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

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

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

 

A Walk in the Garden

Leah and I awoke to an overcast day. The forecast promised more of the same, which was fine with me as long as it didn’t rain. We spent the morning searching for a new destination to stretch our legs–maybe find a bike trail, or at the very least, a walking trail not too far from home.

After a late breakfast, we headed south toward Flagler Beach, a salty seaside community with orange sand from crushed coquina…

dunes and beach

midway between St. Augustine and Daytona. We were in search of Betty Steflik Memorial Preserve, a cache of 217 acres of marsh and mangroves tucked beneath the Highway 100 causeway,

causeway

and bordering the Matanzas River.

Matanzas River

A mile or so of boardwalking through the salt marsh was pleasant though unremarkable. However, it offered me time to play with my newly acquired 1.7X tele conversion lens (see Zoom!).

egret takes off

avoiding the wake

Anticipating a loop around the preserve, we were surprised that the trail dropped us at a different parking lot annexed to the town’s public works complex that was surrounded by dilapidated residential trailers planted only blocks from the beach.

cistern1

And so we continued our tour of all things industrial and commercial, until we returned to the preserve entrance.

bridge piers

Feeling underwhelmed by our walk-around, I opted for the slow road home, following A1A North on a prayer that the seaside scenery might somehow improve on a somewhat lackluster afternoon.

We passed through nothing of consequence: nondescript shops and eateries, assorted bungalows, big machines for county road repairs, and mainstream subdivisions along the way. But when we reached Palm Coast, the road opened up to a dense maritime hammock of hardwood trees to our left, and I felt compelled to u-turn for a closer look.

We turned into Washington Oaks Garden State Park,

National Register

and heard from the gate attendant that the azalea blooms had just reached their peak, and that was enough to pique my interest.

gazebo and fountain

As we completed a self-guided tour of the grounds…

Washington Oaks Historic District

I felt relieved, knowing that our Sunday excursion had been rescued.

mask

The formal gardens were beautifully unusual,

live oak

lushly carpeted,

green garden grasses

and precisely manicured.

garden path

We left the area under partly sunny skies…

marshian sunset

knowing that we would return another day to devote more time to the miles of trails through the hammock.

And weather permitting, we will cross the highway to follow the coquina rock formations that line the Atlantic side when the tide is nigh.

The Rocks

 

 

 

 

 

Zoom!

Imagine playing recreational golf with one driver, an iron, and a putter. Accessing the game would be so much easier without the expense of all those clubs. And when playing the course, think how much time could be saved between strokes by not having to decide which club to select for each shot.

While it’s not the perfect metaphor, I’ve approached photography with the same minimalist philosophy. I’ve been photographing with a Panasonic Lumix digital bridge camera (fixed zoom lens) for the past few years instead of lugging around equipment that I might use, but most likely never would.

How do I know this? Despite decades of shooting a variety of photography disciplines (landscape, nature, portrait, street scene, architecture, etc.) that required a variety of prime and telephoto lenses neatly arranged in my equipment bag, I’ve noticed that I’m rarely disappointed by the versatility of the LEICA DC VARIO-ELMARIT 24X optical zoom permanently mounted to my Lumix DMC-FZ300, while also freeing myself of a senseless burden that would invariably sink deeper into my shoulder with every step and slow me down.

It’s truly a remarkable lens for nearly all occasions! The range and reach of the camera’s 25 – 600mm zoom has seldom left me needing more lens, or regretting my camera choice in favor of a full-fledged DSLR…until now…since there are times I’m wishing I could gain greater detail by getting closer to my subject.

For instance, walking across a boardwalk over marshland strictly limits my ability to get closer to wildlife. The following photograph is a hand-held shot of a heron that caught my attention at a scenic overlook while hiking along the Guana Loop of Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTM). 

heron on a limb

At 24X zoom, the image is acceptable, but if I choose to isolate the heron by cropping the bird to full frame, the resolution suffers greatly. Ideally, a tripod could have provided better image clarity, but the digital noise would still remain the same.

heron on a limb (4)

However, I discovered another available option that allows me to get a bit closer without relying on the camera’s built-in digital zoom–which I’m inclined to deactivate since I prefer to shoot RAW. Years ago, Lumix created a 1.7X tele conversion lens with adapter, extending the optical zoom to 40.8X, or the equivalent zoom range of 1020mm. But alas, this accessory has been discontinued.

Fortunately there’s a secondary market for almost everything photographic, so after a brief visit to the internet, I found a seller on eBay that offered the requisite 1.7X tele converter, a close-up lens, mount adapter, and tripod mount ring, all for a fraction of the original price of the tele lens.

And I bought it!

extender setHaving traveled to the GTM with my new/used acquisition, and having survived the burden of carrying extra gear, I assembled the lens and carefully threaded it onto the existing camera lens. I planted my feet, braced myself and shot the heron again!

heron on a branch (2)

A side by side comparison tells the story…

The image on the right is noticeably cleaner, even though the focus appears to be a bit soft, informing me that capturing a crisp, hand-held shot at 40.8X is not my specialty, and probably ill-advised.

Ugh! So now I’m forced to carry a tripod or monopod to make better use of the lens extender. Oh, well. There goes the economy of my photography.

marshland (2)

Then again, I could simply stick to the limits of the original lens…

GTM Estruaine (2)

but then again, with an impending trip to photograph big game animals in Africa at the beginning of May, I’m much better off adjusting to three golf clubs instead of one.

The Other Side of Cozumel, Part Dos

You may recall from The Other Side of Cozumel that sometimes vacations don’t always turn out as expected. However, since my first taste of Mexico in 1975, subsequent trips south of the border were much more enjoyable and fulfilling. I returned again and again to celebrate the culture and bask in the balmy weather. I ate my fill of fresh fish, tacos and tamales, and always managed to melt my stress away with the help of good tequila.

My status improved in 1988 when I earned my diver certification at a casual Playa del Carmen resort, and thereafter, got spoiled enjoying the drift dives in Cozumel along Santa Rosa wall, or deep diving Devil’s Throat in Punta Sur, or floating through the aquarium of sea-life that is Palancar Reef.

Past Mexican vacations have been spent exploring neighboring hotspots in the Quintana Roo vicinity:

Holbox to the North …

Holbox tour

Holbox beach

Chaccoben to the South…

Chaccoben temple @ Costa Maya

and Tulum in between…

The Castle ruin

Tulum coastline

But the one thing I never got around to doing over the past 45 years was explore the eastern shore of Cozumel. Not that I was avoiding the prospect; it’s that the opportunity never presented itself…until lately.

Rather than rent scooters for the day–which Leah would have never agreed to–I rented a modest Nissan sedan, and the two of us made a day of it.

We started out in Centro by the Iglesia de San Miguel, a charming Catholic parish…

San Miguel stained glass (3)

that always draws a queue of cruise ship passengers on shore excursion,

San Miguel (2)

to fill out laborious paperwork at a tucked-away Thrifty satelite office across the way, but that was the medicine we were willing to swallow to save nearly 60% from the rental fee quoted by our hotel concessionaire. From there it was a race to escape 1.5 miles of pedestrian madness between the Ferry Pier and the International Pier Cruise Terminal.

As we left city life behind, the jungle returned with thickets of mangroves and saw palmetto. Occasional glimpses of coastline were visible through a string of scattered beach club parking lots that offered access to rows and rows of lounge chairs, palapas, inflatable water slides, and cocktails for all the cruisers fresh from duty-free shopping or the San Miguel Church tour.

We settled on Playa Palancar for its no-fee beach access, tasty tacos and snorkeling activity. Unfortunately, the fish had reservations at a different beach club at the time, so we were forced to relax before moving on to the southern tip of the island, and a stop at the Rasta Bar at Punta Sur…

reggae beach bar

for views of the ocean,

rasta's beach club chairs1

some old-time religion,

jamaican jesus

and window shopping…

rasta's

for Mayan medalians.

masks and medalions

Back in the car, we continued around the horn to the backside of the island…

cozumel map

until we reached Playa San Martin, a cozy outpost with a sparse sandy beach…

wild beach

colorful palapas,

banos (2)

backdoor boutique

and a population of lazy iguanas.

iguana king

blue iguana

iguana (2)

The two-lane road continued North to an island mid-point, where we reached the Transversal crossroad that transported us back to the population center, dodging scooters, trucks and taxis all the way to the leeward side hotels…

north zone sunset

where high above the rooflines,

door to the rooftop

I was just in time for the evening floor show.

sunset (2)

 

 

Flamingo Road

The Vindanta vacation resort in Riviera Maya maintains a habitat for flamingos smack in the middle of their property, and neither Leah or I had any idea that it was even there, despite a sign posting by the iguana-laden boardwalk…

boardwalker (2)

just outside our building.

grand mayan 3

We must have walked past the entrance to the preserve a dozen times or more, oblivious of the signage, probably thinking that Flamencos had more to do with a lounge or restaurant concept than the pink birds that occasionally keep company with gnomes and jockeys on people’s front lawns.

So imagine my surprise after learning of a conversation Leah overheard between two hotel guests who expressed such delight in watching these birds, that we had to see this unexpected treat for ourselves.

A short walk off the beaten path revealed a contained area at the toe of a foot-shaped lagoon,

bay

where a “pat” of flamingos (maybe 20 or more) were cruising around a contoured wading pool surrounding a small island of palms and mangroves.

bevvy of birds

These quirky birds couldn’t stay still for a moment. They mostly followed the leader of the pack–a five foot specimen that often craned its long loopy neck…

black beak

above the preeners,

pretzel neck

wings akimbo

and the feeders–

standing guard

beak dip

as his elongated legs wallowed through the rippled water…

4 birds

while keeping a watchful eye…

one stand out

on the humans who regulary monitor and manage the water conditions.

maintenance

Much of the pat’s time was spent trolling the curve of the pool with their immense beaks fully immersed in water, moving their heads backwards in an inverted position…

trollers and waders

with their beak sharply angled downward from the middle–the narrow upper jaw fitting into the lower jaw–intended for separating mud and silt from the food that they eat.

close-up

The filtering is assisted by hairy structures called lamellae which line the mandible and a large rough-surfaced tongue, helping them extract the brine shrimp that constitutes their main source of food and the reason for the florescent color of their plumes.

Their fingers feature a webbing that prevents them from sinking in the mud they regularly wade through when feeding.

one leg

The Caribbean pink flamingo (American) reproduces on still waters, or on small islands within shallow salt water ponds and lagoons where it builds a mud mound with a small indentation for depositing its single egg (rarely two). The incubation period lasts from 28 to 32 days, and nesting is performed by both parents. Its offspring feed on regurgitated food for 75 days, although they can feed on their own after 30 days or so.

Flamingos reach maturity between two and three years of age, reaching recorded ages of 27 years in the wild and 50 years in captivity.

reflections (3)

No doubt, these fascinating birds have it made in the shade.

pat