Tag Archives: Leopard

Victoria Falls

December 19, 2012

Today is our last full day in Africa. We’ve experienced so much – from wine tours to scenic drives to leopard, giraffe, lion, rhino, and elephant encounters – that it feels like we’ve been here for a lifetime. Yet, it’s been so magical that it feels as if no time has passed at all.Leopard

We’ve been completely present here in Africa – no email, no Facebook, no cell phones. This is the longest period of time I’ve been “unplugged” and yet, I feel entirely connected. Monkey babies

We began our day with an excursion to Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The width, in conjunction with the height, of Victoria Falls forms the largest sheet of falling water in the world. The spray from the falls often rises more than 1,300 feet. We’ve been able to see the spray from miles away since we’ve  been in Zimbabwe. Victoria Falls

The falls truly are spectacular. We walked about a mile and saw the continuous flow of water the entire length of our walk. In some places it felt like the water was pouring uncontrollably over the edge. In other places, the flow felt more controlled, more consistent. Victoria Falls

Feeding into the falls is the Zambezi River, which looks like a huge, still, flat, body of water. . . until it reaches the edge and forms Victoria Falls. Vic Falls Zambezi

We saw a surprising number of people tempting fate, ignoring the danger warnings, and hanging near the edge of the viewing points. I didn’t experience any fear, but I do have great respect for the power of nature. Watching an elephant knock down a tree directly in front of us and hearing a lion’s roar from nearly 8 kilometers away – all in less than 24 hours – gave me an even greater reverence for nature. IMG_2950

Vic Falls Warning Sign and People

We spent a decent amount of time at Victoria Falls. I found myself spontaneously meditating several times. The sound of the water, along with the balance of beauty and strength, absorbed me. The quietness of my mind was punctuated by the sound of water crashing into the river below.

We learned about geographic changes to the falls in the past, as well as some forthcoming. Each time an island or piece of land falls down with the force of the falls, it changes the landscape and flow patterns of the water. It can take many lifetimes for this to occur, but as our guide described the developments, it was easy to look out at the falls and clearly see what he was describing.

After getting sufficiently soaked from the spray of the falls, we turned to head back to the lodge. On our way out of Victoria Falls park, we came across a large troop of Baboons. We didn’t seen any of the infamous, mischievous Baboons when we were in Cape Town and those we saw during our stay at Lion Sands were not in direct contact with humans. The baboons at Victoria Falls park have a lot of contact with humans and therefore can be quite. . . interesting.

We hadn’t expected to see the baboons, so I was surprised to turn the corner and see a gigantic male, lying spread eagle, with a smile on his face, taking care of some sexual urges, adjacent to the sidewalk. As I turned my head, I saw we were surrounded by baboons. Some of them jumped from tree to tree as we walked by, others approached us on the sidewalk. One baboon was not happy about having his picture taken and jumped out of a tree toward the head of the woman who had a camera in his face.  IMG_9987 IMG_9993 IMG_9998

We left the baboons and boarded our van back to the lodge. As usual, my friend and I weren’t ready to go back to the hotel, so we asked the driver to drop us off at the artists village. The moment we stepped off the van, we were surrounded by artists showing us their works.

I met a man named J.J. who carved a beautiful bird statue out of stone. The man next to him had made various stone sculptures including elephants, leopards, figurines. I wanted to purchase dozens of them. Speaking to the artists and seeing the results of their hard work was amazing. I envisioned carrying my luggage, which had already increased by one duffle bag, during the remaining three flights. Unfortunately, I had to be selective with my purchases.JJ Stone Birds

I bought two stone statues and then went inside a building where dozens of women were selling goods. Some locals had advised us to support the women as much as possible because “they’re the ones who take care of and feed the children.” We took their advice to heart and spent a great deal of time with the women.Wood spoons

I ended up purchasing several sets of carved wooden serving spoons, some wood dishes, stone dishes, and necklaces. Necklaces

At one point, I looked over at my friend and laughed. She had at least 20 handmade bags draped from her arms and was surrounded by women holding up dozens more bags. “Make a decision!” one of the women commanded, jokingly. My friend’s “decision” ended up including 11 bags and several other items she purchased as gifts.

With our hands and our bags full, and our wallets empty, we caught a ride back to the lodge. We laughed as we spread out all of our purchases on our beds. How will we get all of this home?!?dish

Spoons

As most of our days on this trip have been, today was jam packed with activities. Fortunately, we had time to grab a quick bite and a cocktail prior to our sunset river cruise on the Zambezi. We’ve made some good friends on this trip and it was fun to be reunited with them during the river cruise. Everyone was in a celebratory mood, enjoying every last moment of our time in Africa.

When we boarded the boat, we light-heartedly asked for clarification about which direction we’d be traveling. Earlier today, we witnessed the force of the Zambezi River as it rushed over Victoria Falls, we reminded our captains. They quickly soothed us with unlimited cocktails and some appetizers.

As we cruised around the Zambezi, we saw a baby crocodile lounging on the river bank. We were able to pull the boat fairly close to shore so we could observe the little croc for a while. Baby Crocodile

As we continued up the river, we came across several hippos. Our guides informed us that we couldn’t get quite as close to the hippos. They reinforced what we learned at Lion Sands – hippos are very territorial and can become aggressive if you enter their territory.  We watched the hippos from a safe distance and then cruised around the river some more.Hippo

We also saw impala prancing along the river banks and some birds we hadn’t previously seen. Impala

Bird

By the time our river cruise concluded, everybody on board had more than enough drinks. Our next activity was to take part in a special dinner, featuring traditional African food, dance, and drumming. Rather than get dropped off at our rooms, we asked the driver to take us all directly to the Boma, where our dinner would take place.

We were the first ones to arrive at the Boma, so there was only one thing to do – have some drinks at the bar, while we waited for the restaurant to open. The remainder of the night was exceptionally entertaining. We sat at a large table, with the friends we made on the trip. At the instruction of our server, we blindly drank the most disgusting drink any of us had ever tried. We laughed at our ignorance afterwards. “We should have known it wouldn’t be good when he said, ‘don’t smell it’,” our new friend, Ben, reminded us.

We ended up turning the disgusting drink into a phenomenal people-watching game. Each time people sat down to dinner, we watched their faces as they too blindly drank the disgusting drink. It was hysterical to witness the domino effect of their expressions as, one-by-one, they tasted the drink.

The food was served buffet style and there was plenty of it. There were meats and stews that were new to us. Having been adventurous with the drink, some of us were a bit more reserved with the food, veering away from things like the worms. Nonetheless, there was great variety and we were sufficiently fed and hydrated.

As we neared the end of our meal, a group of drummers and dancers came out and performed in the center of the room. Boma Drummers IMG_3162

When we finished our meal, they handed everyone in the restaurant a drum. Have you ever walked into Guitar Center on a Saturday afternoon? Imagine a couple hundred people banging on drums at the same time.

It sounds as if it could be painful, but it was hysterical and a lot of fun. It was amazing to witness how everyone – no matter their age – became a child when they had the drum on their lap. Nobody waited for instruction nor a “go” signal. Everyone just started banging away. Eventually, the leaders reigned us in and had everyone in the restaurant drumming at their command. It was a blast.

When we got back to the room, we looked at our luggage, alongside our numerous additional bags of gifts, and laughed again. We’ll pack up tomorrow. It’s time to get a good night’s sleep. We have 48 hours of travel ahead of us and tonight is the last time we’ll be able to lie in a bed until we get back to Los Angeles.

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The Elephant That Knocked Down A Tree and The Giraffes That Bid Us Adieu

12/17/12 

Big elephant lookThis morning we embarked on our final game drive of this trip. It felt sad, knowing our time here is coming to an end. The adventures we’ve had seem like dreams. Even as they were happening, the experiences have been so magnificent and surreal, they were hard to believe. The mood in our vehicle felt appreciative this morning. As a group, we were quieter than previously, absorbing every moment. It was as if we were collectively trying to extend time.

This morning felt serene, the bush quiet following last night’s storm. The first animal we saw was a sleeping rhino, which further punctuated the stillness of the day.

Eventually we came across a troop of baboons playing in a tree. Last night’s rain water fell from the leaves as they scurried around. The babies were jumping from branch to branch until the dominant male determined it was time to move on. He rounded up the troop, chasing the other baboons as needed, until they formed a line along one of the branches. We watched them walk away in single-file formation.Baboon Family Tree

While we were observing the baboons, an adult hyena came down the hill. One of the biggest misconceptions I had, based on documentaries and movies I’ve seen, is that hyenas are ugly, vicious animals. The babies we saw during our second drive were adorable, playful, and full of character.

Somebody else asked about the common bad reputation of the hyena. Landon explained that they’re quite nice animals, very social in nature. Like other wild animals, when it comes to basic survival needs, hyenas do what is necessary. Sometimes hyenas travel in packs, when they hunt or are fighting off predators – these are the images we often see portrayed in the media. However, our experiences of hyenas in the bush would portray them as calm, curious animals. Hyena

We continued making our way through the winding paths of the bush until Eddie signaled something to Landon. Eddie and Landon didn’t tell us what animal we were tracking, to minimize disappointment in case we didn’t find the animal in the end.

As we progressed through the bush, I began to smell the distinct odor of elephant dung. I had a feeling that we were tracking elephants, but we drove for quite some time before we spotted anything. One of the amazing things about having experienced guides and trackers is that they’re extremely knowledgeable about animal behavior, which direction the animals are moving (even once the tracks have disappeared into the bush) and how they’re traveling (group, solo, with offspring, etc).

Patience and persistence paid off as, one by one, everyone in the vehicle announced that they could see elephants. Landon kept driving, aware there were more elephants and ensuring we wouldn’t be in their path as they navigated the bush. When he stopped the vehicle we watched the elephants eating branches and leaves. Elephant

Elephant Eating

Although we were awestruck when we saw the large herd of elephants cross in front of us a couple days ago, watching them peacefully grazing was a new and equally breathtaking experience. A youngster passed in front of us and we watched as it fed off a tree. The young elephant appeared to be smiling, as if it had struck gold. Baby Elephant

elephant smiling

The elephants began to disappear back into the bush as they continued grazing on trees.

Landon turned the vehicle around, heading out of the area where we visited the elephants. We didn’t get very far before we saw a large bull feasting off a tree. The sound he made as he tore large branches off trees and devoured them, was incredible. His legs were thick, his feet enormous. He was just next to the main path, so we were quite close. Big Male Elephant

I took a picture as the large male pressed his trunk up against the tree. Having seen giraffes scratch themselves on trees, I assumed perhaps the elephant was relieving an itch on his trunk. This is another instance that highlighted how imperative it is to have experienced guides. Without saying a word, and before we had time to think about it, Landon repositioned our vehicle.

We then watched as the massive elephant knocked down the tree, with three solid blows to the tree trunk. IMG_2950

Blow #2: Elephant Knocking Down Tree

Blow #3:Elephant Knocking Down Tree

Thanks to Landon’s experience and quick thinking, we were well out of harm’s way as the tree toppled onto the road. We were speechless. The sheer power and strength of this amazing animal stunned us all. We remained for a few minutes and watched as he continued to devour the tree, the branches, and leaves, all of which were much more accessible to the elephant given the tree was now on the ground.

It was not a small tree: Elephant Tree Down

After our exceptional elephant encounter, we made our traditional coffee break stop. We asked Landon if we could make the coffee stop quick. We explained that we’d rather have more time on the drive since it was our final run through the bush. He obliged, but warned us that we’d likely seen all that we were going to see this morning.

We carried on, and as Landon foreshadowed, we didn’t see much in terms of additional wildlife sightings. It was just nice to take it all in, the expansive land, the sounds, the liberating feeling of riding in an open-air safari vehicle.

As we were working our way back to the lodge, Eddie enthusiastically alerted Landon, “Leopard!” Leopard

We watched as the beautiful, and often elusive, leopard made her way through the tall bush. It was spectacular and a wonderful way to end our safari. Leopard

We had a few hours between our game drive and airport transfer and we wanted to enjoy them as much as possible. We were sad to be leaving Lion Sands and so grateful for the experiences we shared there. We brought a bottle of champagne, some water, and the game Bananagrams down to the river deck. We watched the monkeys play and wrestle as we sipped champagne and continued to appreciate the magical adventures we shared at Lion Sands.

Reineck pouring champagne for our toast to Lion Sands

Reineck pouring champagne for our toast to Lion Sands

Final Monkeys

We decided to play an Africa-themed version of Bananagrams, utilizing only words pertaining to our trip. We made up new rules and collaborated on the board, more along the lines of Scrabble.

“That’s not how you play Bananagrams,” exclaimed another guest. “That’s how we play Bananagrams,” we replied in unison.Banagrams

When we concluded our game, we drank the remainder of our champagne, and headed to the lobby so we could be transferred to the airport.

As we drove out of the Lion Sands property – in a van much less comfortable than our safari vehicle – I was thinking about the giraffes. A giraffe was the first large animal we saw on this trip and we’ve seen at least one giraffe every day since. However, we didn’t see a giraffe today. As I was thinking about how magnificent and striking giraffes look against the African landscape, I commented aloud, “I’d like to see a giraffe on the way out.”

Within three minutes of driving toward the exit, we were greeted by two giraffes. The driver stopped the van so we could enjoy the sight one more time. The giraffes were the perfect bookend to our adventures at Lion Sands. We’ve come full circle. It’s time to journey onward. GiraffeGiraffe

Safari at Lion Sands: Lions, Leopards, Elephants and More

12/14/12

ImpalaThis morning we woke up with the knowledge that we’d soon be headed on safari. Awareness and having ideas about events to come is one thing, actually experiencing them is another. We could not imagine what we were going to experience today.

We gathered our ever-expanding luggage, took our malaria pills, and embarked on our fourth flight of the trip. We flew directly from Cape Town to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport.

We were excited to start the next leg of our trip. We were greeted by our transfer guide who informed us it would be an hour and a half drive to the game reserve. After all the traveling we’d been doing, receiving notice of the forthcoming hour and a half drive was a bit of a bummer initially. As it turned out, the drive to the game reserve was fascinating, educational, and the perfect transition into the bush.

The bush viewThe landscape and views are a sharp contrast to Cape Town. There is no sign of a city in sight and the pace definitely feels slower. The land is lush and green during this time of year, the rainy season. It’s a very different perspective of Africa, a reminder of how large and magnificent this continent is. This is further pronounced considering, thus far, we’ve only been in the southern hemisphere and we’ve already experienced so much diversity.

We drove past several villages. The “electronics store” on the side of the road was showcasing an old Zenith TV alongside a VCR. From our perspective it looked more like an antique store, but here in the bush those items are high-tech. The barber shop consisted of an E-Z UP tent, four plastic lawn chairs, and two men awaiting customers. Children were playing outside. People seemed to be constantly interacting with one another, smiling, and walking along the roads.

All the people I saw popping in and around the various villages were with at least one other person.  Community seems to be very important here. It looked and felt as though people were at ease, genuinely enjoying their lives and the company of those they were with.  Even people who were working in the heat of the day, transporting goods from town back to the villages in wheelbarrows or atop their heads, were smiling.

We learned there are three tribes in the area, each speaks a distinct language that the others cannot understand.  “Everybody knows who’s in which village – where people come from” our guide informed us.  It didn’t appear as if there were any street signs in the villages we passed.  People are familiar with the dirt roads, their neighbors, and members of nearby villages.

When we pulled up at the entrance to the game lodge, we were stopped for verification – a process which took several minutes. There has been a severe problem with rhino poachers in the area so security is exceptionally strict.

Bath Lion SandsThe moment we stepped out of the van, onto the grounds of Lion Sands, I felt extreme peace. The air is spacious and calm. The bush doesn’t just look vast, it feels vast – wide open. The only sounds I heard were birds, a vervet monkey rustling in the trees, and the sound of the Sabie River rushing by.

We were greeted by the wonderful staff of Lion Sands who further reinforced the calm atmosphere, handing us lavender washcloths for our faces.

We were taken through orientation and lodge safety. The staff was quick to point out that there are no fences separating us from the wildlife.  The animals are free to roam around the property as well as into and out of the neighboring reserves. There is to be no walking alone after sunset. Somebody will escort us to and from our room following the afternoon game drives and before and after dinner.

Lion Sands BedWe were shown to our rooms and told to meet back in an hour for our first game drive. The room is beautiful.  The wall facing the river is made entirely of sliding glass doors, reinforcing the “middle of the wilderness” feeling.  We were reminded to ensure the screen doors remain locked. “The monkeys are very clever and if they get into your room, they will do some redecorating,” we were told.

The sunken bathtub, rainforest shower and double-sinks are welcome amenities. There are no shared walls – each room is a free standing bungalow.  The individual wooden walkway leading to the front door makes it feel as if you’re arriving home.

We opened the bottle of champagne in the minibar and celebrated our arrival. The curious voices of friends were swimming in my head, “Will you be staying in tents??” they asked before I departed for Africa. The juxtaposition of that question and the spa-like room coincided with our champagne toast.

At four o’clock we met up with our group and were introduced to our guide, Landon. Landon has been a guide for twelve years, working at Lion Sands for nine. Landon introduced us to our tracker, Eddie. Eddie grew up in the area and has extensive practical, as well as intuitive, experience spotting animals. I asked Landon how the past few days of viewing had been. “It’s been a bit quiet” he said, noting the previous rainy days.

There are no guarantees on safari. The land is expansive, there are no fences constraining the animals into any one area. They are free to roam across thousands of hectares . Furthermore, weather conditions can be unpredictable. The bush is particularly thick this time of year due to the rains, making it more difficult to spot wildlife.

HornbillWe set out in an amazing vehicle, capable of traversing all types of terrain. I was immediately struck by how many species of birds we saw, including birds I’d never heard of nor seen before. We also saw numerous impala, one of the most abundant mammals in the bush.  Then, a call came over the radio.

The guides and spotters speak a hybrid language, appropriately called “bush language”. They understand each other completely. To us, it sounds like code. Following the call over the radio, we started tracking a mysterious animal. Landon and Eddie kept it a secret at first, so that we wouldn’t be disappointed if we didn’t see the animal. Eventually, they let us in on the secret so that we could help them spot it. “We’re looking for a leopard in this area,” Landon said. “It’s very rare to spot them,” he added.

After our search proved futile, we decided to move on. We headed somewhere else, clear to the guides, unknown to us. As we made our way to the next destination, we came upon an old male giraffe, scratching his back and neck on a tree. He was stunning, leaving us speechless and in awe. There is nothing like seeing these animals, in their natural habitat.

First GiraffeI was mesmerized by the giraffe, more than I could have expected. Perhaps it’s the way he looked against the backdrop of the bush, his body extending from the earth, through the lush green trees, and up into the open blue skies. The giraffe seemed peaceful and content. I watched the giraffe as I removed the long lens from my camera. I smiled at the discovery that we were too close to use a long lens. We watched the giraffe’s behavior for several minutes, laughing as he walked in circles around the tree, to relieve his itchy skin.

“Something else is happening and I want to try to make our way over while the light is still good,” Landon said. We bid farewell to the giraffe and set out again. “Elephants!” someone shouted. “The elephants are just a bonus,” Landon replied with a smile. We looked to our right and saw two young male lions, with a large female. They were resting, weary after a large meal and the heat of the day. I put my long lens away entirely – it clearly wouldn’t be needed. Lions
Landon explained that these are the only surviving members of the Charleston pride. The young males’ mother was killed, so her sister – the female lion we were watching – took them under her care. The other pride in the area is the Southern Pride, 18 lions strong.  Landon said the guides have been paying close attention to the Charleston pride. This pride is significantly outnumbered and their long-term survival is questionable.

Landon’s words, as we marveled at the lions, were an important reminder. We are not in a zoo, we are not in control of the outcome, humans don’t interfere.  We are truly witnessing natural order, survival of the fittest, the wild kingdom in action. This is life, unfolding before us. Lions Charleston Pride

The lions are magnificent. With each movement came sighs of “awwwww” from the vehicle. The elephants remained in clear view, although at a greater distance, while we observed the lions. Lion

Lion

We left the lions lounging and sought out to find some more animals. Beneath a beautiful fig tree we spotted four rhino. It was wonderful to see them, with even greater appreciation, given the recent assault on their species. Rhinos and Figtree

Rhino

Darkness came quickly as we scurried through the bush. “Leopard!” Eddie exclaimed, pointing toward the trees. We drove further to get a closer look and sure enough, we saw a gorgeous leopard in the tree. Leopard

With each animal sighting, we counted our blessings and gave thanks. We know this is not something to take for granted. We’ve heard stories of people being here for three or four days, never spotting lions nor a leopard. Within an hour and a half, during our first game drive, we saw four of the big five.

We continued on our way, traveling at a much slower pace. Suddenly, Landon turned off the lights and shut down the engine. “There’s another leopard. This one is stalking its prey” Landon said, pointing to the leopard in the grass.

The leopard was strategically placed downwind of the impala so they were unaware of its presence. We observed as the leopard laid low in the grass, patiently awaiting his opportunity.Leopard Stalking Impala

Landon explained that leopards are very patient and will wait hours for a kill. He said they have a very high average success rate of 60%, compared to the approximate 40% success rate of lions. We pulled away before the leopard made his kill, ironically to get back to the lodge for our dinner. We later heard from another group that the leopard was indeed successful, capturing and killing a young impala.

Somewhere along the way – earlier in the afternoon – we saw a wildebeest  It’s hard to keep track of the series of events on such an active and exciting afternoon and evening of viewing.

Wildebeest

We headed back to the lodge well after dark and returned our cameras to our room. “We’re ready for drinks!” I said, telephoning the staff so they could escort us to the bar.  After enjoying a couple glasses of wine, we sat down to dinner. It was nearing 9:00pm and I wasn’t all that hungry.  I decided to eat “light” and order the salmon. Soon, the largest piece of salmon I’ve ever eaten was before me. The food at Lion Sands is outstanding – from salads through main courses and dessert – delicious.

After dinner, we took showers, and are going to bed relatively early (11:00 pm) tonight, in anticipation of our 5:00 am wake up call tomorrow.