Tag Archives: train

Traveling To Zimbabwe: Lessons Learned From The Animal Kingdom

12/18/12 

male lion Leaving Lion Sands was exceptionally difficult. Our time in the bush was remarkable and enlightening. Being among the animals, observing their behavior in their natural habitat, with a knowledgable guide, was a spectacular way to continue to learn about and appreciate the animal kingdom.

There seems to be a lot of order in the bush. Everything these animals do and consume has an important purpose and is paramount to the survival of their species and others. There is no waste.

Things “work” in the bush. We learned about various animal calls that signal a predator is in the area. The waterbuck call we heard alerted waterbuck – as well as other animals that could be in danger – that there was likely a leopard in the area. Birds and monkeys also have sounds they make when they encounter other animals. There are many layers of communication in the bush, each working together as a system that feels more sophisticated than the internet.

Elephant CrossingThings appear to be more organized than we humans are used to. I inquired about the elephants: “Why does it seem like they have a predetermined plan that they’re all aware of and on board with?”

“Because they do,” Landon replied, shortly before explaining how elephants communicate utilizing various frequencies that we cannot hear.

The magnitude of the experiences we had in the bush makes it feel as though we should be able to overcome any challenges we face. If people begin to tune in more to each other and their environment, to communicate and cooperate the way these animals do, the world will be much better off. That’s something I think many of us know intuitively, but witnessing the potential every day helped solidify it.

Big elephant lookEvery now and then today, somebody would exclaim, “We saw an elephant knock down a tree!” – ensuring we all remember the mind-blowing experiences we shared. As we ventured into the city of Johannesburg last night, we wanted to make sure we didn’t forget our time in the bush. We’ve been supporting each other in this mission to remember the feelings, the lessons, the beauty, the grace, and the strength we’ve witnessed during the past few days.

We didn’t have to think about anything when we were at Lion Sands. All meals and drinks were included. We were told when we needed to show up for meals and game drives, and had plenty of time to relax in between.

The bustle of the airport, buzzing with holiday travel, lugging our bags around, standing in long lines. . . It was quite overwhelming. Our night in Johannesburg was a shock to the system. We weren’t ready to be in a city again and we couldn’t wait to leave.

This morning we boarded a flight to Zimbabwe. We’re starting to feel the impact of taking 9 flights in 14 days. Smart carts, customs, baggage weighing stations, passport check points, transfers from airports to hotels. . . It’s exciting at first, but as we near the end of the trip, there are times it feels exhausting.

“I’m so happy you’re here!” I’d say to my bags any time I felt the weight of carrying them around. I’m truly grateful that none of our luggage has been lost during all the shuffling. It’s been a good reminder that any discomfort we’ve faced has been the result of something good. Another flight equals another mind-blowing destination. Less sleep equals more adventures. I continue to remind myself of this until I’m once again overcome with the excitement of day one.

We arrived in Zimbabwe around 1:00 pm and checked in at Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. The lodge is very nice, overlooking an active watering hole. We were still a bit rattled from spending last night in a big city and found it harder to settle in here.

After lunch and a cocktail we decided to embark on another adventure. We visited the activities desk at the lodge to get a sense of our options. We chose to take a “sunset wine train” excursion to the Victoria Falls bridge. It turns out this was a fantastic decision.

We had a wonderful time, as the train leisurely took us through a rainforest, while guides pointed out monkeys and warthogs. We watched artists carving wood and stone along the side of the train tracks. Warthog Zimbabwe

When we got to the top of the Victoria Falls Bridge, we learned a bit about its history. The bridge was part of Cecil Rhodes’s plan to build a railway from the Cape to Cairo. The railway never made it that far, but the bridge still stands, connecting Zimbabwe and Zambia. IMG_9838

As sunset neared, our wine train hosts opened a gigantic bottle of champagne and poured unlimited refills. With our champagne in hand, we watched the sunset on one side of  the bridge as a rainbow formed above the falls on the other side of the bridge. It was one of those moments that felt like a fairytale. Champagne at The Bridge

Rainbow Falls

rainbow fall

Sunset

We marveled at the fact that we drank champagne in “no man’s land” – the patch of land between Zimbabwe and Zambia. We smiled each time we walked back and forth along the bridge, venturing in and out of two countries, while watching the sunset and rainbow over Victoria Falls.

We’ve been in three countries today – South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. Not bad considering we only took one flight. Countries IMG_9854

Advertisements

Day 1 Churchill: Polar Bears and a Snowy Owl

November 9, 2010 (I think)

I have a new pet peeve: alarms going off in the early morning hours, on an overnight train. After successfully ignoring the “beep beep,” “buh deep, buh deep,” and “eeeee, eeeee, eeeee” of several people’s alarms, I opened my eyes to see what time it was: 7:00am. New pet peeve revised: alarms going off any time before 8:30am on an overnight train.

Ultimately, it was good to be awake to watch the sunrise as we pulled into the Chuchill station. We packed up our carry-on gear which had spread across 4 seats, an overhead bin, and behind 2 other seats, during the course of the 2-day journey from Winnipeg to Churchill. After quickly downing a couple cups of coffee, we bundled up in our warmer gear and snow boots, loaded our luggage into a van, and headed to the place we’ll be calling “home” for the next several days. I’ll tell you more about that later.

We dropped our luggage off in our rooms, received a short “Orientation and Bear Safety” lecture and then quickly went out to look for bears. Chuck Jonkel, the biologist leading us, is highly intuitive. I’ve witnessed Chuck in action for 3 years. Once everyone is settled on the bus, Frank, who is more than just a bus driver, turns to Chuck and asks, “Where do you wanna go?” Chuck kind of tilts his nose up, similar to the way polar bears do when they smell a potential source of food, and seems to “listen” for where he thinks the bears will be. “Let’s head up to. . . ” – it doesn’t really matter what location Chuck selects, 9 times out of 10, we’ll see at least one bear when we get there.

Today was a bit unusual though. The visibility was low due to the weather and we drove around for a while without seeing any bears. “I haven’t seen a Snowy Owl in years. . . at least 3 years. . . that’s way too long,” Chuck said to Frank.

“Look! Chuck!! There’s one right there — a Snowy Owl!” Frank replied, emphatically pointing out the window.

“Can you start talking about how nice it would be to see a polar bear?!” I said to Chuck, trying to get him to use his psychic powers to guide us to the bears.

Snowy Owl

Can you find the Snowy Owl in this picture?

This is the first time I’ve seen a Snowy Owl in its natural habitat and it was spectacular. When Frank first noticed it, the owl was in flight, heading toward some rocks. It gracefully landed on the rocks and some naturalists (there’s an “ist” for everything) traveling with us set up spotting scopes so we could see the owl clearly. With the naturalists’ help locating the owl camouflaged among the rocks, I was able to capture the picture to the left. The Snowy Owl sat on the rocks, majestically, somewhat smugly, as if to say, “they don’t call me ‘wise’ for nothing.” Owls definitely know something we don’t know.

There’s an uneventful portion of the day when we headed back to the Center to get lunch. I’m only mentioning it here because people on this trip are following this blog and they WILL call me out if I write about the day as if it happened in one long chunk as opposed to multiple, smaller blocks of time. But nothing exciting happened during lunch so, we move on. . .

After lunch we boarded the bus to go look for bears again. This time, Chuck must have really been thinking about bears when Frank asked him which way to go. We saw 6 bears within an hour of departing for this adventure. 2 of the bears were quite close to the bus, the others were running down the road ahead. I’ll tell you more about that in a couple days. Here are a couple pictures:

Polar Bear

First polar bear sighting today

Polar bear

Polar bear tasting the air. Or, sticking its tongue out at me

We sat and watched the bears for a little while and then headed up the road a ways.  We didn’t get too far before we pulled over again because someone, who was not Chuck, yelled “Bear!” when she saw a block of ice or snow-covered tree. It’s ok, it happens.

While we were pulled over on the side of the road, willing the block of ice to materialize into an actual polar bear, a spontaneous Q&A broke out.  Chuck is responsible for devising many of the polar bear research tactics and is one of the most renowned polar bear biologists in the world.  He is a walking encyclopedia, but when he speaks he’s more like a grandfather you wish you had – “that crazy ol’ guy” with stories about helicopter crashes and fighting off a polar bear attack in Arctic waters.  You could sit and listen to Chuck tell stories for hours and I hope you have the chance to do that sometime.

The Q&A concluded as people started requesting a bathroom break, and of course, a trip to the one liquor store in town.  I always say you can tell what kind of trip it’s going to be when you see how many people get off the bus during that first annual stop at the liquor store in Churchill.

“Well, that’s one good thing — at least if we get stranded, we’ve got our wine!” Jeremy, who traveled all the way from the UK to drink wine in the Arctic, exclaimed as we drove back to the Center for dinner.

Yes, that is one good thing. . .

More bears – and stories – tomorrow!

Reuniting With The Polar Bears of Churchill (again)

The first polar bear I saw today

November 8, 2010

I’m sitting on the train to Churchill, heading to see the polar bears once again. This journey technically began at 4am Saturday morning (November 6). That said, the journey always begins before it technically begins.

I started my quest to see polar bears in their natural habitat three years ago and I’ve been going back to Churchill every year since. I almost didn’t go on the trip this year. I had taken time off to go see the grizzly bears at McNeil River in July and wasn’t sure about more time off work.

“Yeah, yeah. . . I know what you’re thinking, but you’re coming on this trip! You promised,” Shannon gently reminded me. Shannon works at The Great Bear Foundation and along with biologist, Chuck Jonkel, brings a small group of people to “the polar bear capitol of the world” every year.

My flight to Winnipeg was scheduled to leave at 6am, which meant heading to the airport at 4am Saturday. I was so proud of myself because, for once, I packed Thursday night, 32-hours before when I’d typically pack for a Saturday morning flight. Thinking I was ahead of the game was a mistake, however. I ended up having so much work to do that I stayed up through the night Friday until it was time to head to the airport Saturday morning.

“This trip is just a series of short naps,” I said to my friend, Heather. This is the first year a friend is coming to Churchill with me. I’ve been talking about it for 3 years and finally, one of my most adventurous friends decided it was time to join me.

We landed in Winnipeg around 2pm Saturday and headed straight to the hotel. After we dropped our gear off, we decided to go for a walk to find a good restaurant where we could have lunch. Now, I don’t want to offend anyone who lives in Winnipeg, but by the time we found a restaurant that looked like it might serve edible food, it was dinnertime.

After an exceptionally spicy Chinese meal at Hu’s on First, we made our way back to the hotel. By this point, we were exhausted, not only from walking around Winnipeg for several hours, but also from the lack of sleep the night before. After spending time in the hot tub and not having the attention span to wait for the Steam to turn on, we decided to make it an early night.  We were also well aware that it might be the last good night’s sleep we’d get for 9 nights.

“I’m setting my phone alarm for 9am,” I said to Heather, aware that this was the latest possible moment we could wake up, in order to be at the train station by 11am (and get breakfast, and get coffee). Alan and Leslie, a wonderful couple I met during my first visit to Churchill suggested we call them around 9am to make plans for breakfast before getting on the train.

I heard the phone ring during what felt like the middle of the night. I chose to ignore it, confident that my phone alarm would go off at the designated time. Heather also seemed to be choosing to ignore the phone, so I went back to sleep. However, underlying my sleep was a little voice, “you should see what time it is. Alan said we’d speak at 9am. Maybe it is 9.” So I looked at the clock.

“Oh no! Heather! Wake up! It’s 9:27!”

“What?! How did that happen??” she asked.

We started plotting how we were going to accomplish everything by 11am. The hotel stops serving breakfast at 10am. We were packed but we hadn’t showered. The nearest Starbucks was a 15-minute walk, the opposite direction of the train station.

“So, I guess we’re not going to shower,” Heather said, eliminating the thing we thought we could most live without, given the options.

Unwilling to accept that it was 9:30, I called down to the front desk. “What time is it?” I asked the receptionist. “It’s 8:32,” she replied.

“Why does the clock in our room say 9:32?” I asked.

“Because it’s daylight savings time. It changed in the middle of the night,” she explained. Note to people who work in the hotel industry: as guests are checking in, remind them of such details as time changes.

We were so relieved we had an extra hour, Heather and I got back into our beds and talked about all the things we had time to do now. “We can walk to Starbucks!” “We can buy water!” “We can shower!” “Breakfast is open for another hour and a half!” By the time we finished discussing all of our options, we only had time for breakfast and a shower.

“Would you like anything from Starbucks?” Alan texted me. This is one of the reasons why Alan and Leslie are among my favorites. Check. One more thing crossed off our list before embarking on a 2-day train ride.

Breakfast, by most people’s standards, was fairly mediocre. But, it was free, and things taste better when you don’t have to pay for them. As we learned to say following our all-day quest for good food in Winnipeg, “it was alright. . . for Winnipeg.” After breakfast, we made our way to the train station and met up with the rest of the group: Sam, Dan and Roxanne, Josette (French, from France, and living in British Columbia), Alan and Leslie of course, and Jeremy (from the UK).

I called Chuck to let him know that the entire group coming from Winnipeg was accounted for and ready to board the train. Chuck was leading the majority of the group, traveling by bus, from Missoula, Montana. It’s definitely worth doing that bus trip once in your life. After you’ve done it once, you can just take the train from Winnipeg. The group on the bus will join you on the train in Le Pas.

“Well, we drove through the night and then we went on an early morning hike,” Chuck said, filling me in on their experience. That’s why you want to do the bus trip one time – the early morning hike might have been nice, but riding on the bus through the night is another story.

We boarded the train in Winnipeg and immediately began playing games with our new friends. Some games were real games, like Scrabble Slam and MadGab. Other games were made up on the spot like, “Guess The Conductor’s Name.” Everybody played along without hesitation, which facilitated all of us bonding instantly.

Oh – another great thing that happened: we were greeted at the train by the same conductor I traveled with last year. I’m not going to tell you his name because if I do, then I can’t tell you all the cool things he did for us – don’t want him to get in trouble.

It’s 10:45am Monday.  We’ve been on the train almost 24 hours now, and many people are already referring to the Dining Car as “The Bar.” The group from Missoula joined us on the train around 3am. I opened my eyes to find Shannon, standing over me, laughing. . . or smiling loudly. Soon I saw Bob , Frank, and finally, Chuck.

You can read about Chuck in my Churchill year-one blog: here. What I find amazing is that, 3 years later, Chuck still has a bunch of new stories and information to share. This morning he told us all about the railroad between Winnipeg and Churchill. He talked about when the track was built, who owns each section, and shared insights about anticipated repairs. What kicked off the conversation, though, is what’s really. . . funny. . . or scary. I choose funny.

“You have a different engine on the train now than when you left Winnipeg,” Chuck said.

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Well, because they’ve had some derailments lately and it’s (the route) so far away from any repair services that they want to have the best-working equipment on the train before we head any further North,” he responded, as if this was not cause for concern.

Relieved to learn that our train now had a better chance of completing the trip to Churchill, we headed to the dining car (aka “the bar”) for breakfast. The food on the train is surprisingly good. I ordered the “daily special omelet,” with wheat toast. I couldn’t figure it out – the toast tasted phenomenal. Sure, I added peanut butter and jelly, but this was a level of deliciousness that exceeded PB & J. Finally I had an epiphany, “I know why the toast is so good – BUTTER!” Listen, I know they say butter isn’t good for you, which is why I haven’t tasted it in so long. But butter is really good for toast.

“How often do you use the word ‘oh’?” I just heard a husband ask his wife, referencing her journal entry. They’re part of the Missoula group so I don’t know their names yet. The man has a travel GPS unit that he has suction-cupped to the train window. “He likes to know where he is,” Shannon informed me. I don’t know exactly where we are right now, but here is where we’re headed:

Churchill

Churchill

When you’re on a train for 2 days, you have a lot of time to talk.  Eventually, you’ve caught up about all the important stuff and the conversation starts to get a little silly, i.e.:

“The serving size of the Coffee Crisp is way bigger than the serving size of the Milk Dud.” This was actually a fair response to a game we were playing – guessing how each of these candies ranked in terms of various components of their nutritional value: Fat, Calories, Sugar

“Coffee Crisp is most flammable but Milk Duds burn the longest. . .”

“My friend used to live in LA and one day she decided to go to the mountains in the Palisades for a hike, for some peace and quiet.  And then she turned around and saw Nick Nolte, which scared her into moving to Montana.”

Yes, it’s getting late.  And the train has run out of red wine. . .

Filling In The Blanks – More Arctic Adventures

 

November 16, 2008

We’ve just begun the long journey home.  We’re currently on hour 8 of our 29-hour train ride.  There are so many details and stories that didn’t get covered in the previous blog entries. 

Dr. Charles Jonkel and Me, Missoula Montana Nov 18

Dr. Charles Jonkel and Me, Missoula Montana Nov 18

 

One thing that’s clear is that we’ve all become family. It was evident when we joined another group of individual travelers on a tour the other day. Our group entered and immediately the woman from Polar Bears International said, “you guys have really been traveling together. You’re yelling at each other (in a fun way), teasing, laughing, and so comfortable together.” And when we boarded the train late last night I looked around at the few of us who have become a micro-family and said, “we’re gonna miss each other. “ Brandon replied, “Yeah, I didn’t think it would be possible.” And everybody laughed. He went on to explain that when he met everyone initially he thought, “ok, cool. They’re all right.”  But as we spent the week together, in crazy travel circumstances, and experiencing the world of polar bears, we truly became family.  That, of course, includes the whacky aunt and occasional person yu wish hadn’t married into the family. But everybody’s unique personality is what made the group dynamic work. 

The other thing that’s unique about this trip and supports that “family” dynamic is that we ate every meal together. I’m not sure how many families do that anymore, but it’s a powerful reminder of how important that time is.  We ate in a dining room, no TVs, no computers, no cell phones (they wouldn’t have worked anyway) – just people sharing their experiences, making each other laugh, and racing each other to the best desserts. 

Looking for tundra berries in the snow

Looking for tundra berries in the snow

 

Anyway, more about our adventures in Churchill: There was one day when the weather wasn’t conducive to seeing polar bears.  It was snowing, with 30 mph winds and near white out conditions.  When the weather gets like this, the bears hunker down and sleep, conserving energy and hoping that the cold front is enough to bring on the sea ice. Now, if the polar bears think it’s a good idea to curl up and sleep all day, you’d think the people may follow their cue.  But no, we’re a little bit nuts and Chuck took us out for a walk in the forest.  We dug down through about 2 feet of snow to find tundra berries and other vegetation.  It was 9 degrees below zero and pretty damn cold.  But Chuck wanted us to learn about the vegetation, what the Arctic critters eat and how they gather their food through the snow. This past year saw a plentiful production of berries and a lot of snow.  So, instead of being buried under the permafrost, where the animals couldn’t reach them, there are plenty of berries accessible this season. That’s good news for the terrestrial animals of the Arctic.

Kelly playing in the snow

Kelly playing in the snow

 

It seemed like we were the only people crazy enough to be outside in this weather. The roads were empty. There was a moment when I’m sure everybody was re-considering why we were outside instead of sipping hot chocolate back at the research center.  But before you can even verbalize that thought, you remember that you traveled to the Arctic – you didn’t come here for hot chocolate and warm weather. And at that moment, everybody started falling backwards into the snow.  It’s an amazing feeling to know you can fall safely backwards and not get hurt. In fact, you didn’t even feel the impact of the fall.  It was just poof and then outbursts of giggling all around. 

 

More to come soon, including: Ian Stirling lecture, video of a polar bear at play, and some simple things we can all do to help the polar bears.  In the meantime, here are a couple more pictures

 

Roads were empty except for our crazy group

Roads were empty except for our crazy group

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Arctic puppies play with snow balls!

Arctic puppies play with snow balls!

 

 

 

Packed up for the return home

Packed up for the return home

 

She’ll Be Comin’ Round The Mountain…

November 10, 2008

From Winnepeg to Churchill via Train… 

 

Reflection of Brandon and Me on the Train

Reflection of Brandon and Me on the Train

We’ve been on a train all day.  If you didn’t know Chuck is a brilliant professor and revered bear expert, you may think he’s a madman. He has the look in his eyes when he speaks and sometimes it’s hard to tell if he loves you or if he’s disappointed you didn’t eat his homemade snacks.  But he loves us and is an amazing host.  He’s always passing out snacks, telling stories and answering questions about the bears.

 

We are in the middle of nowhere. Literally. For 500 miles we see the same view – trees with frost and frozen lakes.  The train is comfortable and the rocking lulls us into sleep – well, that and the sleep deprivation from 2 days prior.   So we sleep, eat, read, sleep, eat, and finally… we discovered the bar.  It almost seems like this is what we do now and I need to keep reminding myself that finally, tomorrow, we’ll be on the ice with bears and snow fox.

No internet, no cell service, no text messages or status updates.  How did we ever survive prior to all this technology?! Well, you get to know people, have real conversations, hear all the details. I’m also the only city-person on this trip, surrounded by mountain people.  They’re great, but they’ve literally never seen a Blackberry, some have confused my iPod for a cell phone, and every time I get the laptop out they ask, “are you gettin’ on the internet?”  It’s refreshing (albeit foreign) to be surrounded by people who are not dependent on technology, and in fact, many of them despise it!

Well, back to reading, sleeping, reading, sleeping.  We have another 14 hours on the train.  

 

The train we called "home" for 30 hours

The train we called *home* for 30 hours