After two postings about heavy metal bands and Donald Trump, the journal is overdue for some nature. The video below is all about the whale-like song of the lemurs, so turn on the volume before playing it and ignore the picture – it’s just Audrey, our guide and me walking through the forest. The sound of the indri lemurs is unlike anything else and still gives me chills when I listen to it, remembering what it was like to be roaming the forest with families of lemurs calling out all around us. Recorded September 2014 in Andasibe National Park
I’m not so much with the words when it comes to describing the beautiful underwater environment here, so I’ve done my best to condense down an unwieldy amount of video into something that is hopefully borderline watchable. We saw a lot of cool things under the sea this past week. Part of what made things even more amazing on this trip is that on five of our seven dives we were on our own and got to find things without the aid of a divemaster, and without having to share them with a big dive group, so each moment with a fish or turtle was just for us and lasted as long as we wanted to hang out and the animals were willing to have us there. Bonaire will be high on the list of places to return to for future trips.
After not diving since October 2014 I jumped out of the boat today only to come swimming back to shamefully admit that I’d forgotten to put on a weight belt. Adding insult to injury, the guy on the boat reported that the BCD had pockets for weight and that I was wearing 14 pounds. They still let me dive, but I’m pretty certain they did so with the assumption that I was brain damaged.
The dive sites were shallow so running out of air wasn’t a concern, thus both dives ended when the divemaster got cold. Scuba diving is always a nice way to relax, and the soft corals pulsing in the current just made it moreso. After diving I also wanted to do some snorkeling at the nearby Coki Beach, but when I got off the boat the beach was a total zoo – apparently a cruise ship had just landed and dumped the equivalent of a mid-sized American city onto the narrow sand. I fled, but returned a few hours later to a spot where they sell “fish biscuits”, so upon entering the water you are swarmed by schools of begging reef fish. Sadly I didn’t realize that the GoPro battery was dead, so while I got a short video of some rays, the hungry reef fish and two cuttlefish sightings will have to go undocumented.
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 borderline–questionable 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.
I did my first-ever night dive last night – the clown fish from the daylight dives were replaced by lobsters and a basketball-sized crab walking around with a sponge on his back (apparently wearing sponges is a thing), but for the most part it was much like a daytime dive except with different animals and less light. The divemaster was a bit of an unusual case – sort of a control freak, which to a small extent is a good thing in a divemaster, but this perhaps carried too far: he insisted on having our BCDs buckled for us, was explicit that we not put on equipment until he gave the OK for each item, required I wear a dive computer in case we got separated from the group despite the fact that our dive was only to a depth of eight meters, etc. Perhaps had we already done one hundred dives things might have been different, but with credit only for thirty dives we earned the kindergarten treatment.
Today we did two more dives, this time at two of the four “Brothers”, which are pinnacles that rise out of the sea about fifteen minutes from Nosy Tsarabanjina. The ride out to them was beautiful, with crystal blue water and birds flying through the sky. On the first dive I was using a different wet suit from the night dive, thus changing my buoyancy, and when the divemaster told everyone to descend I deflated my BCD… and nothing happened. I tried everything that had been taught during certification – pressing my BCD to force out any remaining air, exhaling, rolling in the water to remove any air pockets on my back – but nothing worked. The divemaster was disappearing into the depths, so I started swimming towards the boat to get more weight, at which point the divemaster finally noticed me and angrily gestured for me to descend. Not knowing the hand signal for “not enough weight”, and not wanting to use the hand signal that jumped immediately to mind, I held up my dump valve to indicate that I was empty on air, at which point he surfaced and yelled at me for swimming in the wrong direction. He called the boat and more weight was procured, after which he again scolded me, told me to kick to the wall, and I finally descended short of breath and using up too much of my precious tank of air. I pride myself on being able to keep a fairly even temper, but had a cartoonist drawn the moment there likely would have been a tiny storm cloud over my head and wavy black lines next to my temples. The end result was that the first dive seemed nice, but the voices muttering in the brain prevented enjoying the experience properly.
After finishing the dive, returning to our island for a surface interval and new tanks, and then departing again for the second dive I spotted a small whale just offshore and only a short distance from our boat, and any bad feelings somehow instantly departed – seeing an animal that big in the water at a reasonably short distance is a wonderful way to cure cartoon storm clouds. The second dive was tremendous – we swam through schools of thousands of small yellow fish, a sea turtle wandered up to me to exchange pleasantries, birds were nesting on the cliff walls, colorful sponges and corals filled the seascape, and all was again well with the world.
Tomorrow we have to depart Fantasy Island late in the morning, and sadly from that point onwards we’ll mostly be in transit. It’s tough to believe that a three month odyssey spanning five countries could ever come to an end, but all good things have their conclusion, and the beginning of the end is (unbelievably) approaching.
Imagine swimming in a gigantic fish tank owned by an eccentric billionaire whose sole passion in life was tropical fish and coral. In such a scenario there would be every type of fish imaginable, a huge variety of corals, and a weird little sea cucumber, urchin, or other oddity under every rock. Now, instead of a giant fish tank, imagine that setting can be found in the actual ocean, and you can get a sense of what our day was like yesterday. The waters around Nosy Tanikely feel more like something that is too perfect to be natural, with warm temperatures, sea turtles, somewhere around ten gazillion fish, and all sorts of other stuff that keeps you in the water long enough to turn a bright shade of red, despite multiple coats of sunscreen. Judged by any metric other than UV exposure, yesterday was a very, very good day.
In addition to its amazing waters, the land portion of Nosy Tanikely is home to a small group of introduced brown lemurs that came running down from the trees when the guide called them and held out some fruit. There are giant fruit bats, white sandy beaches, and just about everything that one would include if creating the perfect tropical island. We even got a gourmet lunch on the sand at noon – the locals apparently sail out and cook up kabobs and fish and rice and salad each day, and then build makeshift tables in the sand where lunch is served to sunburned tourists. It was a far cry from the mud and rough terrain of Mantadia National Park, and showed yet another side of this incredible country.
This morning we’re off to get Audrey her last chance for lemur hugging in the morning, and after that we sadly have to move on from this incredible lodge to our next stop on the main island of Nosy Be. Nosy Komba will be missed.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After a bird-themed Christmas, waffles, a game involving trains (a recurring activity this holiday season, apparently), and hiking in the mud with Aaron I took leave of Ma & Pa’s house and returned to the road. Today’s stop was at the Cosumnes River Preserve, home to (literally) tens of thousands of geese and numerous other feathered critters. Having flocks of thousands of geese and the occasional sandhill crane passing overhead as the sun set was not a bad way to finish the day.
After a full day spent kayaking in the Hawaii sun, Aaron and I were both asleep within sixty seconds of hitting the beds once we got back to our hotel room last night, hence the lack of a journal entry. The Napali Coast kayak was pretty epic – it started at 5:45 AM at the kayak shop with everyone but the guides still half asleep. The guy driving the van (nicknamed the “Hawaiian Sasquatch”, because that’s exactly what he looked like) was jamming to reggae on the drive up and at one point failed to notice a lane shift, and after jerking out of the way of oncoming traffic the guide riding in the passenger seat nonchalantly commented “Yeah ‘squatch, they moved that lane”.
Within two minutes of setting out in the kayaks we were in the midst of dolphins, and had a second pod doing 720° corkscrews out of the water about an hour later. The seventeen mile kayak led along the base of three thousand foot cliffs, occasionally broken up by ridiculously awesome sea caves (see video below). One of the caves ended in a huge shaft that was open to the sky, creating the opportunity for a quick snorkel in water that was crystal clear for at least sixty feet down to the bottom.
Other highlights included kayak surfing whenever we could manage to catch a wave properly, one of the guides breaking out the “sail-brella” and coasting past us without use of paddle, the many light showers and high clouds that kept temperatures comfortable, a few monk seals, and many tropic birds, sooty terns, boobies, and frigate birds. Surprisingly the seventeen mile slog wasn’t deathly exhausting, and while I’m not excited about possibly having to use my upper body in any way today, aside from some soreness and a bright red zebra pattern sunburn (spray-on suncreen: bad idea) neither Aaron nor I are that much worse for wear.
The new house has proven to be a bit of an animal kingdom:
- The two bird feeders are bringing in flocks of finches, sparrows, and doves, as well a variety of less-frequent visitors. It can be loud.
- Proving the bird feeders support multiple levels of the food chain, a young sharp-shinned hawk has made the backyard his play area, and hangs out to terrorize the smaller birds on occasion. His attention isn’t only directed at birds: while I was doing some yard work he also took a shot at my head, apparently to ensure that I didn’t feel excluded.
- There’s a crow who visits occasionally and has shown an irrational fear of salami.
- The mammal situation consists of some wrestling baby squirrels, some very un-subtle neighborhood cats, and a family of tree-climbing rats that have made the area under the feeders their late night dining area.
It’s unclear what the future holds for the wildlife oasis that is our backyard, although some sort of water supply and potentially an owl house may be needed additions.
Here are my two favorite videos from Sunday’s adventure:
Here’s how this went down: 6:00 AM the alarm goes off, and Ryan is out on a run. It’s hot and humid, the legs feel like lead ballast, and the army guy at the waterfront gives me a dirty look; this won’t be a day that is remembered for exercise. 7:15 AM Audrey and I arrive at the docks, have a quick breakfast, and then we’re off on a boat with six other passengers and two Mexican crew. At 9:30 AM we’re about twenty miles from Isla Mujeres watching sea turtles do it; this wasn’t a planned part of the itinerary, but sometimes the universe puts two horny sea turtles in the water in front of you and you just say thanks and go along with it. For the next two hours we’re racing around looking for giant fish, and having no success. And after that, the real fun begins.
Two other boats had found a smallish whale shark (thirty feet!) and our boat joined the rotation, putting two people in the water with it as soon as the other boats had a turn, with each group getting about two-three minutes with the shark. Audrey and I were the third group on our boat to go in, and we hit the water, got temporarily disoriented in the open ocean, then looked down to see a submarine of a fish swimming under us. The obvious but unmistakeable first impression is that whale sharks are big. We swam along on the surface about six feet above the shark, apparently alarming it no more than any of the dozens of other fish that were following it, and while my watch showed that we were in the water for two minutes the first time, it seemed a lot longer. Over the course of almost two hours we got three turns with the shark, and while more time would have obviously been great, those six total minutes will undoubtedly be some of the most memorable 360 seconds of our lives.
Life has treated me very well, and while I don’t know what it is that I’ve done to deserve it, I’m extraordinarily grateful that things have worked out as they did. More adventures await over the coming days.