Stories Behind the Photos: “Mother Leopard” (January 1, 2016)

On New Year’s Day 2016, I experienced what is possibly my favorite wildlife sighting ever, and had one of the happiest days of my life.

I’d been on safari in Botswana’s beautiful Okavango Delta for nearly a week. I had some ups and downs on this trip, as I was hoping for leopards and cheetahs and so far had not seen a single one. I was starting to get disappointed, after having spent so many hours driving in the safari truck and seeing so many antelopes and so few cats, specifically cats with spots. I couldn’t complain though, as I’d had great sightings of lots of other animals, and experienced an amazing moment when a group of mother elephants and their young ones walked passed our truck.

Still, I’d planned this trip with images of leopards in my mind, and I couldn’t help but be disappointed in not seeing one. The day before we had arrived too late at a spot where a male leopard had been spotted. My guide, Bonolo, raced to get us there, but the leopard had disappeared. I thought I’d missed my last chance, as this was New Year’s Eve, and the next day would be my last full day in Botswana, followed by a morning game drive and a flight out on January 2nd. Little did I know what was in store!

Before our attempt at spotting the male leopard, Bonolo and I were watching a pack of wild dogs alongside some guides and guests from Kwando Safaris, whose camp was nearby. Unbeknownst to me, the Kwando guides gave Bonolo a tip (speaking in Tswana/Setswana or some other language I of course couldn’t understand). They told him where they’d seen a mother leopard and her cub recently.

So the next morning, Bonolo and I departed camp along with a family of three guests from Germany. It was New Year’s Day, I had bounced back from my disappointed feelings, and I was hopeful and optimistic. Within an hour or so, Bonolo turned the truck offroad through some grass, and we came upon a small wooded area. There, laying on the ground about 50 feet away, and shadowy due to some dark shade, was a full grown leopard looking back at us. I couldn’t believe it! What was a leopard doing laying around on the ground? This didn’t make any sense! My small amount of knowledge of leopards told me that they either slept in a tree all day, or walked around hunting. Therefore this creature relaxing on the ground couldn’t possibly be a leopard, and if it was, it surely would disappear in a magic puff of smoke as we got close enough for a good view.

We kept quiet and Bonolo edged the truck as close as we could. We could only see her head and shoulders, but she didn’t disappear. Bonolo said he would try to reposition the truck on the other side where the view would be better, and sure enough after a minute or so we came around and saw her in the sunlight, and there in a small hole in the ground was her cute little cub! That explained why she was on the ground. She was calm and relaxed, and her cub wasn’t frightened. Bonolo turned the engine off and we quietly watched in awe. I snapped hundreds of pictures of her as she posed, and of her cub as he played.

We stayed for an hour or two, then it was time to give them some peace and quiet while we made our way back to camp for breakfast. That evening it was just Bonolo and I in the truck. When we got in the truck, Bonolo told me he was thinking we would go see the mother leopard and her cub again. I told him I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the afternoon. We drove back to her, parked the truck, and just watched. We spent the next couple of hours watching her and her cub, listening to the birds in the distance, and the sound of the soft breeze through the trees. What a perfect way to spend my last full day there, finally fulfilling my goal/dream of seeing a leopard on this trip, and in such a peaceful, beautiful environment.

Eventually we decided it was time to leave her and her cub in peace again, and we departed. I assumed I’d never see her again. Two years later, I would find out I was wrong.

I also assumed I would not see another leopard on this trip, as I only had one more morning safari drive remaining. That next morning, I was proven wrong.

Stories Behind the Photos: “In The Company of Giants” (December 30, 2015)

Today I found myself thinking back to a particular moment during my trip to Botswana in late December 2015. On this trip I was staying for about a week, splitting my time between two safari camps, Kanana Camp and Shinde Camp. I was very preoccupied with seeing big cats on this trip, and I had very good luck on the first day of my arrival, seeing a group of mother lions and their cubs at a kill. That’s a story for another day though!

After three nights at Kanana, it was time for me to move on to Shinde. After a morning safari drive at Kanana, my guide, Owner, took me to the airstrip where we waited for the small plane to arrive which would take me on to Shinde. I love flying in these small planes because of the amazing view you can see from their cruising altitude of roughly 4,000 feet. By this time in my safari I had become a bit disappointed in the lack of cats over the past day or so (the lions were the first, and so far, only cats I had seen on this trip). I have to point out that Kanana camp itself was beautiful, and the staff and guides there were great! Regardless, I was preoccupied with cats, so I couldn’t help but hope that I would be able to see some at Shinde.

Upon arriving at Shinde I met Bonolo, who would be my guide for the next few nights there. I told Bonolo how much I was hoping to see cats, and he told me that Shinde had been struggling with cats lately (my heart sank!), but that he would try his best to find them, as well as show me as much as he could of what Shinde had to offer.

Bonolo’s plan for that afternoon’s safari drive was perfect, and it really lifted my spirits! He spent time driving around, showing me the different landscape at Shinde. It turned out that Shinde camp had had a wildfire a few weeks prior, which cleared out dead underbrush and allowed new grass to grow. As a result, the scenery was very green and beautiful, and the wildlife had taken notice, as the fields were literally filled with animals. Wildebeest, warthogs, zebras, impalas, a beautiful family of ostriches (mom, dad, and chicks!) and more were all around us.

But the moment that came back to me today was when we saw a small group of elephants. Bonolo brought the truck alongside them, and they were about 300 feet away. It was a group of a couple of mother elephants, and a few young ones of varying age and size. They all noticed our arrival and looked at us warily. Bonolo turned off the engine and we sat very still, quietly watching the group to see how they would react to us.

The mother elephants led their young in a diagonal approach toward our truck, eating grass here and there while moving. Slowly but surely they came closer, always keeping an eye on us. Eventually the group walked directly in front of us, maybe one or two car lengths in front of the truck, and then continuing away to our left. We watched without saying a word as they calmly walked past us.

I’ve thought about that moment many times since that day. The mother elephants were huge, I’m sure each was easily strong enough to flip over our truck if she didn’t like something about us, or if she felt we were threatening the young ones. Or they could have chosen to simply walk away from us, never approaching any closer than they were when we first parked.

Instead, they chose to walk directly in front of us.

I’ve always felt it was a great privilege to have been granted permission to be so close to them. The choice was entirely theirs, and they allowed us to be in their presence. They showed trust in us that we wouldn’t attempt to harm their young, and Bonolo showed trust in them by turning off the engine to give them quiet passage.

This moment in the company of a family of peaceful giants has become just one of the many lasting memories I have of Botswana.

My Trip to Tanzania, May 2017

A Family of Lion Cubs in the Serengeti

Note: don’t forget to check out the photo gallery!

I’m on my way home from a roughly one-week trip to Tanzania. I booked the trip about 6 months in advance through www.EarthLifeExpeditions.com. As usual, I researched several other safari companies before booking with Earthlife.

It’s always a very difficult decision deciding which company to book with. I want the best price possible, and the best experience possible. In the case of Earthlife, I spoke with Deo, who is the owner of the company, for all the planning. Deo was very helpful and put together a great itinerary. I told him that I would like to see the Great Migration, and also that big cats were my primary goal. It’s somewhat difficult to predict where the herd will be, especially 6 months in advance. But Deo planned it perfectly, and we had a front row seat to watch the migration through central Serengeti, and again later as they caught up to us in western Serengeti. In addition, Deo’s staff was friendly, knowledgeable, and fun. Our guide, Aggrey, was excellent, and we had amazing viewings thanks to him.

On this trip I had a traveling companion, and it was her first safari ever. Furthermore, it was my first trip to Tanzania, and it was very special for me to see the Serengeti and Ngorongoro crater, which are the precise locations of many wildlife documentaries I watched when I was younger. To see those places, and walk on that land, was very important to me.

So let’s get to the specifics!

Timeline

During planning with Deo, we had decided that it would be good to spend a couple of days visiting Tarangire National Park and Manyara National Park, and then make our way to Ngorongoro Crater, then Central Serengeti, and finally Western Serengeti.

The schedule was:

  • Day 1: Tarangire National Park
  • Day 2: Manyara National Park
  • Day 3: Ngorongoro Crater
  • Day 4: Central Serengeti
  • Day 5: Central Serengeti
  • Day 6: Central / Western Serengeti
  • Day 7: Western Serengeti
  • Day 8: Western / Central Serengeti, and depart for Kilimanjaro airport

Flying to Tanzania from NY, USA is not particularly difficult, but there are no non-stop flights. On the way there we had a connection in Amsterdam, and on the way back we actually had two stops, one in Nairobi and another in Paris (which is where I am right now, writing this entry to be published later).

Everything was generally fine with the flights, but beware, the short flight from Kilimanjaro to Nairobi might be cancelled unexpectedly if you book with Precision Air (which is what I did originally). It was cancelled on me, and I had booked the flights through Liberty Travel, and they never notified me! I found out myself when I randomly checked the flights a few weeks later and saw that the airline had switched that flight to one that took place 6 hours later. Of course, if we took the flight they switched us to, we would miss our connection in Nairobi. It was really an asinine move by the airline, and terrible service by Liberty Travel. As it turned out, Liberty had to re-issue my tickets for the flight from Nairobi to Paris, and Paris to NY. It was left to me to book my own transportation from Tanzania to Nairobi.

Luckily, Deo from Earthlife was familiar with Precision Air, and told me that they cancel flights at the last minute. He suggested that I book a new flight with Kenya Airways, which would be earlier in the day. I did so, and everything was fine. Of course that cost me extra money, which LIberty Travel did not reimburse me for (nor did they even give me a partial refund for the cancelled flight). That’s the last time I book a flight through Liberty Travel.

Also, when leaving the Serengeti, we opted to take a small plane to Arusha rather than drive back. This would allow us more time on safari, which was important to me because this was a relatively short trip already. Also, I’ve been on small planes before, and I know that the views are amazing.

Planning

As I mentioned earlier, I did all of the planning with Deo from Earthlife Expeditions. I found Deo’s company through www.SafariBookings.com. There I was able to submit a request for quote to many different operators, one of which was EarthLife. All of the operators responded to me and gave me their best offer. Deo’s was significantly better priced than the others, even though we were staying at many of the same lodges as the others. So I focused my planning with Deo and we decided on the itinerary and price.

Deo was able to make the plans by email, which is always important to me because I work 9-5 and can’t spend a lot of time on the phone, but I can always find 10 minutes for an email. The whole process was very convenient.

Weather

Beautiful sunset
I visited in late May, which is toward the end of the rainy season, and is the less busy season in Tanzania. The dry season starts roughly in June, and by July it is peak tourism season. As it turned out, the weather and temperatures varied significantly from one place to another. Tarangire National Park and Lake Manyara National Park are both located near Arusha and had similar weather, which in this case was around 70 degrees if I remember correctly, and a bit on the cloudy side. Ngorongoro Crater had its own variations, in that the rim has a high elevation and is therefore pretty cool, especially at night with temperatures around 40 – 50 degrees. Last, the Serengeti was mostly sunny, dry, and warm with temperatures in in the 75 – 85 range.

Afternoon view of Ngorongoro craterWhen booking the trip I was worried that there would be long periods of rain, since May is technically part of the rainy season, but as it turned out we saw very little rain, and the rain we did see was only in Arusha when we arrived.

In terms of clothing, because of the wide range in temperatures, I packed some pants and shorts, as well as a nice warm hoodie. This turned out to be a good idea, since sometimes it was cold and sometimes warm. A bit annoying since it meant I had to pack more though!

Guide and Staff

Our guide, Aggrey (pronounced ah-grey, with a rolled R if you can roll your R’s), was waiting for us outside the airport the night we arrived. He drove us to our hotel, taking a route through Arusha so we could see some local night life being that it was a Saturday evening, and made sure we were checked into our room and ready for the next day’s schedule before departing.

Over the next week or so Aggrey was our guide and driver, and he did a phenomenal job. He proved to be excellent at spotting wildlife, which is the primary characteristic I want in a guide. In addition to that, he was also very friendly, knowledgeable, and helpful. Not only did he show us the wildlife, but he also taught us a lot about the people and culture of Tanzania.

I could tell that it was very important to Aggrey that we see as many animals as possible, and he worked very hard to spot everything he could. In Ngorongoro crater he found 3 black rhinos, at very far distances! In the Serengeti he took us to the wide open plains in search of cheetahs, and we were rewarded with some great sightings of these beautiful animals. Aggrey had a tough job to do, in that he was responsible for spotting as many animals as possible, and put in some very long hours behind the wheel as we drove from one park to another. This is tiring work, but he was always ready early the next day for more.

On our first morning in Tanzania we were met at breakfast by Angela, who works with Earthlife, and she reviewed our itinerary with us and made sure we were aware of the schedule and general day to day routine. She also gave us some homework, to learn a few names of animals in Swahili, and report back to her at the end of the trip. We saw her again for lunch on our last day in Tanzania and we were proud to be able to recite a few names for her, so we passed our quiz!

We also met Deo at the hotel on the first morning, and he was very warm and friendly. Last but not least, on our last day we were driven to the airport by Gilbert, who I believe also works as a guide for Earthlife, and he was also very friendly and fun to spend some time with.

Overall I was very impressed by the entire Earthlife staff. Everyone was professional, hard working, genuine, friendly and down to earth.

Accommodations

Sunset view from Kubu Kubu lodge
Because we were visiting several parks, we saw a total of 5 different hotels/lodges during the trip! We started out spending one night at the Venus Hotel in Arusha, which was a nice, modern hotel, perfect for a quick stay before heading out on an adventure.

After visiting Tarangire National Park on day 1, we spent the night at Tarangire Osupuku Lodge, which had very nice rooms set up as separate ground-level huts. Ours had a back door opening to a small patio which had a view of the surrounding park. I woke up early and watched the sky grow lighter and listened as the birds started to sing, and noticed a troupe of vervet monkeys in a nearby tree as they slowly awoke from their nighttime cuddle-positions (seriously, apparently they sleep cuddled in each other’s arms!) and went about looking for something to eat. I missed those mornings in Africa, and I was very glad to be back there!

After Manyara National Park we drove to the Ngorongoro Rhino Lodge where we stayed for the next two nights. This lodge is set up as a few buildings with adjoining rooms. Our room (and all rooms I assume) was equipped with a wood-burning stove for heat, which came in handy considering the chilly nighttime temperatures of the rim of Ngorongoro crater. The room itself was cozy, and also had a back door with a patio overlooking a small green field and foliage. Again I could wake up early and watch as the night turned to day and the birds started flying.

Next we spent two nights at Kubu Kubu Tented Camp in central Serengeti. In terms of accommodations, this was the star of the trip. It’s a full luxury lodge, which big spacious rooms, shiny modern bathrooms, a huge dining area, and an amazing view. I was blown away by the view – the lodge is situated on a mountainside, so each room overlooks the surrounding fields and trees. The rooms are set up in two rows along the hill, with the second row higher up than the first, so every room has a great view. The rooms are tented, meaning they’re a wood frame with a canvas tent for walls. The back door was a zippered tent door which opened to a patio overlooking the field. Each room has a water cooler that dispenses purified water (hot or cold) along with great tasting instant coffee, tea, sugars, etc. I woke up early each morning and sipped coffee as I watched the herds of wildebeest below. At night, the wildebeest and zebra could be heard from the not too distant field as they moo’d and called to each other. Thanks to Deo’s excellent planning from several months in advance, we were in exactly the right spot for the Great Migration. On the first morning as I sipped coffee, I noticed that the field to the distant east was filled with little dots. I realized the dots were slowly moving, and that this was a group of hundreds, maybe thousands of wildebeest making their way toward the field right below the lodge! Over the course of the next day or so they made their way past the lodge, heading west, so I had a front-row seat to watch the migration.

I should point out that Kubu Kubu is very high on the luxury side of things, so if you’re looking for a more rugged experience you might not prefer it. But it would be impossible not to be impressed by it!

Next we headed to western Serengeti and spent the final two nights at Mbalageti Serengeti in a tented Chalet. It was also a tented room, meaning an elevated wood frame with a canvas tent. On the bright side, Mbalageti is also set up on a hillside and therefore has an amazing view of the surrounding fields, with sunrise and sunset both visible on the horizons. Food was very good and staff were friendly. Unfortunately though, it did have some problems. First, walking around outside during the day would bring you through clouds of flies that would bounce into your face, your lips, your head, etc. None landed on or bit us, but they were very annoying! Probably not much that Mbalageti could do about it, but still annoying. Second, the room itself had a bug problem. I don’t know exactly how it happened, but bugs were in the bed and I got covered in bug bites. My ankles, arms and rib cage all sported dozens of itchy red bites. Maybe it was because the mosquito net didn’t hang all the way to the floor, and maybe it was just that one room, I really don’t know, but this is one lodge I wouldn’t stay at again.

I don’t let Mbalageti ruin the overall experience though – overall the lodges were all great, and despite its problems, Mbalageti still has a lot to offer. Besides, if you’re going to Africa looking for luxury instead of what you should really be looking for (animals!), then you have the wrong idea to begin with!

Daily Routine

Safari here is a bit different than other places I’ve been to. Instead of separate morning and afternoon drives, we usually did one long drive from morning until evening. Lodge staff would give us a boxed lunch (maybe chicken, a sandwhich, some fruit, a small dessert, drink, etc), and we’d take a nice break in the field somewhere to enjoy our lunch and then continue the game drive. We usually headed out a bit later than I normally did elsewhere (maybe 7 – 7:30 on most days if I remember correctly), and got back a bit before sunset.

So on most days we were out for one extended safari drive, which is why I was further impressed by Aggrey’s hard work as a guide. I got to sit back and enjoy the ride while Aggrey concentrated on driving the rough terrain and spotting wildlife at the same time, for hours each day.

Wildlife

A family of grey crowned cranes
OK OK, so what animals did we see?!

We had amazing luck from the very beginning. On our first safari drive in Tarangire, we came upon a leopard sleeping the afternoon away in a tree. First of all, no one sees a leopard on their first safari drive, and second of all, leopards are extremely rare in Tarangire! But I have the pictures to prove it – in fact the leopard was one of the first animals we saw. We also saw a pack of mongooses, a mother elephant with a very young baby (Aggrey said it was probably only a few weeks old), and more.

At Lake Manyara we took a short walking tour and saw birds and some plant life, then drove through a beautiful field surrounded by baboons and warthogs grazing peacefully in the green grass.

Zebras at Ngorongoro CraterAt Ngorongoro crater we immediately came upon a pack of lions (two males, I believe just one female, and several cubs) as they fed on a zebra kill near a small pond, while being harassed by nearby jackals. Aggrey was intent on finding us a black rhino, and sure enough two were spotted resting lazily off in the distance. They were far away and barely picked their heads up to allow us to see their horns, but they were rhinos alright! Later another was spotted walking between roads, also in the distance but we could see it clearly enough. At times we were surrounded by herds of zebra and gazelles, and we watched a lone elephant stroll and eat in a beautiful field of purple flowers. We even saw lions mating in a field of yellow flowers.

A pair of cheetahs jogging in the SerengetiFinally, the Serengeti couldn’t have been more perfect, and we had unbelievable views throughout the visit. On the drive to the Serengeti we drove through what seemed like endless fields of gazelles. We saw two beautiful cheetahs marking their territory in the afternoon, awe-inspiring sunsets, and lions almost everywhere. The Serengeti plains were amazing, spreading as far as the eye could see with tall golden grass. My favorite sighting of all was of two cheetahs preparing to hunt together, and they strolled right past our truck. They really are beautiful! And as I mentioned before, thanks to Deo’s excellent planning, we were right in the middle of the Great Migration. I’ve seen it on TV, but I was not prepared for the reality of literally millions of animals migrating together (1.7 million wildebeest, hundreds of thousands of zebras, and gazelles and impalas following). When we drove from central Serengeti to western, we drove right though the migration. At one point we drove for 10 minutes straight and there were wildebeest as far as the eye could see in every direction. It was amazing.

Aggrey had told us that western Serengeti would have less in the way of big cats, because the terrain there is different and because the migration hadn’t reached that area yet (the predators follow the migration). Some other guests confirmed what Aggrey had told us, saying that they had been there for three days and as far as cats go, they saw just one, a leopard in a tree, very concealed. Furthermore there were a bit more tsetse flies here. So, instead of a safari drive, we spent a day at Lake Victoria, which was huge! Finally on our last morning we got an early start so we could head back to central Serengeti’s airstrip for a small-plane ride back to Arusha to start the long journey home. We were rewarded with an incredible view of two elephants strolling with the rising sun behind them. Moments later some park rangers told us about a leopard up ahead, which turned out to be a cheetah! She’d made a kill the night before, and had been chased away by hyenas, but she was resting alongside the road. We got a great view and saw that her belly was huge, and Aggrey informed us that she was pregnant and would give birth soon. Finally we proceeded with our drive, and we saw that the migration had started to catch up with us, and again we drove right through it.

Tanzania And the Locals

Schoolchildren holding up pencils we gave themIn addition to the safari, we also took some tours of local villages, walked through a market-day gathering, and saw lots of maasai. One thing that was constant almost every time we turned around were the big warm smiles of the Tanzanians. Children as young as maybe 4 years old would run toward the truck and yell “hallo! Hallo hallo! Hallo!” waving and smiling as we drove by. We toured three villages, one of which was maasai, and got an idea of how the locals made their living, which was mainly through farming crops, cattle herding, and fishing.

The market-day we walked through was very interesting, but unfortunately we were swarmed by locals trying to sell us souvenirs, and frankly they were very pushy and annoying. I started out by being polite, but eventually had to tell them I was simply not going to buy anything, and still they wouldn’t stop showing me merchandise and asking me to help support them. Aggrey came over and shoo’d them away before I had to get really rude. That was annoying because I really did want to walk around and look at the goods for sale by everyone who would let me simply browse quietly. Furthermore, I was concerned that they might try to pick my pocket, because I was literally surrounded by them and couldn’t watch all of them at once.

The Safari Truck

Our safari truck
Another thing I was unsure of before arriving in Tanzania was the safari truck. I was unhappy that Tanzania requires all trucks to be closed instead of open like the trucks I was familiar with. We could open the windows (sideways slide-style windows), and pop up the roof, but it’s not the same as a wide open truck, and I wasn’t sure if I would like it.

At first glance when Aggrey picked us up at the airport, I thought that this truck looked like it had been through it’s share of battles, but if you’re familiar with safari drives you’ll know that they’re very unforgiving on a truck. If you see a shiny smooth safari truck, then you see a safari truck that has never been on safari : ) Anyway, the truck itself was tough and handled the terrain with ease.

Meanwhile, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked the popup roof. Once lifted, you can stand straight up and hold on to the metal frame on the roof, making it easy to balance and get a full 360 degree view. I couldn’t see straight up, so bird lovers might have been annoyed, but I could see more than enough to satisfy me.

Our safari truckThat being said, the trucks seat 8 people (driver plus 7 passengers). Seats in the back are three rows, two seats side by side, a bit elevated over the driver. The last seats in the back have a big cooler between them, which holds all of your drinks and various food that needs to be kept cold. It was just Aggrey driving, and my friend and I in the back, meaning we had the entire back to ourselves. I saw lots of trucks that were packed with 6 people, and personally I would have been miserable if that were the case with us. My photography gear took up space, plus binoculars, bean bags, water bottles, etc. I’m sure you can save money by going on safari with a group of 6 people in one truck, but I wouldn’t do it myself, I’d much rather spend a little more and be able to spread out and move around to whatever side of the truck I want. I would suggest no more than 4 guests in a truck if you want to be comfortable.

Where Was I?

Like my trip to the Pantanal, on this trip I also used my Nikon D500, which is capable of connecting to my cell phone via bluetooth. It can then use the cell phone’s GPS to automatically geotag all the pictures.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t really work very well. I noticed on my trip to the Pantanal that although every image was tagged, the tags were almost all the same. I got a total of maybe 10 or 20 different locations, even though we were constantly on the move while I took thousands of photos. Something is very wrong with Nikon’s app, it seems to only update the GPS location once in every great while.

So for this trip I also used a free GPS logging app, which logged my GPS coordinates every 30 seconds for every day I was out. I can then sync these up using Adobe Lightroom. It’s only a tiny bit of work, and is much more accurate than Nikon’s app. Very disappointing that Nikon screwed that up, but at least there’s a workaround.

Anyway, here’s a Google Map showing some locations!

Summary and Suggestions for Future Travelers

I’m glad to say that, again, I’ve experienced an incredible safari. I have no serious complaints and had no real problems on the trip. Earthlife Expeditions was great to work with. Here are some thoughts and suggestions for a similar trip:

  1. You’re going to encounter a handful of flies on this trip. They’re annoying but there’s not much you can do about it, so just be warned.
  2. Bring a sunhat and sunscreen. Even though you’re in the truck most of the time, you might as well bring them along. I didn’t notice sunscreen for sale but I’m sure it was available in various shops, at a nicely marked-up price just for tourists 🙂
  3. A good zoom lens is important if you want close-up pictures. I didn’t think to ask beforehand about whether we can drive off-road or not, and as it turns out, most places don’t allow it. That means most sightings were from the road, and you were as close as the animals felt like getting to you. So if you want those close-ups, bring a zoom lens of at least 300mm, preferrably 500 or 600.
  4. I brought a monopod but didn’t use it once. Instead I used the bean bags which were loaned to us by Earth Life Expeditions, and they worked great. Actually I would have had a hard time using a monopod inside the truck, and a tripod would have been a nightmare, and in any case, both were completely unecessary since the bean bags worked so well. That being said, more particular photographers might still prefer a monopod or tripod. I did see a couple of people that somehow rigged up tripods using the roof rack.
  5. Tarangire National Park and Lake Manyara National Park were both great, but in the future I’ll probably either skip them, or combine them both into one day since they’re not too far apart. I enjoyed Ngorongoro and central Serengeti more. If you have a lot of time to spend in Tanzania, then definitely give each of these a day. But if you’re like me and you only have a week or so, I’d suggest asking your tour coordinator to combine them into one day (morning in Tarangire and afternoon in Manyara) or just skip them entirely.
  6. Wake up early!!!! You can sleep when you’re dead!!! I was slow on a few mornings, and other days we had a long drive ahead of us so we didn’t rush. Most days we got in the truck around 7:30 AM, which isn’t early enough. We did get a very early start on the Ngorongoro crater day, and we were one of the first couple of trucks into the crater. But when you get a late start, you never know what you might have seen. To prove my point, on our very last day we left the lodge at 6:30 AM, and within 15 minutes we saw two elephants perfectly silhouetted against the rising sun. It was a beautiful. A few minutes later we came upon a pregnant cheetah who we realized had made a kill the night before, and she walked gracefully next to the road with the golden-red early morning sun illuminating her. By 8 or 9, who knows if she still would be so close to the road, and I felt bad for any other guests who got a later start and might not get to see her. In hindsight I would have pushed to leave camp at 6:30 every morning.

And finally

On our last day we took a small-plane from central Serengeti to Arusha, where another guide from our tour company met us. We ate a leisurely lunch and then made our way to Kilimanjaro airport for the long trip home.
The Serengeti definitely stands out as my favorite part of this trip, especially the endless grassy fields of the central plains, with golden grass stretching as far as the eye could see. I’ll miss those fields (correction – I miss them already), and I can’t wait to see them again one day.

A cheetah standing on a termite mound watching a herd of gazelle

Stories Behind the Photos: “A Walk to a Sleepy Cheetah” (March 22, 2015)

Today is March 25, 2017, and it’s been two years since my first trip to Africa. I spent some time reading my journal entries from that trip and it brought back memories. It’s interesting re-reading my thoughts at the time, where I had no idea when I would see Africa again, or see anything so amazing.

Since then I’ve been to the Galápagos Islands, Brazil’s Pantanal region, and Botswana, and in a few weeks I’ll be heading to Tanzania.

Anyway, one of my favorite events from the March 2015 trip to South Africa was on the morning of the 22nd. That was our last day on safari in Kruger, and we would leave for a cross-country drive back to Johannesburg immediately afterwards. We’d seen a lot of great stuff, and the night before we had a glimpse of two beautiful leopards, so I felt a bit greedy in hoping for more.

The drive was mostly quiet and peaceful, and we saw a family of white rhinos very early on. Over the next hour or two we drove around looking for more wildlife but didn’t see anything extremely exciting. Eventually our guide, Helen (nicknamed “H”), got a call on the radio. I don’t remember hearing the conversation, probably because they were speaking Afrikaans, but we’d all learned by now that a call on the radio might mean another truck has spotted something and that we might be able to join them.

She didn’t say much to us right away, but we started driving for 20 minutes with a clear purpose (not just poking around slowly). Eventually she stopped the truck and broke the news – “we’re in line waiting to see something. It’s another cat. We’re the 3rd group in line, so we just have to hope he doesn’t leave. It’s a cheetah.” I was anxious and disappointed. We couldn’t drive all the safari trucks to the cheetah, and I thought there was no chance whatsoever that a cheetah would hang out posing for pictures long enough for us to get a chance see him. Luckily, I was wrong!

After maybe 40 minutes of agonizing waiting, we finally got the radio call that we could approach. Helen drove us there and parked the truck, and we all looked around but could see nothing. She said: “there’s one other thing I didn’t tell you – we have to get out and walk to the cheetah, we can’t see it from here.” Cool!! We’d normally only gotten out of the truck to take a quick break and have a drink, never to walk into the bush. For those of you familiar enough with Kruger National Park to know that it’s against the rules to get out of your vehicle there – this was not at Kruger, but at a neighboring private reserve, where the rules are less strict.

So we got out and walked a short distance until we saw a beautiful male cheetah lying in the bushes, lazily sleeping the morning away. He was extremely calm, so I’m sure he’d seen his fair share of tourists and this was nothing new to him. He allowed us to get as close as about 10 feet away! We were all as quiet and calm as we could be, while we took pictures and talked about how cool it was to be standing there in front of a wild cheetah.
Eventually we left so another group could see him. On the way back to the truck I spotted a tall termite mound and asked H to take my picture standing near it, which you can see on my “About Me” page.

That picture of me would be one of the last “safari” pictures of the trip, since we drove back to camp and departed for Johannesburg right after it was taken, and it happened to capture me at one of my happiest moments. I’ve been traveling to a lot of other places in the meantime, both Africa and elsewhere, so I don’t know when (if ever) I’ll see that particular safari camp again, but it would be very nice to spend a night there again sometime.

Stories Behind the Photos: “Leopard on the Runway” (January 2, 2016)

In December 2015 I took another trip to Africa, this time heading to Botswana’s Okavango Delta region. Safari camps in the Okavango are very difficult to reach by land, due to being in a very remote area. Therefore, to get to your camp, you book a flight in a single-engine plane. This is actually one of the best parts of the trip, because these planes fly at only about 4,000 feet above ground, meaning you’re up high enough to see the landscape, but low enough to pick out animals like hippos and elephants. The views are amazing!

So upon landing in Maun, you wait for your plane and pilot to be sorted out, and eventually you are introduced and you walk over to your plane, load up your bags, and hop in.

Dirt RunwayThe airport in Maun is small, kind of like MacArthur Airport on Long Island in New York, and it has nice paved runways.

I know, you’re thinking that paved runways kind of goes without saying, right? I mean, they don’t really land on anything unpaved anymore, right? Right?? Certainly not something like, say, a narrow dirt strip with tufts of grass poking out all over the place.

Well, they do! It’s actually really fun!

Anyway, so after about a week on safari in Botswana, it was the new year and it was time for me to head home. My flight out of camp was scheduled for around 10 or 11 AM if I remember correctly, which left me more than enough time for one last morning safari.

My trip so far had been excellent, with great leopard sightings, African wild dogs, elephants, and many more. This final safari drive was like a bonus, I’d already seen everything I could have hoped to see. I always work very hard to keep my expectations low when heading out on a safari drive. My guide, Bonolo, had been a great guide for the past few days, but no guide has control over the animals, therefore any sightings are a combination of the guide’s spotting ability, and luck. Bonolo was great at spotting the wildlife, and since I’d already seen so much, I was content with whatever we might have seen on this drive, even if it was just the green grass and blue sky.

As luck would have it though, we very quickly came upon a young male leopard out for a morning stroll. The sun hadn’t fully risen yet, and we expected him to pick a nice tree and hop in for some sleep. But to my surprise, he spent the next hour or two walking around, and we realized he was still hunting. The sun continued to rise and eventually it got pretty hot, and he was panting as he walked.

I tend to lose my bearings while on a safari drive, because you’re basically out in the woods and fields, with seemingly random dirt roads that intersect in loops and swirls all over the place. This is also partly because I don’t care, it’s not my job to navigate, and I’m just looking for animals. So after a few minutes in the truck, I usually have no idea where we are in reference to the camp.

So after following this leopard for a half hour or so, I started realizing the surroundings were familiar. We were near our camp! They always say to be careful, even when at your safari camp, because you never know what sort of wildlife might be around, but I always imagine that leopards stay away because they tend to be shy. But here was this leopard getting within walking distance of our camp. Then I noticed the dirt runway up ahead. Sure enough he was heading straight for it. Bonolo realized it before I did, and he knew exactly where we would want to be to watch him cross the runway.

He quickly, and as quietly as possible in a noisy truck, drove around the runway to the opposite side, and parked. We watched for a few seconds as the leopard approached, and Bonolo had picked exactly the right spot. The leopard crossed right in front of us, giving us a great view in bright sunlight. What a great way to finish my trip! We followed him for a while longer, and even watched as he made an unsuccessful attempt at catching an impala calf. I have to admit, I knew the leopard must have been very hungry to be hunting so late in the morning in such heat, and I was torn between rooting for him to catch something to eat, versus rooting for the calf to escape with its life.

Eventually another truck showed up with more tourists who wanted to watch the leopard, and it was almost time for my flight out, so we decided to head out. We drove around for another hour or so but only saw the beautiful landscape, and then we returned to the runway to wait for my plane. By this time, a landscaper had arrived and was mowing the lawn around the runway. We got out and stood around waiting, and I contemplated the fact that a plane would soon land here to take me home, in the same spot where I had just watched a very beautiful, very dangerous animal, walking free.

Leopard On Runway - 1

Leopard On Runway - 2

Leopard On Runway - 3

Tinkering with Lightroom’s Adjustment Brush

It’s been a while since I’ve done anything photography-related! I spent a lot of time developing my pictures from my trip to Brazil, and after that I was pretty drained and, believe it or not, didn’t touch my camera for a few weeks.

During that time I looked at my pictures from Brazil and decided that I’d processed a lot of them incorrectly, particularly the ones of jaguars. The biggest problem is they were all too dark. During processing I tended to focus on the jaguar, and I darkened the image until the jaguar wasn’t overly bright (including white fur, etc). I made the conscious decision to ignore the backgrounds, since the focus of the pictures were the jaguars. That made sense, but overall it led to pictures that had a dark, kind of gloomy feel to them. The jaguars did look fine, but with the rest of the picture appearing dark, the overall images weren’t as appealing as they could have been. More importantly (to me at least) is that the pictures weren’t an accurate depiction of what I saw that day. I’m very particular about that.

Highlighting with LightroomBut when I originally processed these pictures, I thought there was no real solution to this “dark background / medium animal” problem. Well somehow a couple of weeks ago I stumbled onto Lightroom’s Adjustment Brush tool. You can use the tool to highlight a certain part of an image, and then make adjustments that only change that part. That allowed me to brighten the images overall, and then selectively darken just the animals. Now pictures in bright sunlight look bright and sunny, with the animals still recognizable instead of blinding.

The technical aspect of this is all about “exposure” which is how photographers refer to way you allow the light to hit the film (or the sensor for a digital camera). Cameras try their best to correctly expose a picture for you, but they’re not perfect, and they often get it wrong. A great example is when you’re taking a picture of some friends, and the sun is behind them and bright. Frequently, your camera will see the big bright background, and try to expose for that, which will make your friends’ faces look very dark and shadowy. On the other hand, if your camera picked your friends and adjusted for them, the background would look overly bright. I was tackling the same issue with my jaguar pictures. Despite all the advances in camera technology, this can still be an annoying, and common, problem.

So back to Lightroom – I decided to review my favorite pictures and re-process any that were too dark. Honestly, I hate processing pictures. It’s tedious. I’m sure that professional photographers are a lot better at this than I am, because there’s no way they could make a living if it took them as long as it takes me to process images. Lightroom is great for processing lots of images quickly, but I’m still slow. Unfortunately, the Adjustment Brush is a great tool, but must be used individually for each image, and requires that you pay close attention to what you’re doing. Once you’ve “painted” the highlight over the area that you want to adjust separately, the hard part is done and you can quickly make your adjustments. But when you’re working on hundreds of images, painting that highlight can take a while!

So that’s what I’ve been doing over the past few weeks. I think the final images are a lot more appealing than the originals. But the truth is, this is a matter of opinion, and some people might have preferred the darker images. Here’s a before/middle/after so you can think about it yourself. 🙂

Original

Middle

Finished

Realism in my Photography

I want to take a quick minute to get up on my high-horse and talk about realism in photography, and particularly, my photography. 🙂

When I’m reviewing and processing my pictures, the foremost thing on my mind is to try to make sure the final image is an accurate depiction of what was in front of me when I took the picture. The main reason I became interested in photography in the first place is that I wanted to get better at making sure my pictures represented exactly what I saw. I don’t always have the best memory, and I wanted pictures so I could look back and easily recall what I had seen and done.

The reason I think about the idea of realism is because of how frequently we see Photoshopped images these days. For example a picture of a tiger might be changed to black and white, except for the tiger’s eyes, which are full color and bright, brilliant yellow. Personally, when it comes to nature and wildlife photos, I hate this. My opinion is that nature needs no highlighting.

I’m not saying those pictures look bad, it’s just something I’ll never do. I want my photographs to represent, to the best of my ability, what I saw that day, and I’ll let nature do the rest.

So there you have it, you’ll never see me changing colors or whatever, to anything other than what I, and the camera, saw that day.

My Trip to The Pantanal (in Brazil), July 2016

Brother and Sister Jaguars in the Pantanal

UPDATE 7/28/2016: Full picture gallery is ready! Brazil 2016 Wildlife Photos

I’m back from a roughly one-week trip to the Pantanal region in Brazil, in early July of 2016. I booked the trip through www.WildPantanal.com. I researched several Pantanal tour/safari companies while planning the trip. While many looked good, I particularly liked that Wild Pantanal was able to work with my travel schedule. Most other companies had pre-scheduled tours which I could join. That’s a bit different than what I was used to after two safaris in Africa, where you generally show up and leave according to your own schedule. Wild Pantanal was able to arrange my tour according to my own travel dates, which was very important to me since I usually only take short vacations. I did see several scheduled tours on their website as well, and I would have been happy to join them, but none of them fit my travel dates.

So, I’ve spent the last week or so reviewing and processing the thousands of pictures I took there, and finally finished the majority of the work yesterday. For those of you who aren’t aware, processing and cataloging your photography is unbelievably time consuming! Unfortunately for me, I have a habit of taking more pictures than is necessary, which means even more to review! It’s worth it though, as I now have thousands of great pictures to remind me of this great trip.

So, how was the trip, what did I do, and what did I see? Let’s get started!

Timeline Summary

I was scheduled to leave New York in the evening on Friday, 7/1/2016, and after three flights I would arrive in Cuiabá, Brazil (pronounced sort of like "koo-yaba") at about 11 AM the following morning. Unfortunately there are no direct flights, although Cuiabá is the capital city of the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, it’s still relatively small and does not have an international airport. So the flight plan was: NY to Miami, Miami to Brasília (the federal capital of Brazil), and finally Brasília to Cuiabá. That was the plan…

As bad luck would have it, there was terrible weather along the east coast on the day of my flight. Maybe I’ll write up the ordeal in a separate post, but the bottom line is I spent the night on the floor of Miami international airport, and didn’t arrive in Cuiabá until about 1 AM on the morning of Sunday 7/3/2016, having missed the entire first day of my trip. Needless to say, I was very disappointed!

The original plan was for me to spend two nights at a lodge part of the way down the Transpantaneira roadway, followed by four nights on a houseboat on the Cuiabá River. Instead I would spend one night at the lodge, with the rest of the trip remaining the same. On the last morning I would go on one final boat-safari, and spend the afternoon driving back to Cuiabá.

My guide, Flavio, met me at the hotel in Cuiabá at 9 AM sharp on Sunday 7/3 to begin the tour. I couldn’t wait to see the Pantanal!

Planning

I did all of my planning and coordinating with Ric from Wild Pantanal by email, which I strongly prefer just because it’s easy for me. Ric was available by phone if I wanted to speak to him, but email is just a lot easier for me and I was really glad he was able to coordinate the planning this way. He emailed me the appropriate forms, I filled them out and signed them, took pictures with my cell phone and/or saved PDFs, and emailed those back to him. He sent invoices by email/PDF and I paid them online. I could have done bank transfers or Paypal. The whole process was very easy and Ric was great at working out a plan for my trip. I told him what I wanted to see and he set up a trip that gave me the best chance of seeing what I wanted.

I arranged my flight schedule separately on my own, and purchased separate travel insurance. I highly recommend travel insurance whenever travelling internationally! As a result of my missed first day of the trip, I’ve made a claim with my insurance agency and I expect to be partially reimbursed, which at least softens the blow a bit. Of course, the bigger reason purchase insurance is in case of a medical emergency, which thankfully I have not experienced during any of my international travels.

Weather

Beautiful evening skyI visited at the early part of the dry season. Technically it was winter in Brazil, however the Pantanal is a hotter part of Brazil, and it was always warm during the day. Nights would cool down to maybe 50 or 60 degrees Fahrenheit, with temperatures during the day rising to 90 or a bit higher. There was one evening / morning that grew cloudy and had the threat of rain, but Flavio said it would have been the first time he saw rain during the dry season in years. I was worried it would cost us a boat ride, but I shouldn’t have been concerned – not a single drop fell, and by the next day it was sunny again.

Beautiful evening skyDespite the hot daytime temperatures, evenings and mornings were downright cold, and I frequently wore my hooded sweatshirt. If I hadn’t brought that I would have been miserable and freezing for a lot of the trip. I also wore long pants and long sleeves (light weight), partially for mosquito protection but also because of the temperature. Keep in mind that during boat rides there was a constant wind blowing, which would make early morning 60 degree temperatures feel a lot colder. Even when it rose to 80 degrees, the constant breeze kept us fairly comfortable. The only time we really felt the heat was when we stopped in the sun to observe the wildlife. Afternoon boat drives would end well after sunset, and the temperature would drop again and I would be wearing my hooded sweatshirt on the drive back to the houseboat.

I brought shorts and T-shirts with me, but as it turned out I barely used them, so that’s something to keep in mind for the future. Cargo pants that convert to shorts are a perfect compromise if you’re not sure what to pack.

Guides and Drivers

Flavio speaks fluent English and was very easy to communicate with. He introduced himself and our driver, Jon (I suspect Jon’s name is spelled differently and that I even have the pronunciation wrong, but this is the closest approximation I can give you). Jon would drive us to the lodge along the Transpantaneira roadway, take us out on a night-safari drive that evening, and then the rest of the way to the end of the roadway the next day, where Flavio and I would take a small motorboat to the houseboat I would stay on. The motorboat was driven by (again, I’m sorry to say I probably have the name wrong here) a young man named Eninga. He would drive Flavio and I around the many rivers and streams in the area over the next few days, and at the end of the trip Jon would drive us back to Cuiabá.

Jon spoke only a bit of English, and Eninga even less, so Flavio would do all the communicating during my trip. I absolutely cannot say enough about how good they all were!

Jon and Eninga were both great drivers, being extremely patient while I took pictures. I was also impressed with Eninga whenever we spotted a timid animal (usually a jaguar or tapir). I saw 8 or 10 other boat drivers during my trip, and several of them would speed noisily toward a shy animal, scaring it away. This happened twice while we were observing jaguars. The first time, the jaguar was very shy and did not return. The second time was with a younger brother and sister pair, who we had spent two days quietly observing without any other boats nearby. In contrast, as soon as a timid animal was spotted, usually from very far away thanks to Flavio’s eagle-eye, Eninga would cut the motor to low power and we would approach as slowly and quietly as we could. The first time we saw the brother and sister jaguars, they were scared away even by our silent approach! Eninga and Flavio decided to quietly park the boat all the way on the other side of the river (maybe 300 feet across) and turn off the engine completely. We waited, and after 5 or 10 minutes the jaguars returned. Over the next 30 minutes we let them get comfortable with our presence, and slowly, quietly, maneuvered the boat closer to them by driving upstream and turning off the engine, and floating back down to where they were resting. In this way we were able to get much closer, without disturbing them. Flavio and Eninga knew exactly how to approach a shy animal!

Last but not least, there are no words to describe Flavio’s guiding skill! I’ve never seen so many different birds in such a short period of time (this includes Africa and the Galápagos Islands), and Flavio knew every single one of them. He spotted them from afar, no matter how small they were, and immediately identified them. I can’t imagine how he remembered all of their names! Flavio explained to me that he grew up in the Amazon (the Pantanal region is further south) and spent many hours hunting for food using a bow and arrow. He has been guiding in the Pantanal for about 16 years, and returns to the Amazon to visit his family every year or two. In the past he would guide tourists on foot in the Pantanal, sleeping in a hammock while guests slept in a tent nearby. For someone like me, with little or no instincts about surviving among pumas and jaguars, this would be very dangerous, but Flavio grew up here, and had a lifetime of experience. I was extremely confident in him when we went on several hikes at the lodge, and once or twice when we got out of our boat alongside the river. He knew this area, the rivers, streams and swamps, and the wild animals in it, like the back of his hand. If you plan your own trip to the Pantanal, I highly recommend Flavio as your guide.

Accommodations

The Pantanal is a somewhat remote region of Brazil, and you’re really not going to find a luxury resort like you might see in Las Vegas or the Caribbean, and if you’re going to the Pantanal, a luxury resort is probably not what you’re looking for in the first place.

A toucan at Pouso Alegre lodgeThe lodge I stayed at is called Pouso Alegre, and is about 33 kilometers down the Transpantaneira road. Flavio and I took several hikes around the vast property during my stay there, and Jon took us on a night-safari drive. The grounds are beautiful, with hyacinth macaws and toco toucans being spotted easily just outside the dining area. The rooms are air conditioned and cozy (yes, cozy is a polite way of saying small). Be prepared for a spider or two (or more!), but I’m happy to say there were no mosquitoes in my room. The owner of the lodge is named Luis, and is very nice and showed me a couple of small snakes he had been raising (can’t remember the species, sorry) as well as a lizard (I believe called a false chameleon) that looked like a chameleon. Pretty cool! Flavio pointed out what seemed like thousands of birds during our hikes, and we saw two species of monkeys up close, and I’m happy to say I heard the call of howler monkeys in the distance. The grounds were really amazing, ranging from marshy areas to wooded, with open grassland in some spots as well. Flavio explained that this lodge has a particularly good landscape for wildlife, and he sees more species here than at any other lodge in the Pantanal. Great!!!

House BoatThe houseboat I stayed at is mobile, and has the advantage of being able to park right where the jaguars are most often spotted. The first jaguar I saw was only about 5 minutes (by motorboat of course) from where the houseboat was parked. Again, be prepared for some spiders in your room, and it will be cozy, but it’s air conditioned and comfortable. On most nights I was so exhausted I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. The staff on the boat is very friendly, despite the fact that I speak no Portuguese and they spoke only a bit of English. They always greeted me with friendly smiles and asked if we saw jaguars on our latest boat ride, which I was usually very happy to say we did! The food was excellent, and Flavio informed me that this was true Pantanal food, the same as what the locals eat, so I got the real experience. Rice and light-brown beans were available at just about every meal, along with several meats (beef, fish – piranha or catfish perhaps, chicken, etc) and some veggies. There was usually also a side dish of fried plantains in yellow flour which was really good. Desserts were extremely sweet, perfect for me!

Meals at the lodge and the houseboat were served buffet style, all you can eat. No menus, just a bunch of great food, take what you like and leave what you don’t. Vegetarians would have a hard time here, and would need to make their tour operator aware of their requirements well in advance. If you’ve been on safari in Africa you might be familiar with the dinner routine of everyone gathering at one long table and talking about what they saw that day, sharing stories of past safaris, etc. The Pantanal is different, especially for me considering I didn’t speak Portuguese. Dining areas had multiple tables and you could sit in small groups with whoever you were with.

Quick note about internet access – the lodge had free wifi which had a pretty decent connection. No internet access from the houseboat, so I was completely unplugged for those nights. I still carried my cell phone on me because even without a network, the phone’s GPS still works, and I had that connected to my camera so all pictures from the camera were automatically geotagged.

Daily Routine

The general routine was: wake up before dawn, go on safari, eat lunch, go on safari, eat dinner, sleep. 🙂 To be more specific, days at the lodge were scheduled like so:

  1. wake up around 5 AM
  2. begin hike around 5:30 AM
  3. hike until about 9 AM
  4. breakfast (about an hour)
  5. hike again until about 12 or 1 PM
  6. lunch (about an hour)
  7. hike again until sunset, which was around 5:30
  8. dinner (about an hour)
  9. night safari drive (about an hour)

Similar on the houseboat:

  1. wake up around 5 AM
  2. breakfast around 6 AM
  3. get on the motorboat for morning safari by 6:30 AM
  4. boat safari until about 1 PM
  5. lunch (about an hour)
  6. boat safari at 2:30 PM until 5:30 or 6 PM
  7. shower etc, dinner at 7 PM
  8. by about 8 PM dinner was done and I was back in my room

As you can see, these are very busy days – I was usually so tired by dinner time that I could barely convince myself to go eat! After dinner I would transfer pictures, make sure all camera and cell phone batteries were charged, and go to sleep. If I was in bed by 10, I’d get about 7 hours of sleep. Usually I was slow though so I wouldn’t get to bed until around 11, meaning most nights I got about 6 hours of sleep.

Wildlife

Finally, what did I see??

Hyacinth macaws at Pouso AlegreDuring our hikes at the lodge we spotted thousands of exotic birds, many were very colorful. We saw two pairs of hyacincth macaws in a distant tree, toco toucans, parrots and parakeets, oven birds, and a couple of my favorites, a family of great-horned owls and a greater potoo (I can’t believe Flavio found that one!). We saw two types of monkeys (brown capuchins and black-tailed marmosets), heard howler monkeys in the distance, and spotted some capybara and marsh deer. The marmosets were very small, maybe about the size of a small poodle, with very long tails. I saw one jump from one tree to another, covering maybe 6 or 8 feet, silently and effortlessly. Really cool! On our night drive we saw two South American tapirs, which was very lucky as they are very shy. Oh, and hundreds of caiman! During our night drive we crossed a bridge over a small lake, and saw dozens and dozens of glowing pairs of eyes floating in the blackness. Before the night drive we took a short hike, and as it grew darker we saw hundreds of large bats over a marshy area. We have bats where I’m from, but not that big! Also very cool!

A beautiful young jaguarJaguars were the name of the game during my time at the boat hotel, but that’s not to say we saw nothing else. As far as jaguars go, I was unbelievably lucky. I knew before heading to the Pantanal that, although my main goal was to see a jaguar (emphasis on a jaguar, as in even one jaguar would be lucky), the chances were not great. In communicating with Ric from Wild Pantanal, he could not gaurantee a sighting of course, but felt that my chances were very good if I stayed for four nights, which I did. That being said, I have a guide book for the Pantanal which has a sentence that reads something along the lines of “when it comes to jaguars, banish all hopes of seeing one from your mind.” So although I was hopeful and Ric was confident, I knew it was entirely possible I could see not a single jaguar for the whole trip. But luck was on my side, and I saw a world-famous jaguar on my very first boat drive! If you’ve seen the youtube video of a jaguar expertly swimming up behind and killing a caiman, that’s the jaguar I saw. He’s nicknamed “Mick Jaguar” by the locals and guides because he’s missing his right eye, which he lost perhaps in a fight with another jaguar when he was only 2 or 3 years old. He’s now about 10 or 12 years old, and despite the loss of his eye, is an expert hunter. Over the course of the next few days I would see a total of seven jaguars! Some old, some young, all beautiful and amazing.

Adult female jaguarOn my last morning boat ride we saw a young female jaguar, and we followed her while she hunted over the course of about 45 minutes, as she crossed the river and stalked the shores, and finally she charged into the water and came up moments later with a small caiman in her mouth! Of course I felt bad for the caiman, it was not his day, but jaguars have to eat too. It was really cool watching her cross the river. I knew jaguars swam, but seeing it myself with my own eyes was amazing. I have to give credit again to Flavio and our driver. When we arrived at the scene, several other boats were there and had been observing the jaguar for a while. At this time she had disappeared, and the other boats started to give up and drive away. We lingered a bit longer, and Flavio saw tall grass moving off in the distance, and he said that was the jaguar. Of course I trusted his judgement by this time, after having spent so many hours on safari with him, but how could he know that some tall grass shaking is a jaguar? Couldn’t it be a capybara, a caiman, a bird, or the wind? But as I watched, I realized that the shaking grass was moving in a line from left to right, meaning something was walking there, and something big! We watched the grass as other boats continued to leave, but some saw what we were looking at and stayed. We watched, and watched some more, and eventually the shaking grass came close to shore and finally emerged a big female jaguar, shining in the sun!

Baby Caiman!So besides the beautiful jaguars, I also saw thousands of caiman, thousands of birds (cormorants and herons were the most frequently spotted, along with several raptors such as roadside hawks), hundreds of capybara (even some baby ones!), a couple of lizards called Amazon racerunners, and last but not least, several great sightings of giant river otters! We watched the otters as they hunted and ate fish, and dug burrows. They’re great at catching fish even though the water isn’t clear at all. Flavio explained that these otters are actually capable of killing a jaguar in the water, as they are great swimmers and there are many of them to attack a jaguar. I suppose that sort of thing only happens if they’re defending their burrow though, I can’t imagine that they would pick a fight with a jaguar on purpose. When they caught a fish they would find a spot near the shore where they could balance their hind legs on something underwater (tree limbs, rocks maybe) and eat the fish with their hands. It was kind of gory watching them eat, it was obvious that they really loved eating fish!

I put together a spreadsheet of the animals I managed to get a good picture of, and there are 60 different species, almost all of which I’d never seen before. Actually the only one I’d ever seen before was a great egret. So 59 were completely new to me, and those are just the ones I got good pictures of. Many of the birds were just too fast for me, but at least I saw them.

Summary and Suggestions for Future Travelers

I’m extremely happy with this trip! I’d definitely recommend Wild Pantanal and Flavio to anyone who considers going to the Pantanal in the future. The wildlife was amazing, and the people were all friendly and happy. If you normally do luxury travel and wildlife is not your thing, then this might not be the trip for you, but if you’re looking for wildlife and want to experience the Pantanal, this is definitely for you. Here are some tips and suggestions:

  1. Do your best to wear long pants and long sleeves, both as sun protection and bug protection. On our hikes I saw more ticks than I’ve ever seen in my life. Luckily Flavio explained that the ticks in the Pantanal don’t carry diseases, they’re just annoying.
  2. Bring a sun hat, and make sure it has a cord to wrap around your chin so it doesn’t go flying in the wind while the motorboat is moving.
  3. Bring sunscreen – you’ll be out on a boat for hours at a time in the powerful sun.
  4. Bring lip balm that has SPF 30 or something – I made the mistake of using cherry Chapstick that (unbeknownst to me at the time) was only SPF 4. By the final day on the boat my lips were sunburned / windburned and were very swollen and sore (seriously, I looked like I’d been in a boxing match).
  5. Bring shampoo – soap is always around but shampoo was sometimes hard to find
  6. I drank bottled water and had no problems with the food, so I suggest the same if you’re worried about the water. I didn’t drink coffee
  7. There’s a small airfield at the end of the Transpantaneira roadway, and when I asked Flavio about the possibility of air-tours, he said it was something you could do. I’m sure the Pantanal is beautiful when viewed from above in a small plane, so if you have time, definitely try to schedule that.
  8. There are no gift shops anywhere near the Pantanal, so if you want souvenirs, buy them in Pocone (the closest town to the Pantanal) or in Cuiabá. I didn’t ask Flavio to find me a gift shop, but I’m sure there must have been one somewhere.
  9. Bring power adapters
  10. If you’re lucky enough to spot a tapir, or a jaguar, be as quiet as possible. Flavio explained to me that tapirs are particularly sensitive to the human voice, and will run away as soon as they hear you talk, while boat and car engines are not as frightening to them. Strange but true – so be quiet! I made the mistake of saying something like “I see him!” in a normal voice, when spotting a tapir that Flavio pointed out, and it made good on its escape. Would it have left even if I had been quiet? Maybe, but I’ll never know for sure.
  11. If you go during the dry season like I did, you probably won’t see many mosquitoes, but there will be some, so bring bug spray but don’t be terrified of them.
  12. Tell Mick Jaguar I said hello 🙂

Where the hell was I, exactly??

I love that my new camera can connect to my cell phone’s GPS and automatically geotag my pictures. It was a bit buggy, but worked fine overall. So here you go, a nice google map with some markers representing my location when I took some pictures.

And Finally…

Jaguar tracksPerhaps my favorite moment of the entire trip was when we stopped at a beach along the river to pee (hey, there are no porta potties in the Pantanal, and we were on the boat for 6 hours!), and Flavio spotted a trail of perfect jaguar tracks. He said the tracks were about two days old. There I was, thousands of miles from home, standing on a sunlit little beach, and extending before me was a trail left by a jaguar, one of the most exotic creatures on earth, who had walked in this very spot just one or two nights ago. As always, I have to point out that this was not a captive jaguar, not some poor creature in a zoo or sold on some black market, but a wild jaguar, born free, living free. There is not a zoo on earth that can replicate that experience.

"Truce!"

Vaccinations, Meds and Supplies for Tropical Travel Destinations

So in a few days I’ll be leaving for my next trip, this time I’m heading to the Pantanal region in Brazil. The Pantanal is the world’s largest tropical wetland area (according to wikipedia), and is compared to the Okavango Delta in Botswana in terms of beauty and wildlife. I visited the Okavango a few months ago, so I’m looking forward to seeing what the Pantanal is like.

I’m particularly hoping to see a jaguar on this trip (preferably lots of jaguars) – but they’re known to be extremely elusive, and sightings are unpredictable. I’m familiar with that, after having been on many safari drives in Africa, but jaguars may be even tougher to spot. In the meantime hopefully I’ll see some cool amphibians, reptiles, and the world’s largest rodent, the capybara.

So of course, the big topic these days is Zika virus. That’s the first thing everyone mentions when they hear I’m heading to Brazil. My opinion is that Zika is just one of the many mosquito-borne illnesses to worry about, most of which are going to be around for quite a while. So my choice is either to skip the Pantanal for my entire life, or prepare as best as I can.

Die, bugs, die!
Die, bugs, die!

My plan was to do something along the lines of this whenever I saw a mosquito, but I wasn’t sure if I could bring a flame thrower on an international flight.

 

 

 

 


So here’s plan B

1. Malaria Pills – specifically I’ll be taking Atovaquone/proguanil (aka Malarone). One pill a day starting 1-2 days before travel and finishing about a week after I get home. I’ve taken this before on trips to Africa and had no side effects whatsoever. Malaria is supposedly very rare in the Pantanal (nonexistent?) so this may be completely unnecessary, but since I have no side effects from it, I see no reason not to.

No Yellow Fever for you!
No Yellow Fever for you!
No Yellow Fever for you!
No Yellow Fever for you!

2. Yellow Fever Vaccine. I visited the CDC’s website and found a local doctor that provided this vaccine (not all of them do). It wasn’t covered by insurance so I paid about $225 out of pocket. This is another one that isn’t necessarily required and supposedly Yellow Fever doesn’t exist in the Pantanal, but it was recommended by the Department of State (see this, this, and this), so I decided to get the vaccine. It comes with a nifty yellow certificate that you can show when requested (I suppose upon entry to a country that requires all travelers to get the vaccine – Brazil doesn’t). Happily, I had no side effects from this vaccine. Unhappily, it only lasts two years.

 

Ready for anything
Ready for anything

3. Lots of bug repellent, dorky bug clothes, and my awesome cat Milo. OK just kidding, Milo isn’t coming to Brazil with me, but he wanted his 15 minutes of fame. The bug clothes are an absolute last-resort, only to be used if legions of mosquitoes as big as B-52s are attacking me. The yellow bottle is Sawyer Premium Permethrin and is meant to be applied to your clothes. Supposedly it lasts through several washes. The white bottle is Repel 100 Insect Repellent and boasts a ridiculously high 98.11% DEET (why did they bother with the 1.89% “other ingredients”?). Reviewers on Amazon say that this will literally melt through plastic if spilled! This is to be used ONLY if the green bottle fails. The green bottle is Repel 94101 Insect Repellent and contains 40% DEET.


So that’s the plan. Oh and I’m bringing light-weight long sleeve shirts and pants. If the weather isn’t too hot I’ll go for those, but if it’s the predicted 90 degrees every day I’ll be wearing shorts and T-shirts.

I’ll put together a review post once I’m back!

Stories Behind the Photos: “Schoolchildren in Africa” (March 20, 2015)

The overwhelming majority of my photos are of wild animals. But, for my “stories behind the photos” series, I couldn’t help but post about some of the happiest children I ever had the good fortune to meet. On the morning of 3/20/2015 my tour group left Nkambeni Safari Camp (see my last post about the first cheetah I ever saw in the wild) and headed for our next safari camp.

On the way we were scheduled to stop at a children’s school. Because I was in South Africa for a photo safari, I actually did not like the idea of stopping at the school. I saw it as simply cutting into time I could be spending on safari (for example if we had skipped the children’s school we could have gone on a morning safari at Nkambeni). I was hoping to finish the tour of the school as quickly as possible, get to our next destination and start the evening safari drive.

I’ll let my journal entry from that evening tell the rest of the story.

Then we went to a children’s pre-school. On the way we drove through a very “poor” area. It’s hard to call it poor, it was more like a farming community where the people lived off the land – “subsistence living” our guide called it. They raised chickens, grew crops, and worked together. Their houses were small concrete / block one story houses, maybe 2 rooms each.

The school itself was very similar, just a one story building, but it was painted and looked pretty, with a play ground outside and chickens running around the yard. There was a woman outside hand washing silverware in a couple of buckets.

As soon as the children saw us through the window they got excited and started screaming! We had to “hide” behind the building while a guide told us about it. He pointed out the farm behind the school, where no rain had fallen because of drought, and they lost all of their crops for the year, and all farms were like that. We went inside and it was so amazing. There were maybe 40 kids packed into a tiny room, all around 2 – 5 years old. Most were so excited to see us, all smiles, so happy!! Some were in awe and just stared the entire time!

At their teacher’s command, they literally screamed everything she wanted, they were so full of energy and happiness!! They recited their vowels, the months of the year, counted to ten, sang frara zshacka, sang “if you’re happy and you know it” and screamed a bunch of other things that I couldn’t understand for the life of me, all at the top of their lungs and full of excitement and energy. I’ve never seen such happy children! And they had so little!!!!

After everyone walked out I asked the teacher to take a picture of me sitting with the kids, which she did after some fumbling with the camera, and unfortunately some of the kids had lost interest by then, but I still love the picture.

Then on the way out there were more children, older, maybe 10, and they were also so full of happiness. They cracked lots of jokes in their own language and laughed, and posed all over for the camera, they loved every minute of it! I had a spur of the moment idea, and I knelt down with them and took selfie pictures – they all crowded around me and were so happy to see themselves in the phone, and we laughed and took pictures, it was great!!

Clearly, I couldn’t have been more wrong about visiting the school. I almost certainly won’t be with a tour the next time I’m in South Africa, but I will try my best to visit this same pre-school again. And here are the pictures:

Some happy children

Me and the pre-schoolers

NtShuxeko Day Care in South Africa

More happy kids

I almost never take selfies but this one was worth it