fort Dauphin, I asked Audrey if it seemed weird not to have lemurs on the roof. After a pause, that was followed up with “isn’t it awesome that we can ask questions like that?”

My day in Berenty started at five o’clock this morning, with Audrey joining an hour later. Lemurs were waking up all around the reserve, with the brown lemurs snorting their hellos to one another, the ringtails meowing, and the sifakas not saying much at all (they like to sleep late, apparently). Following my alone time, Audrey and our guide joined for a second walk, after which we headed to breakfast and discovered that the cafe was overrun with lemurs. A single staff member was walking around with a stick, while a half dozen ringtails ran circles around him checking to see what food might be available. They actually didn’t get much to eat – we only saw one run off with a piece of bread – so it was mostly just entertaining to see them climb up a chair to peer over the edge of the table, or run under a table and between people’s legs. We finished our breakfast by literally pushing one lemur off the table after he stuck his tongue into our leftover jam, and shortly thereafter the entire troop returned to the trees to resume eating their proper meal of leaves.

The remaining walks were much the same, with lemurs aplenty, and the guide explaining his love of action movies (“Arnold! His daughter gets kidnapped, so he goes to get her back…”). Our last walk of the day was in the spiny forest area, where the guy responsible for night security took us on a tour of his assigned area. If I understood correctly, it seemed that his job is pretty slow, giving him time to exhaustively search every tree and bush, and he ran around showing us sleeping nocturnal animals hidden in holes and hollows that no mere mortal would have ever found otherwise.

The road had dried out slightly for our drive home, so it took only three hours to go fifty miles this time, all the while children were yelling for the “vazaha” (white people) to give them money, candy, or presents, while the locals were busy carting bags of charcoal, zebu, firewood, or other goods from point A to B. Berenty rightfully deserves its place as a top tourist destination in Madagascar, and I’m very, very glad that we were able to meet the friendly lemurs who inhabit it.

Ringtail lemurs in Berenty

I wish I could say that this photo wasn’t taken from my breakfast table, but when the lemurs join you for a meal and start posing it’s tough not to take out the camera.

Ringtail lemurs in Berenty

Lemurs on the trail with their tails fully engaged.

Spiny forest in Berenty

Botanists reading this journal who have been frustrated by three months of animal photos, this picture from the spiny forest is for you.

Berenty

Posted from Berenty Private Reserve, Madagascar at 10:05 pm, September 25th, 2014

One of the places we were told was a “can’t miss” spot for our trip was the Berenty Private Reserve, so we made sure to include it in our itinerary. Despite booking six months in advance we were only able to get one night (it’s apparently a popular stop), but we hoped that one night would be enough to at least get a partial experience of the place. We set off this morning for a fifty mile drive that took nearly four hours – to say the road wasn’t in good shape would be a charitable description of the bumpy path filled with occasional potholes large enough to fit the entire vehicle.

After the long drive we arrived at Berenty, and it took approximately seven seconds to find our first group of the famous lemurs. Unlike most places, you can walk around the reserve unaccompanied by a local guide, so Audrey and I enjoyed our time at close quarters with the lemurs prior to heading to lunch, after which we met our assigned guide for a scheduled walk. If ever you want to have lemurs approach to within a foot, this is the place – if they have personal space boundaries, those boundaries must be measured in inches. A further highlight was seeing a sifaka turf battle – one troop came into the other’s territory, and they all climbed down from the trees and had a dance-off, with one lemur showing off his moves only to be chased off the dance floor by another wild dancer. Extreme happiness was experienced by everyone present. Following the jumping lemur disco show we encountered more lemurs (eating, not dancing), and then made a trip to the fruit bat tree. The fruit bat is also known as the “Madagascar flying fox” given its huge size – their wingspans are up to four feet across. The icing on the cake was when a four foot long boa constrictor slithered past while we were enjoying the bats. Berenty pretty much rules all.

Our last event of the evening was a night walk through the spiny forest, which is a weird and otherworldly landscape of cactus and other mean plants that wanted to hurt me. I continue to greatly enjoy these nocturnal sojourns, and on this one, in addition to a few lemurs and chameleons, we found songbirds sleeping on branches. For reasons I couldn’t understand, the birds simply sit still on the branch at night, perched inches away, without flinching or attempting to fly away – after chasing a Madagascar paradise flycatcher around with a camera repeatedly during daylight hours, tonight I had to back up several feet to get my long lens far enough from the bird to be able to focus.

Tomorrow is more of the same until the early afternoon when we unfortunately have to leave and again face the bad road back to Fort Dauphin. I’m planning a very early wakeup, with the girl to join a bit later for our scheduled 6AM walk.

Update: Audrey has posted a truly wondrous video of the lemur dance-off – enjoy.

Ringtail lemurs in Berenty

Wildlife stalking in Berenty involves walking directly up to the lemurs, setting up the camera two feet away, and then trying to ensure they don’t come closer than that and ruin the focus.

Verreaux's sifaka in Berenty

At the start of our first walk with the guide the sifakas engaged in a dance-off to resolve a territorial dispute. Action on the dance floor was fast and intense.

White-footed sportive lemur in Berenty

The white-footed sportive lemur is a nocturnal lemur, meaning we mostly saw it being adorably sleepy while tucked away in holes in the trees.

Mora Mora

Posted from Fort Dauphin, Madagascar at 9:35 pm, September 24th, 2014

“Mora mora” is an expression in Malagasy that the guide book says has a meaning that is essentially “be patient and understand that things will happen when they happen”. When the road was bad Desiree would frequently say “mora mora”, but for the most part things have gone smoothly. Today was our first real taste of “mora mora”, albeit a small one. We got up before six o’clock to get to the airport to catch our flight, but the baggage handler at the counter told Audrey that her carry-on was too heavy and would need to be checked. She took out her camera and handed it back to him to check in, at which point he re-weighed it and said it was now OK to carry on. We walked away, put the camera back in the bag, and continued through security. From there the plane was supposed to take off at 7:50, but at 10:00 there was still no plane in sight, and no announcements had been made. No one in the waiting area seemed too surprised by this development – the plane was going to arrive eventually, and there was nothing to be done in the mean time. Mora mora.

The plane eventually arrived and took us to Fort Dauphin, where surprisingly the hotel had sent a driver to pick us up – I did a double-take when we walked out of the airport and my name was on a sign, since no one had mentioned that we would have transportation. After arriving at the hotel we set off for the bank, but while trying to withdraw money the ATM froze with my bank card still inside of the machine – not an ideal situation in a country where nearly all transactions are done with cash. The bank had closed for lunch, and after the security guard had tried pressing “cancel” a few times he helpfully suggested that I wait two hours until the bank re-opened, at which point someone might be available who could help to retrieve my card. Meanwhile numerous Malagasy people stopped by to get cash, saw that there was a problem, and walked away in a manner indicating that they had seen this type of thing many times before. Luckily this particular example of “mora mora” was relatively short-lived, as the bank manager returned to work forty-five minutes later and was able to restart the machine and retrieve my card, after which the assembled crowd got a good laugh when I refused to again try a withdrawal – rather than risk another ATM misadventure we came back a few hours later with US dollars to exchange, a process that still ended up taking fifteen minutes due to all of the paperwork that was apparently required. Mora mora.

Our other adventures today included whales cavorting off the coast, an impressive array of tide pools that we unfortunately couldn’t see much of due to the high tide, and a walk around the town that provided a bit of local flavor (stray dogs, roadside stalls, people at work, kids playing, etc, etc). Tomorrow we’re off to the famous Berenty resort to spend some time with the very friendly lemurs that inhabit the area, so hopefully they won’t be camera shy and the current streak of journal entries without accompanying photos will come to an end.

Bakuba

Posted from Toliara, Madagascar at 8:56 pm, September 23rd, 2014

During the trip planning I tried to find a variety of lodging, and one option that looked particularly unique was the Bakuba Hotel, which is an African-themed hotel run by a Belgian couple. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but imagined something like a B&B on a quiet alley. Instead, the hotel is way outside of town on a dirt road, a short walk from the ocean, and it offers wide open spaces decorated with extreme attention to detail and a ton of inventiveness. The downside of such an artsy place is that a few items were apparently overlooked for purely aesthetic reasons – there isn’t much separation between the bedroom and the bathroom, so when nature calls you either have to share the special moment or ask the other person to leave the room for a bit (we’re opting for the latter). Similarly, the shower has a window that looks out onto an open patio with no window covering, so if anyone happens to walk by they get a show from the waist up. However, the pros far outweigh the cons, and we’re very much enjoying our weird lodging for the night.

Prior to our arrival here we again made the bumpy ride from Ifaty to Toliara, and then stopped for a couple of hours to enjoy the mean plants and pretty birds at the d’Antsokay Arboretum. Once at Bakuba we took a long walk along the ocean and past all of the Malagasy fishing canoes that were hauled up onto the shore, returned to enjoy drinks and the view, then had a massive and delicious dinner on the upper deck under the stars. Tomorrow we’re off on an early flight to Fort Dauphin, which sadly means we’ll be saying goodbye to Desiree, our awesome guide for eleven of the past fourteen days.

Starry Night

Posted from Ifaty, Madagascar at 10:21 pm, September 22nd, 2014

Audrey wanted occasional downtime on this trip, and with scuba and snorkeling options limited by choppy, shallow seas today seemed as good as any day for some lounging. We still managed a visit to the Reniala Forest private reserve early in the day to see some of the spiny forest, and that was followed by a visit to the neighboring tortoise reserve to see the obvious. While visiting the tortoises two of the caretaker’s young kids tagged along behind us, and when I showed them their faces using the “front view” camera on my iPhone I made two instant friends – they quite literally hung on my arms for the remainder of our visit. Upon exiting the reserve we were waylaid by some less-friendly youngsters who used every trick in the book to get something from us – I tried to keep them occupied in an effort to protect Audrey, but after engaging them for several minutes while also making it clear that we weren’t handing out candy, two of them rewarded us with a one-fingered salute that is apparently more universal than I previously realized. Final score for my child entertainment efforts was thus one set of kids entertained and happy, one set clearly less so.

The afternoon saw much napping and lounging, as well as a very lovely coconut with a straw in it, a piece of cake, and some zebu skewers. The evening was yet another chance to practice night photography in the dark skies of Madagascar, and tonight I not only didn’t raise alarms with the hotel staff while lurking in the bushes in the dark with my camera, but I might have actually gotten a couple of decent shots. Tomorrow we’re back to Toliara for the evening before sadly saying goodbye to Desiree, our awesome driver, and flying off to visit the famous lemurs of Berenty.

Baobab in the Reniala Forest in Ifaty

This 1200 year old baobab in the Reniala Forest reserve is one bigass piece of wood.

Starry night in Ifaty

Credit to Susan Portnoy for providing instructions on how to photograph the Milky Way, and credit to Audrey for putting up with me for a couple of weeks while I repeatedly dragged her out into the darkness trying to get a Milky Way photo that actually had some stars in it.

The Road to Ifaty

Posted from Ifaty, Madagascar at 9:47 pm, September 21st, 2014

We reached the ocean today after a four hour drive from Isalo, at which point we turned right and traveled at fifteen miles per hour up a bumpy “road” to the seaside town of Ifaty. The route today was past all manner of villages and people, and was done with Desiree playing Celine Dion as our soundtrack for much of the way. The ever-present taxi brousse (van taxis) were out as always, each with room for about ten people, while actually containing around twenty-five, plus everything from furniture to produce to farm animals piled on the roof. Zebu carts yielded to us as we passed, lumbering overloaded trucks did not, while people pushing carts filled with water containers, bags of charcoal, firewood, or anything else needing transport labored up hills in the heat. Ancient bicycles were in use, some carrying three people, some loaded down with lumber, some merely carrying a single passenger who had somewhere to get to.

The scenery showed the effects of generations of slash-and-burn, with grassy fields stretching to the horizon, except in one area that was maintained as a national park and thus still forested. Baobab trees started appearing as we neared the coast, although hopefully tomorrow we’ll see some of the older, larger members of the species. Sapphire miners were bringing their gems into the many shops that appeared during a brief stretch of road, and the rivers in that area were filled with people filtering gravel looking for the tiny blue stones. Villages varied from mud huts with thatched roofs to stick huts to the occasional modern building, although once we reached the coastal town of Toliara the construction was mostly all modern.

The people along the way seemed happy for the most part. Children waved, some of them running to the car yelling for “bon bons”. Older folks were busy with the chores of their daily lives, whether working in the fields, chopping firewood, taking something from point A to point B, or running a tiny roadside stand. People in Madagascar have only a fraction of the wealth seen in other nations – our guidebook says that a doctor or university professor might make just $200 a month, while our guide in Andasibe indicated that the fellow who manned the security booth at the hotel probably made 100,000 Ar per month (about $40) – but despite the low wages people seem to get by sufficiently. Obviously when things go wrong for someone here they can go very wrong – a big storm might wipe out crops and mean no food, or an accident could lead to a handicap that would end a person’s ability to support himself – but for the majority of individuals it seems like they do well with the life they’ve been given. Hopefully conditions will continue to improve, but at the same time there is probably a lesson to be learned from the fact that even in the toughest of situations, people can be as happy or happier than those of us who live in comparative luxury.

The Guide was Tired

Posted from Isalo National Park, Madagascar at 6:52 pm, September 20th, 2014

The alarm went off at 5:45 this morning, and I sprang out of bed ready for a day of hiking in Isalo National Park. It took some coffee to get Audrey equally as charged up, but once caffeinated she was suited up and ready to go. Isalo is a huge, hot and dry park that contains impressively eroded sandstone formations that are home to a number of lemurs, and also has deep canyons that contain lush springs and numerous waterfalls. Our plan today was to hike to the Piscine Naturelle (natural swimming pool) and then across a big open area to a campground that was rumored to be lousy with lemurs. From there Audrey would meet our driver and return to the lodge in order to miss the worst of the afternoon sun, while the guide and I would hike through a canyon to the Piscine Bleu and Piscine Noir (blue & black pools).

Things went according to plan, with ringtail lemurs joining us at the Piscine Naturelle, and numerous raptors, a stick insect, and a scorpion all making appearances on our way to the campground. At that point the needle on the thermometer was moving from “hot” to “frying pan”, so Audrey exercised good sense and said her goodbyes while the guide and I moved on. The campground was as advertised, and I spent much time photographing lemurs until I heard another guide say “there is a sifaka over here” and suddenly the magical moment turned into a zoo as I was surrounded by about thirty other people. I made an immediate exit through the sea of oncomers, and we then continued on through a canyon filled with waterfalls and beautiful pools. The Blue Pool was also as advertised, and the guide took a plunge to cool off while I moved on to the Black Pool. That one was equally pretty, with the beauty only slightly diminished by the sight of four soaking wet Italians in their tighty-whities. I retreated to a corner of the pool away from the underpants party to get some photos before we backtracked to the campground for more lemur photography, after which the mercury in the thermometer was moving from “frying pan” to “surface of the sun” so we made our return to the waiting Desiree for a ride back to the lodge.

Tomorrow it’s a five hour drive to the coastal town of Ifaty for two nights, home to spiny forest and a beach that should be perfect for lounging. The month in Madagascar is going by shockingly fast, but each day has been memorable, and plenty of adventures still remain.

Verreaux's sifaka in Isalo National Park

This guide said that this poor sifaka didn’t have any of his own species in the area, so instead he spent his days with a group of ringtail lemurs who mostly kept their distance from this much larger party crasher.

The Rock Lodge

Posted from Isalo National Park, Madagascar at 8:45 pm, September 19th, 2014

Audrey got more craft workshops today, and was in tremendous spirits. I’ll admit to thinking they were interesting, but manliness prevents me from doing more.

Our day started before six, and after breakfast we were checked out and on the road by 6:45. Two hours later we were in a silk factory, which was essentially a house with a shop next to it that employed several women in sweatshop conditions to process silk cocoons and weave the silk fabric. Despite the less-than-ideal working conditions it was a neat thing to watch, involving cooking the wild cocoons into a gooey mixture, unwinding the farmed cocoons by hand, and a labor-intensive process on a hand loom to weave fabric. The end process wasn’t what I expected – it felt far more coarse than the silk we find at home – but it was nevertheless impressive.

The next workshop offered the opportunity to see paper being made, and at this one my French was pressed into service so we might have missed out on some important details. The gist of it seemed to be smooshing trees, pouring the resulting goop onto a frame, and then pressing decorative flowers into it before letting it dry. It was again impressive to see the whole process being done entirely by hand, including the smooshing of the trees, which was done with two steel mallets after the pulp had been cooked into a weird soup over a period of three hours.

Craft workshop touring complete, our third stop was at the Anja Private Reserve, which was a village initiative created fifteen years ago in which six local villages got together to preserve thirty hectares of forest that is home to 300 ringtail lemurs. To date they’ve had 14,000 tourists stop to visit them, so it has been a clear success. In a country that is losing most of its forest to slash and burn agriculture this initiative was one worth supporting, and as an added bonus the lemur spotting took only five minutes from the point at which the trail started. Throw in the best chameleon sightings we’ve had during daylight hours, and yet another chance for me to practice my horrible French, and it was an extremely worthwhile visit. If you’re ever in Madagascar, go to there and help demonstrate the value to the local people in conserving their natural resources.

Tonight we’re staying in the very fancy Isalo Rock Lodge – our last hotel was missing a toilet seat, so finding not just a fully functional toilet, but also a huge bathroom that would rival any top hotel in Los Angeles, is a massive change for the better. We’ll be up at six o’clock tomorrow morning in order to do some hiking before the day hits the “crazy hot” stage, and with luck there will be some nice pictures, and with even more luck I’ll manage to avoid heatstroke during the planned seven hours with our (required) park guide.

Chameleon in Anja Private Reserve

Chameleons are extraordinarily difficult to spot during the day, unless they’re like this guy and are a foot long and climbing a small tree trunk out in the open.

Diamond

Posted from Ranomafana National Park, Madagascar at 9:20 pm, September 18th, 2014

While planning this trip I underestimated how long it would take to drive from place to place, so while we have two nights at Ranomafana National Park, we arrived late last night and need to depart early tomorrow morning, leaving today as our only chance for activities in the park. Luckily we continued to have nice weather, and our karma stayed strong as our guide (and the entire Malagasy team of trackers that apparently work together to alert anyone in the area when something interesting is found) discovered all three species of bamboo lemurs that live in the park, including the very rare golden bamboo lemur and the even-more-rare greater bamboo lemur. The bamboo lemurs are different from most of the lemurs we’ve seen elsewhere – they look like a cross between a koala and Yoda, and are maybe a third of the size of the sifakas that danced on our balcony in Anjajavy.

The first lemur we saw today was a grey bamboo lemur that was running around calling for its family, much to our amusement since its call alternated between sounding like a squawking crow and a snorting pig. The second set of lemurs was discovered after we had already passed their location, and required backtracking down a significant number of stairs, but luckily the cuteness of lemurs outweighed any issues due to excess stair climbing. The family of lemurs were golden bamboo lemurs, which were only discovered in 1986, and are the primary reason that the national park was formed. From there we got word that two greater bamboo lemurs had been found, and since they are the rarest lemur found in the park we set off in search of them. The route was reminiscent of the opening scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, with vines being pushed out of the way, steep hills, giant trees, and after much sweat two lemurs hiding up in the canopy. Despite the bushwhacking it was all worthwhile after one of the two lemurs decided to climb down to a log near the ground, and we sat a couple of meters away while it groomed itself for ten minutes before jumping onto the tree a couple of feet behind Audrey, and then clambered up to rejoin its companion.

We returned from our morning adventures at about 1:30, grabbed lunch and a nap, then headed off for a night walk, aka the path of many chameleons. Things started with spazzy mouse lemurs leaping out of the shadows a few feet from where we parked, then turned into chameleon-o-rama with at least one lizard on seemingly every tree and bush. A few frogs and bugs made appearances for good measure, but chameleons were clearly the stars of the show tonight.

Tomorrow we’re off to see paper and silk making, visit a private lemur reserve, and then, if the roads are good, we’ll get to Isalo National Park by sunset. This trip down RN7 is going by quickly – there’s still a lot of Madagascar to go, but amazingly we’ve already been here for ten days.

Greater bamboo lemur in Ranomafana National Park

The greater bamboo lemur is one of the most endangered lemurs in Madagascar, but fairly easy to photograph when it decides to groom itself on a log three meters from the admiring tourists.

Leaf-tailed gecko in Ranomafana National Park

The leaf-tailed gecko. The guide found it for us on a branch next to the trail – there is approximately a one-in-a-billion chance that I would have spotted this thing on my own.

Chameleon in Ranomafana National Park

Night walks are awesome, because you see lemur eyes reflected in the flashlight, and find chameleons with tails that retract like vacuum cleaner power cords.

“Oh my God, it’s a hole in the ground”

Posted from Ranomafana National Park, Madagascar at 8:33 pm, September 17th, 2014

The Madagasar trip is primarily a nature trip, but I also acquiesced to Audrey’s request to include some of the craft workshops along the way. This morning we started out in a rock shop, with one of the salesmen hounding us about a good price he could offer on a pendant that Audrey had made eye contact with for more than six seconds. We left there in a bit of a rush and moved on to a workshop where they were making items out of zebu (oxen) horns. The process of boiling and cooking the zebu horn in order to make it pliable was a stinky one that had me questioning what we had gotten ourselves into, but as the artisan started cutting and polishing it into a spoon I actually moved from being mildly nauseous to fully impressed – the final product rivaled anything you would find in an art gallery in the US.

Our last stop was my favorite – the artist at the workshop cut up cans and bits of scrap metal to make finely-detailed miniatures. He demonstrated the process for making a miniature bike tire, which involved a tiny piece of a tin can to act as the wheel frame, a tiny piece of a spring to act as the hub, fishing wire as the spokes, and medical tubing as the tube. Bending, threading, and soldering those parts together into a tire that was barely two inches across took him a couple of minutes, and the fully-assembled bike showed an equal amount of attention to detail for the handlebars, frame, chain, etc. Final price for this tiny piece of art was less than $10 US. I bought two little cars from him (one of which is pictured below) that are actually fridge magnets – my first real souvenirs in more than nine weeks of travel – setting me back a grand total of $2 each.

From the magical toy emporium our route was south, and we spent the vast majority of the day driving to Ranomafana National Park. We stopped briefly in the afternoon for a coffee and a bathroom break – when we asked to use the bathroom we were led out of the back of the restaurant, down a flight of stairs, past a cage containing two chickens, a duck, and a goose, and up to two open doors. Madagascar is renowned in the guidebooks for its dirty bathrooms, and while we have been spared that horror thus far, Audrey’s first words upon entry were “Oh my God, it’s a hole in the ground”. And that’s what it was, quite literally a messy hole in the ground. In a very gross way, we have now been informally certified as genuine Madagascar travellers.

Today was the first day without lemurs in quite some time, but we’re meeting our guide at 7 AM tomorrow morning for a hike through some of Madagascar’s most pristine rain forest, so a new streak of lemur sightings should begin shortly.

Tin miniatures in Antsirabe

The sweet pink ride in the front left is now mine. I’d be the proud owner of one of the kickass bottle cap airplanes, too, if it wasn’t likely to get smooshed in my luggage.

The Madagascar Margarita

Posted from Antsirabe, Madagascar at 10:39 pm, September 16th, 2014

After we said goodbye to Anjajavy and our plane returned to Tana, our always-smiling driver Desiree was waiting to meet us outside of the airline’s offices. Shameless plug for Faniry Rent-Car: we got a great car and a better driver.

The plan for the next eight days is to drive south along National Route 7, which goes from the capital past several national parks, ending 570 miles later at the town of Toliara along the coast. The start of that journey today took us about 100 miles, past rice paddies, small markets, many cows, people on bike/foot/rickshaw/anything-that-moved, and at one point to the town of Ambatolampy, which is known for its metal casting. We paid the equivalent of $2 to see a group of men in a hut melting scrap aluminum and casting it into cooking pots. They made fifty pots per day, retail for each pot about $8, barefoot and in shorts while molten metal was poured inches from their toes. I’ve probably spent too much time in this journal writing about how lucky everyone in the US should feel to have the benefits that we don’t even realize we have, but seeing these guys slaving over their cooking pots was the millionth reminder that being born in America was a very, very lucky occurrence.

After leaving the metal casting, the trip continued through pretty scenery until we reached our hotel for the evening. Much merriment was had when we attempted to order off of the French menu, with each of us getting a meal that was completely unexpected – French lessons will need to continue. Audrey also ordered a margarita from the menu, and the waiter had to check the drink list to figure out what was in it – never a good sign, although whatever it was that he ended up making was a strong pour, and she fell asleep quickly after we returned to the room.

Aluminum casting in Ambatolampy

Reason number five thousand to be thankful you live in America: no one I know has a job that requires casting molten aluminum cooking pots in a sweltering shed while barefoot.

Aluminum casting in Ambatolampy

Note all of the protective gear in place in case that crucible spills? Neither did I.

Fantasy Island

Posted from Anjajavy, Madagascar at 11:20 am, September 16th, 2014

Audrey has taken to calling Anjajavy “Fantasy Island”, which is about as apt a desription as one could want (aside from the fact that it isn’t an island, but work with us on this one). During our time at the resort we were surrounded by dancing lemurs, tropical birds, and beautiful beaches, a staff that prepared incredible meals for us, and our accommodation was truly special. Karma continues to be good.

Yesterday we had a couple of activities planned, the first of which was a boat ride to Moramba Bay. The bay was scenic, with baobabs perched on the edges of uplifted coral islands, turquoise blue water, and flocks of birds roosting in the mangroves. The end of the boat trip provided time for snorkeling among colorful corals and with more than enough fish to keep us occupied in the warm waters, and I swear I heard a whale singing during a few of the many free dives along the reef bottom.

After our return from the boat trip, lunch, napping, and lemur photographs were followed by a late-afternoon exploration of one of the two caves in the reserve. The cave was located beneath massive uplifted corals and filled with big stalactites and stalagmites, and much to Audrey’s liking was also home to big spiders and tiny bats.

We returned from our hike in time to catch the end of lemur tea, and then to see a pre-dinner dance performance from members of the local village. Normally a dance wouldn’t be my type of thing, but in Africa anything musical tends to be both impressive and one of the opportunities to interact with the local folks in a less touristy way, and this performance was no exception. The lodge manager’s kids joined in the dancing, after which we went for dinner and were informed that a special meal had been set for us in the garden. We were led to a single table surrounded by candles and hanging lanterns, and for once this non-romantic guy managed to treat his girlfriend to a romantic meal.

Prior to our departure this morning I was asking Cedric (the manager) for help in identifying a couple of birds I had photographed, and he actually asked if he could purchase two of my photos for use in promotional material for the resort. Whether he really wanted the photos or was just trying to do a nice thing for a guest, it was a neat gesture that made me feel good, and knocked the cost of a few drinks off of our bill. Now I’m writing this entry from a four-person plane 6500 feet above the ground – my brother would not be a fan of all of the shaking and bouncing, but it’s a super-fun way to see Madagascar from above. When we land we’ll again meet our driver Desiree to begin our land journey south, over what will hopefully be decent roads through more of the land of lemurs.

Coquerel's sifaka in Anjajavy

Mom and baby coquerel’s sifaka, hanging out in a tree next to the resort entrance. Wildlife spotting is not difficult at Anjajavy.

Leaf-nosed bat in Anjajavy

A tiny leaf nose bat in Sakalava cave, one of two photos that may be featured in future Anjajavy promotional material.

Chemin des Crabes

Posted from Anjajavy, Madagascar at 6:35 pm, September 14th, 2014

For reasons that no one seems to understand, the Anjajavy Resort operates in a time zone different from the rest of Madagascar, so we either got up at six or seven in the morning, depending on whether you reset your watch on arrival or if you refuse to partake in their cunning mind games. Audrey’s one rule is that she must have coffee before I can rush her off to start the day’s activities, but as soon as her cup of Nescafe was gone I got her out of the door and off on the “Five Coves” trail, which is along an amazing coast and past five secluded and beautiful beaches. The return loop went through mangroves filled with dinner plate-sized crabs that mostly hid in tiny mud holes, and thankfully today not a single one of them chose to attack me.

Following the hike we got back to the resort in time to enjoy a late breakfast on a patio overlooking the sea – Madagascar now rivals South Africa for my favorite bacon. A nap, some snorkeling, another hike under the blazing sun (Audrey wisely opted out of that one), tea with the lemurs, and a night hike completed our schedule for the day. All of the day’s activities were good ones, but the lemur tea in particular is one that everyone should find a way to enjoy at some point in their life – sitting in a garden with juice and cookies while little furry animals leap Evel Kinievel-style through the trees above you is an experience that even the grumpiest of sourpusses would have to admit is a pretty cool way to spend an hour.

Crested drongo in Anjajavy

The aptly-named crested drongo. During our morning hike this guy was also referred to as the “posing on a post” bird.

Scops owl in Anjajavy

Grumpy owl was unimpressed with our flashlights in his eyes.

Total Crab Attack

Posted from Anjajavy, Madagascar at 12:33 pm, September 14th, 2014

4:30 wake up yesterday to fly on a private plane to visit a destination on the northwest coast called Anjajavy. This resort sits on the beach with a 550 hectare private reserve surrounding it, and was called out in our guidebook as being a “best of” spot in Madgascar (something the resort apparently realizes, based on their prices – ouch). The plane ride here was scenic, with the mountains of Madagascar rolling along below us until we arrived at the “Anjajavy International Airport”, an open air hut with a thatched roof and room for perhaps twenty people to stand inside. The resort itself is beautiful – the water is turquoise blue, the sand is bright white, the villas are all on raised platforms and made of rosewood, and the animals also show up in large numbers to enjoy the scenery and amenities.

The highlight of the place is the five o’clock tea, which is served outside and coincides with the time that the brown and sifaka lemurs apparently like to visit the garden. Just prior to tea time Audrey made a sound best described as a yelp and ran outside, where a sifaka was leaping and dancing across our balcony. Having now seen them do the sexy dance, both of the girl’s trip requests have officially been fulfilled. During tea a steady stream of lemurs came through the garden, with lines of brown lemurs walking along the ground with their tails high, sifakas leaping kamikaze-style through the branches, and a few baby lemurs making short practice jumps before returning to their spots hanging onto their mom’s bellies.

In addition to the dancing lemur tea time, I also got in an afternoon hike under the blistering sun where a huge bat flew out from an overhang, just missing my head, and parrots, lizards and lemurs made less distressing appearances. After dinner Audrey and I went on our own night hike, finding one lemur and many more bats, before we got to the crab-covered beach. The crabs froze like deer when the flashlight was on them, except for one little brown one who took offence and proceeded to chase me along the beach for perhaps twenty or thirty yards – the “Jaws” theme was playing in my head as the angry little bugger zig-zagged at me repeatedly out of the pitch blackness before eventually moving off to find other victims to terrorize with his vengeful little claws.

Common brown lemur in Anjajavy

Nap time for lemurs. Later they celebrated tea time with us.

Coquerel's sifaka in Anjajavy

A new lemur species for us, the Coquerel’s sifakas that hang out at this resort are dancers, and Audrey is a fan.

Veloma Andasibe

Posted from Antananarivo, Madagascar at 8:56 pm, September 12th, 2014

Another day, more lemurs; like the elephants in Africa, I don’t think it will be possible to tire of these furry little creatures. Today’s stop was the Mitsinjo Private Reserve, which borders the national park and is a joint effort between someone and someone else (both of whom are probably very important, but I was distracted by singing lemurs) to, among other goals, plant three million native trees and create connections between currently-isolated stands of forest, thus allowing the animals more freedom to move around. In 2013 they replanted something like 500,000 trees on 7500 acres, so the effort seems to be making real progress.

Our hike today started with the indri lemurs singing in the forest nearby, and we stumbled upon the talented lemurs munching leaves in the trees above us. The guides went to great lengths to tempt them with some local plants – wildlife etiquette is a work-in-progress here – and finally found one willing lemur who climbed down and put on a brief show of close-up leaf eating for the assembled group before disappearing into the trees with a few powerful leaps. While the guides were trying to lure them lower, Audrey and I very much enjoyed craning our necks up to watch the panda-like lemurs feeding in the tree tops, and occasionally launching themselves from tree-to-tree-to-tree in massive leaps. As noted previously, it’s not a sight (or sound, since their songs are so haunting) that I would soon get bored of seeing.

After a morning of lemurs we asked the driver to take us back to the capital, partly to get ready for our early flight on a tiny private plane tomorrow, and also because driving on the highways at night in Madagascar is an activity that is almost universally described as a terrifying ordeal that will lead to death in the worst case, and brown shorts in the best case. Since we were interested in neither of those things, we made sure our departure from the park got us back into Antananarivo well before sunset.

Indri lemur in Mitsinjo Reserve

For the second day in a row an indri lemur tried to poo on me, but I was intentionally keeping out of the target radius. Strangely, after his unseemly greeting he then climbed down the tree and ate leaves out of the guide’s hand.

Madagascar day gecko in Mitsinjo Reserve

“People will like it if you post something in addition to lemurs” was the advice I was given at dinner tonight when trying to choose a picture for this entry. The result: Madagascar day gecko, the only other animal in the photographs from today.

Covered in Lemur Spit

Posted from Andasibe National Park, Madagascar at 9:24 pm, September 11th, 2014

Audrey had two very specific (and difficult to fulfill) requests for the Madagascar trip – she wanted to hug a lemur, and she wanted to see them do the sexy dance; after today, one of her two requests has been fulfilled. Vakona Lodge, located just outside of the park, has an island on its property that is aptly named “Lemur Island” that is a home for lemurs that were formerly pets and thus cannot be released back into the wild. No sooner do you arrive on the island than lemurs are literally leaping on your shoulders to get to bananas that the guides hand out. The girl was beyond happy as she got to hug one of the furry little guys, and I was a fan of interacting with the little beasties and getting to see them so close up. They have soft little hands with giant fingers, and for whatever reason found me delicious, so I was licked repeatedly by lemurs and had to take a long shower when we returned home (for the record: there are far worse things in the world than to be licked by lemurs).

Prior to visiting the island of lemurs, we did a long hike through Andasibe National Park, a walk that started with a family of common brown lemurs. Yesterday’s wildlife lesson was that you can photograph diadem sifakas from four feet away, and today’s lesson was that the common brown lemur is fine with two feet of personal space. We would have been sitting there with wild lemurs on a log next to us for the better part of the morning had a grumpy indri not leaped over and scattered his competitors by turning their log into his toilet area – luckily we were out of range at the time.

When not forcing us to dodge their poo, the indri continued to impress as the various families sang their songs throughout the morning. They’re easy to find when singing, but at one point things went silent and the iPhone was used to “cheat” our way to indris, with a recording of the singing played back at full volume in order to entice the local family to join in the song and reveal their exact tree. We photographed that family, including a tiny baby, until our necks were sore from staring upwards – our morning was a good one.

The day finished with a night walk (chameleons, frogs, and four types of nocturnal lemurs, for those not sick of species lists yet). Tomorrow is our last day at this park, so we’ll have a morning walk in a private reserve that borders the park before making the three hour drive back to Antananarivo in preparation for a flight in a tiny plane on Saturday.

Common brown lemur in Andasibe National Park

Wild common brown lemur in Andasibe Natioanl Park. The journal may be all lemurs, all the time for a while. For those upset by this development, you may want to tune out for a couple of weeks.

As a rule I don’t take out the big camera for captive animals, but the iPhone was fair game for getting video of my new friend today.

All the Lemurs

Posted from Andasibe National Park, Madagascar at 6:37 pm, September 10th, 2014

Every animal has a distance that it will allow people to approach before it gets uncomfortable, and it’s both good etiquette and better for wildlife viewing when that limit isn’t exceeded. The first lemurs today were the uber-pretty sifakas, and based on our experience they require about four feet of personal space. Maybe less. While moving slowly to photograph one from thirty feet away, two more climbed down the tree next to me and started eating leaves; I am going to like Madagascar a lot.

The good karma on this trip continues. The haunting call of the indri lemur (best comparison: imagine a humpback whale’s song, but in a forest) was echoing through the trees when we picked up our park entry permit, and we then embarked on a bone-rattling drive into Mantadia National Park. The drive was followed by a hike, which began with a significant amount of time walking around while the animals hid, but then the long dry spell was abruptly ended with a magical moment. The sifakas suddenly appeared right next to the trail, with a black-and-white ruffed lemur above, and a group of indris leaping through the trees a short time later. Audrey was spellbound as the tiny beasts sprang thirty feet through the air from tree to tree to tree – given the dense brush and uneven ground, had they wanted to they could have left us completely in about five jumps, but instead they chose to munch leaves next to us. Happiness was abounding.

All told we found five species of lemur today during a morning hike in Mantadia and an afternoon hike in Andasibe (bamboo, black-and-white ruffed, sifaka, indri, wooly). Not bad for the first full day in Madagascar – 27 more to go.

Black-and-white ruffed lemur in Mantadia National Park

Although we had seen a bamboo lemur from the road earlier, this black-and-white ruffed lemur was our first lemur in the forest, and thus gets the unofficial distinction of first lemur of Madagascar. I’m a big fan of his (her?) haircut.

Diademed sifaka in Mantadia National Park

Photographing sifakas today involved a hike through dense forest, up hills, across streams, and followed by lemurs that climbed down the trees and ate leaves right next to us.

Dancing Queen

Posted from Andasibe National Park, Madagascar at 7:34 pm, September 9th, 2014

We’re in Madagascar, and I’m in a bit of shock that thus far everything has gone smoothly. Our Air Madagascar flight, which has a historical 50% on-time record, arrived in Antananarivo twenty minutes early, they fed us on the way (fish or duck), although they did somehow manage to squeeze enough seats on a thirty year old 737 that my legs only just fit into the space allotted. When we arrived the customs process went quickly, and there was no charge for our thirty day visa. Our bags were there to meet us, and we exited the arrivals area to immediately find our driver holding a sign with our names on it, smiling, and greeting us in English.

Money exchange was quick and painless, although at an exchange rate of approximately $1 to 2500 Madagascar Ariary, and in a country where credit cards aren’t in wide use, Audrey and I are now both carrying bricks of 10,000 Ariary notes, which feels very wrong when you see people pulling rickshaws filled with paving stones, with piles of firewood balanced on their heads, or in some other way demonstrating how lucky everyone born in America should feel for the many advantages we take for granted.

While I had been concerned that our pre-arranged transportation might not even show up at the airport, it has so far exceeded my highest hopes – our car is in excellent condition, and the driver is a former chauffeur for the American embassy who has also come up with an itinerary for us at the parks, complete with the required park guide. Our one errand for the day was to drive into town to make the necessary pre-payment for a hotel we have scheduled later in the trip, and my French was actually passable enough to deal with that minor adventure. In another shocking development, the Madagascar roads were paved for the entire three hours that it took to get to Andasibe National Park, a drive that was done with an ABBA CD playing, since everyone dreams of someday cruising through the Madagascar countryside while rocking out to “Dancing Queen”.

I’m now writing this post from our insanely nice lodge while watching Xena, La Guerrière on the TV. We’ll be up at six tomorrow morning to find the animals, with a very full day’s worth of activities planned; hopefully, there will be pictures of lemurs in tomorrow’s journal entry. Our luck can’t hold out in a country renowned for its unpredictability, but we’ll definitely accept our good fortune to start this part of the adventure.

Out of (South) Africa

Posted from Johannesburg, South Africa at 8:20 pm, September 8th, 2014

Another phase of the trip comes to a close – three months seems like an extraordinarily long time to be traveling, but somehow this voyage is sadly now two-thirds complete. Luckily, perhaps the most adventurous part of the trip still awaits – tomorrow there may be lemurs.

The past sixteen days have been a continuation of the magic of this odyssey – leopards, elephants, wild dogs, great white sharks, and plenty of others. The world we live in is a wonderful place, and I’m looking forward to seeing even more of it during the final weeks of this journey.

Update: Internet access will probably be hit-or-miss in Madagascar, so journal entries may take a few days to get posted; don’t call the embassy unless I go missing for more than a week.

Elephant in the Timbavati Nature Reserve

An elephant, taken from ten feet away at Kambaku River Sands Lodge while he was drinking from the lodge’s pool.

Leopard in the Timbavati Nature Reserve

Rock Fig, Jr. in the Timbavati Nature Reserve, my favorite leopard of the trip.

Go Browns

Posted from Stellenbosch, South Africa at 7:49 pm, September 7th, 2014

Ibises in the morning, homemade breads for breakfast, and wine country in the evening – life continues to be good. We moseyed along today, making one unplanned stop near Stellenbosch at the obviously-touristy but still fun Butterfly World since the girl likes butterflies. Our lodging for the night is in the heart of the Cape’s wine country, but we don’t really have time for wine tasting so the plan for the morning is to hit a nearby nature reserve before heading to the airport for our flight to Johannesburg.

South Africa has been fun. Kruger far exceeded my expectations, and you can’t go wrong with flying great white sharks. The people here have all been great, food has been excellent, and the roads have been easy to get around on, with the exception of the roundabouts which I believe are a horrendous thing to do to a motorist who is already struggling to remember to drive on the left side of the road. A return trip at some future date would not be out of the question.

Cattle egret in Montagu

A cattle egret, all poofed up for sunrise.

Sacred ibis in Montagu

Sacred ibis, sporting a haircut that I can support.

Ibis Trees

Posted from Montagu, South Africa at 9:44 pm, September 6th, 2014

The day started on the side of the road waiting to meet the owner of Meerkat Adventures, a guy who is both loved and reviled in Tripadvisor reviews but who has habituated several groups of meerkats to the presence of humans without using food – his secret is apparently to spend months around them reading books out loud. The end result of his work is that he can bring groups of fifteen people out to their dens, allowing them to sit a few feet away as the little guys wake up and start their day. Since the girl loves small, cute animals, this seemed like a must-do activity, and we trudged out to their burrow, folding chair in hand, as the sun came up. The first meerkat emerged shortly thereafter, and sure enough paid no attention to the people sitting nearby, and the remaining members of the mob came out a few minutes later. The girl was happy, I got a few photos, and the host of the event was someone we’ll remember for a while – think Crocodile Dundee, but with a South African accent and without the leather vest.

From there we were off to one of the many ostrich farms in the area since it’s such a unique thing to see, despite the fact that we knew it would be touristy. The tour was definitely touristy, although feeding the ostriches was exceptionally fun as they practically barreled us over in their rush to the food pellets. Riding an ostrich felt borderline wrong – the South African Animal Welfare Association has apparently given its OK to riding ostriches in farms subject to several rules (weight limits, not during hot weather, etc), but PETA would clearly not be happy. The experience starts with the staff putting a bag over the ostrich’s head to keep it calm, and you then hop on its back, tuck your legs under its wings, hold on, and then they remove the bag and the ostrich takes off running. Having done it once I wouldn’t want to subject the birds to carrying me around again, but from this day forward if anyone asks Audrey or me if we’ve ever ridden an ostrich, both of us will answer in the affirmative.

Tonight we’re in the town of Montagu, home to the “Ibis Tree”, which is my favorite tree in South Africa. The tree is lousy with birds, and I’ll be back tomorrow morning to try and photograph some of them in good light. The drive here included a stop at the former “Ronnie’s Shop”, a bar that was attracting almost no business until the owner got drunk, walked outside with a can of spray paint, and added three letters to the storefront, thus changing the name to “Ronnie’s Sex Shop”; now it’s a bar that just about every car on Route 62 has heard about in advance and stops to visit. Our plans for tomorrow are still TBD, but we’ll definitely be continuing to head in the general direction of Cape Town since we’ve only got one night remaining until we fly to Johannesburg in preparation for the next phase of the trip, aka Operation Lemur Recon.

Grass mouse in Oudtshoorn

Grass mouse, enjoying the crumbs from our pre-meerkat breakfast. The wildlife hotspots continue to be concentrated around picnic areas.

Meerkat in Oudtshoorn

Meerkat sentinel, given the awesome responsibility of ensuring that bad things weren’t going to try to eat the rest of the family when they emerged from the den.

Audrey and ostriches in Oudtshoorn

HUGELY touristy, but it would be tough to pretend that playing with ostriches wasn’t super fun.

Old Horn

Posted from Oudtshoorn, South Africa at 9:05 pm, September 5th, 2014

This evening’s journal entry comes from Oudtshoorn, ostrich capital of the world and former home to the infamous “feather barons”. The many ostrich farms in the area advertise tours that include the opportunity to ride an ostrich, and while I’m unfortunately over the 75 kg weight limit, it’s possible that there will be an interesting video of Audrey in tomorrow’s post.

Today was a travel day, so we took our time getting started, enjoyed breakfast at our comfy lodge/B&B, then drove a couple of hours east to the coastal town of Mossel Bay. I expected the town that marked the start of the Garden Route to be similar to Monterey or Carmel, and was a bit disappointed by its lack of character, but I gave it two bonus points just as we were about to leave when we spotted five humpback whales and at least thirty dolphins feeding within a stone’s throw of the shore.

From Mossel Bay we drove inland through the mountains and clouds, and then down to the town of Oudtshoorn, which any idiot would immediately realize is pronounced “Oats Horn” (I had to ask the owner of our B&B to pronounce it for me, twice). After arriving, and on the advice of the B&B owner, we went for a mid-afternoon lunch to the Bufflesdrift Game Lodge, which is essentially a giant ranch with animals in it. My mango and chicken salad was consumed while watching three hippos across a lake, while Audrey ate her venison bobotie while enamored with the big fish that populated the lake and swam below us begging for food.

Tomorrow we’ve got a couple of morning activities planned in Oudtshoorn, including the aforementioned ostrich farm tour, and from there the travel plan is still TBD, although we’re pretty sure to be heading back in the direction of Cape Town since our time in South Africa is winding down, with the final stage of the odyssey set to begin in just four more days.

The Overberg

Posted from Swellendam, South Africa at 9:37 pm, September 4th, 2014

Today was obviously not going to improve upon yesterday’s airborne sharks, so I told Audrey to sleep in while I did a quick walk along the coast searching for whales. Breakfast at our B&B provided a reminder that no matter how similar a foreign country seems to home, there are tiny differences – our pancakes were served topped with apple (not particularly unusual) and sour cream (yowza). After checking out of the sour creamery we did a loop through town looking for whales, encountering the Hermanus “whale crier” who stood on a point with a vuvuzela that he blew whenever he sighted a whale – even with the vuvuzela, his was a job that I coveted.

Our drive to Swellendam was through very pretty farmland and included flocks of huge blue cranes, and the town of Swellendam turned out to have a tremendously nice place for us to stay at Gaikou Lodge, and incredible food hosted by a very pleasant Scottish man at the Powell House. The afternoon activity was a visit to Bontebok National Park, a place we targeted mostly because we noticed that it was along our route, but that provided more than enough animals to keep us entertained for several hours.

Tomorrow we’re heading in the direction of the town of Oudtshoorn, aka “the ostrich capital of the world”. This portion of the trip continues to be unplanned, with a nightly perusal of the map giving us a general idea for where we go the next day, subject to detours for any interesting distraction we might discover en route.

Cape weaver in Bontebok National Park

Cape weaver, with weaving material in-beak, in Bontebok National Park.

Airjaws

Posted from Hermanus, South Africa at 7:48 am, September 4th, 2014

For those wondering if we had better luck with sharks today, twice a great white leaped out of the water and destroyed the dummy seal we were towing, so it was an all right day, to say the least. The first shark was totally airborne – tail completely out of the water – while a photo of the second is posted below in order to ensure you never go in the water again.

The cage diving was again slow – the other two boats both got good looks, but the sharks were ignoring our boat for some reason. We actually had the opportunity to get in the cage this time, and we got a couple of passes from big sharks, but there weren’t enough sharks staying around for everyone in the boat to get a chance to sit in a flimsy cage in freezing water with a massive predator swimming a few feet away. GoPro video will have to follow in a future post as I haven’t had time to look and see what I got, much less edit it down to just include the parts with a massively scary shark in them.

After a morning of watching sharks fly through the air we headed east and spent the night in Hermanus, a seaside town known for having a huge concentration of right whales viewable from its shores. That said, as I write this at sunrise from the B&B’s balcony overlooking the sea, the whales are being shy, although I’m told they also swim into the old harbor so we’ll give that a look after breakfast before we meander further along the coast to see what we find.

Great white shark in False Bay

Bad day to be a seal decoy.

Great white shark in False Bay

(Update) I originally put only one picture on this journal entry, which Audrey pointed out is a crazy thing to do when there are multiple shots available of a great white flying through the air like a superhero. So here’s another one, for anyone who was still on the fence about ever swimming in the ocean again.

Cableways

Posted from Simon's Town, South Africa at 8:55 pm, September 2nd, 2014

We were told that taking the cableway to the top of Table Mountain was a “must do” in Cape Town, so this morning we drove the scenic route along the coast and to the base of the flat-topped mountain that dominates the region, and then boarded a contraption with a rotating floor that holds 65 people and travels along a flimsy cable slung from the top of the mountain. We emerged impressed and alive at the top, where extraordinary views of the entire peninsula awaited – this one lived up to its “must do” billing.

After a lunch at the cafe on top of Table Mountain that consisted of ostrich stew (which set us back a mere $8) we were back down the cableway and off to the national botanical gardens. Audrey was most impressed by South Africa’s national flower, the protea, while I was a fan of the “Boomslang Canopy Walk”, a walkway that sat on thirty-foot tall metal supports and led through the tree canopy, and that we were forewarned was designed to sway disconcertingly in the wind (it definitely did). Our final activity of the day was a return to the Cape of Good Hope, where we again saw ostriches and a new antelope for me – the bontebok – and Audrey got to do her first driving on the left side of the road.

Tomorrow it’s back to shark diving in the morning. Heavy wind at sunset had me fearing I would need a barf bag for our five hours on the water, but the marine forecast is still calling for calm seas, so hopefully the sharks will be playful, the sea gods will be gentle, and my breakfast will stay where it’s supposed to.

Table Mountain cableway

The cableway cars, hanging on thin cables about a thousand feet above the ground. An exhibit at the bottom of the mountain showed various incarnations of the cars over the years. The second version was noted to have had a perfect safety record; ominously, the first and third versions mentioned nothing about safety record.

Bontebok at the Cape of Good Hope

Bontebok and Bontebok, Jr.

The Cape of Good Hope

Posted from Simon's Town, South Africa at 8:51 pm, September 1st, 2014

For anyone hoping for shark videos: we saw lots of shark attacks from above the water, but the big fish weren’t feeling playful and never came near the cage today; of the three boats at Seal Island today, only one got a shark, and he didn’t even stay long enough for everyone on the boat to get a chance in the cage. We have another trip scheduled for Wednesday, so hopefully we’ll get a chance to jump in a flimsy metal cage with the ocean’s most powerful predator then.

Despite not seeing them from the water, watching the sharks attack seals, with many of the seals escaping from those attacks, was pretty incredible. One of the gals on staff noted that the hunting activity was the best they’ve seen in a couple of months, and the entire crew seemed a bit baffled as to where all of the sharks had gone once they had their breakfasts.

After the morning sharks, our afternoon was filled with many penguins at Boulders Beach, followed by a drive to the Cape of Good Hope via Table Mountain National Park. We got our first two right whales of the trip just offshore, and Audrey got her first ostrich and baboon. We finished the day with a drive down to the tip of the cape and a short hike up to an overlook where we could look out at two oceans while simultaneously hoping that our car was secure from the baboons patrolling the parking lot. The view was great, the car survived, and we may be back tomorrow to see if we can find more whales and perhaps a zebra or two.

Great white shark in False Bay

We’re gonna need a bigger boat.

Two’s Company

Posted from Simon's Town, South Africa at 8:40 pm, August 31st, 2014

After waking up before five o’clock this morning I made the two hour flight to Cape Town, and the girl arrived a short time later, so the adventure will now be a shared experience for the next six weeks.

Audrey was coming off of 32 hours in airports or on airplanes, so I navigated us to our lodging in Simon’s Town, took her out for some food, and then put her to bed for a while. We later made it down to the water to look at the comical African Penguins – we’ll visit them again, and hopefully get some photos for the journal. Tomorrow should be more adventurous, with an early start planned so that we can go out to look for really, really big sharks. Stay tuned.

End of the Journey

Posted from Johannesburg, South Africa at 8:56 pm, August 30th, 2014

There is a scene in Planet Earth that shows a wild dog hunt, and David Attenborough notes how rare it is to be able to see these endangered animals hunting. Today was my last game drive after a month on safari, and it was spent watching wild dogs hunting. Had I seen wild dogs hunting at the beginning of the safari I would not have appreciated how special a sight it was, but after all of the experiences in Africa, finishing the journey watching such a rare event was a perfect ending to an extraordinary adventure.

“Safari” is actually a Swahili word meaning “long journey”, so after 33 wonderful days of game drives my long journey has come to its end. 33 days ago I hardly knew the names of any animals here. Today I’m leaving knowing how to recognize several birds by their calls, how to watch impala to see if a predator is nearby, and what a cheetah’s behavior will be when hunting. I’ve seen a lion defending its kill from hyenas, thousands upon thousands of migrating wildebeest, leopards prowling a few feet from the vehicle, and dozens of other mind-blowing sights. “Luck” doesn’t seem to begin to describe how fortunate I’ve been, both during the trip and to have been given the opportunity to do a trip like this one.

Tomorrow starts a new phase of the trip, and I’ll be getting up early to catch a flight to Cape Town where I’ll meet Audrey and start the next portion of the odyssey. While the game drives are over, in a couple of days there will be sharks…

Wild dog in Timbavati Game Reserve

Wild dog (also called painted wolf) after dining on impala. We got to spend a good deal of time with them before and after their hunt, although the heavy brush and speed which they moved when hunting made pictures tough, so unfortunately I didn’t do a great job of capturing the experience.

Lions and Leopards and Dogs

Posted from Kambaku River Sands Lodge, Timbavati Game Reserve, South Africa at 9:20 pm, August 29th, 2014

Just before dinner tonight, while everyone was standing around the dinner area talking, a massive hyena ambled up to the door, looked us all over, and then moved on. Walking around outdoors after dark remains a bad idea in Africa.

Game drive #1 today was the first time I’ve hit the emergency brake on the safari vehicle (translated: I emphatically told the driver to stop) after I saw a leopard lounging behind some brush a few feet off the road. This leopard is apparently a famous resident named Rockfig, Jr., and she posed for us over several minutes, giving the best show of any leopard I’ve seen in Africa. She is a star, and clearly knows it. Following our time with the leopard we returned to the den of the wild dogs, where the puppies were less active than they were the other day, but still entertaining.

Game drive #2 started off slowly, with a couple of rhinos obscured by brush as the best find. However, after we had stopped for drinks at sunset a lion’s roar echoed across the landscape, and we were quickly back in the vehicle and off to view two big male lions by spotlight. Lions are impressive during the day, but seeing two big males scanning the horizon while illuminated only by a narrow beam of light takes things up a notch.

After nearly four weeks on safari, tomorrow morning is the last game drive of this adventure. I came to Kruger thinking it might be a letdown after the experiences further north, and have been very pleasantly surprised at just how utterly and completely wrong I was.

Leopard in Timbavati Game Reserve

Rockfig, Jr. Rock star.

Lion in Timbavati Game Reserve

Lion at night. “They rarely charge the vehicle” was the reassuring comment from the driver.

Leopards Day and Night

Posted from Kambaku River Sands Lodge, Timbavati Game Reserve, South Africa at 9:39 pm, August 28th, 2014

Shockingly great day for animal sightings: two leopards, a cevet cat, an owl, three rhinos, and my first wild dog sighting in Africa. We saw the dogs this morning at their den – if I was to see one at a pet store I wouldn’t recognize it as anything other than a domestic dog with painted fur, although these guys can take down a zebra. The four puppies ran right up to the vehicle, with the adults looking on. We stayed with them only briefly since a leopard had been sighted nearby, and then we pursued the cat off-road, crashing over bushes to get a view of it by a riverbed. At one point the tracker, seated in an open chair on the front of the vehicle, had the big cat walk only a couple of feet from him, so apparently they don’t eat people during daylight hours.

Our evening game drive was even better. A couple on honeymoon asked if there was any chance of seeing a rhino, since that was the one animal they had not yet seen during their three days at the lodge. Thirty minutes later the guide had patched into the bush news network and found us two rhinos drinking at a waterhole, followed by a third who showed up in a field. After sunset the tracker turned on the spotlight, and the eyes of a cevet cat (something I hadn’t seen before) were one of the first things to be reflected back at us. Finally, when we were just a few hundred meters from the lodge the light picked up another set of eyes, this time belonging to a leopard that was hunting next to the road. For the next two minutes we were surrounded by darkness with a leopard in the beam of the light six feet from us. This leopard was second only to the Magic Bus leopard on my list of favorite cat sightings of the trip.

Three game drives remain at this lodge, after which my time on safari will sadly come to an end as I move on to Cape Town, find the jet-lagged Audrey at the airport, and begin the “sharks from cages” phase of the adventure. The days continue to end with a deep sense of gratitude for having a life in which I get to enjoy all of these magnificent sights and have all of these incredible experiences.

White rhinoceros in Timbavati Game Reserve

It was a tough call, but a rhino in good light beat out a leopard in questionable light for the journal illustration of the day. Hopefully a decent wild dog photo will make the cut before I have to leave this reserve.

Noodles and Waffles

Posted from Kambaku River Sands Lodge, Timbavati Game Reserve, South Africa at 9:50 pm, August 27th, 2014

I managed to mostly not get killed by elephants or crash the car while driving on the left, although there was an interesting moment where an elephant in front was giving me the staredown while another moved in behind to cut off retreat; so far as I’m aware I made it out alive.

The morning activity was a four and a half hour drive through the dirt roads of Kruger, highlighted by two separate rhino sightings and all manner of hoofed creatures. From there it was a three hour drive north to my fancy private lodge for the next three nights – the entire route was paved until the last few kilometers, and aside from the aforementioned elephant misunderstanding no one seemed too bothered by my attempts at driving on the left. The lodge itself is beyond luxurious – my shower is the size of my entire bathroom at home, and there were like twelve different towels in the room; one is for in front of the shower, one is for drying off, but I have not yet cracked the mystery of what the purpose of the other ten might be.

The activities at this lodge are a morning and evening game drive each day, but the highlight for me thus far has been a herd of fifteen elephants that recently started coming by to drink from the pool. The pool is on a raised platform, so they have to reach their trunks up to it and can only reach the last few inches into the water. I watched the grey trunks slinking up and over the edge of the pool from about ten feet away, which aside from a couple of vehicular encounters is by far the closest I’ve been to the colossal animals. I told the staff that they need to put a video of the elephants on the internet, and after people see what’s in store for them here they’ll be booked for months.

The game drive seemed to be more tame than those elsewhere, with the passengers seated, the driver starting out along a paved road, and the route directly to some lions he’d found in the morning. That said, Timbavati is home to some very rare white lions, and one of the two cats tonight was a ghostly color. The last bit of the game drive was after sunset and featured an owl and three huge porcupines, so I’m confident in saying that the next three days will continue the trend of awesomeness that has been a hallmark of this lengthy adventure.

Warthog in Kruger National Park

Nearly a month after arriving in Africa and seeing warthogs almost daily, finally one stood still long enough to get a decent photo. He knows he’s a stud.

Because the local elephants have found a new favorite watering hole no one is going to be using the pool anytime soon. The lodge guests have no complaints, but the guy responsible for cleaning the pool is less than thrilled.

Seeing the Things

Posted from Pretoriuskop, Kruger National Park, South Africa at 8:14 pm, August 26th, 2014

For about ten minutes today, until they wandered back into the bush, rhinos outnumbered people in my immediate vicinity by two-to-one. There was much awesomeness, and I remain a big fan of the low-traffic dirt roads in this park.

Today’s project was a big loop around the southern third of the park. There were no elephant roadblocks along the route, although the biggest herd of cape buffalo I’ve yet encountered stalled traffic for a few minutes – somehow a traffic jam caused by two hundred giant buffalo isn’t annoying like those experienced back home. Later in the day, because I’m a fan of cliches, I dug the headphones out of my bag and put Paul Simon’s Graceland album on repeat, and revelled in the joy of being alive as the music played and I waved at wildlife.

I’ve got three nights scheduled at a private reserve outside of the park starting tomorrow, but am a bit confused about how best to reach the place – while trying to plot a route from a park gate north of here Google maps indicated that one twelve mile stretch of “road” would take an hour and a half to traverse, so I’m thinking it might be prudent to avoid that route and instead try to get there from the main roads outside of the park. The plan (at the moment) is thus to do a small loop in the park, and then leave by ten in order to (hopefully) arrive at the reserve in time for an evening game drive. Wish me luck.

White rhinoceros in Kruger National Park

Mother rhino feeding. Baby rhino included for scale.

Elephant Roadblocks

Posted from Pretoriuskop, Kruger National Park, South Africa at 7:50 pm, August 25th, 2014

After the wonder of the Serengeti I was worried that Kruger would feel second-rate, but far from it – it’s a completely different experience, and I absolutely, 100% loved the day I just had. The park has both paved and unpaved roads, allowing for interesting route options when going from A to B. The benefit of the paved roads is that they are slightly smoother, and you get to see what animals others have found since people will stop their cars when they see an interesting animal. The benefit of the dirt roads is that they are in great condition, you only see a handful of cars each hour, and when you find an animal you pretty much have it to yourself. Guess which type of road I primarily drove today?

There were a huge variety of animal sightings today, but three in particular stood out. In Kenya and Tanzania the greater kudu was elusive, but the huge and incredibly impressive antelope made numerous appearances today; hopefully before I leave I’ll get a picture worth sharing. My first cats of South Africa were two cheetah that were lounging under a bush for several minutes before something sparked their interest and they went into stalking mode. Based on the lessons learned further north I moved the car approximately where they seemed headed, and after a minute or so had the sleek cats within spitting distance. Shortly thereafter they gave a half-hearted charge towards some waterbuck and I lost them in the bush. Finally, twice today elephants decided to create traffic jams, including a herd of about twenty that occupied a bridge for twenty minutes – when an elephant wants to stand in the road, you let the elephant stand in the road. Earlier in the day a mother elephant with a baby gave me the staredown, and while there might have been a tiny, tiny voice inside saying “you want a piece of me?”, the overwhelming chorus of voices called for a quick and hasty retreat, and I backed up promptly. Elephants continue to be fascinating, and I hope to see many more before leaving this country.

Kruger is a gigantic park, and with their regulations forbidding anyone from being on the roads before 6 AM or after 6 PM, as well as a 50 km/hr speed limit, it is a challenge to see all of it. In the three days that I’m in the park I’ll barely scratch the surface of the far southern region – the upper two-thirds of this 350 km long park will remain a mystery until I come back some day. For anyone considering a trip to Africa, if you don’t want to spend the money for a safari in Tanzania but still want an incredible experience, this seems like the place to go.

Ground hornbill in Kruger National Park

Even the birds are unafraid here – five of these giant guys practically walked into my car when I pulled over to look at them.

Cheetah in Kruger National Park

When a cheetah is ten feet from your car, everything is awesome.

Stay to the Left

Posted from Skukuza, Kruger National Park, South Africa at 8:07 pm, August 24th, 2014

I got through customs without incident last night, ended up having to pay off an airport cop for helping me find transportation to the hotel, got a few hours of sleep, then returned to the airport this morning and flew to Nelspruit. From there I got a rental car and commenced driving on the left side of the road, which shockingly didn’t lead to any casualties, although I did hit the windshield wiper instead of the turn signal on about a dozen different occasions. By mid-afternoon I made it to Kruger National Park.

The experience in Kruger National Park is completely different from Tanzania or Kenya – in those countries I felt constant excitement as the vehicle barrelled over rough roads and a mind-boggling number of animals appeared all around us. In Kruger the feeling (so far) is one of exceptional calm – there aren’t a ton of other vehicles here, I’m the only one in the car, the roads are in excellent condition, the vegetation is thicker so the landscape feels smaller, and while there are a lot of animals, it’s not the overwhelming hordes like it was in the Serengeti. In addition, the animals here seem to be even less afraid of people then they were further North; I drove the car within feet of impala that just looked at me placidly through the window. One highlight of the day was sitting in the parked car, engine off, watching a bull elephant eating trees, and the only sound was the elephant chewing – no other cars, no other noises, just me and the elephant. Pretty magical.

I didn’t see any new animals today – giraffe, elephants, impala, hippos, crocodiles, bushbuck, baboons, and a variety of birds made up the species list for the day. I took less than a dozen photos, and none of them were exciting enough to post, so this will sadly be the first journal entry in a while without pictures. Tomorrow I’ll have a full twelve hours to drive around the park, so hopefully either some new species or some great photo opportunities will provide illustrations for the next entry.

The Terminal

Posted from Nairobi, Kenya at 6:06 pm, August 23rd, 2014

A minor panic just ensued as both the lady at the Kenyan Airways checkin counter and the guy at Kenyan passport control asked me where my South African visa was, and then gave me a look that clearly said “you are so screwed” when I responded that I had been advised that Americans could visit South Africa for less than 90 days without a visa. After enduring some cold sweat while roaming the mostly-empty terminal 1-A here I finally managed to get online and re-verify on the South African government site that I can indeed enter South Africa without a visa. Visions of becoming Tom Hanks in The Terminal, living in limbo in the Johannesburg customs area, have been temporarily vanquished, although the true test will be when I hand my passport over to the South African customs agent and see if he also gives me the “bureaucracy is about to make your life very unpleasant” look.

Moving on from visa issues, the giant mountain pigs and leopards decided not to visit the Mountain Lodge’s waterhole last night, but we did have a visit from some insanely noisy hyenas at 4 AM. Our sole activity for the day was a walk through the forest, the highlight of which was a small group of colobus monkeys, which sort of look like giant skunks except for the fact that they live in trees and are monkeys. From there it was back to Nairobi, traffic, and civilization, and the realization that another phase of the trip has sadly come to its end. On a positive note, I got a quick shower in our day rooms before being whisked away to the airport, then got another shower while walking from terminal 1-C back to 1-A in a thunderstorm after a mix-up over my drop-off point; whatever dust was embedded on me from the savannah has finally been washed away.

Assuming I can get through customs I’ll be heading to a hotel after midnight tonight, then returning to the airport again tomorrow for an 11 AM departure to Kruger National Park – journal entries may be delayed for a few days, as I suspect the restcamps in Kruger won’t offer internet access. There is approximately zero chance that the short safari experience in South Africa will come close to matching the adventure of the past few weeks, but it will be nice to see the animals at my own pace for a few days before checking into a private lodge and again having the chance to do some game drives. After that I meet Audrey in Capetown for the last two legs of this massive odyssey.

Colobus monkey in Mount Kenya National Park

A black colobus monkey against a bright sky isn’t anyone’s idea of an ideal photography situation, but I only took ten photos today and they were all of this monkey, so a washed-out background will have to suffice.

Night Animals

Posted from Serena Mountain Lodge, Mount Kenya National Park, Kenya at 9:33 pm, August 22nd, 2014

Last full night in Kenya, and it’s ending in a spectacular way. The Mountain Lodge is built in Mount Kenya National Park surrounding a waterhole, and I’m writing this journal entry from the patio outside of the bar area while floodlights illuminate a huge expanse with bushbucks and other critters roaming about in the shadows. Earlier tonight two genets arrived to eat scraps left out on a tall platform, and there are chances for leopards or giant mountain hogs during the night – if I eventually decide to sleep, the lodge lets you sign up to be woken up should a particular animal arrive. I wasn’t able to sit still at dinner and kept creeping out to see what else had arrived to drink – I have the excitement.

Prior to our arrival here we did a final game drive in Samburu Game Reserve, and the leopard made an appearance high on a ridge to send us on our way. Lions and other animals also made appearances before we returned to Larsens Camp, said goodbye to the awesome staff there, and embarked on the four hour drive to Mount Kenya. During the lengthy drive we stopped for a restroom break at a souvenir shop that we had used as a lunch stop three days ago, and the guys there immediately recognized me as the visitor who had been interested in an African mask on our prior visit. They wanted $250, which I thought was highway robbery, but like so many merchants in this part of the world were insistent that they might be able to offer me a better price. I’m not sure what the final price might have been – the mask was very cool, but I didn’t really want to buy anything – but by the time I finally exited the store and hid in the van the price looked like it would probably sink to $50 or lower; the key to successful bargaining is apparently to not care whatsoever whether or not you actually get the item in question.

It’s weird to think that tomorrow ends the Tanzania/Kenya portion of the trip, and that I’ve now been traveling for nearly six weeks. Time seems to fly, but somehow at the same time my days of working in front of a computer seem very, very distant; a lot has happened in these past weeks. The thought occurred to me today that there probably isn’t a child in America who doesn’t want to visit Africa and see elephants, but only a very small percentage will ever get the opportunity to fulfill that dream. I have been insanely lucky in many, many ways during my life, and I’m incredibly grateful to everyone and everything that has given me such an abundance of good fortune and allowed such wonderful experiences recently and throughout my 38 years.

Baby elephant in Samburu Game Reserve

We saw this tiny baby elephant every day that we were in Samburu Game Reserve, and stopped to watch him play almost every time we crossed his path. Hopefully today won’t be the last day on the trip that I spend with elephants, but if it is I’m glad this little guy was a part of it.

Large-spotted genet in Mount Kenya National Park

Not the greatest photo, but it’s unbelievably neat to watch a wild animal like this one at night at close range from a seat on the hotel balcony (side note: genets are the same animals that joined us for dinner at Ndutu).

Ostrich Love

Posted from Larsens Camp, Samburu Game Reserve, Kenya at 9:35 pm, August 21st, 2014

The greater kudus were again waiting for us as we departed on a game drive at 6:15 this morning, and from there it was off see more of the local animals. The Somali ostrich is found here in decent numbers, despite the fact that it is highly endangered, and we watched one large male striding with purpose across the landscape and followed him to a grazing female. He spent about five minutes singing a song and performing an elaborate courtship dance, but when the female finally signaled her acceptance he raised his head high and ran off towards another female further on the horizon. Watching the spectacle of a male pass up an opportunity, Mike astutely commented “no wonder they’re endangered”.

The species rundown for the day was much the same as other days, but I will never be tired of seeing lions, elephants, baboons, and the other animals here. You never know what will turn up around the next bend, or what the animals in front of you will do – when I woke up today I could not have predicted that part of my day would be spent watching a tiny baby elephant roughhousing with its older sibling, or that I would be seeing the wild versions of colorful birds that I had only seen previously for sale in the pet stores back home. Five weeks into this adventure, and every day is still extraordinary.

Baboon in Samburu Game Reserve

The huge troops of baboons that we see everywhere are a circus of entertainment, with grooming, fighting, sexy time, eating, babysitting, and all manner of other behavior going on within the groups of a hundred or so that move like a storm of activity wherever they go.

Orange-bellied parrot in Samburu Game Reserve

The parrots that fly around the neighborhood back in Culver City aren’t as colorful as this orange-bellied parrot, but they are noisier.

Magic Bus 2.0

Posted from Larsens Camp, Samburu Game Reserve, Kenya at 9:47 pm, August 20th, 2014

List o’ Highlights, since so much happened today:

  • In Tanzania we had a foursome that always saw good things when we drove together, dubbed the Magic Bus. Sadly one of the four is not in Kenya, but three-quarters of the Magic Bus reunited for today’s game drives and recaptured some of the juju, with a great leopard sighting in the morning only one part of our eventful day. Mike and Steph are ridiculously fun to ride with, and Mike’s good eyes ensure that all quadrants are covered for animal sightings.
  • The Magic Bus 2.0 day started with a pre-breakfast game drive. As soon as we exited the lodge a small herd of greater kudu were grazing outside of the gates. They are super-impressive antelope that are actually kind of rare to see, so it was a good omen for the day.
  • The monkeys are everywhere at this lodge, so they’ve actually hired a Samburu warrior (named Kelvin, heck of a nice guy) to hang out at meal times with a (non-lethal) slingshot to scare them away. We still saw one rush in to grab a plate at breakfast, heads were constantly peering down from the roof, and when I walked out of the breakfast area holding a pastry three furry companions seemed to materialize out of thin air and then followed along until the pastry was gone. I will not soon tire of monkeys.
  • Our third and final game drive of the day began with some elephants across the river, including a tiny baby that the guide guessed was two months old. Steph loves seeing animals by the water, and was beside herself when the family began drinking. Then the matriarch of the group decided to lead them across the river and right up to where our vehicle was sitting, passing within feet of us in the process. The baby had trouble climbing the far bank, so right in front of us we watched the entire elephant family pitching in to help it up the incline. Seeing the normally-reserved Steph with tears rolling down her cheeks as this whole drama unfolded was a sight to behold – she was the live-action version of that scene from the Grinch Who Stole Christmas where his heart grows three sizes and breaks the measuring device. At dinner Gail actually started crying just trying to describe how happy Steph looked.
  • Further down the river an elephant had recently died – we counted at least sixteen crocodiles in the immediate vicinity.
  • After leaving the river we spotted a huge variety of animals before a call came in on the radio that the same leopard from the morning was again stirring. We arrived just in time to watch her jump out of a tree and saunter right next to our vehicle – too close even for photographs with the lens that I had on my camera. Sadly more and more vehicles began arriving, creating a sort of paparazzi feel, so as the leopard disappeared and re-appeared in the bushes we asked our guide to move on rather than join in what felt like harassment of a big cat who had provided a great morning AND evening show.
  • The day ended after the final game drive with a group of us standing near the lodge pool at sunset, watching monkeys and recapping our experiences from the day. In the midst of that I saw a flash of white moving behind some trees, but when I looked closer it was the lady who runs the massage room at the lodge. Brenda then said she saw something moving, to which I responded that the massage lady was back there. She gave me a look that would melt ice and politely said “look behind her” – when I looked again the same group of greater kudu from this morning were walking along the lodge’s perimeter fence. Oops.

Days like today have been common recently, but are rare in life, and it was a joy to have this one today. When my time on safari finally comes to an end it will feel strangely empty to pass the hours without elephants and monkeys in them, but I’m hugely glad to have had the good fortune to enjoy all of these tremendous experiences.

Leopard in Samburu Game Reserve

Any day with a leopard is a very, very good day.

Elephants in Samburu Game Reserve

Watching a matriarch lead her family of about ten elephants, including a tiny baby, across a river is magical. Watching a fellow passenger absolutely melt with joy as the event unfolded was even more magical.

Vervet monkey in Samburu Game Reserve

If you think this sweet little face would be incapable of stealing you blind, you would be wrong. If you think having a troop of robbers in camp would not bring great joy to the people staying here, you would also be wrong.

Monkeys on the Tent Porch

Posted from Larsens Camp, Samburu Game Reserve, Kenya at 9:16 pm, August 19th, 2014

At tonight’s “tent” camp we were told to securely zip our tents lest curious monkeys break in – three of them were milling about on the porch when I went out just now; I continue to very much enjoy the odd little requirements of travel in Africa (note: “tent” = luxury cabin with canvas walls and roof).

Today started with a short morning game drive at Lake Nakuru that included a ten foot long python slithering out of a pool to sun itself. We then embarked on a long journey north, but the roads were shockingly good, and a significant portion were actually blacktop, with some even having lane lines. After enduring several hours in the safari vehicle we arrived around 4 PM at Samburu Game Reserve and immediately spotted a number of new species in the arid landscape here. The additions to the species checklist included new varieties of zebra, ostrich and giraffe, as well as the gerenuk, which looks like an impala but has the ability to stand up on its hind legs to browse the high branches on shrubs – I can now check “gazelle that can stand upright” off of my list of things that I never had any clue existed but am hugely glad to have seen.

The lodging is another ridiculously fancy one along a river, although we were warned not to get too close to the water on account of crocodiles, and to be careful in the mornings lest elephants are out and about – it’s easy to arrive at a comfortable lodge and temporarily forget that I’m in Africa, but the constant danger of being eaten or smooshed is an excellent reminder. The monkeys are also everywhere at this camp, so this may be another location where the wildlife around the lodging is competing heavily for attention with what we see on the game drives. Three nights here should provide for some interesting times.

Red-billed hornbill in Samburu Game Reserve

The red-billed hornbills were present in great abundance when we arrived, most of them posing on branches.

Reticulated giraffe in Samburu Game Reserve

Sometimes we get close to the animals.

Gerenuk in Samburu Game Reserve

No one knows who trained the gazelle here to stand on two legs, but tourists arrive in droves to see them do it.

Graceland

Posted from Sarova Lion Hill Game Lodge, Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya at 9:12 pm, August 18th, 2014

Today and tomorrow involve lots of driving and a little bit of wildlife viewing. After a 7 AM departure we left the Masai Mara area and began a long slog over some “roads” that had more in common with riverbeds than land transportation routes. Seeing the Kenyan villages along the way was eye-opening, but just as in Tanzania people seem to be hugely upbeat for the most part.

In the midst of that long overland journey I was thinking about why I take these types of trips – journal readers notwithstanding, they don’t really provide value to anyone else, and it’s a lot of time and money for just a fleeting experience. However, there is something to be said for experiencing true wonder at the world we live in. I’m not a particularly religious guy, but I can still marvel at the miracle of creation and have a huge appreciation for the opportunity to explore even a small part of it. Additionally, as I stated to some fellow passengers at dinner tonight, visiting a place like Africa creates a sense of gratitude for things that, most of the time, the majority of us wouldn’t even notice. Seeing people manually lifting heavy culverts while repairing part of the insanely bad road, or carrying huge stacks of produce miles to market on the back of a bicycle, is a gigantic reminder that the infrastructure and opportunities back home were created for us by generations that came before and put in a lot of difficult work. There isn’t a Home Depot here, gas stations aren’t on every corner, school buses don’t bring kids to the schools that are available, safe drinking water isn’t piped into homes, etc, etc – all of those things are worth stopping to appreciate.

Moving on to the likely-more-interesting news of animal encounters, we arrived at Lake Nakuru National Park in time to do a few hours of game driving, had an up-close encounter with a massive Rothchild’s Giraffe that was a few feet from the vehicle, and spotted the first white rhinos of the trip – the second-largest land mammal walked right in front of our vehicle without giving us a second glance, all the while cameras were clicking away. Birds along the lake and some close-up encounters with baboons finished the day.

White Rhinoceros in Lake Nakuru National Park

If this two-ton fellow had strayed a couple of feet to his left he would have walked right into the front of our vehicle – we’re getting reasonably close to the animals.

Crossings

Posted from Mara Serena Safari Lodge, Masai Mara, Kenya at 10:04 pm, August 17th, 2014

Doug and Gail got their crossing today, and it was a grizzly one for the wildebeest – a herd of at least 3000 animals took their time choosing a spot to cross, and finally picked a spot with steep banks and a few crocodiles in the water. Our vehicle was on the wrong side of the river to see them going down, but the dead animals that floated by us downstream were a testament to how something we take for granted like crossing a river can be a life-and-death endeavor in the animal kingdom.

Aside from the carnage at the river, today was a very pleasant day. Everyone in our van agreed early on that we didn’t want to rush around chasing wildebeest, so we went at a slow pace and watched the herd make their way down to the river, then sat on the banks to observe while other vehicles raced to the bridge to get a good viewpoint on the other side. As the drama unfolded, our driver showed an incredible ability to anticipate exactly what the beasties would do, and accurately predicted their meandering path, including selecting the exact tree that they eventually wandered to along the river bank. The afternoon was a similar slow pace, which allowed time to sit and enjoy the animal behavior at length.

Tomorrow we’re off early (of course) to see parts of Kenya further north, so today is my last day in the Serengeti, at least for a while. It’s a great place, and hopefully I’ll be back again.

Wildebeest stampeding at the Mara River after their original path was blocked by a lion. Yeah, it was awesome. The video is a minute long (and overexposed, oops), but it took probably five minutes for the entire herd to run by us.

Waterbuck in Masai Mara Game Reserve

Waterbuck are apparently only rarely preyed upon by lions or other predators because they taste very, very bad.

Plenty of Yum Yum

Posted from Mara Serena Safari Lodge, Masai Mara, Kenya at 9:10 pm, August 16th, 2014

While watching two crocodiles try to figure out how to eat a dead hippo (side note: how awesome is it that I can start a journal entry with that?!?!) I asked our guide why there weren’t any vultures on the hippo carcass. He answered “probably they don’t find it yet”, then gestured to the surrounding Serengeti and noted “also, there is plenty of yum yum for them”. Point well made, as the vultures here aren’t hurting for selection.

The Cheesemans remain somewhat obsessed with getting everyone a glimpse of the wildebeest herds crossing the Mara River, while the wildebeest remain obsessed with the crocodiles in the river and thus far haven’t obliged Doug & Gail by taking a plunge. Given all the time spent at the river today, other wildlife sightings were limited, although we did get some time with a cheetah and her juvenile cub, and a day with cheetahs is always a good day. Heavy rains at the end of the day caused a cancellation in tonight’s night drive, although that may be a blessing in disguise as exhaustion was setting in, so a bit of extra rest will be much appreciated.

One other random story from safari thus far: typically when a vehicle spots something exciting the driver radios the other four drivers in our group so that anyone nearby can drive over to see it. The drivers speak in Swahili, and often won’t immediately tell us what the radio chatter is about because they don’t want anyone to be disappointed if the animal wanders off. However, at this point we’ve learned a little bit of Swahili so that we can sometimes figure out what is causing the excitement by picking out key words like “simba” (lion), “duma” (cheetah), “chui” (leopard), etc. Yesterday the word “barabara” was being repeated numerous times during a particularly enthusiastic exchange, so after conferring with the other passengers to see if anyone knew what it meant, a lady from Taiwan timidly asked the driver “what is a ‘barabara’”? “Barabara means ‘road’” was the answer from the driver – apparently one of the drivers had radioed for directions.

Wildebeest in Masai Mara Game Reserve

Wildebeest always seem to have somewhere to go.

Two crocodiles eating a dead hippo, for those who have gotten sick of cute baby animal pictures.

Rhinos Have Feelings

Posted from Mara Serena Safari Lodge, Masai Mara, Kenya at 9:48 pm, August 15th, 2014

I’m pretty sure I could go on safari every day for the rest of my life and be very, very happy, provided there was some time for naps on occasion. Getting up before sunrise and standing in the back of an open-top vehicle in the fresh air while driving around beautiful places and looking at amazing numbers of incredible animals is a wonderful way to experience life, even if it is only for a few weeks.

Today was more of the same, although we finally got a good look at a black rhino, which is an animal that may sadly disappear from the wild due to poaching – if you ever see a shop selling medicines made from endangered species, please call the cops and get them shut down, because it’s far too amazing seeing the animals in a functional ecosystem to even tacitly support their destruction (and I’m descending the soapbox… now). We also went chasing up and down the Mara River trying to catch wildebeest crossing, but they outwitted us and we finished the day having seen only dry beasties. For my part I’m just as happy sitting in the midst of the massive herds and don’t really feel the need to see them go swimming, but it’s supposed to be an impressive sight, so I have no complaints about spending some time trying to catch them eluding crocodiles.

The day ended with another night drive, and this one was also great – we saw a lioness stalking zebra, an assortment of mongoose, hyena, and others, and also a serval, which is like an African bobcat. The wildebeest eyes reflected in the searchlight continues to astound me – it really does look like a synchronized parade of thousands of fireflies – and I’ve got one more night drive tomorrow, so we’ll see what else pops out in the African dark.

Zebra in Masai Mara Game Reserve

Having now seen thousands of zebra, it is embarrassing how much trouble I’m having getting a good photo of them, so this one will have to do.

Rainbow agama lizard in Masai Mara Game Reserve

A rainbow agama lizard, which I came all the way to Africa to photograph on the hotel walkway.

Hippopotamus in Masai Mara Game Reserve

“RAWR!” says that hippopotamus.

March of the Wildebeest

Posted from Mara Serena Safari Lodge, Masai Mara, Kenya at 9:52 pm, August 14th, 2014

Our lodging for the night looks like it was taken from the set of the first Star Wars movie, and it has a view over the Serengeti that is most definitely worth the price of admission – all good things.

In wildebeest news, it rained early this year, so the beasties are a bit confused and dispersed more than expected, but there are still a lot of them roaming the plains below – at one point today I saw a single file line of wildebeest that must have stretched for at least five miles, with each animal following the one in front to whatever destination had been selected. The single file thing apparently has evolutionary advantages, but it’s still funny to see several thousand shaggy beasts lined up in perfect order in a queue that extends across the horizon.

The upside of being in constant motion is that the wildebeest always get good grazing; the downside was evident as we crossed the Mara River – dozens and dozens of wildebeest who hadn’t survived the river crossing were floating in the water and being picked apart by hundreds of vultures. Gail indicated that these were just the ones who had drowned, and that many others were in the bellies of the numerous crocodiles we saw. As has happened many times on this trip, I said a silent “thank you” for the fact that humans generally die in bed instead of in the belly of something with large teeth.

Other animal sightings included playful lions cubs at dawn and dusk, a super-tiny baby elephant, and a cheetah charging a herd of wildebeest thrown in for good measure. After returning from the day drives I embarked on my first of three night drives, and got to experience the odd sensation of seeing hundreds of eyes reflected in the spotlight as a herd of wildebeest ran by – it looked like thousands of fireflies moving across the landscape in sync – as well as a lion hunting along the road and dozens of hippos out grazing. More to come.

Marabou stork in Masai Mara Game Reserve

The marabou stork is a member of the “Ugly 5″ (stork, vulture, hyena, warthog, wildebeest), but don’t tell him he’s not beautiful.

Lion and cub in Masai Mara Game Reserve

Ryan’s journal: all lion photos, all the time. Variety may be the spice of life, but baby lions are very, very cute.

Cool Looking Lizards

Posted from Sarova Mara Game Camp, Masai Mara, Kenya at 8:31 pm, August 13th, 2014

We’ve seen so many amazing things on this trip that we might be getting a bit jaded – today, after driving up to some rocks with female lions sleeping on top, Bruce took a look at the inactive cats and lack of good photography light and said “well, there’s a cool looking lizard in front of them”. Life is pretty good when you can see one of the world’s fiercest predators lounging in front of you and be more interested in the tiny reptile at its feet.

Today we got lots of cats – lions and cheetahs – and more huge lines of wildebeests. The park we’re in doesn’t allow off-road driving, so when someone finds something good there is a bit of a paparazzi feel as vehicles come rushing in from all corners to get a look. We had a cheetah that had just killed a small gazelle to ourselves for about a minute before the cavalry came charging over the hill in the morning, but in the afternoon we went to a different corner of the park and managed to get a cheetah completely to ourselves. The next park on the itinerary supposedly allows off-road driving, so it may again be possible to escape the “crowds”.

Aside from the animals, today’s excitement came from driving after last night’s rains – everything was muddy, and the tires didn’t have a ton of tread, so we were slipping and sliding all over. Just before lunch we veered slightly off road to pass someone and there was a crash – our vehicle had broken through an aardvark hole and was stuck. Since being stuck in the bush isn’t exciting enough, our breakdown was right in front of a young male lion. While AAA might be hesitant to service a vehicle with a giant carnivore watching, the guides here had no such qualms and we were extricated fairly quickly.

Lions in Masai Mara Game Reserve

Hopefully people aren’t sick of seeing lion photos in this journal – they are fun to photograph, particularly when the cubs are playful and the light is good.

Lion cub in Masai Mara Game Reserve

“Simba” is Swahili for “lion”. I asked a guide in Tanzania what “Mufasa” meant, and his answer was “it means Disney made up a word”.

Seeing the Things

Posted from Sarova Mara Game Camp, Masai Mara, Kenya at 9:03 pm, August 12th, 2014

Eleven new folks joined us this morning for the safari in Kenya, although most of the day was spent driving from Nairobi to the Masai Mara Game Reserve. We still had time for a four hour game drive in the afternoon, and while afternoon game drives haven’t been as exciting as morning drives, the new folks still got a great variety of animals today, including just about every major mammal that we’ve seen previously except for cheetahs and leopards. Thinking back to my first day on safari nearly two weeks ago, the excitement of seeing a wild giraffe or hippo for the first time is pretty tremendous, and it was fun to hear the stories at dinner.

For the rest of us the exciting thing today was seeing just how many wildebeest are here at the northern end of their migration route. At some points the landscape was filled from horizon to horizon with black dots, while in other places we would see single file lines of the shaggy beasts that stretched for hundreds of animals. Beyond the scale of the scene, watching a few young animals jumping in the air and acting frisky despite the obvious dangers that they face every minute of every day gives the impression that these aren’t unhappy creatures, despite their often unhappy fates. Africa is a hugely awesome place.

Wildebeest in motion in Masai Mara Game Reserve

I’ve burned countless pixels trying to get a wildebeest in motion shot, so now that I’ve finally posted one it is inevitable that I’ll finally get a good image tomorrow morning.

Goodye, Tanzania

Posted from Nairobi, Kenya at 7:49 pm, August 11th, 2014

Goodbye, Tanzania. Hello, Kenya. I’m now in a country where the captain of the track team is voted prom king, while the football captain is the guy who got cut from the cross-country team.

Our last (brief) game drive in Tanzania allowed me to redeem myself for identifying four animals as lions yesterday when they were actually warthogs (in my defense, they were low in the grass and covered in orange mud) by sighting a huge male lion before the guides saw him. The brief time with the animals was followed by a drive back to Arusha and a goodbye to many of the passengers and most of the guides. Seven passengers, and two of our guides then hopped on a bus for the five hour drive to Nairobi, which included a stop at a Wild West border crossing filled with old Masai women shoving trinkets in our faces, truckers camped out for multiple days waiting for vehicle inspections, and vastly more chaos than one would typically associate with national boundaries. So far as I know we made it across without casualties, and a tired and bedraggled group then continued on to the Kenyan capital. After a couple of weeks of driving remote dirt roads, being in massive traffic jams again was hugely stressful, although early tomorrow morning the Kenyan safari vehicles arrive and we’ll be off to quiet, non-smoggy places again.

Tanzania is an impressive place – they’ve protected a third of the country in parks or conservation areas, the people have incredible attitudes despite whatever hardships they might face, and the wildlife and scenery are unbelievable. I’m extraordinarily glad I got to see it, and were I a betting man I’d wager that this won’t be my last visit to this astounding country.

Wildersun guides in Serengeti National Park

Doug and Gail Cheeseman with our ridiculously awesome drivers, each of whom can navigate to an exact location amidst hundreds of miles of unmarked dirt roads after driving for twelve hours straight, single-handedly extract a vehicle stuck in an aardvark hole, identify every bird in Africa just from its call, calm an enraged elephant, and spot a cheetah in the grass from over a mile away.

Impala and oxpecker in Serengeti National Park

This photo will be the cover of my upcoming children’s book “Impala and oxpecker are friends”.

Magic Bus

Posted from Tarangire Sopa Lodge, Tarangire National Park, Tanzania at 9:36 pm, August 10th, 2014

Today was set up to be exceedingly great – we arranged to reunite the Magic Bus, including Safari Stephen driving, our lucky passenger Kitty, as well as the always-fun Mike & Steph. Wake up was at 5:45, breakfast was at 6:00, and then I returned to the room to grab some things before heading out. And when I went to leave, the door wouldn’t open. Turns out that there is no way to open them from the inside once locked, and my roommate didn’t realize I had returned and left with the key. There was no phone in the room that I could use to call reception, but since there was no way I was going to miss an amazing morning I took my seat in the Magic Bus after exiting the room by climbing out of the front window.

Today would have been a horrendous day to miss – the Magic Bus juju was flowing strong. Mid-morning we got a call on the radio and Stephen took off at an astounding speed given the road conditions – another van had spotted a pangolin, which is an exceedingly rare animal to see. It looks sort of like a three foot long dinosaur, with a tiny head and scales all over its long body. Stephen last saw one of the normally-nocturnal animals ten years ago, and for the first time on the trip every one of the Tanzanian drivers who stopped brought a camera and got a photo.

Following the pangolin we headed to a different area of the park, and Stephen spotted a lesser kudu, which looks like a gazelle but with amazingly effective camouflage; Stephen said he last saw one three years ago. Shortly thereafter we found an eagle owl in a tree, and then it got really good. In a tree right next to the road a leopard was sprawled out sleeping in the highest branches. We sat underneath the tree watching her for perhaps ten minutes, at which point she woke up, did a bit of grooming, then clambered down the tree, past us, and off into the bush. Light for photography wasn’t exceptional, but I’ve still got a few photos from the experience that will make me happy for a very, very long time.

The afternoon drive was less exciting – how could it not be? – but did include an elephant snacking on acacia pods in the parking area, making lodge traffic a bit trickier than normal. We’ve got a short, two hour game drive tomorrow, and then it will sadly be time to drive back to Arusha and say goodbye to our friendly, exceptional, beyond-hard-working drivers from Wildersun Safaris as we head off for phase two of the Africa trip in Kenya.

Leopard in Tarangire National Park

Leopard post-nap, about thirty feet up in a tree.

Leopard in Tarangire National Park

Leopard descent.

Leopard in Tarangire National Park

Leopard dismount. It was at this point where I believe the phrase “best day ever” was uttered repeatedly.

Leopard in Tarangire National Park

Leopard exit, stage right.