Thursday, October 19, 2017

Safari Pictures

A Safari in Kenya

Hanging out with zebra in Buffalo Spring Reserve

Many, many months -- maybe more like years ago -- we started dreaming about our travels and going on a safari was always one of our top priorities.  We hemmed and hawed over where and when to go.  Then one day Jason said he absolutely wanted to see the wildebeest migration.  The what???  I had no idea what he was talking about.  But he quickly convinced me that seeing thousands of wildebeest cross the Masai Mara during their annual migration was something we needed to see.  We were put in touch with a friend of a friend and planned our safari in Kenya for mid August.  Seeing the migration became a cornerstone for our travel planning timeline.

Our safari van!

Let me start by saying our safari was flipping awesome.  If you ever have a chance to go on one you should jump at the chance.

We had an awesome guide who was with us from the moment we landed in Nairobi until the day we left.  He was incredibly informative about everything we could think to ask about Kenya, the people, politics, the landscape and of course all the animals we saw.

We each had our own wishlist of animals to see.  I wanted to see a family of elephants with a baby.  Aside from the migration, Jason hoped to see animals being animals, maybe a little hunting and attacking.  Adele most wanted to see elephants and zebra.  And Spencer hoped to find a cheetah and a baby giraffe.  We were fortunate to see all of this and so much more than we had ever anticipated.

Family of elephants we spotted up on a hill.

They walked right by our van!

Our first stop was 2 nights in the Samburu National Reserve.  We did game drives in the Buffalo Springs Reserve and had our first glimpse of zebra, orick, warthogs, gazelle, ostrich, impala, giraffe and elephants, just to name a few.  All of us were caught up in the excitement.  Every new animal we found, the kids quickly looked up in our guide book and shared facts about them.  We made an ever growing list of every single creature we came across.  And the thrill of spotting the next animal never got old.

Balancing on the equator.  It was quite cold here, not what we expected.

Our second destination was Ol Pejeta Conservancy.  This place is a gem and, on reflection, was the absolute highlight for me.  This place started with lunch and one of the ugliest birds we'd ever seen.  This stork casually watched us eat nearly all of our meals.

Marabou stork at lunch.

Here we met Baraka, a blind black rhino, and learned the difference between black and white rhinos and about the struggles that keep them on the critically endangered list.  We were even fortunate to see the last 3 northern white rhinos in the world.  Turns out, rhinos are neither black nor white, both are a steely gray color.  The name "white" was derived from a mistranslation of the dutch word for wide: wijd.  The white rhinos are distinguishable by their wide mouths.  Then the other species was named "black" rhinos for the sake of differentiation.

Baraka the rhino loves his sugar cane!

After meeting Baraka, we explored a small but informative museum where learned more about animals in the bush, the circle of life and conservation efforts.  It was a great hands-on exhibit for the kids!

                 Elephant leg bone
Giraffe neck bone

At night we watched a herd of 17 elephants slowly cross the grassy field.  A baby and two adults stopped right in front of me to drink from the water hole.  We were close enough to hear their feet rustle the grass.  We heard the rumbling vibrations they make to communicate with each other (I thought it was a lions roar at first).  As dusk turned to night we watched until every last elephant faded into the darkness.  Magical!

Fading into the night.

We headed to Lake Elementaita next.  Here we saw hundreds of flamingos; so many the lake looked pink!  We watched them walk back and forth across the shore, then spectacularly take flight all at once.  On the beach we came across a herd of water buck.  They were quite skiddish.  As soon as they heard us, every last one stopped what they were doing to stare at us.  You could have heard a pin drop.  Then they took off running.

Greater and lesser flamingos taking flight.

A flamingo pink lake.

Sadly the most memorable part of this location was Jason's illness.  After about 5 days of taking a prescribed anti-malarial, it finally took a toll.  He was laid up in bed for 24 hours and we had to contact a doctor to check him out.  He got new meds and was back on his feet the next day.  We were very fortunate to have an amazing tour company and hotel staff to help us.  It wasn't pretty, but he survived.

Our final safari stop was the much anticipated Masai Mara.  This place is well know for big 5 animal sightings along with the migration.  We had one less day here due to Jason's illness, but we made the most of it.  We were able to check off several things from our "hope we see this" list.

This cheetah gave up his hunt and walked by our van instead.

Our guide kept in constant contact with other drivers and managed to get us front and center to see a cheetah pursue some gazelle.  But apparently they are lazy hunters and he gave up, walking right in front of our van!  This was the closest we got to seeing a hunt, so Jason didn't get his Animal Planet wish of seeing a successful kill.  But, we did catch word about a pride of lions finishing up some zebra for breakfast.  Yikes!  Sad on one hand and fascinating circle of life on the other (note to self, put Lion King on our watch list).

Lions having a little zebra for breakfast.

And on our last and final game drive, we set out for the all day adventure of trying to see the migration.  We knew going in it would be an 8 hour day, so we prepped the kids with activities and packed food to go.  We found a prime spot on one side of the river where we could see hundreds of zebra and wildebeest.  Several times we saw large groups approach the water, wade in and consider crossing.  But there were always hippos guarding the river and scaring them back up the banks.  There were 16 hippos in this stretch of the water and they lurked around, splashed, fought and intimidated the hopeful migrators.  At one point we saw a mom and baby zebra wade out well past half way, we were so worried for them.  They must have seen something, because they turned and high-tailed it back.

Mean hippo scaring back the zebra.

Hippos fighting for territory.

Hundreds more wildebeest gathered on our side of the river looking for a place to cross, unfortunately a number of safari drivers were blocking the parts of the banks that had access to the water.  So they just wandered around, would line up and then back off repeatedly.  We did see one lonely wildebeest cross on his own, I guess he was tired of waiting.  We were beginning to think he would be our only migration sighting.  One wildebeest.

Wildebeest gathering and gaining confidence to cross.

At 4pm, our driver said it was time to head back to camp.  We started up the hill with deflated hopes and "we gave it our best shot" sentiments.  Then suddenly our driver flipped a u-turn to another section of the river.  He had gotten a radio call that it started.  He found a spot to squeeze between other vans and we saw it!  A couple hundred wildebeest were crossing!  We could see them go across, up the bank and trail off into the bush.  I was so happy we saw it, after all our planning and dreams it would have been a huge bummer to miss.  Our guide was amazing, he kept saying to be patient and it would happen.  These animals are unpredictable and quite indecisive, which is part of their survival instinct.  Who would want to cross a river filled with crocs and hippos?

Finally, the wildebeest found a safe spot to cross!

Eleven hours later we made it back to the lodge.  The timing was perfect I guess, as this last day on safari marked our 11th wedding anniversary.  There is no one I would rather spend 11 hours in a van with or a year traveling the world with.

Happy 11th Anniversary to us!

Since this post is crazy long, I'll post more pictures separately and some safari related writing and drawings by the kids.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

South Africa - Part 1 - Highlight reel

Our home base in Constantia
Our month-long stay in South Africa started out slow.  Both Kerry and I were sick for the first week or two with various illnesses. We probably needed a bit of rest after our whirlwind Safari trip to Kenya anyhow.  The worst part though was when I was sick with the flu. We were staying in wine country in the suburbs of Cape Town where you need a car to get anywhere.  But the car was both a right-hand-drive, and a manual transmission - so I was the only one who could drive it.  That left everyone else stranded at home. We fortunately had enough food to get by until I was feeling good enough to drive to the store to stock up a couple of days later.

The kids loved the house that we rented for the month.  It was on an enormous estate with several other houses connected by meandering paths within the same walls. Other families had rented houses on other parts of the estate, so there were 7 other kids around the same age that Adele and Spencer had a great time playing and exploring with.  They jumped on the trampoline, built a treehouse, and played football (soccer) together.  But this required patiently waiting for the kids to come home from school on weekdays to play.

Wheeling supplies for the treehouse

Spencer spending time up in the treehouse

So busy with self-directed play and projects! Gathering thatch for games and the treehouse.
South Africa was still in the final throes of winter, so the weather was a bit more temperamental than usual.  It was quite cold the first week or so with a bit of rain.  We had to put off seeing some of the amazing sights on our list until the weather was more cooperative, and for Kerry and I to be physically capable of hiking further than the couch!

We started out easy with a trip to the District Six museum to learn about some of the horrors of Apartheid.  Check out the part 2 post to hear more about this.

We also walked through the Company's Garden where we saw the squirrels are *way* too tame so we steered clear of them.  The kids had fun climbing in some swings and enclosures reminiscent of bird's nests.

the company's garden
That night, we got our first surprise visit from some neighborhood wildlife - a sweet long-haired cat that belongs to the hosts.  It decided to come in through the old cat door and pay a visit to get some attention from the kids. It was good pet therapy for us who were missing our puppy Griffin back home who was turning 11 years old in just a few days.  The cat visited several more times, often to our chagrin in the middle of the night.

some much needed kitty cuddling
Wi-Fi went from bad to worse, so we went in search of Wi-Fi so we could get some e-books and also do research for our Garden Route tour (Many sights along the Garden Route were top of our list to see in South Africa. Be sure to check out the separate post about our Garden Route tour.)  One place we tried was a nearby public library.  The kids enjoyed reading some actual physical books that were actually in English. But alas, they did not have Wi-Fi.  The library was actually quite sad. It had a modest collection of very well-worn old copies of books. Lack of access to a wide variety of reading material is not good for literacy rates.  Made me value our libraries back home.  We found some crummy Wi-Fi at a place we just had to try - the Seattle Coffee Company.  Needless to say, I went out the next day and bought a local 4G SIM card so we could have reliable network via tethering.

The Two Oceans Aquarium was a hit with everyone.  We got to see African penguins up close and even waddling through the building. The staff were amazingly knowledgeable and friendly and helpful and enriched our experiences at the touch pool and microscope area.  Our kids learned about the tenuous plight of the African penguins that may not be around for many more years.  On their own volition, they each have made "penguin promises" that have changed their behaviors to do their part to help with animal conservation of all kinds, including saying "no thank you" to plastic straws.  We also discovered the V&A Food Market nearby for lunch that has fantastic inexpensive food for great prices.  We liked it so much we returned again another day for a quick dinner!

rockhopper penguins taking a walk; clowning around with clown fish
 We had fun just getting in the car and driving along the coast to check out all the gorgeous beaches you could see from the curvy road.  One place we had almost to ourselves was Sandy Bay.  It is composed of enormous boulders that the kids had a great time climbing and jumping on. The landscape was just phenomenal and peaceful with the waves making great sounds crashing on and between the gigantic boulders.  We also discovered Camps Bay beach that we returned to several times. It is a large white-sand beach dotted with enormous boulders. The sand was the perfect consistency for digging and sculpting and just running your hands and feet through.

Sandy Bay's rocky shoreline

kids loved exploring the massive rocks

cooling off at Camp's Bay Beach

Camp's Bay

the 12 apostles seen on the coast drive

Impossible guitar sculpture
first sand sculpture
 Among our must-see sights were the African penguins in their natural habitat. And boy, we were not disappointed! We ventured to Boulders Beach where they have a large protected breeding sanctuary as part of the expansive Table Mountain National Park system.  The best part was getting to go down onto the beach where the penguins go in and out of the water to see them waddling along the sand or swimming around in the ocean.  The kids thought it was especially funny when a penguin hopped up some stairs that had a "no exit" sign on it.  The tide was coming in so we took advantage of an "adventure moment" and stripped off our shoes and dodged waves over and in-between boulders to go as far as we could before the breeding sanctuary boundary to see the penguins in their natural environment being cute and doing their penguin thing.  Little did we know that just a bit further was the mother-load of penguins just waiting for us to see!

Need to get wet to spot penguins on the beach

Looking good looking for penguins

Unreal! Penguins emerge right in front of us

So many penguins at the protected breeding grounds
Table Mountain was a sight that inspired us even before we left on our big adventure. It was something we all couldn't wait to see, except due to illness and bad weather, we were forced to.  Spencer kept asking if today was the day we would get to go to Table Mountain...  Seeing it in person, I found it to be more amazing and imposing than I expected. It was a sight that captivated the earliest colonial settlers of the area (which was fun to see in old paintings at the Castle of Good Hope)  Turns out that it is even *more* spectacular at the top.  It was not what I had expected. As far as you could see the landscape was lichen-covered boulders peeking from tufted grasses, shrubs and flora unique to South Africa. This ran right up to the edges of the mountain where you got gorgeous views of the surrounding peaks, valleys and even Cape Town itself and the ocean. The park had created nice pathways to explore without disturbing the flora.  We found the best exploring down a steep natural staircase which kept most all of the other visitors stranded on the other side, leaving an entire portion of the park for us to explore on our own.  It was a treat to watch the clouds form right in front of you from seemingly nothing and blow past and spill over the side -- at least until the sun went down and then that same wind was *freezing*  We were crossing our fingers that we would make it onto a nice warm gondola so we wouldn't have to hike down.

Alone at the edge of the mountain

gondola to the top and back

Admiring the vistas

Change of perspective lets you see the surroundings in a new way.

Cloud table cloth rolling over Table Mountain

I had sadly not yet gotten the kind of spectacular view of the night sky anywhere on our travels yet. When I saw that the local observatory was having an open night while we were there, we made sure to visit. We were surprised that the observatory was so close to downtown, so light pollution is now a bummer (but wasn't when it opened in 1897). Even so, we had the opportunity to look through two good-sized telescopes set up outside on the lawn at both the moon and Saturn. The moon looked amazingly sharp and detailed like I had never seen. Saturn was still small, but the rings were definitely present. After this, the kids and I got a tour of the 120-year-old McLean telescope and got a chance to look at Saturn through it at the top of a tall ladder. I've always wanted to look at the skies through one of those massive telescopes. It was very impressive to see the technology still functional and to see the heavens as scientists did so long ago.

Adele viewing Saturn

Our Airbnb was in Constantia wine country, so we definitely had to check out the wineries near us.  There were three, but due to our illnesses and timing, we only went to one: A 330 year-old winery: Groot Constantia. It did not disappoint. The tasting room had amazing art on the walls and they even had a server who would bring you your tastes so you could just sit and relax.  They also gave you nice heavy pours and gave us a couple extra tastes above our standard 5. It was good that we walked home! They had one of the best muscat wines I've ever tasted: Grand Constance.

Celebrating being healthy!
Our Airbnb hosts that live a stone's throw away on the same estate invited us to attend a private performance by a British folk artist that they knew personally and loved.  We were intrigued to mingle with Cape Town high society and to hear some live music.  The artist was Reg Meuross, who neither of us had ever heard of before, but now neither of us will soon forget.  The setting was so intimate and he is so warm and personable and an amazing storyteller.  It was an incredibly moving experience. I think what put it over the top was the thought, "how freaking crazy and surreal is it that we are here in this room with these people right now?"  We would *never* ever have had that experience if we had not gone on this crazy trip; if we had been content to just do traditional tourist things in traditional vacation spots; if we had not been open to adventure.  It was one of the biggest validations of what we were doing on this trip that we've had.

Intimate private show with Reg Meuross

There is an interesting mix of Malaysian, African, and colonial foods in South Africa. Ostrich happened to be widely available, even in grocery stores. We knew we would have to try it, and we did in Oudtshoorn (ostrich country). It is fantastic! We never had a bad preparation, although we found that they tend to use sweeter sauces than we prefer on everything.  I just had to try a crocodile burger right near the crocodile exhibit.  It was really flavorful.  Bunny Chow is a funny name for a Cape Malay curry that is served in a "bread bowl" (half a loaf of bread hollowed-out). We learned of it in Seattle and had to make sure we tried it.  No bunnies were harmed.  Bobotie is a traditional spiced ground meat casserole topped with an egg topping.

Ostrich, ostrich widely available in stores, crocodile burger, Bunny Chow, and Bobotie casserole
Barbecuing is BIG in South Africa.  But they use the Afrikaans word "Braai".  How big?  Well, when looking for lodging, most listings were sure to include a braai (grill) for you to use.  Our Airbnb house was equipped with a braai as well. I had missed out on BBQ season back home so I had to make up for lost time.  Braai is traditionally done using real lump charcoal and no lighter fluid.  I managed to grill some traditional South African foods.  The first meal was Boerewors (a traditional spiced sausage that comes in a giant coiled rope).  We ate it in rolls, which is called a Boerie roll.  You eat a pepper relish called Chakalaka with it that comes in different heat levels.  Another traditional dish is Samp and beans (Samp is akin to Hominy) that I added chopped bacon too.  Yum.  We also knew early on we would want to cook up som ostrich steaks that we saw in the store.  I made a kalbi marinade that was just the right balance of sweet and salty.
Boerewors sausage, Boerie rolls topped with Chakalaka with Samp and beans, manning the Braai, and kalbi marinated ostrich steaks on the Braai
The stunning natural beauty as well as relatively inexpensive tasty food options and lots of activities made South Africa a great place to visit.