Posts Tagged ‘Photography’

Man Tripping No More

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:46 pm, Friday, December 30th, 2016

The 2016 Man Trip finished up yesterday with a morning visit to the Carrizo Plain National Monument, a virtually unknown national monument west of Bakersfield. The park is home to Soda Lake, which is supposedly an internationally-known area for birds, but the last time I visited it was completely dry. This time I left Bakersfield and spent an hour and a half meandering through the hills, oil fields and solar farms of Kern County before arriving at Soda Lake, which despite several recent storms was still bone dry; I think I heard the universe laughing at me.

Despite the dry lake it was still nice to be reminded how nice silence is – the modern world is constantly filled with the sound of cars or appliances or planes, but you don’t realize it until you’re in a place that is just completely still, and I sat at the end of a boardwalk for about an hour just enjoying the peace. Afterwards I wandered a bit more before pointing the car towards home, where I’ll hopefully get some rest and recharge before starting off the 2017 work year.

Sunset at the Kern NWR

Taken during sunset at the Kern NWR.

Man Tripping

Posted from Bakersfield, California at 8:39 pm, Wednesday, December 28th, 2016

I’m pretty sure that the entire San Joaquin Valley reeks of cow manure. Someone really needs to look into it, because it can’t be benefiting tourism to have things smelling poopy.

Woke up at 5:30 this morning, an hour before my alarm, since the universe likes it when you see the sun come up. Merced National Wildlife Refuge was the sunrise destination, and Kern National Wildlife Refuge was the sunset destination, and both were chock full of birds and people shooting at birds (duck stamps help pay for wildlife refuges). Wedged in between those two visits was a giant biscuit at the Black Bear Diner, because it wouldn’t be a man trip without a manly breakfast.

Snow geese in Merced NWR

I zoomed in on the full resolution image, and so far as I can tell not a single one of these snow geese is bumping into his neighbor. Taken in Merced NWR.

Red-tailed hawk in Merced NWR

Red-tailed hawk in Merced NWR.

The Garden Island, Part 1

Posted from Culver City, California at 6:27 pm, Sunday, October 2nd, 2016

Two weeks ago Audrey and the Holliday clan gathered in Kauai for snorkeling, beaches, sunsets, tropical beverages, and a really great waterslide. Here’s part one of the recap:

Day 1

My mom is a night owl, going to bed after midnight, while my dad is a morning person, waking up around 5AM. Thus after flying across the Pacific and arriving in Hawaii, it was no surprise when I entered their timeshare at 10:30 PM Hawaii time (1:30 AM Los Angeles) that my mom met me energetically at the door while everyone else was sleeping. She was clearly disappointed and unsuprised when I declined her offers of dinner and conversation and instead crawled into bed. The next morning at 5AM my dad attempted to sneak out the door, only to have his two sons pounce on him before he could get away, but he didn’t seem too disappointed to be taking his boys along to see the sunrise. When we got to the beach a dark shape was silhouetted against the barely-brightening sky, and it is to my dad’s everlasting shame that he insisted it was a monk seal even after we said it looked like a sea turtle. Several more of the large turtles were resting on the sand further down the beach, making for a pleasant welcome to the island as the sun turned the sky pink while an army of roosters announced their presence to the world.

The day’s other activities included multiple rounds of snorkeling, massive fish burritos from Da Crack, a cat on a surfboard, and drinks at sunset. All in all not a bad way to start the trip.

Day 2

Day two again started with an early wakeup and another trip down to the beach to see the sea turtles. There was more snorkeling, more tropical drinks, etc, but other days had more journal-worthy moments so let’s move on to Day 3.

Day 3

The previous day I had moved from Ma & Pa’s timeshare to the Hyatt next door, picking up Audrey from the airport in the evening, while Aaron and Helen relocated to an Air B&B rental on the north side of the island. Audrey has the amazing ability to defy jet lag, so she was having none of my arguments that getting up at 5AM was the same as getting up at 8AM in Los Angeles, thus I roamed around the hotel grounds at sunrise before dragging her out of bed at 6:30 and heading off to our fancy hotel breakfast buffet next to the koi pond. From there we were off to do some snorkeling, then we meandered our way around the island to see Aaron, stopping to photograph the Autumn mist in Hanalei enroute. With the full Holliday clan present we attempted a bit of snorkeling off of the beach near the beginning of the Napali Coast, but choppy waters had reduced visibility to only about ten feet, and in an underwater landscape filled with lava cracks that looked like they might descend hundreds of feet it was hugely disconcerting to wonder what might be hiding down below. When Aaron called me out for saying that it was an uncomfortable place to swim I told him to follow me out into the murky water – hundreds of feet offshore and notoriously afraid of sharks, the sound he made as we swam over rocky ledges that descended to unseen depths was something between a whining puppy and a bawling child; we turned back fairly quickly.

Day 4

Audrey’s one request prior to starting the trip was that she wanted at least one “lounge day”, knowing that otherwise I’d do my best to ensure that each day would end with us collapsing from exhaustion after non-stop activities. Thus, Tuesday saw us hanging out at the resort pools, where Audrey read a book while I set the Hyatt master’s record for most rides on their water slide in a 24-hour period – all of the five year olds seemed slightly peeved at the bald guy who made their wait in the line a bit longer by going down the slide again and again.

Day 5

Wednesday was our scuba diving day. Sadly, because someone is sued in America every 0.2 seconds, they wouldn’t let my dad join us once he checked one of the “do any of the following apply to you” boxes on the release forms, so Audrey and I were the only family representatives underwater this year. After many scuba trips to Mexico with rental equipment that inevitably leaks Audrey and I have become reasonably good on air, so as the other divers in our group ran out of air and had to surface we ended up getting a lot of underwater time to ourselves. We saw sea turtles, fish, corals, and lava caves, but the highlight of the two dives was a giant moray hiding in a crack in the rock – the thing was so massive that as I was swimming over I first wondered what a seal was doing in the rocks, before realizing we were seeing an eel that would be bigger than most sharks if it chose to come out and play.

The recap for the rest of the trip, including the story of how Poseidon God of the Sea sent a magical wave to assist my dad and I in returning our kayak to shore amidst raging seas, will follow shortly in the next journal entry.

Sea Turtle in Kauai

Monk seal Sea turtle resting on the beach in Kauai.

Nene in Kauai

Nene (rhymes with nay-nay), the state bird of Hawaii.

The Month of Many Travels

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:56 am, Friday, September 9th, 2016

After several months without much excitement, airport security will be seeing me a lot during September and October:

  • 1-September: After the second of two consecutive work trips to San Antonio my plane returned to LAX Thursday night at about 6PM, leaving ample time to do laundry and re-pack for the next flight about 36 hours later.
  • 3-September: I dragged Audrey to LAX in the morning and we departed for a long weekend in Seattle. After landing we grabbed a rental car, checked-in to our shockingly nice hotel, and then I drove us up to Everett to see airplanes at the Boeing factory. Audrey and I usually try to meet each other halfway in our planning, but in this case she knew better than to suggest alternatives when I told her we’d be spending the afternoon with airplanes. Seeing a factory full of giant jets in various stages of assembly had me basically running around screaming “AIRPLANES AIRPLANES AIRPLANES” for a few hours, and whether it was the impressive sight of the massive machines or the less-impressive sight of her dorky boyfriend having a complete geek-out, Audrey seemed OK with the events. Afterwards, since I’m a lot to deal with under normal circumstances and can only imagine what a handful I must be when I become a grown-up three-year-old, I made sure she got a nice seafood dinner on the water as the sun went down over Puget Sound.
  • 4-September: I haven’t been to Mt. Rainier in more than a decade, so we set off to roam around on a 14,000 foot volcano. Mother Nature conspired to keep the mountain mostly hidden behind clouds, but “Paradise” is not mis-named, and the mountain meadows and marmots made for a pleasant journey, even if I did go all environmental nutjob and yell at a couple of foreigners who either couldn’t read or were ignoring the “don’t walk on the fragile meadow flowers” signs. After a full day of walking up and down the steep slopes of the mountain another nice dinner was again called for, this time at our fancy hotel restaurant.
  • 5-September: The long weekend concluded with a day spent roaming around Seattle, including a tour of the “underground city“, created after the 1889 fire when they rebuilt the city by raising street level about ten feet, entombing the first floors of a 30 block area. The day concluded with a trip up the fourth-tallest building in the world (or at least it was, in 1914), with the journey made in a period brass elevator that had see-through walls and a wide-enough gap between elevator and building to put the word “plummet” front-and-center as you stepped inside. The top of the Smith Tower offered great views from an open-air, wraparound deck, and decent drinks at a speakeasy-style bar. When we finally returned to the hotel, dinner consisted of a shared cheeseburger, since not every night needs a fancy meal.
  • 6-September: Audrey got to sleep in before her flight back to LAX, while I set off bright and early for a flight to Spokane. I work remote the majority of the time, so my first visit to the new Commerce Architects office was a chance to finally meet several employees who I’ve worked with on a daily basis for months but wouldn’t recognize if we were sitting next to each other in the same room. Cost of living in Spokane is significantly less than in California, so the Spokane office (located in a historic building) put the old Berkeley digs to shame, while the hotel I stayed in was on par with some of the nicer LA hotels, but about one-third of the price; with three senior partners living in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Spokane, they clearly made a tremendously sensible choice on where to set up shop.
  • 7-September: The rest of the CA partners arrived to begin two days of company meetings, followed by a team outing consisting of a dozen people on a pedal-powered trolley roaming the streets of Spokane and visiting a couple of local bars. Afterwards the five partners gathered for a super-fancy dinner, something that is apparently a tradition for those rare times when they all get together. My previous lifetime best was four courses in a single meal, and over two-and-a-half hours this dinner beat that record by two. I made it back to the hotel stuffed, tipsy, and happy about my recent career choices.
  • 8-September: Day two of meetings included a team lunch and plenty of administrivia, after which it was time to depart for a 6PM flight back to LA via Seattle.

One week in, September is off to a roaring start. My flight back from Spokane landed at 11PM, I’ll work a nearly-full day today, then after a glorious eighteen hours home it’s back to the airport for the next phase of the month’s adventures. There’s just enough time to do laundry and pack – life has gone from slow to fast, and it should make for a fun month.

Marmot on Mt. Rainier

Marmot demonstrating “extreme napping position” on Mt. Rainier.

What happens in July stays in July

Posted from Culver City, California at 7:10 pm, Sunday, July 31st, 2016

July 2016 hasn’t had a ton of excitement in it, so here’s a look back at this month in years past.

  • July 2015 – This time last year the New Horizons spacecraft was zooming by Pluto, sending back some mind-boggling photos of the farthest object humans have visited in our solar system.
  • July 2014 – In 2014 I spent the first half of July roaming around Turkey, and by the end of the month was starting on a two week safari in Tanzania. 2014 alone provided enough great July memories to ensure that I will never be able to complain about any slow years.
  • July 2008 – I dragged the Skipper halfway around the world on a trip to Iceland to see puffins and glaciers and geysers. How Iceland isn’t a more popular destination for nature travelers is a mystery – I’d go back in a second.
  • July 2002 – The month this journal was born was the month that the Great Alaskan adventure kicked off. It’s rare that you have an experience that you know will change your life, and I was insanely lucky to get to spend a full three months on a journey with full awareness that it would become a defining moment in life.

African elephants at Ndutu

July 2014. Elephants are one of many reasons why the world is awesome.

Puffin

July 2008. Puffins are proof that God has a sense of humor.

Valley of Death

Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 6:21 pm, Monday, March 21st, 2016

Death Valley received unusually heavy rains this year, resulting in the first “superbloom” of wildflowers since 2005, so of course I wanted to go to there. After plans with Aaron and my dad fell through I concocted a scheme whereby I would drive to Las Vegas on a Thursday night, work from Vegas on Friday, and have Audrey fly in so that we could drive to Death Valley early Saturday. With this genius plan in place I made the long slog through LA traffic to Vegas, and then spent Friday working from a fancy room at the Palazzo Hotel that had a mostly-great view, with the exception of giant gold letters spelling out “Trump” staring back from the high-rise on the opposite side of the Strip.

Audrey arrived mid-afternoon, and after dinner and a search for the dumbest slot machines we could find (the “Reel ’em In!” fishing game won that contest) we went to bed relatively early, woken only by the sounds of what was either a troop of crazed chimpanzees or else a drunken frat party in the room next door; they departed at 11PM, but returned at 3AM to ensure that we wouldn’t have to worry about getting too much sleep.

I was randomly in Death Valley at the height of the 2005 superbloom, and while this year’s event wasn’t quite as impressive, it was still pretty neat to see the most inhospitable desert in North America completely covered in flowers. After a morning spent enjoying the yellow rock formations at Zabriskie Point and photographing flowers in the valley I took Audrey for a hike through Mosaic Canyon, a tiny slot canyon that affords the opportunity to scramble over boulders and up slickrock. Luckily she remained on speaking terms with me even after we encountered rocks that caused other hikers to turn around, and she came away with some photos that convinced me I need to learn more about the HDR settings on my camera.

Death Valley Wildflowers

The heavy overcast made the scene less vibrant than it might otherwise have been, but the flowers were still shockingly colorful for being in the hottest, driest place in North America.

Death Valley Wildflowers

Bad day for anyone who thinks flowers suck, good day for the rest of us.

Donkeys on the Road

Posted from Bonaire at 10:22 pm, Tuesday, January 26th, 2016

Being able to walk into the ocean from the shore with a scuba tank, and then being able to see underwater life that exceeds any aquarium, and being able to do so whenever you feel like it, is a ridiculously excellent way to dive. The morning dive was off of the hotel beach, and the afternoon dive was at the loading pier for the Cargill Salt Works. Everything from eels to stone fish to sea turtles to barracuda to groupers made appearances, along with the ten gazillion other fish that are out here.

I also pulled the big camera out of the bag and grabbed a few shots of the local iguanas that come begging at the hotel during mealtimes, then made Audrey drive me around looking for flamingos as the sun was going down. I stood near a lagoon waiting for one of the birds to pull his head out from underwater while she made friends with some of the island’s donkeys. Then we came home and ate seafood and chocolate, ’cause that’s how we roll.

Virgin Gorda Sunset

Sunset last Saturday on Virgin Gorda. This was the view from our room, because I apparently earned a massive number of karma points in a past life.

Iguana

Iguana begging on the hotel deck. There are three that hang around our place, along with an assorted variety of other lizards and hermit crabs.

Flamingo

Flamingo. A shockingly difficult bird to photograph, even when they’re standing with their head underwater just twenty feet away.

This time last year…

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:04 pm, Wednesday, September 30th, 2015

It seems like longer than fourteen months since the days were filled with colorful kingfishers and tiny deer.

Grey-headed kingfisher at Lake Manyara

Grey-headed kingfisher at Lake Manyara in Tanzania.

Klipspringer in Serengeti National Park

Greater kudu in Samburu Game Reserve

Not Political

Posted from 35,000 feet over Texas at 10:48 pm, Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

Despite the higher-than-normal number of recent journal entries on political topics, there’s still a bunch of political stuff that I’d like to think through further via a journal entry – the ongoing drama surrounding the Keystone XL pipeline, the controversy over the hunting death of Cecil the Lion, the Iran nuclear deal, etc. But too much politics gets old fast, so here’s an entry about groceries and Tanzania instead.

Exactly one year ago today on July 28, 2014 I was travelling from Istanbul to Tanzania on a plane that turned out to be too broken to fly. This flight occurred after two amazing weeks exploring Turkey and with two-and-a-half months remaining in what may be the most epic trip I ever take in my life. I woke up the following morning with a view of Mount Kilimanjaro, spent the next four weeks on safari, then roamed South Africa for two weeks before Audrey and I embarked on a four-week odyssey in Madagascar. In what seems to be some sort of time displacement that gets more pronounced as I get older, that trip feels like it took place an incredibly long time ago, but simultaneously it somehow doesn’t seem like a lot of time has passed since it ended.

Today I’m writing this journal entry from a plane on a comparatively much less exciting trip to San Antonio for work. HEB made the prudent choice of selecting Commerce Architects to take care of their web site in the coming months, so I’ll be visiting Texas on a regular basis and working with a small team to turn their site into a streamlined grocery-dispensing beast. While photographing lemurs would be more exciting, selling groceries online is a surprisingly interesting application given all the constraints around what can be shipped, what needs to be picked up from the store, differing inventories across hundreds of stores and warehouses, etc, so it should be a fun technical challenge. I’m not one of those people who would gush about loving his job – I’d rather be on an extended road trip – but especially when things are going smoothly I enjoy the constant problem-solving, and it’s extremely rewarding when the solution to those problems ends up being particularly elegant or clever. The flip side of that “rewarding” aspect is that Audrey often discovers me spending an inordinate amount of time pacing around the living room when the elegant solutions prove to be elusive, often resulting in long periods of frustration followed by concentrated bursts of inspiration, but if that wasn’t the case they probably wouldn’t call it “work”.

Life continues to move along in positive directions, and I continue to be grateful for the abundance of good fortune I’ve experienced thus far.

Cappadocia sunrise

Cappadocia sunrise from last July. Life lesson: when you are taking time to enjoy the sunrise on a regular basis, things are usually going pretty good.

The Day of Five Caves

Posted from Shasta National Forest, California at 8:17 pm, Sunday, May 10th, 2015

Lava Beds National Monument is a pretty cool spot. By 1PM I’d explored five of the park’s caves, all of them very different. Golden Dome Cave had me on my belly at one point pushing between rocks, Sentinel Cave was an easy 1000 meter underground stroll, Skull Cave was a short yet ENORMOUS cavern, with a lava tube passage large enough to fit an airplane. Valentine Cave and Sunshine Cave offered a bit of everything, with some scrambling and some easy bits. I lucked out and had every cave almost completely to myself – being in absolute darkness with only the sounds of dripping water is a stupendous environment for sitting and thinking.

Following the below-ground explorations I did a bit of above-ground exploration, then returned to the Tule Lake Wildlife Refuge before moving on. Now I’m parked in the forest under Mount Shasta as thunderstorms intermittently pass by. So far this has been a much-needed break from life in the city.

Sunshine Cave in Lava Beds National Monument

Sunshine Cave in Lava Beds National Monument.

Western Grebe in Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Western Grebe in Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

All the Caves

Posted from Lava Beds National Monument, California at 8:59 pm, Saturday, May 9th, 2015

I only saw one other car this morning as I was roaming around the antelope refuge, and that sort of set the tone for the day – for the most part, today was a day of little-used roads, the sort where if you see another vehicle then the drivers wave at one another. After roaming the dusty dirt roads of the antelope refuge I headed back towards California via some apparently little-used state roads. Once back in the state where pumping your own gas is legal I headed towards Goose Lake, which is a spot on the map that has always intrigued me. It’s as big as Tahoe on the map, but you never hear about it. And when I arrived, I found out why – it’s not there; a dry lakebed and plumes of dust filled the spot where a ginormous lake was supposed to be. A missing lake seems like reason #5,346 why the world needs to figure out the whole fresh water supply thing.

After the non-lake I made a brief trip through the Modoc National Wildlife Refuge, then it was on to the surprisingly awesome Lava Beds National Monument, and the neighboring Tule Lake Wildlife Refuge. I won’t do a species list since that would be boring, but the summary report is that the snake I saw today most likely was of the poisonous variety, and apparently California is home to pheasants, something I never realized despite living here for 17 years. The other attraction of this park is that it is lousy with caves, and with one half-mile long lava tube explored today, the plan for tomorrow is to see what some of the others are like.

Also, since it’s a neat thing, as I started writing this entry I could see the silhouettes of two deer next to my car, licking ash from the campground firepit; sharing a campsite with deer is not an experience I tend to have while working.

Yellow-headed blackbird in the Tule Wildlife Refuge

From the same people who brought you the ever-so-creatively-named “red-winged blackbird”, this is the “yellow-headed blackbird”.

Where the Deer and the Antelope Play

Posted from Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon at 7:52 pm, Friday, May 8th, 2015

I’ve got a couple of weeks between projects, so I put the Subaru in drive mode and went up to San Francisco to take the folks out for a nice meal, visit with Audrey, and then I took off with no particular destination in mind.

Day one took me through Feather Canyon, which is the lowest elevation pass through the Sierras, and a place I’d never visited before. A bald eagle flew by to say hello, which was nice, and a deer burst out of the bushes next to the road and tapped my front bumper, which was less nice, although she bounced back up and ran into the woods so hopefully all was well. From there I passed through Lassen Volcanic National Park, although even in the midst of a drought almost everything but the main road was still closed by snow. On a less nature-y stop I went to Starbucks in the evening and was entertained by a stoner who kept standing up in his seat every few minutes to yell out “I feel His power, man! Glory to Him!” The night was spent sleeping soundly in the back of the Subaru in a national forest campground near Lake Shasta.

The behemoth volcano Mount Shasta towered 14,162 feet overhead the next morning, and an equally large biscuit greeted me at the original Black Bear Diner, which I stumbled on while meandering through the area. Post-breakfast I was in Oregon, a state known for its fear of allowing people without proper training to pump their own gasoline. I made it up to Oregon Caves National Monument, but decided against descending into a subterranean cavern for 90 minutes when a carload of six screaming kids pulled into the parking lot behind me, each of them making their best effort to ensure that I fully appreciated how peaceful it had been prior to their arrival. After a nice hike through the forest I took the next available tour, this one mercifully with just two very well-behaved kids on it, and spent the next hour-and-a-half scrambling around underground on the rocks. After another aboveground hike I was leaving the park when one of the park’s employees flagged me down, and I ended up giving a short ride to a girl who offered to let me know what plans the universe had for me according to her astrology book. I politely declined, dropped her off at the employee housing, and spent the night camped next to a stream down some random logging road.

Today I stopped in Klamath Falls where another bald eagle was hanging out, and then made my way east to the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge – I saw it on the map and figured anything in the middle of nowhere and full of antelope must be worth a visit. I did some hiking, hung out with deer, pronghorn, sandhill cranes, hawks, vultures, snakes, and myriad other critters, and now I’m parked for the evening in a quiet corner of the refuge with no one around and a herd of deer staring at me from a hundred yards away as I type, they munch, and the sun sets. It’s a far cry from sitting in my kitchen working in front of a computer, and a much-needed chance to make sure life is going the way it should be and figure out what course corrections that might be needed.

Gopher snake in Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge

The logical voice in my brain said “I’m 99% sure that this is not a poisonous snake and I should move him off the road so that he doesn’t get hit”. Hopefully the snake eventually got out of the road on its own, ’cause that 1% worth of doubt won the argument.

I bless the rains down in Africa

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:58 pm, Thursday, April 30th, 2015

Since it’s the end of the month and I’m one entry short of the three entry goal, here are two more pictures taken during last year’s World Tour, this time from Tanzania.

Little bee-eaters in Serengeti National Park

Little bee-eaters in Serengeti National Park.

Zebra in Ngorongoro Crater

Photographs and Memories

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:34 pm, Thursday, February 26th, 2015

Exactly six months ago I was just over halfway through the world tour and spending my third day in Kruger National Park, and that is as good of an excuse as any to post some pictures from the trip that didn’t previously make it into the journal.

Gerenuk in Samburu Game Reserve

One of many animals that I previously never even suspected existed on this earth, the gerenuk likes to eat standing up. Taken in Samburu Game Reserve, Kenya on 20-August-2014.

White rhinoceros in Timbavati Game Reserve

Red-billed oxpecker. Taken in the Timbavati Game Reserve, South Africa on 28-August-2014.

Rockfig, Jr. in Timbavati Game Reserve

Best leopard in the world, Rockfig, Jr. Taken in the Timbavati Game Reserve, South Africa, on 29-August-2014.

Cape weaver in Oudtshoorn

Nature’s Christmas tree, brought to you by the cape weaver. Taken in Oudtshoorn, South Africa on 6-September-2014.

Coquerel's sifaka in Anjajavy

Coquerel’s sifaka enjoying tea time. Taken at Anjajavy, Madagascar on 13-September-2014.

The World Tour Revisited

Posted from Redwood City, California at 5:56 pm, Monday, November 24th, 2014

Nearly six weeks after returning home, here’s one last post about the world tour via four photos that didn’t originally make it into the journal but are good enough that my brain smiles when I see them.

Zebra in the Masai Mara Reserve

The zebra either ran away (rare) or ignored us (common). Getting two of them to both stay close to the vehicle and also look at us was an unusual occurrence.

Elephant in the Samburu Game Reserve

Elephant in the Samburu Game Reserve. I miss hanging out with elephants.

Sacred Ibis in Montagu

Sacred ibis in Montagu. If you thought this photo was taken from the sidewalk next to a four-way intersection, you would be correct.

Rice fields along RN7 in Madagascar

Rice fields along RN7 in Madagascar. Audrey wins the prize for best landscape photographer of the trip, and actually got a nicer photo of this scene than I did, but I get to claim credit for asking the driver to stop the car as the sun was going down so that we could hop out and take a photo.

Fantasy Island Revisited

Posted from Nosy Tsarabanjina, Madagascar at 9:00 pm, Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

We booked two fancy resorts on this trip. The first one we booked for its wildlife, and Audrey dubbed it Fantasy Island. The second one we booked for the scuba diving opportunities, and this one is actually on a private island and is just as deserving of the “Fantasy Island” moniker. Nosy Tsarabanjina is a tiny little island 40 kilometers from Nosy Be with white sand beaches and jagged volcanic/coral coastlines. I walked around the entire island in about two hours, but it’s small enough that had the path been easier, and had I not been stopping at every tide pool to gawk at mudskippers, the trek probably would have taken less than thirty minutes.

The plan had been to do some scuba diving while here, but while catching the boat to the island we met the (apparently only) divemaster returning to Nosy Be, so tomorrow we might get a night dive if he’s back, but we should hopefully get two dives in the following day. In the interim, snorkeling, birdwatching, and generally lounging around a tropical island will have to be sufficient – our lives continue to not be bad in any way.

Madagascar fish eagle in Nosy Tsarabanjina

The Madagascar fish eagle is the rarest bird of prey in Africa, with around two hundred breeding pairs left in the wild.

Two Entries in One

Posted from Nosy Be, Madagascar at 4:57 pm, Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

This entry will have to cover two days – I was built for cold, not sun, and way too much of the latter during our multiple hours of snorkeling at Nosy Tenikely led to me stumbling into bed last night around six o’clock. All systems have not yet returned to full operational mode, but on a positive note I should be shedding several unneeded layers of skin soon.

Yesterday’s big adventure was a visit to the lemur-jumping-on-you village on Nosy Komba. The villagers who guide the trip feed the lemurs bananas, so it’s a bit wrong in the “don’t feed the wildlife” sense of things, but at the same time the territory for these lemurs would be adjacent to the village anyhow, so it felt more like feeding the ducks back home than feeding completely wild animals. The end result was a lack of guilt when the guide yelled “maki maki maki” and a troop of the hairy beasts came scurrying down from the trees, jumped on Audrey and me, and began chowing down on the bananas we had on offer. Right or wrong, it’s a very, very cool experience when a lemur wraps its long fingers around your hand and has lunch inches from your head.

Following the lemur extravaganza, the effects of the previous day’s sun exposure were beginning to become evident, so we headed back to our lodge, I rallied for another brief snorkel trip, and was then mostly operating from another planet while we packed up our things, handed a brick of 10,000 Ariary notes to our hosts (10,000 Ariary = $4, and the lodge was cash only), then took the boat back to the strangely-named harbor town of Hell-ville before hopping in a taxi to the Vanilla resort on the northwest coast of Nosy Be. If anything else happened during that time I don’t recall – the next thing I remember is waking up at 2AM and thinking that I should have set an alarm.

Today we got our first scuba trip in the Indian Ocean. The guide had warned us that visibility was poor, but apparently “poor” visibility here means “normal” visibility anywhere else in the world, so both dives were good ones. The variety of corals here is ridiculous, the fish didn’t seem to be very afraid of GoPros, and the depth was shallow enough that being completely out of practice for diving still allowed for two dives that were each longer than an hour. Following our morning dive I apparently slept for another two hours, although I’ve decided that today is the last day allowed for sun lethargy, and that tomorrow all systems will be fully operational no matter what.

Black lemur in Nosy Komba

It’s still a wild lemur, even if it does race down from the trees when the villagers (and accompanying tourists) show up with bananas.

Audrey and black lemur in Nosy Komba

Both the girl and the lemur had much happiness.

Lemurs at Breakfast

Posted from Fort Dauphin, Madagascar at 8:44 pm, Friday, 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, Thursday, 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.

Starry Night

Posted from Ifaty, Madagascar at 10:21 pm, Monday, 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 Guide was Tired

Posted from Isalo National Park, Madagascar at 6:52 pm, Saturday, 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, Friday, 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, Thursday, 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, Wednesday, 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, Tuesday, 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.