Archive for May, 2008

Mad About Madagascar

Tuesday, May 20th, 2008

Madagascar by Gibson 563 If someday you find yourself way off the beaten path, then manage to take a few wrong turns and get even more lost, you may well end up in Madagascar. The world’s fourth largest island, Madagascar lies off the east coast of Africa. It’s a country that seems at least fifty years behind the times, with an unusual blend of French and African cultures. This destination isn’t for everyone, but we had a fabulous time here, focused on finding some of the world’s most exotic wildlife, including the chameleon above photographed by Gibson.

Madagascar 377 The smartest thing we did in arranging our trip here was to coordinate our visit with Chris Raxworthy, Chris has spent over twenty years exploring Madagascar while holding down prestigious appointments elsewhere. Since the year 2000, he’s had a very senior position at the American Museum of Natural History, focusing on herpetological (reptiles and amphibians) research and education. Having the world’s foremost expert on the wildlife of Madagascar was an incredible opportunity for us to immerse ourselves in this country’s astounding fauna and flora.

Madagascar 525 We spent time in two different locations in Madagascar — the Masoala Peninsula and Nosy Mangabe in the rainforest of the northeast, and Perinet Reserve in the southeast. The first thing you have to get used to here are long names — really long names. The cities and towns have names like Manjakandriana and Antananarivo. Also, the two primary languages spoken here are French and Malagasy. The country claims to have a population of 16 million, although its capital has just a million, and almost all the regions we passed through seemed sparsely populated.

Madagascar 105 The country seems to have almost no tourism industry, and little else in the way of industry or development. The country’s President also is CEO of the country’s largest company, a company that has been expanding rapidly through a series of acquisitions. The hotels we stayed in were extremely basic. Forget about internet access — even electricity and hot water can be hard to come by. The roads here were surprisingly good, but in many ways the Madagascar infrastructure seems to be moving backward over time, as the airport for one of our destinations reflects.

Madagascar 223 Our typical day in Madagascar was a) breakfast, b) morning hike, c) painfully prolonged lunch, d) some homework, e) late afternoon hike, f) painfully prolonged dinner with even worse service than lunch, and g) a night hike (generally in the driving rain :-( ). During our hikes, we played a collective game of “Wildlife Where’s Waldo?.” We’d scrutinize trees and thickets, looking for chameleons, snakes, geckos, frogs, birds, and lemurs. Their sizes range from small to tiny, and their camouflaging is generally excellent. Largely with the help of Chris Raxworthy, we saw over forty reptiles and amphibians during our week here, many so spectacular and bizarre that the pictures seem hard to believe.

Madagascar 053 My personal favorite from the trip were the chameleons. They ranged from good-sized to tiny. In the wild,we saw the Parson’s Chameleon, the Horned Leaf Chameleon, the Short-horned Chameleon, the Nose-horned Chameleon, and the Panther Chameleon. These lizards are very smart, extremely hard to find in the wild (at least for me!), and endlessly entertaining. They will walk all over you, jump great distances, and snap their tongues over two times the length of bodies to catch an insect.

Madagascar by Gibson 421 As hard as chameleons are to find, the “Where’s Waldo?” game would escalate with the Leaf-tailed Gecko. When we saw our first one in the wild, I could easily have spent five years looking at the tree without figuring out the location of the gecko. See if you do better in the picture on the left!?!? [Hint: the gecko stretches for most of the bottom half of the light-colored tree trunk on the right. At night, in the dark, even with a flashlight, you can't tell it's there unless you have a sixth sense for these things!!]

Madagascar by Gibson 045 We saw a bunch of different frog species here, ranging from tiny to fair-sized. Many were just so amazing in color patterns. We were fortunate to catch this Tomato Frog (see right), and its coloring left little doubt as to the origin of its name. And we saw some really astounding tiny frogs as well.

Madagascar 462 Among the herps we saw, the kids’ favorites were the snakes. We saw three different snake species in the wild, even though we were visiting Madagascar in early winter (a poor time for snake-hunting). The big favorite was the Tree Boa (left), which is even more impressive in person than in the photo. This snake is quite young and will get three times this size as it matures. I should add, though, that the snakes were not quite as big a hit with Elizabeth, who kept them at a safe distance.

Madagascar 260 Madagascar is famous for its lemurs (small primates), and we saw several species in the wild. These animals are fabulous acrobats, and often would jump distances of thirty feet or more in going from one tree to the next. They are just adorably cute, and a real highlight of our wildlife viewing here.

Madagascar 194 A wildlife surprise for us was the level of bird activity here. Birds weren’t our focus, and we weren’t really here at peak bird season. But we all expected to see a fairly broad and diverse set of species during a week in the wild here, and ended up seeing just 25 species, including the Red Fody at left. Some were spectacular, but it was a pretty slow bird spot for us.

Madagascar 481 On the morning of our last full day here, we stopped by Perinet National Park, hoping for some interesting wildlife activity. In just an hour in the park, we found (with the help of the local guides) a Tree Boa, an adult and juvenile Parson’s Chameleon. And while holding the chameleons, we were visited by an Indri Lemur! It was a fabulous conclusion to our stay in this interesting country.

Madagascar 645 Many of the places we’ve visited on our trip reminded us of somewhere else. Not Madagascar. It’s so distinctive, and so interesting. On our last day, we drove several hours across the country en route to the capital of Anantananarivo, and got a better feel for the beauty and unspoiled nature of the country. A typical scene is captured in the photo on the left, when our car on a major highway passes a man running in front of his cart, which is — believe it or not — carrying two pigs!! It’s not your everyday tourist location, but we were thrilled to have spent time here, and particularly appreciative of the insights we got from Chris Raxworthy.

Check out our Madagascar photos for some of the most amazing animals you’ll ever see!!

Charming Cape Town

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008

Cape Town 209 We settled in for almost five full days in Cape Town, and spent most of the time with our relatives Caroline Hazard (Elizabeth’s sister) and Jim Goedhart.  It was fabulous to see them and get caught up, a real highlight of our stay anywhere.  They live in Seattle, where we’ll be living in the fall, so we had even more than usual to catch up on.

Cape Town 016 On our first full day in Cape Town, we explored the coast south of the city, and made it to Cape Point.  The most striking thing about the drive was how absolutely stunning the coastline is around Cape Town.  We passed through many rustic towns and long expanses of completely undeveloped coast.  It was inspiring to see this much beauty here in South Africa.

Cape Town 113 We also got to see the African Penguin, which was a real treat. We’ve now seen penguins in four different continents (Australia, South America, Antarctica, and Africa), and it’s a real favorite of ours.  We had a great picnic lunch on the beach where the penguins hang out, and really had a great time there.

Cape Town 040 We also saw some great wildlife in this area, including some spectacular birds, like the Orange-breasted Sunbird and the Cape Sugarbird.  These birds are the closest thing to a hummingbird you can find in Africa.  Many of the animals here are endemic to the Cape and it made it fun to see wildlife we’ll never have a chance to see elsewhere. 

Cape Town 217 On our drive back, we stopped by Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, one of the world’s truly great botanical gardens.  The land was given to the community by Cecil Rhodes, and everything about the grounds is immaculate and fascinating.  We walked throughout the grounds, and learned a lot about the botany of South Africa.

Cape Town 127 We ran into our first real batch of lousy weather in Cape Town, after nine months of almost uninterrupted sunshine.  So we can’t really complain.  But our top priority was to go to the top of Table Mountain, and by our fourth day there, we were beginning to think it didn’t really exist.  We didn’t have non-stop rain, but it was pretty soggy, perhaps a good “warm-up” for Seattle.  We shifted our game plan, and focused on more indoors-oriented things, including a fairly pedestrian aquarium.

Cape Town 136 We spent one day exploring Cape Town’s District 6 Museum and some of the local townships.  District 6 was once a thriving multi-racial community where everyone seemed to co-exist peacefully.  Tragically, the South African government, during apartheid rule, razed the community, and re-located all inhabitants to “racially pure” locations.  Since the community had many mixed-race families, that meant sending the father to one location, the mother to a second, and the children to yet a third location.  There is now a museum dedicated to District 6 telling the story of this tragedy. 

Cape Town 160 We then visited a couple of Cape Town’s townships, which are the acutely poor areas of Cape Town.  We saw row after row of shacks without running water, electricity, or heat.  The juxtaposition of the charm of Cape Town, and its affluence, with these surviving townships would have been shocking to us if we hadn’t seen it before in places like Charleston, South Carolina, or Boston, Massachusetts.

Cape Town 253 We also met with some of the local entrepreneurs, including a gentleman named “Golden” who has developed a business making flowers out of discarded cans, a group of enterprising men and women who have formed a company called Street Wires, who make animals from beads and thin wire, and a group of women who take the remnants from a local tee-shirt factory and turn them into fine blankets, aprons, and table clothes.  It’s clear that such entrepreneurial businesses have the potential to transform the poorest areas of a place like Cape Town.

Cape Town 178 The sun broke through on our last full day in Cape Town.  In the morning, we took a boat to Robben Island, where there once stood one of South Africa’s most imposing jails.  The conditions there were incredibly harsh.  And prisoners, even if they could break out of their cell, faced frigid water, a long swim, and Great White Sharks if they wanted to get to the mainland.  Needless to say, no escapes were recorded in recent history.  We saw the jail cell of Nelson Mandela, who was at this prison for sixteen years (over half of the twenty-six years he spent in jail), and got a tour of the prison from a former political prisoner, who told of his experience in the prison from 1986-91. 

Cape Town 204 In the afternoon, we were able — at long last — to make our way to the top of world-famous Table Mountain.  Table Mountain can only be accessed in two ways — by foot or by cable car.  Given our schedule, walking wasn’t an option, so we bought our tickets and were waiting in line for the next cable car.  They have a fairly modern system, with circular cars holding 65 people that rotate 360 degrees on the ascent and descent.  After a twenty minute wait, our group was waiting for the next car when . . .

Cape Town 004 Much to our amazement, the cable cars froze in their tracks.  After waiting fifteen minutes, we decided this wasn’t our day and left.  The two groups suspended in place ended up being stranded in mid-air for almost an hour (!!!) before they could be moved to the termination points.  And all subsequent ascents were canceled for the day.  So we shifted gears, headed to a couple of the lower nearby vista points, and headed back to pack for the airport.  We figured that we now have a great rationale for returning to Cape Town.

Cape Town 282 We, especially our kids, had been searching for the Cape Dwarf Chameleon during our time in Cape Town, without success.  On the last morning, we got a great surprise when our fabulous guide, Craig Barrowman (highly recommended), showed up at our hotel with a Cape Dwarf he had somehow tracked down the night before (not easy at all!!).  Our kids were on cloud nine, and had a blast with this little reptile for the rest of the day.

Cape Town 134 We really loved Cape Town, despite the weather.  Our relatives Jim and Caroline spent a day exploring nearby wine country, and also loved that.  There’s a lot to do here, it’s a charming city, especially beautiful in the sunlight, and one of the world’s most beautiful cities.

Yawn-a-Lotty

Saturday, May 10th, 2008

Jabulani 404 We had a great time on safari in Southern Africa, but it ended on a subdued note.  We stayed at a place called Jabulani, which abuts Kruger National Park.  It was only relatively short distance from Mala Mala and very similar in what kind of wildlife you could see there.   But it was a lot less interesting on the wildlife front than Mala Mala.  Jabulani’s facility was terrific, and the food outstanding.  But the time out on safari was largely a yawn.

Jabulani 204 We did go to a conservation center focused on the Cheetah, but also with African Wild Dogs.  There is a Cheetah crisis in Africa, and the Cheetah population has dwindled.  This center takes in stray Cheetah, or breeds new cats, and then does its best to release them in the wild.  We got to feed a Cheetah up close, which was a bit scary but fun.  And the very misunderstood African Wild Dog, which we haven’t seen in the wild, was great to take in.   We’re still hoping, though, to see it in the wild sometime on the rest of our trip.

Jabulani II 063 We also took in a reptile center just outside of Jabulani, and got to see some very impressive snakes, chameleons, and lizards up front.  We loved it, although parts were sobering.  We watched a set of five Black Mamba snakes go after, inject venom into, and eat some soft, furry white mice.  My advice to you is to stay away from enclosed spaces with five Black Mambas!! 

Jabulani 344 They feature an elephant safari activity at Jabulani, and keep about fifteen elephants in captivity there.  This activity sounded great, but wasn’t quite as exciting as we hoped.  And we weren’t completely comfortable observing the way the elephants were treated.  We love elephants, but the elephant program at Jabulani won’t make our trip highlight film.

Jabulani II 140 We did get some great looks at lions in the wild at Jabulani, including some mother lions with their cubs.  And we ended up one morning in the middle of a Buffalo herd, which was impressive.  We picked up a few other interesting mammal and bird sightings, including the Sable Antelope and the Giant Kingfisher.  But after the tenth time that our Jabulani guide had pointed out to us a drongo (Africa’s version of a common blackbird) or spider webs, we were ready to push the fast forward button and get to Capetown.

Anyway, my advice to anyone planning a trip to this part of the world is to be sure to go to Mala Mala, and complement it with a stay in some place quite different in South Africa, perhaps someplace on the coast.

The Lion, the Child, and the Future

Friday, May 9th, 2008

Wednesday, May 7, 2008:  It was real and it was surreal.  My wife, two children, and I are in safari country — on the boundary of Kruger National Preserve in South Africa.  We’re staying in rooms that are separated by many meters, so the adults split up, and each sleeps with a child.  My eleven year old son is in my room sleeping next to me.  Earlier that evening, we were on a safari drive looking for lions, and the trackers believed that the alpha male was heading toward the camp.

That night, though, much of my attention is not on African wildlife.  I’m thinking about the two states in America — North Carolina and Indiana — holding primaries today.  During the past fifteen months, I’ve committed a large amount of my time to Barack Obama’s campaign, and am convinced that the future of the world hinges on America’s getting this election “right.”  These two primaries are quite important, and the polls show Obama losing Indiana by a large margin, and potentially losing North Carolina.  If he drops both states, his nomination is in jeopardy.  Our world travels have reinforced my belief that Barack Obama is the one candidate who can effect real change, and put things back on track for our nation and the world.  So I’m keenly interested in that nights primary results.

Jabulani 404 As I lay in bed, I hear the continual roar of the approaching lion.  We’ve seen lions roar in the wild, so I now have a good appreciation of the exertion required for such ferocious roars.  And this roaring sounds like it’s coming from right outside our window.  I can feel the vibrations, yet I’m far from afraid.  The lion, along with the other wildlife we’ve seen here in Africa, represents all that’s great — or could be — in the world — the gift we’ve all been given.  And, fortunately, Africa is proving effective at preserving its gift.  I’m wishing I could say the same thing about the United States.

Jabulani 376 My eleven-year-old son sleeps soundly next to me.  I hear his regular breathing, punctuated from time to time by a soft moan or cry.  I have no idea what he’s dreaming of that causes the cry, or whether it’s his reaction to the lion’s roaring.  But I know how important his future is to me.  Not just his, but all children’s.  And I know what damage our country has done to these futures in recent years.   His innocent breathing reminds me of the obligation that we have to help preserve a great future for our next generation, an obligation too few of us seem to take seriously.

Even though we’re in the bush, my blackberry can pick up — sporadically — a cellphone signal from an adjacent town.  It’s stronger at night than during the day, although erratic at best.  Nevertheless, I can use my blackberry to occasionally get an update on the decisions made by the voters of North Carolina and Indiana.  South Africa is six hours ahead of the east coast of the United States, though, so the polls don’t close in the two primary states until the middle of the night here.

Picture 312 At a little after three, I awake, perhaps in response to the roar of the lion, perhaps in response to a soft noise made by my child.  I instinctively pick up my blackberry, which sits on my bedside table.  I’ve gotten a New York Times newsflash e-mail indicating that Barack Obama has won North Carolina.  I know this means he ran quite well there, because the election was called quite early.  Thankfully, I know the worst case outcome from these primaries has been averted, and I try to go back to sleep.

A little later, another noise awakens me, although I’m again hazy about the source — the wildlife outside me, or my son beside me.  I check my blackberry again.  This time, internet access has drifted in, and I can check some of my trusted news sites.  I learn little from CNN.com, as usual, other than Barack will win North Carolina decisively.  But www.dailykos.com tells me much more.  He’ll win NC by close to 15%, a decisive win in an important state.  And after trailing early in Indiana, he’s closing the gap, and the race remains too close to call hours after the polls have closed there.  My son remains in his trustful sleep, and the lion’s roar have now been joined by a leopard.

Botswana -- Stanley's 056 I’m up again around 5:00 a.m.  Still no e-mails from news sources reporting on the winner of Indiana – great news.  Barack Obama doesn’t have to win Indiana; Hillary Clinton has to win Indiana decisively.  No news is good news.  The lions and leopards are now joined by jackals and an occasional hyena.  The wildlife is beginning to resemble our political process :-) .

IMG_0620 At 6:30 a.m., my son awakens.  We talk about the calls of the wildlife.  We talk about his own noises through the night.  I report to him that the Red Sox won again, a great start to the day.  And I tell him that our country took a major step forward while he slept.  The nominating process is over, and Barack Obama is one step closer to helping to ensure a better future for my child and his cohorts.  And I realize how lucky I am, to have slept in the midst of a lion, a child, and a future I might just be able to believe in.

The Perfect Guide

Friday, May 9th, 2008

Malamala -- Panasonic 282 We just returned from over three weeks in the bush of Southern Africa.  During that time, we had Trevor Carnaby as our guide and host.  We’ve had countless guides on this trip, some good and some not-so-good, but I’ve yet to post a blog on any guide.  But we’ve yet to have a guide as outstanding as Trevor, so I thought I’d let you know how great he is, and encourage you to use him if you ever explore Southern or Eastern Africa.

Jabulani 233Trevor has been guiding for 14 years, but in his spare time he’s an author.  His first book is “Beat About the Bush:  Mammals”, which we referred to constantly on our trip.  Like Trevor, the book is insightful and interesting.  He is based in Pretoria, South Africa, but travels all over Southern and Eastern Africa.

Namibia II 019 For starters, Trevor knows more about wildlife than it would seem possible for any single human to know.  Whether we’d see a bird, reptile, amphibian, mammal, insect, or plant, he could readily identify it, and talk to us in engaging terms about what is so interesting about it.  Each day was like the best science lecture you’ve ever had!  He also has a keen eye, and regularly finds things (like chameleons) that no one else would notice.  He’s also an expert in South African history, photography, astronomy, and having fun!

Botswana -- Stanley's 422 Spending 23 straight days with a guide is not easy — for him or for us — but Trevor made it delightful.  He is considerate, a great conversationalist, and so funny.  At many of our dinners, my side would hurt from laughing at the stories he told.  If you ever meet him, be sure to ask him about Chad, Rupert, and the Miss Universe contestants. 

Botswana -- Stanley's 015 A couple of anecdotes will illustrate what Trevor Carnaby is all about.  Over the course of the trip, we reached the point where someone (usually Trevor) would see a bird across a lake on the far shore, eating something small.  Invariably, Sterling would ask him, “What is it that the bird is eating?”  And he’d almost always be able to identify it, and add a story about the predator/prey relationship. 

Malamala -- Panasonic 277 The incident that sticks out most in my mind is one morning when we were out exploring, and Trevor had arranged for us to have a breakfast cookout.  We learned how to build a fire without matches, got a hot fire going, set up a make-shift stove, and began the process of cooking breakfast.  They had packed pancake batter in a  metal thermos, and someone put it near (way too near!!) the fire.  When it came time to cook the pancakes, another guide passed Trevor Malamala -- Panasonic 322the Thermos, but had taken the top off, and were holding it by the insulated handle.  Trevor, not knowing it was sitting by the fire, received the metal container in his bare hand, never said a word, and gently put it down so as not to spill the pancake batter.  His hand blistered badly from the burn, but he never complained, and proceeded to help our kids chase down lizards!

Over the time we spent with Trevor, he became a fifth member of our family, and our children still talk about him many times an hour.  “What do you think Trevor thinks this is?”  “Where would Trevor look for a reptile here?”  “Would Trevor think it’s ok to pick this up?”  All of us loved being with him, and he made our stay in Southern Africa just unbelievably enjoyable, for which we are very grateful.  If you need to reach him, his e-mail address is tcarnaby@abercrombiekent.co.bw.

Magic in Malamala!

Monday, May 5th, 2008

Malamala -- Last Day 028 We left Johannesburg Friday morning and flew to Malamala, a private game reserve abutting Kruger National Park in South Africa.  After checking in, eating lunch, and doing some homework, we headed out for our first afternoon/evening exploration drive.  The first drive, along with the rest of our stay, were phenomenal.

Malamala -- Panasonic 182 The big five on safaris are the African Elephant, the African Lion, the African Buffalo, the White Rhino, and the elusive Leopard.  The “five” were established back when big game hunting was big here, but remains as a goal for many photo safari participants.  Before coming to Africa, we had hopes of seeing each of these great animals.  Little did we know . . .

Malamala -- Nikon 028 We left the Malamala lodge at about 3:45 p.m. and headed out on our first exploratory drive here.  About fifteen minutes into the drive, we were stopped trying to identify a woodpecker.  As we got ready to leave, we noticed right behind our jeep was a big, hulking African Buffalo.  Wow!  Big Five #1! 

Malamala -- Nikon 061 We then got a radio call about a potential lion sighting.  We headed off the road onto terrain I didn’t think we could possibly navigate, but did.  We went down a steep ravine, and managed to climb up the other side, to see . . .  12 LIONS!!!  There were three female adults and nine young (8-12 month old) cubs.  As dusk settled in, we watched the lions hang out as an extended family, stunned at our good fortune to see this many lions in the wild.  Big Five #2!!

Malamala -- Nikon 222 Now that it was completely dark, we got our floodlights out and headed down the road, to identify a very odd set of fresh tracks in the soft dirt of the road.  There were two parallel fairly-deep lines cutting across the road.  Our guides suggested it was a fresh kill being dragged into the woods, but I didn’t take that too seriously.  We then followed the likely path, wound down an unbeaten opening in the woods, and someone spotted . . .  an Impala head up in a tree.  Unbelievable!!  There was a dead Impala head sitting about fifteen feet up in a tree, perched on a limb.  How anyone spotted it is beyond me.   [In the photo above, the Impala head is on the right.  We ended up seeing the same Impala head the next day, where it was an afternoon snack for the lion family we had seen].

Malamala -- Nikon 095 But, . . . , speaking of spots, we then looked further into the surrounding area, driving up and down and through incredibly thick grass in the dark to arrive at the backside of the tree, only to find . . . a big male LEOPARD.  Big Five #3!!!  This animal is incredibly hard to find in the wild, but there he was, right in front of us.  It was unreal.  We heard a rustling noise shortly thereafter, and our newly-made leopard friend had a visitor — a Spotted Hyena!  The Leopard zeroed in on the Hyena with laser-like focus and issued a deep growl.  The Hyena backed off, and the Leopard then jumped up into the tree.  He grabbed his Impala head and carried it higher up in the tree, and camped out there chewing away on fresh Impala meet. 

Malamala -- Panasonic 125 At that point, we heard loud “clump, clump, clump”-ing in the forest bush, and a huge African Elephant approached us.  Big Five #4!!!!  Being in a jeep between an Elephant and a Leopard didn’t seem too smart, so we pulled out a bit, watched the Leopard awhile more, and then headed off.  But even though we’ve seen plenty of elephants this trip, seeing them in such close proximity to other big game animals was exciting.

Malamala -- Nikon 203 Was our viewing night over?  Hardly.  We crossed a bridge and got a great look at a Hippo and another Elephant.  We then headed over to the airport landing strip, where we got a great look at a White Rhino!  Big Five #5!!!  So in one three hour game drive, we had great sightings of all five of the “Big Five.”  At this point, we headed home, knowing anything else for the evening would be a let-down.

Malamala -- Panasonic 100 So the next morning, we tried our best to manage our expectations down.  What could we see that could match yesterday afternoon’s great set of sightings?!?!   Well, our wake-up call came at 5:30 a.m., and we were off just after 6:00 a.m.  Shortly into our game drive, we started heading fast for a corner of the reserve.  A Cheetah had been sighted, and we would love to get to see it.  The problem was that the Cheetah was heading toward the boundary with Kruger National Park, and visitors to Malamala can’t enter the park.  So the clock was ticking!  And, as our good luck would have it, we caught up with the Cheetah just a few minutes before it disappeared into Kruger.  The Cheetah is the fastest land animal in existence, and it was fabulous to see this powerful cat in the wild.  Along with our Big 5, we now added the Cheetah, making for the Super Six!! 

Malamala -- Panasonic 155 It’s hard to believe that the rest of our time at Malamala could live up to the first twenty-four hours, but it did.  We had a fabulous time here, seeing all sorts of great animals, including Zebra, Giraffe, the Nile Crocodile, the Water Monitor Lizard, and lots of great birds (including this pair of White-throated Bee-eaters on the right).  It was a magic place, and our last night drive underscores how great a place it is.  We ended up on a sandy beach by a river, in the middle of a family of twelve lions.  The cubs wrestled and played with each other, while the adults would occasionally roar, which is quite a sound to absorb from 20 feet.  The night before we followed a different group of lions (one adult male and six adult females) as they patrolled the reserve, looking for prey.  At one point, they circled an Impala and mounted an attack, but the very fortunate Impala escaped. 

Malamala -- Last Day 002 Our last lunch at Malamala was out on the deck, and we watched a family of three elephants march by, coming within 30 meters of the deck.  We’d regularly see great wildlife from our room, and found it an amazing place for wildlife viewing.  Over the course of three days here, we saw twenty different lions, fifteen different rhinos, countless elephants, three leopards, a cheetah, and a couple of buffalo.   And we saw all sorts of great animal behavior in the wild, including the leopard below (and the first photo in this post) devouring a poor Impala.

Malamala -- Last Day 022 There was so much to love about Malamala.  It is a much plusher site than the earlier safari sites we visited.  You stay in rooms with phones, there’s internet access in the main room, and the roads were fairly smooth.  If I had one quibble with Malamala, it was the meals.  For you Spanish speakers, “La comida es mala, mala.”  But this is a great place to visit, a quick one hour flight from Johannesburg, fabulous wildlife, and a great experience.  In 2007, some 99.5% of visitors staying two nights or more saw all of the Big Five, and much more!  So you can’t go wrong with a visit to Malamala, and a whole lot will go right!

Alexandra and Apartheid

Thursday, May 1st, 2008

Joburg Apartheid 099 We didn’t get to spend much time in Johannesburg, but it’s a place that will have a lasting and powerful impact on us.  A couple of weeks ago, we played baseball with a great set of kids in the Wesbury and Soweto areas.  Today, we spent the morning exploring Alexandra, perhaps the poorest urban area in Africa, and the afternoon at Joburg’s Apartheid Museum, a very powerful experience.

Joburg Apartheid 026 We were very fortunate to have Robin Binckes as our guide to Johannesburg.  Robin grew up in South Africa, and has seen the evolution of this most interesting country from its apartheid history to modern South Africa.  He readily admits to being a proponent of apartheid in his early years, but made a dramatic departure in perspective and life focus in 1993, when a black leader here was shot. 

Joburg Apartheid 111 For the past several years, Robin has been involved in many non-profit initiatives in the Johannesburg area, focusing on Alexdrandria.  The area used to be called “The Slaughterhouse,” since so many killings occurred in this compact area.  Today, some 400,000 black South Africans live in one square mile here, and that’s the area we visited.  Unemployment here is well over 50%, and only a handful of the area’s youth make it through high school.  And AIDS is a huge problem for many in this area, with little acceptance of basic measures of prevention (e.g., condoms).

Joburg Apartheid 025 It was immediately apparent that Robin is beloved in Alexandria, and he was greeted by person after person on the street.  He is involved with a pre-school, with a hostel, has “adopted” or sponsored a gorgeous nine-year-old girl, helps some of the local women with a business making jewelry and bowls, and has brought almost 800 bougainvillea plants to the area, each dedicated to a visitor.  He is a great example of one person making a huge difference.

Joburg Apartheid 076 We visited Nambuhle, a hostel that is home for some 5,000 people.  We met with two women selling beautiful things they had made, met many of the kids, and got a real feel for life in a hostel.  We were so impressed with the energy and curiosity of these children, who were adorable.  We could see why Robin is so energized by the work he does in this community.  And we had some extra Red Sox hats, so we gave out a bunch to the children, who were thrilled to get this gift.  As we find over and over on our trip, those with the least are often the happiest and most appreciative.

Joburg Apartheid 101 We then drove all over Alexandra, including where Nelson Mandela lived in this community.  These streets were just alive with the energy of the people here.  We had been warned, and warned, and warned about the peril of being in Johannesburg.  And here we were, the only five white people anywhere in sight (the tourists all go to Soweto, which is much more middle class now), yet we felt welcomed by the people we’d pass by.  Robin said, “If you wave to anyone, you’ll see a huge smile on their face and get a big wave in return.”  And he was right.

Joburg Apartheid 119 We learned about the South African concept of Ubuntu, which is a humanitarian ethic binding together a community.  Bishop Desmond Tutu talked about ubuntu as follows, “A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”  You could see Ubuntu everywhere in dirt-poor Alexandra.  And, sadly, I realized that ubuntu is what seems to be slowly disappearing from the United States.

Joburg Apartheid 180 After a quick lunch, we went to a spot in a nice section in Johannesburg, and saw where Nelson Mandela lived while planning the resistance to Apartheid rule.  It was such a peaceful spot, somewhat ironic in light of the bloody and horrible struggle that gripped this country for so many years.  In the next six weeks, this site will open as a museum, and we’d love to visit it in the future.

Joburg Apartheid 199 We ended our day with a very powerful trip to Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum, which illustrates the rise and fall of apartheid.  The film footage, photographs, and artifacts lay out this history in a very powerful way.  After seeing all of the oppression, the many people who lost their lives, and the clear pain of this period, we ended at a photograph of a line of people voting in the first free elections in South Africa (photo above), which were in 1993.  I’m not an emotional person, but felt like crying to see the positive result of years of struggle.

There are clear parallels between South Africa’s history and that of many other countries, including the United States.  But there’s an intensity, compression, and recency to what happened in South Africa that makes it all so tangible.  The country still has a long way to go before the black population is on its feet economically, but the progress over the past 14 years has been impressive.  And it shows what can happen when a people are willing to fight with their lives against an oppressive regime.  All in all, this was a very inspiring day for all of us.

For those interested in learning more about the great work being done here by Robin Binckes, check out his website.

Mind-Boggling Botswana!

Thursday, May 1st, 2008

Well, in our wildest dreams, we never imagined having as much fun in Botswana as we had during the past week.  It was a real highlight of our trip, and a place we can’t wait to return to.  We visited two camps — Jack’s and Stanley’s — and loved each.  There’s just no doubt that Africa is a great place for our family, and we’re having a ball here.

Like Namibia, Botswana is a relatively unpopulated country in southern Africa (1.8 million total population).  It’s a land-locked country, with few agricultural resources.  But Botswana has lots of mineral resources, including diamonds, and has been investing aggressively in its future.  It’s a terrific country, safe, with lots of nice people, and great wildlife viewing.

Makgadi-kgadi Salt Pans

Botswana -- Jack's 149 We started our stay in Botswana at Jack’s camp, in the Makgadi-kgadi Salt Pans.  The area is fairly dry and flat, with its main feature being a huge salt pan (or flat) that stretches for hundreds of kilometers.  The area is physically attractive, although it’s main draw is the wildlife and the local bushmen.

Botswana -- Jack's 427 We saw some great wildlife at Jack’s, including the Aardwolf, the Bat-eared Fox, African Elephants, Zebra, the Cape Porcupine (see Gibson’s report on this interesting creature), and the fascinating Meerkat.  We also picked up a number of new bird species here, as well as a Kalahari Tent Tortoise.  This area was so rich in wildlife that each hour brought a new surprise.

Botswana -- Jack's 108 While at Jack’s we also went out with three local bushmen, including the legendary “Cobra.”  It was great to meet them, learn about their culture, see first-hand some of their survival skills, and explore the local area with Africa’s original inhabitants, a culture that goes back as far in history as any around the world.

Botswana -- Jack's 227 Our highlight at Jack’s was a great experience with wild Meerkats.  If you’ve seen Lion King, you know about Meerkats.  They are fascinating animals, about the size of a house cat, with a tight sense of community and endlessly cute.  We walked among a Meerkat cluster here, and this may be the only place in the world where you can get this close to an elusive animal.  All of us wanted to figure out a way to have a Meerkat as a pet next year, but suspect they’ll all stay right here in Botswana.

Botswana -- Jack's 337 We also went out one night on ATV’s and explored the salt flats at sunset.  We stopped at a remote spot, watched the sun come down and the fabulous Southern Hemisphere stars rise.  We took some blankets and laid down on the salt flats, and really didn’t want to leave.  This time of year, though, there is enough moisture in the pans that animals occasionally cross at night.  But during the dry season, you can sleep under the stars there, which would be a fabulous experience.

Okavango Delta

Botswana -- Stanley's 055 We then spent three days exploring the Okavango Delta, one of Botswana’s top attractions.  This place is flat out unreal when it comes to wildlife.  We saw so many great things here, and loved the location, the camp, and the wildlife.  It’s much wetter than the other places we’ve visited so far, with many water crossings, dense forest, all attracting a different type of wildlife. 

Botswana -- Stanley's 277 While at Stanley’s, we saw a large number of new birds (37 new species after almost two weeks in the wild, including the Bateleur Eagle on the right), as well as some great reptiles (the Rock Monitor Lizard, the Flap-necked Chameleon, and the Striped Skaapsteker snake), the Painted Reed Frog, and several great mammals, including a look at a Hippo, and great looks at the African Bush Baby (an adorable tiny primate), the Impala, close views of the African Elephant, and many encounters with Giraffes (including one on the side of our air landing strip!!).

Botswana -- Stanley's 078 Our highlight, though, was a chance encounter early one morning with a waking Leopard, perched on a tree limb.  We watched the Leopard up close for about ten minutes, when it decided to come down the tree — right before our eyes!  We followed the Leopard’s path down the tree, by our vehicle, and along the road behind us.  It was totally amazing!

Botswana -- Stanley's 173 We spent a morning with an elephant researcher, who had moved to Botswana from Oregon twenty years ago, and now spends every waking hour caring for a set of three semi-wild elephants.  We learned a ton (well, 5-6 tons, to be precise) about elephants from him, and got to spend some time with these very smart animals.  They have such a great social structure, including a collaborative approach to raising their young.  By the end of the morning, we felt like we had become great friends with these three massive animals.

Botswana -- Stanley's 357 And we spent another morning out on canoes in the Okavango Delta.  We got some great close-up views of the local frogs, as well as getting a chance to explore a very peaceful and beautiful location in this part of the world.  We had mixed feelings about having a chance encounter with a hippo on this outing, but didn’t come across any.  That said, some wild elephants crossed behind us while we were out, and we were glad to keep our distance from them!

We left Botswana feeling like we had just spent a week in one of the world’s most amazing places.  It is so beautiful, so preserved, and so exciting that it was tempting to just call off the rest of our trip and spend the next seven weeks in Botswana!

Mind-Numbing Namibia

Thursday, May 1st, 2008

Namibia 242 Namibia was called Southwest Africa when I studied Africa’s geography.  It’s a sparsely-populated (total population of two million) country on Africa’s Atlantic Coast, lying north of South Africa and south of Angola.  We stayed at three different places in Namibia, and loved every minute here.  It was a great start to our time in sub-Sahara Africa, and a country we will definitely visit again.

Namibia 001 The frigid Benguela Current runs up from Antarctica along the west coast of Africa, meaning the Atlantic Ocean water off this coast is quite cold and carries little precipitation.  Consequently, the west coast of Africa gets almost no rainfall, and is desert.  Our first two stops in Namibia were in desert territories, although quite different from each other.  We completed our great stay in Namibia in the Waterberg area, and stayed at a place focusing on wildlife research.

Damaraland

Namibia II 057 We started at a great spot called Camp Damaraland, which we loved.  The land there was gorgeous, the people running the camp so hospitable, and we saw some great wildlife.  Although the area is desert, it was rugged and hilly/mountainous.  We were fortunate to be in this area after a period of rainfall that caused much of the land to covered by grass.  This grass will soon disappear, but the waves of grass, with the mountains in the background, were simply phenomenal.

Namibia II 032 We saw more animals than I can show here in pictures.  We had great looks at the Springbok, Gemsbok (Oryx), Baboons, Kudu and Zebras.   We saw some African Elephants at a distance, which was an exciting first look at these huge but very smart creatures.  It’s hard to put into words what it’s like to find elephant tracks in the grass, follow them, and eventually come across a “parade” of elephants in the wild.  And we never tired of watching any of the different antelopes here, each spectacular in its own way.

We also saw lots of great birds and reptiles, most of which we’d never seen before.  This area is terrific for wildlife, and hardly a minute went by without a great sighting.  But for us the highlight was the gorgeous desert hills and grasslands of this great area.

Skeleton Coast

Namibia 361 The Skeleton Coast lies in the upper northwest corner of Namibia, on the Atlantic Ocean.  This area has lots of great dunes, rugged coast line, canyons, and desert landscape.  We stayed at the Skeleton Coast research site, which was quite basic, but worked just fine for us.  Our guide from Skeleton was Kallie, who was terrific.

Namibia 311 Our highlight was exploring the dunes of the area.  Our first big highlight was when Kallie was driving alongside a dune, suddenly stopped the vehicle, jumped out, and sprinted onto the dune.  He had spotted the elusive Desert Plated Lizard on the dune, chased her down, and eventually caught her.  This lizard was a big hit with Gibson and Sterling, who immediately put this at the top of their “NEXT PET” list.

Namibia 414 We saw some great animals at Skeleton Coast, including fields with Ostriches, Springboks, and Oryx.  It’s impossible to describe the beauty of the wide open hills of Namibia, full of some of the most beautiful wild animals on the face of the earth.  We also got some of our initial good views of  Giraffes in the wild.  These animals are really remarkable, and we could watch them for hours on end.  For their size, they’re remarkably graceful, and seem so calm and dignified.   And we saw at a distance some African Savanna Elephants — truly remarkable creatures. 

Namibia Waterberg 052 We went fishing one morning in the Atlantic, and the kids had great success.  It seemed that as soon as their line hit the water, they got a big bite.  Apparently, the coastal waters of Namibia are very rich in fish, and there’s a fair amount of controversy in terms of managing the fishing done in these waters by foreign nations.  Namibia is a very poor country, so they need to protect all the (meager) resources they have.

Namibia 447 A real highlight of our time at Skeleton Coast was a visit to a very primitive Himba village, inhabited by members of the Himbu tribe.  We got a chance to see, and even crawl in, the huts they live in (think igloos, but made of cow dung and sticks).  We also got a chance to observe the social dynamic of the tribe, with the men huntingNamibia 480 all day, the women weaving and cooking, and the children (of which there were many) being taken care of by grandmothers.  As we’ve seen over and over on our trip, the people with the fewest material possessions are almost always so happy.  They did sell a few items that the women in the tribe made, and that in itself was an interesting experience.  They had a full table of items, but we ended up involved in multiple transactions with different women in the tribe.

Waterberg

In Waterberg, we stayed at a lodge and spent a fair amount of time with people from Namibia’s Rare and Endangered Species Trust, as well as with the Cheetah Conservation Fund.  Namibia has an active non-profit community focused on conservation issues, and these groups were quite interesting, and a highlight of our time in Namibia.

Namibia Waterberg 175 You’ll be shocked to learn that the Cheetah Conservation Fund is focused on Cheetahs :-) .  We visited their facilities, and got a jeep tour of a holding area that is home to a number of cheetahs.  It’s not the same as seeing the animal in the wild, but we got some great looks at Cheetahs there.  One of the big challenges for the Cheetah population in Africa is the occasional attack made by a wild cat like this in farm animals, which invites retaliation by farmers. 

Namibia Waterberg 303 Less obvious is the prime focus of the Rare and Endangered Species Trust, but their passion is vultures.  As a venture capitalist, I can relate to the unfortunate negative stigma attached to vultures.   The organization was founded by Maria Diekmann, who grew up in California, came to Namibia over a decade ago, and is now a Namibian for life.  She fosters research efforts to protect the vulture species in Africa, especially theNamibia Waterberg 280 Cape Griffon Vulture.  Incredibly, vultures are under attach worldwide, and some 10 million were killed in the past decade in Asia!  Vultures are nature’s vacuum cleaner, scooping in on dead carcasses and picking them clean — but preventing the spread of disease in the process.  The problem is that many carcasses are dead due to poisoning, which in turn kills the vultures.  It was fabulous for us to spend time in Waterberg, observe biological research and conservation in action, and meet some really terrific people. 

Namibia II 158 We definitely plan to return to Namibia.  It’s just a fabulous place.  It’s an especially great place to start in exploring southern Africa, since you can see some great wildlife, but animals are much sparser here than in other locations.  Each of the three places we explored is a location we’d highly recommend.  And, on our next trip, tops on our list is the Etosha National Park, reported to be one of Africa’s top sites for game viewing.  The biggest sand dunes in the world can be found at Namib Naukloft Park, where it’s possible to take a hot air balloon safari.  Fish River Canyon Park is the second biggest canyon in the world (after then Grand Canyon), and worth a day’s visit.  And other places we’d love to take in at some point include Swapukmund, Cape Cross, Serra Cafema, and Doro Nawns.  This country, bigger than Texas but without George W. Bush, has so much to offer!