Name Changer

Ocuppying nearly four square miles and located between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan, Mackinac Island was home to the Odawas, and the epicenter of Great Lakes fur trading before the British established a strategic fort on the island during the American Revolutionary War. 

Native Americans referred to Mackinac Island as Mitchimakinak because of its likeness to a “Great Turtle.” The French fur traders preserved the Native American pronunciation, but spelled it as they heard it: Michilimackinac.

Michilimackinac

However, the British anglicized what they heard, spelling it Mackinaw. Regardless, the pronunciation for Mackinac and Mackinaw are the same, with an emphasis on aw.

Today, most tourists and vacationers take the ferry from Mackinaw City to Mackinac Island from May to November. Leah and I carried our own bikes aboard for an extra $10 a piece.

ferry pier

On the approach, the French colonial architecture was charming.

shoreline

We recovered our bikes, and headed toward the water, dodging pedestrians and horse poop, but keeping pace with other cyclists and horse-drawn carriages.

taxi transport

It was a step back in time, and a peddler’s paradise.

Closing my eyes, I could focus on the sound of a world without machines, because  motorized travel has been outlawed since 1898.

An 8-mile highway loops around the island, hugging the shore,

infinite water and sky

offering amazing views of Lake Huron’s crystal clarity,

tide pool

and access to Arch Rock, a popular geologic limestone formation close to downtown.

Arch Rock

Equally impressive is Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel,

Grand Hotel

opened in 1887,

Grand Hotel award

and still operated by the Musser family through three generations.

The all-wood hotel boasts the longest porch in the world, at 660 ft. (200 m),

Grand Hotel entrance

and overlooks a picturesque tea garden.

Grand Hotel with flowers

Nearby, the Little Stone Church,

Little Stone Church

constructed in 1904 with field stone offers local history through its colorful stained glass windows.

stained glass window

After a full afternoon of cycling and sightseeing, Leah and I were aboard Shepler’s ferry, heading back to Mackinaw City.

During the 20-minute return ride, I thought about the variant spelling and linguistics of Mackinac/Mackinaw, and its similarity to immigrants who passed through Ellis Island and emerged with new surnames, courtesy of disinterested immigration officials. 

So what are the chances, a real Shlepper immigrated to America and his name was changed to Shepler? Imagine the public relations coup for his offspring today.

 

Rain or Shine…or Snow

It’s been two weeks since crossing over into Canada, and it’s been mostly cloudy and wet so far. I don’t know if this is a cause and effect circumstance, but locals are approaching me with snorkels and flippers.

The weather has put a damper on our outdoor time while extending our Airstream time. The mosquitoes have been hungry and swarming around the clock, turning mosquito swatting into a cabin past-time.

Nevertheless, it hasn’t been completely bleak and dismal. We had agreeable weather during a brief stay at Six Mile Lake Provincial Park, where we visited Georgian Bay National Park on an unusually clear day, and took a 15-minute ride on a Daytripper ferry…

daytripper.jpg

to explore the network of trails on Beausoleil Island, guiding us to Honeymoon Bay,

30,000 islands

Fairy Lake,

Fairy Lake

and a keyhole to the many island cottages that dot Chimney Bay.

island cottage

The weather also cooperated during a recent visit to Discovery Harbour, once a British naval and military base in Penetanguishene commissioned to secure back door access to Upper Canada after the War of 1812.

nautical history.jpg

Of the two warships safeguarding the King’s Wharf at the time,

skiff and Tecumeth

the H.M.S Tecumseth has been replicated to stand guard once again,

skiff hull.jpg

Yet the schooner has been deemed unseaworthy by authorities, and is destined to be a floating exhibit, much like the original.

Tecumseth replica

Because the Rush-Bagot agreement between Britain and the United States restricted the number of active warships on the Great Lakes, the H.M.S. Tecomseth was decommissioned in 1817, and kept in a state of readiness until it eventually rotted and was reportedly scuttled in 1828.

However, its 1815 hull was raised from Penetanguishene Bay in 1953, and placed in a climate-controlled museum inaugurated in 2014.

1815 hull.jpg

As day turned to twilight, the clouds began to thicken,

tree silhouette.jpg

providing a curtain call that few campers had seen in weeks.

Sunset over Lake Mindemoya

Moving our location to Manitoulin Island did little to change a now-familiar weather pattern. We pondered whether sandbagging the Airstream might become necessary, but that thought slipped our minds soon after being preoccupied with scratching our mosquito bites.

Working around the rain was challenging. Under cloudy skies, we hiked the trail leading to Bridal Veil Falls’ 35-foot drop near the town of Kagawong.

Bridal Veil Falls.jpg

And despite the threat of rain, we continued on, climbing the cliffs of M’Chigeeng on the Cup and Saucer Trail,

The Cup and Saucer Trail.jpg

for splendid views of the North Channel.

Cliffside overlook.jpg

But our luck ran out as we drove to Ten Mile Point for a stormy lookout of Georgian Bay…

10 Mile Point

and found similar blustery conditions at Providence Bay, on the edge of Lake Huron,

Lake Huron surf

before returning to the sanctuary of our Airstream.

The following day, our four-hour travel time to Sault Ste. Marie was compromised by a tire mishap (see Blowout!). And then it rained…a lot!

By now, mosquito bashing had turned into a bloodsport. There were a few brief intermissions that allowed us to explore Sault Ste Marie’s famed boardwalk, which carried us past a whimsical sculpture in Roberta Bondar Park,

Three Bears

on our way along St. Mary’s River…

Soo Locks Boat Tours

to Sault Ste. Marie Canal–transitioning between Lake Huron…

Sault Ste. Marie Canal (2)

and Lake Superior…

Lake locks

before continuing across to Whitefish Island, where the convergence of Lake Huron and Lake Superior forms St. Mary’s rapids.

St. Mary's Rapids

And then a ride through downtown Queen St. produced a completely different climate,

Queen St.

where traces of snow formed around a movie set,

Christman in June

looking much like fire foam…

Fire foam (2)

to create a wintery look…

Fire Foam

for a Hallmark Christmas production adapted from Kevin Major’s The House of Wooden Santas.

Lamp pole and steeple

The weather always sets the tone for the trip. At the moment, rain amounts are up 30% over past years, and lake levels continue to rise above one meter.

This is a time for the birds…

bird on bird

the mosquitoes, and black flies.

And while there’s little we can do to control or avoid the weather, at least we are now prepared.

netting

Falling for Waterfalls

Leah and I are back on the road again, touring in our Airstream and excited to explore and record our impressions.

Before mothballing the trailer in North Carolina for the past 11 months, we had traveled 44,000 miles, crossing 33 states, 4 Canadian Provinces, and 2 Mexican States in one-year’s time (see Epilogue).

Unfortunately, there were glaring omissions in our route that never took us through the Rust-Belt, so for our second act, we are circumnavigating the Great Lakes–visiting 8 States and 1 Province.

Our summer journey begins with a visit to historic Jim Thorpe, PA in the Pocono Mountains–
St. Mark's Episcapol Church
a famed destination for winter sports and whitewater rafting.

steeple

With water levels high, and water running fast, it was shoring up to be a high-water adventure.

Lehigh River1

Class II and III rapids would be the perfect way to jump-start this trip.
Danger sign
However, I scratched the raft ride after learning that only family floats were running the Lehigh River,
Lehigh River.jpg
with the earliest dam release scheduled for the following weekend.

Lehigh River whitewater.jpg

Nevertheless, Leah and I were content to take a leisurely, 26-mile cycling tour down the Lehigh Gorge Trail, where we followed an abandoned railroad grade-turned-trail, offering river view…

river view

copulating snakes…

copulating snakes

canal lock relics…

Lock wall

and several hillside trickles…

rushing water

culminating in captivating waterfalls by the Rockport Access, with fast water cascading 50 feet over flat rock and flora at Buttermilk Falls;

Buttermilk Falls

and Luke’s Falls, featuring 50-foot water flowing over mossy ledges;

Lehigh Gorge falls

and occasional Lehigh spillovers on the side of the trail.

Lehigh Falls

While in the White Haven neighborhood, we ventured to the Park Office at Lehigh Gorge State Park for information on hiking the fabled Glen Onoko Falls Trail, but were informed that effective May 1, the Game Commission had closed the trail indefinitely until all safety issues have been addressed.

Glen Onoko Falls warning

Apparently, the risky behavior of many irresponsible and inexperienced hikers ended with far too many serious consequences, necessitating aggressive action. It was disappointing being unable to experience the Niagara of Pennsylvania, on a hike dubbed by Outdoor Magazine as “one of the 10 best waterfall hikes in the Northeast.”

Instead, the rangers diverted us to Hickory Run State Park, where we walked upstream along the Shades of Death Trail…

above Stametz Dam

to Stametz Dam, culminating in a 25-foot splash.

Stametz Dam Falls

While not a disappointing hike, it was anti-climatic and not what we came for, requiring some forward thinking.

When we eventually crossed into Canada at Niagara Falls, we were ready for sweeping views of gushing water…and we were not disappointed!

Top of the Falls

As a basis of comparison, we observed the falls from multiple vantage points…

Hornblower to the Horseshoe

multiple perspectives…

into the falls

changing light…

Niagara Falls

varying focal lengths…

Niagara Falls--US & CA

and different dayparts.

Niagara Falls pm

And we both came to the same conclusion: that Victoria Falls was more spectacular than all other waterfalls combined.

horseshoe (4)

Now I fear that seeing the Holy Grail of waterfalls has tainted my impression of all other falls to come, and that’s okay for now.

Main Falls

Eventually, I will come around, and perhaps by that time the Glen Onoko Falls Trail will welcome us back in earnest.

Elephants of the Okavango Delta

The Republic of Botswana alarmed conservation watchdogs and environmentalists around the world when the government announced the end of a five-year prohibition on elephant trophy hunting.
grazing
The ban was implemented in 2014 under then-President Ian Khama, an ardent conservationist, whose goal was to preserve the elephant population to increase Botswana’s eco-tourism industry, while conserving the species.
KT shows us elephants
The Great Elephant Census of 2016 concluded that Africa now has 352,271 savanna elephants –130,000 of which roam freely through Botswana. Of the 12 African nations surveyed, the elephant population dropped by at least 30 percent between 2007 and 2014, with approximately 8% of the herds now being lost every year to poaching. That’s equivalent to 27,000 elephants being slaughtered for ivory and other body parts.
tusks
Khama implemented a ban on elephant hunting, and enacted an unwritten shoot-to-kill, anti-poaching policy, giving rangers and soldiers the right to shoot first, and ask questions later. As a result, during his term as president from 2008 to 2018, the elephant population stabilized.
matriarch and offspring
But elephants are nomadic, and know no borders. They routinely migrate between Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, making it difficult to consider them residents from one specific country.
elephant by balloon
The 2-year drought has expanded the elephants range considerably, driving them further south in search of fresh grass and water, while also bringing them closer to humans already occupying the territory.
hitch hiker
Consequently, human-elephant encounters have increased significantly, causing villagers to complain about elephants marauding through their fields, and destroying a season’s worth of crops in one night.
high grass
Lawmakers and The Ministry of Environment, Natural Resource Conservation and Tourism acknowledged that local community reaction to wildlife conservation was shifting away from the ban, with farmer’s acting more concerned about their loss of income.
elephants and croc
Current president, Mokgweetsi Masisi immediately repealed the shoot-to-kill policy, and disarmed the rangers of their military-grade weapons. He tasked a coalition of national and local stakeholders to review the ban, and the committee returned in February with a recommendation to lift the ban.
mud bath
Outrage against Botswana’s decision has been swift and universal. Conservationists have expressed regret, concerned that targeting elephants will open the door for increased trading of illegal ivory.
2 month old elephant
Additionally, experts say the move would be counterproductive, as hunting elephants will make them fearful of humans and provoke them, increasing the conflict with local communities.
sunset (3)
Ex-president Khama says that lifting the ban is both unwise and ineffectual. “Resorting to killing is a blood policy that should not be supported. This will not have an impact on human animal incidents. It is a political move.”
As legal controversy rages between humane versus economic interests, African elephants will continue to fight for their own survival, provided they still have a leg to stand on.
6 legs

Watch a primer on the elephant problem for added information…

The Cape Peninsula Tour

It was a beautiful day for a drive. We boarded a van for a tour around the Cape Peninsula of South Africa, and Michael, our driver was eager to show us the sights.

Thompsons van

Our first stop was Maiden’s Cove. The sun had just broken through a veil of ground fog and scattered clouds looming over the 12 Apostles…

12 Apostles

causing the breakers to sparkle from a beam of direct light.

Camps Bay Beach

Idle tide pools glimmered against a foaming sea in the company of sleeping rocks.

Maiden's Cove tide pool

Later, at Hout Bay, a seal was starved for attention…

Hout Bay Harbor

but easily satisfied by tuna bites…

Leah feeding Tiny

and a few strokes from Leah.

twins

We continued along Chapman’s Peak Drive, following the contour of Noordhoek Beach,

Noordhoek Beach

until we reached a pee-pee stop that also doubled as a sculpture park filled with wild animals…

sculptures for sale

and African villagers expertly carved from stone, and available for shipping anywhere in the world.

sculpture for sale

We resumed our tour at the gates of Table Mountain National Park in search of special geography.

Entrance

But not before stopping to study an ostrich by the sea, because an animal sighting always takes precedence over a landmark.

Ostrich (1)

Once we arrived, we patiently waited our turn in the drizzle so Michael could record our proud penultimate achievement.

Cape of Good Hope

Because 200 km across False Bay…

False Bay

lies L’Agulhas, the most southern point of Africa, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Indian Ocean… 

But we settled on Cape Point because we were already there…

Cape Point and Leah

and hiked to a decommissioned lighthouse…

Old lighthouse

and remote guesthouse that offers views…

Hut on the Point

Lighthouse

…in all directions,

signpost

and a special place where heaven touches earth.

Cape Point shoreline

The tour concluded at Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town,

watching the penguins

where we enjoyed a late lunch of seafood, before returning to follow the antics of eager African penguins preparing for an afternoon swim.

Pengions of Simon's Town

 

Victoria Falls by Land and Water

“Prepare to get soaked,” warned Reason, our guide and driver for the day. In anticipation of the “rain”, Reason handed out rain parkas to each of us.

Leah rocked hers!

raincoat model

“These will come in handy. You’ll see. The rain will come from all directions,” he said.

We were in for a soaker. According to a park poster, May is considered one of the heaviest high water months.

seasons of flow

All the rushing water will be amazing to see, if we can actually see it at all through the spray and mist, which can rise over 400 meters…

Bridge and spray.jpg

and be seen from a distance of 50 kilometers. Reason explained that the best viewing along the eastern rim was from numbers 1 through 8 on the path.

Reason (1)

“From 8 to 15, you will get drenched. But if the water gets too much for you, there is a detour between 8 and 9, where you can walk inland and dry off.

“What about Niagra Falls? Isn’t that the largest?” asked one of the Canadians traveling with us.

“Sorry. Not even close. Victoria Falls is double the size of Niagra Falls. While it’s not the highest falls–that stat belongs to Angel Falls in Venezuela, dropping 985 meters; and it’s not the widest falls–that record belongs to Iguazu Falls, measuring 2700 meters across, and defining the borders of Brazil, Argentina and Parguay,” Reason clarified, “it’s the volume of falling water, and a combination of everything else that makes it number one…but you will see for yourself. The path is one mile from end to end, and you guys have two hours to experience it, so let’s get wet!”

Map of the Rainforest

Those panchos looked fine for keeping clothes dry, but my biggest concern was keeping my photo gear dry, so I opted out, and wore my own rain jacket, which was roomy enough to protect my camera from moisture…or so I thought.

From Points 1 through 5 on the walk, the wetness factor–on a scale from 1 to 10–was manageable at 3 for damp. Having a chamois helped to eliminate the mist from the lens hood and camera body between shots, so my shots were still sharp.

Livingston

plaque (2)

Zambezi River

misting rainbows

But things got dicey after Point 5. By now, water was dripping from the lens filter, and focusing became nearly impossible with water constantly blowing across my frame. That’s when I switched gears and opted for a more visceral interpretation of the falls, leaning towards a painterly impression.

Chainwalk

Devil's Cataract

Rainbow Falls

Devil's Cataract drop

The falls was a dynamic spectacle, that soon became a photographic nightmare. Weather conditions had pinned the needle on the wetness scale, guaranteeing that nothing about me was dry any longer: the plastic shopping bag protecting my camera had filled with water; the monsoon had penetrated my waterproof rain jacket, soaking my clothes from within; and my chamois was useless.

That’s when I turned to my Samsung Galaxy S8, almost too slippery to hold, and captured a few panoramas…

Devil's Cataract and Cataract Island

Sun over Main Falls

Dangerpoint

The rain had abated by the time I reached the Victoria Falls Bridge at the end of the trail.

Rhodes 1903 bridge

The bridge spans the Second Gorge and connects Zimbabwe to Zambia.

Built in 1903, it was originally conceived as a railway bridge by Cecil Rhodes, an English industrialist, who left his name and colonized imprint on a country (Rhodesia, until 1979) rich in natural resources, and easily exploited for the benefit of the British Commonwealth.

The afternoon was reserved for a sunset river cruise on the Zambezi.

Sunset cruise boat

Cruising gently down the river, we drank, we ate, we partied. The captain rounded a bend in the river…

Zambezi River

and behold, the omnipresent falls spray was there to greet us.

Falls mist

Mist over Zambezi

With the day losing light, the night lillies have unfolded…

night lillies

and the hippos have gathered…

3 hippos skimming the surface

napping in the water

with all the celebrants aboard our neighboring vessels…

African Queen positioning for sunset

to toast the sunset one last time.

sunset over Zambezi River

Victoria Falls by Air

Our African safari vacation to South Africa and Botswana came with an elective, 2-day excursion to Victoria Falls. Traveling half-way around the planet and being this close to one of the seven natural wonders of the world, it seemed foolish to pass on the offer–the same thinking held by the other 10 in our party.

After a brief bus ride from Kasane (our last stop in Botswana)…

Botswana Customs House.jpg

to the border of Zimbabwe (where we acquired our $50 visa stamp),

entering Zimbabwe

we continued the 1-hr drive to Victoria Falls, where we checked into The Kingdom Hotel.

Kingdom pond

Kingdom pond 2

The rest of the day belonged to us–to shop, to rest, to sightsee.

Some of us considered a helicoptor ride over Victoria Falls, but also had to reconcile whether a 22-minute flyover was worth the $250 expense.

Victoria Falls Flights.jpg

“It’s a lot of money,” Leah addressed.

“It is, but I’m all for it. When else will we ever get the chance to do this in our lifetime…unless we’re coming back here, because I would come back here in a heartbeat,” I asserted.

“We’re in,” stated Linda and Heather from Colorado.

“I guess I’ll do it too,” commited Nathan.

Five of us took the heli-tour, while others walked to Zambia to view the falls from the other side. Although $250 for the loop seemed overpriced, I was eager to see the falls by air, regardless of the price. Afterall, when would I ever see it again?

After our briefing at the Boisair Heliport, we boarded our helicopter, and we were aloft,

Bonisair Helicoptor.jpg

doing a couple of figure eights over the falls,

mist and gorge

chasm of mist

falls drop

mist and rainbow

raging falls

Zambezi River to falls with bridge.jpg

a circle around the Bakota Gorge,

Bakoda Gorge

Zambezi River to falls with bridge

and a turn up the Zambezi River…

Zambezi River.jpg

Zambezi Islands

before returning to the helipad.

“How was it, Leah? Do you regret spending the money now?” I asked.

Leah (2).jpg

“Worth every penny!” she exclaimed.

The vastness and grandeur of the falls is best appreciated by clicking on the video!

To be continued with “Victoria Falls by Land and Water

Beasts of Botswana–Family Style

In the Animal Kingdom, animal magnetism has evolved over time–shifting between monogamy and polygamy, to cheating and outright promiscuity–something humans have been wrestling with since walking erect.

Every animal species is wired to adapt, survive, and pass along the blood line, no matter what, and the behavior dynamics are fascinating to observe.

For instance, the primary male lion roams with a harem of ladies in his pride, but will momentarily pledge himself to the lioness who bears his cubs.

nuzzling lions

However, a rival male to the pride will kill his predecessor’s offspring to force the pride’s females into ovulation.

2 female lions

Male and female Grevy’s zebras live apart until food and water are plentiful. Female Grevy’s zebras are polyandrous and will breed with many different males in succession.

Zebra family

Male Grevy’s zebras establish territories that lie along paths to water, often intercepting an ovulating female while passing through. And then it’s on to the next.

Zebras B&W

African wild dogs live as a monogamous breeding pair supported by a small pack.

2 dogs prowling (3)

The litter of pups is first cared for by the alpha female and guarded by the alpha male…

Nursing 3

who doles out hunting and caretaking responsibilities to subserviant wild dogs within the pack.

wild dog pups

A dominant impala ram will manage a harem of 10 ewes and their lambs, keeping them in line with his constant braying, biting and boasting. Young bucks continually challenge the ram in charge, insuring ewes will always deliver the strongest gene pool…

alpha male impala

thus providing a defense perimeter of plebes to discover danger from every direction.

herd of impalas

Baboons run in troops ruled by social dominance. When it comes to mating, any male of the troop will accept any female’s offer should she present her swollen rump to his face; however, the social rankings between males will often lead to aggressive fighting.

mother and child baboons

Females are the primary caretakers of the young, although males on occasion will babysit to win a female’s affection. 

baboon discipline (2)

Hippo bulls are polygamous by nature and insecure creatures by design. When the cows of the pod are fertile, the bull whips up a piss and dung cocktail that he atomizes with his propeller-like tail to capture their attention.

Great heron with catch and hippos

He will repeat this process until all the cows have been serviced. Should any of the offspring be male, the cow will protect it by hiding it near the fringe of the herd, lest it be killed by the bull.

hippo clash

Consequently, the bull fears his mature son will someday challenge him for control of the pod, and mate with his mother, creating a Freudian nightmare of hippo proportions.

grazing hippo

Rival bulls that follow a female tower of giraffes will often “neck” together (spar with their necks) for the attention of a fertile cow.

tall family

The victor will smell her urine to determine her readiness, and court her by resting his chin on her back.

sniffing urine

The females and their calves remain loyal to the tower, while the males move on, in search of long legs and firm hind quarters.

tower of giraffes1519442324641718967..jpg

Ostriches have seemingly taken their cue from the Mormons, where the dominant and polygamous cock will mate with many hens, while the hens remain monogamous.

Ostrich pair

The flock of hens have their own pecking order. As one female emerges as the dominant majority hen, she uses the minority females’ eggs to ring around her eggs as an extra layer of protection.

3 males_1 female

Dominant kudu rams will keep company with three to five kudu ewes within a herd of females and their calves.

2 kudus

Usually the ram comes a-knocking when it’s time to mate. Otherwise, the ram is a solitary creature that enjoys alone time.

kudu (2)

Male warthogs are not very selective. They will mate with any of their female counterparts wherever and whenever they may be found.

warthog in the grass

Maybe that’s why they are considered pigs.

Pumba

Several cow crocs may reside within the dominant bull croc’s territory, and each one is fair game for mating. The bull courts his cow in an elaborate and sensual dance that is certain to win her scales and tail.

big daddy croc_cu

It so happens that bull crocodiles are always ready! They keep their ever-erect penis tucked inside their body waiting for the right moment when both bodies are properly aligned under water.

croc at sundown

Dominant cape buffalo are distinguished by the thickness of their horns. They set the rules of their herd–

buffalo_cu

deciding whether to tolerate an overt act of copulation by a defiant subordinate bull, or keeping the cows in heat to himself by staving off all rival advances.

Cape buffalo herd

According to Kimberly Yavorski in “How do Elephants Mate?”:

“Elephants are social creatures and live in complex hierarchical communities. Each herd has one female that is the matriarch. She dictates where the herd goes and helps to teach the younger elephants proper behavior. Female elephants, or cows, live in multigenerational family groups with other females. Males stay with the family until they reach 12 to 15 years of age, when they leave the herd and live alone or join up with other bulls. Male and female elephants live separately with bulls only visiting when some of the females are in their mating season, known as estrus.”

elephant family walking by the river

“Elephants mature later than many other animals. Females reach sexual maturity at 10 to 12 years of age, males at around 25. A male doesn’t generally start breeding until age 30, when it has reached a sufficient weight and size to compete with other breeding males. At that point, it will start to seek out females in estrus.”

elephants' mudbath

“Bulls enter a state called musth once a year, and older bulls tend to stay in musth longer than younger bulls, up to six months. During this period, they have increased levels of testosterone. They secrete a fluid from their temporal gland between the eye and ear and will actively seek a mate. Dominant males, which are older, tend to come into musth when a large number of females are in estrus, and the males exhibit physical behaviors, such as flapping their ears and rubbing their head on trees and bushes to disperse the musth scent. They also have a particular rumble, a low frequency vocal call, used to attract females who are also ready to mate. Females sometimes respond with their own call, indicating interest. While a cow can mate with any male, those in musth may be more attractive to females in estrus.”

family of elephants drinking

“When a male approaches, a female in estrus may at first show wariness, but if she is interested, she will then leave the family group, walking with her head up and turned sideways to watch the male as he follows behind. The male may chase the female if she retreats and will chase off any other males. Elephants may stroke each other with their trunks before the male mounts the female from behind, standing almost vertically as they mate. Elephant sex lasts for up to two minutes and afterward, he will stay near the female and guard her from other males. Females may mate with more than one bull in each estrus cycle, which lasts up to 18 weeks. While elephants do not mate for life, a female may repeatedly choose to mate with the same bull, and bulls are sometimes seen being protective of females.”

mom and baby elephant

“At 22 months, elephants have the distinction of having the longest gestation period of all animals and give birth to live young. Pregnancy almost always results in a single birth; twins are rare. When it is time to give birth, female elephants move away from the herd and then return to introduce the new member, who is inspected by each other member of the family. At birth, babies weigh 90 to 120 kg (198 to 265 pounds) and are typically around 3 feet tall. Baby elephants tend to be hairy, with a long tail and a short trunk that grows as its diet changes. Offspring are weaned at two years, though some may continue to nurse up to age six and a half. Because of this long gestation and nursing period, estrus cycles are between four and six years apart. On average, a female elephant will give birth to seven offspring in her lifetime.”

2 month old elephant

 

 

 

Reigning Cats and Dogs, Part 2

When KT took the radio call alerting him of leopard tracks in the vicinity, my heart raced. Of the “Big Five” (elephants, lions, buffalo, rhinos, and leopards), leopards can be the most elusive, and consequently, the most challenging to “spot”. For one, the rosettes across their bodies make the perfect camouflage as they stealthly move through the tall grass; secondly, leopards are equally as comfortable in trees, and have been known to drag their kill into the branches to avoid any competition; and lastly, they are solitary animals, usually hunting solo unless the mother is raising her cubs.

KT quietly withdrew from the sleeping lions, and set the Land Cruiser on a new course. We off-roaded across the savanna with little regard for fields and streams, until KT hit the brakes and pointed to a patch of scrub about 100 meters to our left.

“Is it a leopard?” someone asked anxiously.

“No, but just as interesting,” he asserted. “Look through your binoculars and cameras and tell me what you see.”

hyena in the grass

I had trouble identifying the animal–even at 108mm focal length–although, KT’s telephoto vision was “spot on”. “Is it some kind of dog?” I asked.

“No,” answered KT. “Actually, this animal is more closely related to a cat. It’s a young hyena, and for some reason it’s by itself, unless the mother is nearby. And just as interesting, these animals are typically nocturnal, but this one is not. Let’s see what he’s up to.”

The Toyota crept toward the hyena causing it to retreat into higher grass. But eventually, curiosity got the better of him, and he slowly revealed himself.

hyena cub in the grass

KT killed the engine, and waited for our hyena cub to step out from his lair. It was an African stand-off. We sat patiently for minutes–both sides seemed unwilling to give an inch until KT started up the Land Cruiser. “We need to find our leopard,” he stated, and shifted into gear.

The moment we started to roll, the hyena slinked out of the grass,

hyena halo

finally showing his spots…

hyena watching

and seemingly “laughing” about his hide-and-seek victory.

Hyena cub at rest

We continued to track leopard prints through the savanna for another 15 minutes, when we happened across a pack of five African wild dogs prowling through the bush in search of their next meal,

2 dogs prowling (3)

led by its alpha male,

African Wild Dog

and alpha female.

alpha female

As if on cue, a young lechwe leapt out from the cover of the brush in front of our truck…

Leaping_Lechwe (2)

followed by a wild dog chasing at its heels. The lechwe bounded away–zigzigging as it ran for its life. Soon after, we lost sight of it behind a mound of trees. KT gave chase. He gunned the Toyota and plunged it deep into the marsh till the front wheels lost traction. But he saved face by rocking us to-and-fro and eventually releasing us from the muck.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the mound, the alpha male was finishing off the lechwe… 

after the kill

with the help of his pack, who were waiting in the brush, ready to strike once the prey was delivered.

hungry dogs

Wary of a crocodile attack, the wild dogs worked together to drag the carcass out of the water, all the while feasting on their kill…

(video is rated carniverous)

until the last traces of lechwe were consumed.

pregnant alpha female

For many, what we witnessed was more than enough. It was an amazing morning filled with terror and excitement. Our hunger to locate a leopard was largely overshadowed by the wild dogs’ appetite. KT summed it up, stating, “What you are seeing here is very rare, indeed!”

“Which is exactly how the wild dogs like their lechwe prepared,” I mused.

But the day was far from finished. During our afternoon game drive, KT, acting on a tip, drove us to a different wild dogs’ den, where the alpha female of the pack had just given birth to a litter of four pups. Finding the den was easy, but would the mother let down her guard long enough to nurse them with us in the vicinity?

KT jockeyed for position. He cut through brush and mowed over saplings with the Land Cruiser to get us close enough for a decent view of the den, although partially obstructed by the wild dogs’ protective habitat.

And then the unexpected happened…

inside the den

She leaned into the burrow and beckoned her younglings with a song of high-pitch yelps. She persuaded her brood by pulling out the first pup firmly at the scruff. The others followed willingly…

wild dog pups

for a place at the dinner table,

Nursing 3

while the vigilant dad growled and glared at us, showing us he was in charge.

alpha on guard

Mission accomplished!

Now, if only KT could get us to the hippo pond before sunset. Suddenly, there was little regard for all the ruts and sand grooves his tires found, or the sharp turns around the brush, and through a thicket with switches sweeping the sides of our canopy. We held on with our lives.

We could see the sun sinking below the grassline, and we knew it would be close, but thankfully, the hippos were still at play.

smiling hippo

And then it was lights out for the rest of the Kalahari.

grass and light

Reigning Cats and Dogs, Part 1

KT, our guide at Kadizora Camp gently rapped on our tent door at 6:30 am to accompany us to the dining tent for a continental breakfast. It was still dark, hence the escort. We were following a verbal command from camp personnel requiring us to stay put during darkness due to a heightened risk of encountering wildlife in our area.

Only last night at 11:20 pm, an elephant known to the camp as Franklin startled me awake by rubbing against the outside of our tent.

Kadizora Lodge tent

“Do you hear that?” I whispered to Leah.

“What is it?” she yawned, seemingly annoyed that I had interrupted her sleep.

“I think it’s an elephant.”

“What?!” she snapped awake.

“Whatever it is, it’s right outside our tent,” I said in my softest library voice.

Kadizora bedroom

en suite

As if on cue, Franklin’s massive silhouette lumbered along our raised deck, grabbing and tearing tree leaves with his snaking trunk as he filled the zipped screening with his immensity, leaving us paralyzed in awe until he was gone.

Damn! Where was my camera?

Grabbing my arm, “Oh my God!” Leah gasped, “Did you see that?”

It was thrilling yet alarming to watch. Adrenalin pumped through our weary bodies, wiring every nerve and depriving us of much-needed sleep. Eventually, the continuing soft grunts of snoring warthogs under our tent provided the white noise we needed to lull us back to a peaceful slumber until our 6:00 am wake-up.

“Are you ready to see big cats today?” asked KT, his flashlight in hand. 

“Absolutely,” I answered eagerly, as we followed him down the illuminated path to the safety of common ground.

“Did you have a visitor last night?” he wondered, already knowing the answer.

“We did,” I shared. “How’d you know?”

“An elephant bull-dozed the contractor’s tent last night. Turned it into a heap of broken sticks and canvas,” he said.



Once out in the bush…

Land cruiser (2).jpg

cruising along rutted ribbons of sand separated by tall grass,

truck and tracks (2)

we came across a small herd of Cape buffalo grazing…

Cape buffalos (2)

that appeared to be pulling closer together, adopting a defensive posture.

Cape buffalo

“Those buffalo are nervous,” asserted KT. “Do you see how they all stare in the same direction? Most likely, they have picked up the scent of a lion or leopard, and they are closing ranks for protection.”

herd of Cape buffalo (2)

“I think something may happen here, so we should stay for a bit and see what develops.”

KT repositioned the Toyota in the shade of a large ebony tree, and we patiently watched  the herd from a distance, scanning the perimeter for predators in the hopes of encoutering a potential kill.

“There!” he exclaimed.

A young male had emerged from the bush to the right of the herd, and just as quickly disappeared into the thicket for a closer look at the buffalo and to assess the situation.

lion tail

Wow! This was exactly what we came for, but it was a fleeting moment which left us somewhat deflated.

Undeterred, KT started up the Land Cruiser and cautiously followed the lion, who reemerged on the other side, and relocated on a shady slope upwind of the herd.

lion waiting

“This is where it will happen,” asserted KT, as he drove even closer to the resting young male.

No doubt, the lion was fully aware of us, as it turned in our direction.

lion in waiting

“He knows we are here. Aren’t we intruding by being this close?” I asked KT.

“The lions really don’t see us; they only see this truck–not the people inside,” he replied. “They don’t sense the truck as threatening, and it doesn’t smell like food. From the time they were cubs they have grown up knowing this vehicle, and they have become desensitized to its presence in the savanna. So as long as we respect them and do not interfere in their business, we can get very close to them. However, you must always remain seated, and for obvious reasons keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.”

“Why can’t we stand?” I asked.

“The moment you stand, you change the dynamics and the lion no longer sees the truck as a familiar object, which may make him uncomfortable and put you at risk,” explained KT.

And then another lion materialized from the brush.

lion 2 in the grass

“Ahh…this makes complete sense to me now,” KT surmised. “They may be brothers, and they are working together to isolate one buffalo from the herd before the herd disappears into the brush.”

KT restarted the Toyota and pulled closer yet, thinking the timing was right and the attack was imminent. We pulled within a few feet of the new male, who made himself very comfortable beside us…

resting lion

while the first lion remained vigilant on the mound.

lion on the mound

By this time, the herd had keenly sensed the pair of lions around them, and moved into the protective thicket nearby, preempting the attack.

Realizing the chase was over, one beckoned the other…

lion calling

to a family reunion.

nuzzling

OMG!!! We held our breath, wondering what was next for the brothers. It had been an exhausting morning of hunting without a victory.

lion CU

Hence, it was time for a nap!

lion napping1

Just then, KT answered a dispatched call on the radio alerting him that a colleague had spotted fresh leopard tracks a few klicks away, so off we went in search of another adventure.

To be continued…

Birds of Botswana

Wandering through the bush of Okavango Delta in an open-air Land Cruiser, our guide/driver manuevers with deliberate speed and gear-shifting finesse through tall grass and rutted tire tracks. We are on a mission to see wild animals in their natural habitat, but these animals are never as cooperative as we would like them to be–moving from place to place in search of water and food–so they must be tracked to be found.

Fortunately, between hopeful sightings of the “Big Five” (elephants, buffalo, lions, leopards, and rhinos), and other assorted beasts of beauty, there is always a melange of birds to entertain us as we pine for the big animals we’ve come for. Our 7,000 square-mile playground is home to over 500 different species of birds spread throughout the islands, river channels, lagoons and drylands of the delta, so birds are easy to come by.

However, by no means is it possible to spot such a vast variety of birds, as our window of opportunity is short, our driving radius within the bush is narrow, and the focus our visit is not intended to be a birding safari.
Yet KT (our guide) never hesitated to point to trees in the distance, flying fowl near or far, or slow the Toyota to a crawl along the brush to identify the distinguishing features of common and special sightings as we bounced in our seats searching for wildlife.

What follows is an alphabetized compilation of birds I captured when possible–that would gratify Audubon and the birders, and delight many bird brains:

African darter on a branch
African darter, a.k.a. snakefish bird
African darter
African darter
African fish eagle
African fish eagle
African fish eagle with fish (2)
African fish eagle with catch
African sacred ibis
African sacred ibises (middle)
black-bellied bustard
Black-bellied bustard
Brown snake eagle
Brown snake eagle
Cape griffon
Cape griffon
Great blue heron
Great blue heron
Great heron with catch and hippos
Great heron with catch and hippo family
Go-away bird
Grey go-away bird
Zazou
Ground hornbill
Helmeted guineafowl
Helmeted Guineafowl
lilac breasted roller
Lilac-breasted roller
long-tailed cormorant
Long-tailed cormorants
Marabou storks
Marabou storks at a watering hole
Marabou storks stand and kneel
Marabou storks at rest
Male and female Ostriches
Ostriches, male and female
ostriches from above
Ostriches from afar
red-billed hornbill
Red-billed hornbill
Wattled cranes
Wattled cranes
Wattled crane taking flight
Wattled cranes taking flight
yellow-billed egret riding an elephant
Yellow-billed egret riding an elephant

A Walk Along the Cape Town Waterfront

Much of Cape Town radiates with modern appeal, brandishing its abundance of fashionable and trendy shops, galleries, cafes, restaurants, and hotels throughout the city. However, the crossroads where residents and tourists travel to find it all is Cape Town’s waterfront.

Leah and I took a walk through the waterfront district to see for ourselves, and found that one day was not enough to cover it all.

The heartbeat of the waterfront is the Victoria and Albert Wharf, where the city meets the sea.

V&A Waterfront

Grounded by a two-story mall, the Victoria Wharf Shopping Centre bustles with 450 retail stores, and over 80 restaurants and eateries.

V & A Wharf

Beyond a swinging bridge and a capsule of specialty malls stands the Clock Tower, where a ferry (calm seas and weather permittting) awaits to shuttle intrepid visitors to Robben Island…

Mandela Gateway

the one-time prison of Nelson Mandela from 1964 to 1982, but now a museum and World Heritage site. Unfortunately, high swells prevented us from visiting.

His importance to the city and country cannot be underestimated, as his name and face is omnipresent throughout the region.

The Four

Visible from all points of the city, and looming over the wharf is Table Mountain,

Table Mountain

accessible by cable car, with commanding views of the city below. Unfortunately, Leah and I never made it to the top because of gusting winds at the time.

Continuing south, we mounted a set of stairs…

Steps to Silo

directing us to the Silo District, where a 1920s grain silo…

Silos

has been repurposed into the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art,

The Silo and Zeotrope

having opened on September 2017, and boasting the world’s largest collection of African art.

The building also houses the Silo Hotel, occupying the top six floors within the one-time grain elevator. Daily rates during low season range from $900 for a luxury room to $5000 for a 1-Bedroom Penthouse. Leah and I thought we’d have a look around.

The elevator carried us to reception on the sixth floor, where we spoke to an attendant who eagerly escorted us to the eleventh floor open-air restaurant, lounge and pool.

Silo pool

Having missed out on a Table Mountain overlook because of weather, our surrounding views of the stadium,

Stadium (2)

the wharf,

Looking out to Robbens Island

the ship terminal,

Cruise Terminal

and the courtyard below were spectacular, and made up for our disappointment.

Silo Courtyard

Once back on earth, we headed past the shipyards…

Shipyard

and along the canal…

Canal

to Battery Park, a greenspace where families gather to skate and picnic.

Battery Park1 (2)

After reaching City Hall in the distance, we doubled back to the waterfront, eager to continue the next part of our journey in search of wild animals.

Giraffe crane

Much more to follow…

Penguins of Simon’s Town

At Boulders Beach, on False Bay along the Cape Peninsula of South Africa, within Table Mountain National Park…

Welcome to Boulders

stands a boardwalk that showcases a free-roaming colony of African penguins.

watching the penguins

When they are not busy nesting,

nesting

or caring for their hatchlings…

mother and hatchling

they are preening,

preening.jpg

and standing watch…

on the march

over the rookery.

Colony of Penguins

Some African penguins may gather in small groups before setting off to hunt for fish,

Flock of Five

while others are content to surf the shoreline,

a dip in the Atlantic

always wary of hungry seals…

hungry seal

who would easily prey on unsuspecting penguins, ready to rip open their bellies for the fish they have recently swallowed.

Ahh, the abbreviated life of an African penguin…

nesting penguin

 

Searching for Closure, Part 3

The Neue Synagogue of Stalerstrasse was consecrated in 1913 from Edmund Körner’s designs, and was Essen’s cultural and social epicenter for the 4500 Jews around town. With its four striking copper cupolas,

Neue Synagogue (2)

it was considered one of Europe’s largest and architecturally significant synagogues of all time.

women's gallery interior

Twenty-five years later, the synagogue burned at the hands of Nazis on the eve of Kristallnacht, while onlookers could only watch in horror and dismay.

Essen Synagogue (2)
Neue Synagogue burning, Photo Archive Ruhr Museum (photographer unknown)

Fire engines stood guard as a precaution in case adjacent buildings should accidentally catch fire while the synagogue continued to burn.

Although the synagogue’s interior was plundered, vandalized and badly scarred by fire,

burned interior
and intense Allied bombing scored direct hits on the Krupp artillery and munitions factory nearby,

Krupp plant bombed (2)
Repairing Tracks at Krupps Plant, Essen, Germany, 1945. Photographer Margaret Bourke-White.

the exterior of the synagogue miraculously survived against a backdrop of rubble.

after the bombing (2)

My mother’s family worshipped at the Neue Synagogue from the time her parents settled in Essen in 1919. One of her earliest memories was sitting in the chapel listening to her father chant the Sabbath prayers from the bimah.

By 1988, the synagogue had been restored to its original splendor, and to the world, represented a shining memorial of the German resistance.

Torah Ark (2)

In August, 1999, despite my mother’s solemn vow to never return to Germany, her views were softened by Essen City Council’s olive branch of restitution, and she accepted their invitation to once again visit the synagogue she loved, and reflect on her upbringing.
Twenty years later, Essen City Council officially decreed the Alte Synagogue as a “House of Jewish Culture.”
permanent exhibit.pngFollowing my visit to Bergen-Belsen, I met with Martina Strehlen, the Deputy Head of Research Collections of the Old Synagogue to experience this cultural landmark, the origin of my mother’s Jewish roots, and to review specific archival materials. Martina clearly recalled my mother’s visit 20 years ago, and eagerly shared copies of artifacts she had donated to the research center’s collection.

Grandma Rose
Rose Straws, my grandmother
Mnil admission to Westerbork
Proof of Registration for Menil Strawzinski

Afterwards, I stood in the warm sun for a time and marveled at the significance of the Old Synagogue sharing a courtyard with the Church of Peace.

jewish-and-catholic.jpg

I was nearing the end of my journey, but there was one last deed to fulfill. Before returning my rental car to Amsterdam, I would first stop at the Jewish Cemetery of Diemen, located just outside Amsterdam’s city limits, and search for my grandfather’s grave.

Records indicate that Mnil Strawczynski was cremated on September 5, 1943, and his remains were transferred to Field U–a remote and overgrown plot of closely stacked headstones memorializing the 400 urns from Westerbork Transit Camp during Nazi occupation.

Field U

Walking the cemetary alone against a gray souless sky, I felt a odd closeness to someone I had never met, but had come to know through scattered remnants of research.

cemetary stones

But I was no closer to the closure I was seeking.

cracked and falling

With each stone unturned, a mountain of questions have been unearthed,

damp grass and stones

yet the answers are as obscure as the inscriptions on these markers.

field of stones

Searching for Closure, Part 2

I wanted more time in Amsterdam, but time wouldn’t allow it. I still had to reckon with Germany, and Bergen-Belsen was my first test. Google Maps predicted a 4.5 hour drive time, but then again, Google never consulted me about driving on the Autobahn.
I rented a SEAT Leon–a car I knew nothing about–but was assured by the agent that, “SEAT Leon is a useful car to get from point A to point B.”
“Never heard of it before. What kind of car is it…compared to more popular carmakers?” I asked.
“Think of it as a sportier Spanish version of a VW Golf,” he informed.
OK, I thought. That ought to do, and it seemed so appropriate considering how close the concentration camp is to Wolfsburg, home of the VW factory and largest automobile plant in the world.
For a third of the way, I had to watch my speed, before crossing the country border into Germany. But once A1 turned into A 30, I was off to the races.

Ordinarily, 130 kph (81 mph) is the top-posted speed limit on highways, but for many high performance vehicles, that’s akin to standing still. When clear of frequent road repairs, much of the Autobahn carries three lanes of traffic: trucks and turtles in the right lane; quasi-regulation speed in the middle lane; and Mach 1, bat-outta-hell speed in the left lane.
I waited patiently until I reached De Poppe, where I overtook a BMW 3, and throttled the accelerator as I pushed the transmission into top gear. This was life in the fast lane. When the speedometer crossed 170, I set my sights on the next middle-lane creeper, a Fiat 500. My cruising speed topped 190 and flattened.

The Fiat was coming up fast on my right. I checked my mirrors, and suddenly discovered the front end of a Mercedes-AMG GT filling my rearview and flashing its headlights. Seriously?! Within seconds of passing the Fiat?!
I stood my ground–I was committed to passing the Fiat–it was my right! Of course, my tailgater thought the same.
The roadster was so close, I could have been towing him. And now its syncopated horn was blaring. In my fantasy, it probably resembled a Grand Prix pas de deux, but in reality, it was German intimidation.
I sped past the Fiat and quickly crossed back to the middle. The Mercedes effortlessly blew by me doing no less than 240, and in a blink of an eye, my nemesis was beyond my driving horizon. Thereafter, I occasionally found my way back to the rocket lane, but I was content to run, where others were meant to fly.
Nevertheless, I managed to shave a half-hour off my run time as I took my exit. The scenery turned verdant green as I shot down the lonely country lane. Trees were filling in, crops were sprouting, and accents of color from wild flowers popped against a cloudless sky.
I was racing to Bergen-Belsen–not knowing what to expect–but once I sensed the immediacy of my arrival, I purposely down-shifted my anxiety to regain control of my emotions. I sat in the parking lot for a minute with the engine idling, thinking about the history of this place and its connection to my family, and the untold suffering and misery caused to so many others, that I wept. It wasn’t a long cry, but long enough to strengthen my resolve.
I entered the facility, where I met Simone, who sat behind the desk of the documentation center…
Simone at the entrance
and I restated my purpose. She took my grandmother’s name and cross-checked it against the memorial registry. It’s estimated that more than 50,000 people died of starvation, disease, brutality and medical sadism while interned at Bergen-Belsen. When British Allies liberated the camp on April, 15, 1945, they discovered over 60,000 prisoners, most of them sick or dying.
“You are very fortunate. Just before the Liberation, the Nazis destroyed most of their records to hide their crimes. We have records for only half the prisoners held here, but lucky for you, your grandmother’s name is on the list,” she said with excitement.
And then she presented me with twin volumes…
Books of Remembrance
and flagged the most significant page in Volume Two, which caused my heart to race.
list of names (2).jpg
Simone offered a map of the museum, and I got started on my quest.

museum map

My time was limited and I was feeling overwhelmed by the site of so many artifacts–laid out like a trail of evidence–to narrate a place in time when human beings behaved at their worst.

Standing there, I was seeing the truth stripped bare, and this sensation was getting in my way of collecting clues of my family.
exhibit hall
Square window boxes have been dropped into the cement floor, representing the found objects that archealogists have unearthed…


after the camp was incinerated by the Brits to control the spread of typhus.
camp_model
Walls of displays detail the story of the horrors within…
mission.jpg
Because of my correspondence with Bernd Horstmann, curator of the museum’s Register of Names, I learned that Grandma Rose arrived at Bergen-Belsen from Westerbork on January 12, 1944 with 1,024 other Jews,
When a transport arrives
and was detained at the Star Camp, a subsection of the Exchange Camp…
worden.jpg
crematorium
Because Grandma Rose had value to the Nazis as a seamstress, she was most likely deployed to the SS-owned Weaving Works,
letter and records (2)
letter and records (3)
which forced women to produce items from scrap materials,
weaving-works.jpg
in addition to repairing inmate uniforms.
prisoner uniform
Although living conditions at the Star Camp were considered better than other blocks within Bergen-Belsen…
conditions
the indignity and torture was more than enough to drive many of the prisoners mad.
indignity
Nonetheless, a code of conduct ruled inside the huts, in sharp contrast to the chaos and barbarism that reigned on the outside. Having been relegated to Block 20, Grandma Rose was beholden to Jewish Elder, Joseph Weiss.
code of conduct
In time, as surrounding concentration camps closed, Bergen-Belsen saw a dramatic increase in inmates. Originally intended as a Soviet POW camp for 20,000 prisoners, the camp population swelled beyond imagination and sustainability.
prisoner numbers (3)
By April, 1945, the Third Reich learned that the Allies had broken German defenses from the west and the south as the Soviets were advancing from the east.
in-early-april-1945.jpg
On April 7, 1945, Grandma Rose was among the first to be loaded onto a cattle car initially bound for Thereisenstadt,
Trains to Westerbork (2)
but destined for the gas chambers.
map of death trains route
Of course, none of the transportees knew where they were going or what to expect on the other side of their living hell, except continuing sickness and certain death.
the ride to Farsleben
After six days of unimaginable terror on the rails, Grandma Rose’s train was liberated near the German village of Farsleben on April 15, 1945 by American soldiers from the 743rd Tank Battalion of the 30th Infantry Division.

liberation mother and child (2)
Courtesy of the Gross family

Maj. Frank Towers, who also took part in the liberation, organized the transfer of Grandma Rose and the other 2,500 freed prisoners to a nearby town, Hillersleben, where they received medical treatment from Allied troops. Grandma Rose weighed 90 pounds when she admitted to the field hospital.
I felt I had reached my capacity for absorbing the inhumanity justified by the Nazis in their quest for the “Final Solution”. I didn’t know if I could process any more of it, but there was one last exhibit inside the Film Tower that was impossible to ignore, no matter how difficult to endure.
Eventually, the museum was cleared at 5pm. As many as 10 other patrons filed through the exit and into their cars, leaving me with another couple to roam the cemetery grounds on a beautiful Spring afternoon.
1940 Bis 1945.jpg
There are no tombstones on the grounds, but there are government memorials…
oblisque.jpg
and government tributes…
Herzog plaque
and personal markers.
personal tributes.jpg
scattered among a cluster of memorial mounds…
Memorial.jpg
where the unknown remains of tens of thousands of victims share a mass grave beneath the berm.

(please be advised of extremely graphic content)

I found solace inside the House of Silence, an outlying metal and glass edifice on the edge of camp, in the midst of a grove of birch trees…
Acute angle blue
where a soaring meditation room offers space for personal reflection,
House of Silence interior
and an altar for hundreds of tokens of healing and prayer.
shrine
Bergen-Belsen is a sad place that offers little redemption beyond the nagging reminder that people have the capacity for immeasurable cruelty toward each other–as if it’s in our DNA–and this is our scar for future reference.Surely, a solemn oath from each of us to “never forget,” brings us one step closer to “never again.”
But this memorial also challenges us to check our speed. We need to slow down and be mindful of the world around us in order to listen closely for the pulse of hatred that still beats among us, lest we drive down this familiar road again, ignoring the vital signs of tolerance, freedom, and understanding.
A “Search for Closure” concludes with Part 3.

Searching for Closure, Part 1

A recent two-week trip abroad was much more than a European romp through a handful of city centers. My mission was ambitious: to gather relevant data on my mother’s ancestry that has thus far proved elusive, and reconnect with family across the Atlantic whom I haven’t seen in nearly 48 years.

My itinerary took me through the highlands of Scotland, to the canals of Holland, to the Rhineland of Germany,

travel route

with travel hubs in Edinburgh,

Sir Walter Scott Monument1 (2)

Amsterdam,

bikes2

and Essen,

Alte shul plaza (2)

before taking a breath, and finishing strong as a tourist in Brussels,

Mont des Arts1

and Paris.

Luxemburg Gardens

Each stop was consequential in my quest to uncover vital research of my mother’s epic escape from Nazi Germany, and the endless road taken to reunite her broken family.

This was not an easy trip, but I could sense that during the planning stage. Yet, preparing myself for the inevitable and predictable emotional turmoil was balanced by the prospect of discovery–knowing that every step was taking me closer to connecting the dots.

Starting in the UK, I then worked my way back in time to The Netherlands, and eventually Germany–where it all began–but it was Amsterdam that proved most pivotal in my discovery and the epicenter of my travels, because it was Amsterdam that first offered safe harbor and hope for two young sisters, who until then, only had each other.

Centraal1

It was in Amsterdam that my long-distance cousin Jude and I began to fill in the missing pieces.

Jude and the Tree of Life

It so happened that a landmark exhibit of rare photographs at Amsterdam’s National Holocaust Museum coincided with our visit, and immediately became a must-see.

Exhibit cover

A large number of photos were taken by professional photographers, mostly commissioned by German authorities for use as propaganda. In addition, there were also countless amateurs who photographed the persecution and deportation of the Jews. The NIOD (Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies) manages by far the largest photo collection on this theme and conducted extensive research into the visual history of the persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands. Countless archives at home and abroad were consulted; this has led to the discovery of many still unknown photos.
The exhibition shows a large and representative overview of the photographic recording of the persecution of the Jews. The images show in a penetrating and confronting way, the consequences of the anti-Jewish measures in the occupied Netherlands. They bear witness to the merciless behavior of the German occupiers, the cooperation of the Dutch in the deportations, but also the help to people in hiding and to the daily Jewish life during the occupation. In addition, attention is paid to the post-war reception of the few survivors from the camps and those who returned from hiding.

First greeted with a timeline of events,

timeline

we proceeded through an open-air corridor and into a subdued chamber, where mostly elderly patrons followed a photographic progression of Holland’s involvement in the war, and its impact on the Jewish population:

exhibit intro

Experiencing the exhibit was numbing to my core, but still my senses were on high alert. What were my chances, I wondered, that of the 140,000 remaining Jews in Holland from 1940-1945, I might find a photograph of my grandmother stitching an article of clothing…

sewing room

for the Jewish Council,

Jewish Council

to match up with one of the few yarns she used to tell me when I was so much younger and unappreciative of her travails?

Perhaps, she could be the proper woman in the gray coat with the straight back walking the lane between barracks in Westerbork.

Life in Westerbork

Or might I recognize her in a crowd of 2,500 faces that was awaiting one of three “death trains” to Theresienstadt after the Nazi command realized that the Allies were only days away from liberating Bergen-Belson on April 15, 1945.

Trains to Westerbork (2)

At times, I used my camera as a shield to protect me from the full impact of the horror behind the photographs, thinking that if I could position myself as someone who is solely documenting the documents, than I could better insulate myself from the madness that she and so many others must have experienced.

An interactive Remembrance Wall occupied a room by the Museum foyer, encouraging patrons to search its ever-evolving database for the names and dates of Jewish victims who perished in Holland.

As a tribute to my unknown maternal grandfather Mnil…

Mnil

I entered his name into the query window. He never survived Westerbork, and I had a quiet moment of reflection and gratitude for his courage to save his family before himself.

A two-hour drive to Kamp Westerbork with Jude did nothing to assuage my feelings of emptiness and sadness, but the site was ironically enlightening and beautifully serene.

Once at the memorial museum, we were greeted by a train of suitcases, representing the cycle of detainees that the Dutch pushed through Westerbork over the years,

suitcase-symbolism.jpg

with an emphasis on the plight of 102,000 Jews who sacrified their lives, all for the sake of a twisted manifesto of hatred.

mural

Jude and I met Guido, the senior conservator of the museum at the museum cafe,

Westerbork collage

where he eagerly shared news and theories of our grandfather’s demise and our grandmother’s salvation through a collection of registration documents.

Two miles away, the hallowed grounds of the memorial can be reached on foot or by bus. Mostly empty space and green fields for an array of radio telescopes,

radio telescopes

it nevertheless showcases a collection of iconic relics from the war that survived the Dutch government’s demolition of the camp in the 1960s.

There is a glass enclosure protecting the Commandant’s quarters;

Westerbork under Glass

an original boxcar that stands as a testament to the 84 trains that transported Jews to Auschwitz and Sobibor,

Train car

where nearly all of the 94,643 persons deported were killed on arrival;

boarding the train.jpg

a monument to the 102,000 Jews of The Netherlands who passed through Westerbork…

The 102,000 Rocks

and lost their lives;

Bricks.jpg

the remnants of a barrack;

barrack-then and now.jpg

broken barracks

and a guard tower standing beside a metaphoric railbed.

guard tower.jpg

I drifted from display to display, as if being involuntarily directed like a Ouija board peg–believing that I was somehow being programmed to walk in the footsteps of my grandparents.

Upon return to Amsterdam, Jude and I strolled through the Jewish District, walking past the Portuguese Synagogue, an imposing Baroque structure completed in 1675, where most certainly, our family would have prayed, but sadly, never as a family;

Portuguese Synagogue

and along Weesperstraat, past the Monument of Jewish Gratitude,

Monument of Gratitude

where a controversial limestone edifice will soon be replaced by Daniel Libeskind’s Shoah Memorial.

From there, we strolled in search of the Burgerweeshius,

Amsterdam Museum

once the landmark orphanage that sheltered our moms after they were transported from Soesterberg…

De-Burgerweeshuiskinderen-voor-mei-1940.-Foto-NIOD (2)
Bertie stands in the back row in front of the tree; Eva sits in the second row, third from the right

and now home to the Amsterdam Museum.

Burgerwiishaus

For one moment, I thought I could hear the faint and familiar sound of children playing in the courtyard–playing tag around the tree, and playing soccer across the herringbone pavers.

Amsterdam had much to offer. Walking through the city, I felt an eerie sense of belonging–not because of the dissonance of grief–past or present–but the resonance of a shared understanding brought about by reconnecting with my cousin, Jude and the revelation that Amsterdam’s secrets have become an open book of acknowledgement and remembrance.

The journey continues with Part 2…

Touring the Tower

Let’s face it! The Eiffel Tower is one of the most photographed structures in the world. Since celebrating the 130th anniversary of its opening last week, more than 7 million people a year now flock to gawk at it’s imposing presence along the Champ-de-Mars.

the approach

I’m certain that it’s been photographed from every imaginable angle, in all sorts of light–day and night–and in all sorts of weather conditions.

But not by me! After arriving in Paris and settling in my hotel in Montparnasse, the first thing I wanted to visit was the Eiffel Tower. To me, it meant that I was in Paris!

piercing the sky

There’s security now. Since July 2018, a 3-meter high wall of bullet-proof glass (2.5 inches thick) protects the “Iron Lady” and visitors from vehicle-ramming attacks, while two sentried openings scan personal property. But the inconvenience is minimal compared to the lines that form for stairs and elevators to the top.

Once inside the enclave, the enormity of the tower is that much more imposing, stretching the length of one football field in all directions from the center to its foundation footings.

looking up

Examining the intricacy of the lattice can be hypnotizing,

Y (2)

when studying the symmetry of shapes,

through the center

or it may seem random and haphazard by a clash of metal girders.

twisted

But if abstracting the Eiffel Tower appears upsetting or unsettling, a postcard version of this Parisian landmark can always please the senses…

tower and garden

of those who long for the familiar,

traditional

or those who are easily pleased.

Paris Vegas 1