Ryan's Journal

"My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?" — David Mitchell

Ending with Purring Cheetahs

Posted from London Heathrow International Airport, United Kingdom at 7:55 pm, October 9th, 2014

We were struggling to find a decent activity to fill our last half day in Johannesburg, and finally settled on the Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve, which wouldn’t have made the cut had there been other options, but given the activities available seemed like the best way to pass a few hours before our flight. Adding to the list of borderlinequestionable animal activities that we’ve participated in while visiting South Africa, we ponied up a few extra rand and got five minutes of petting time with two lion cubs (useful advice given by the park staff regarding the lion cubs: “that one is gentle, and this one might bite you”) and an adult cheetah, in the process discovering that cheetahs purr when you pet them. The girl was happy, the cheetah sounded very happy, and based on everything I read the place is actually doing some good in the world so I was happy that we weren’t violating any wildlife ethical standards by passing the time there. In addition to hands-on time with cats, the park contains thousands of acres of open space with animals roaming about happily, and our drive through that area was quite nice.

Now we’re waiting in London Heathrow airport, with one eleven hour flight done and another to go before we get back to Los Angeles. With the trip at its end this will be the last journal entry about our world travels, so here are some statistics on the trip, since I’m an engineer and engineers like statistics:

  • Total trip duration: 87 days.
  • Five countries visited (Turkey, Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Madagascar). Four continents visited (North America, Europe, Asia, Africa).
  • Twenty-two flights.
  • Days spent in countries that drive on the right side of the road: 41. Days spent in countries that drive on the wrong side of the road: 44.
  • Ostriches ridden: 1
  • Number of trip photos currently on my laptop: 3,324.
  • Number of times I barfed while in foreign countries: zero (unprecedented).

It will feel odd to be home again after such a lengthy adventure, although it will also be nice not to be living out of a backpack for the first time since July. Thanks to everyone who read along as Audrey and I roamed the earth – hopefully there will be more adventures to share in the future.

Update: video of Audrey and the purring cheetah. Make sure your volume is up.

Veloma, Madagascar

Posted from Johannesburg, South Africa at 8:58 pm, October 7th, 2014

Air Mad flew on time today, so after a 3AM wakeup our plane was off the ground at 6AM, and, for the first time in a month, I was brushing my teeth with tap water and eating a salad only a few hours later. We visited a mall with more ATMs in it than exist in the entire country of Madagascar, saw a traffic light for the first time in four weeks, and generally marveled at the efficiency with which the first-world operates. Madagascar will be missed, but there are many things that are nice to again experience as we make the long journey home.

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

Rockfig, 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.


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.


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.