Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Kurger National Park: Part 2

White-backed Vultures
African Elephant
The days on this Safari start at 5:30am for coffee and a muffin and we’re in the trucks by 6 to drive into the bush looking for animals for three hours until we return to camp to a huge breakfast.  Then we’re free until 2:30 (to nap and edit photos) when there is a snack, big enough to be a lunch, and leave for another drive and rush back to the camp by 6pm because the safari companies are fined if they are out past that time so it is easier for the park to properly patrol for rhino poachers.  Then dinner is from 7:30pm until about 9.  I think everyone else then heads to bed, but I end up staying awake for another two to three hours uploading and starting to edit the hundreds of photos from that day.  I kept up with editing photos the first two days, but I’m writing this on day five and I’m almost halfway through the photos from day three.

Martial Eagle
I’ve never really been on a guided trip before.  It is great being a client.  It is so nice to not have to think for once.  I just have to show up when they tell me to and there is food and the plans are already made.  And the food is absolutely amazing.  

Burchell's Zebra
African Hawk-Eagle
Marabou Stork
The last few days have been pretty slow when it comes to spotting animals.  Hippos were the most exciting things for me, but there we drives when we’d hardly even see an elephant.  But the drive this evening changed that.  It started out slow, with just a few warthogs and impala and a giraffe.  After almost an hour we spotted another leopard (the third of the week) lounging in the middle of the road.  We were the only vehicle around, and only four of us in it, and watched it for about 20 minutes taking photos and video (I’ll put up videos in another post soon). We eventually left the leopard and all decided that if we didn’t see another animal for the rest of the evening we’d be happy.  Less than ten minutes later we saw a lion…and another….and another until all ten lions (a male, three females and six cubs) emerged from the grass on a hunting mission.  We followed them down the road for a while since they didn’t seem to want to get out of the way for us.  They ran back into the grass and we drove ahead to the rhinos that we’d spotted in the distance at the same time as the lions. The two white rhinos didn’t stick around long when we drove up, but we ended up seeing eight more before the end of the day.  After turning back toward the camp we ran into a heard of over a hundred water buffalo, a few dozen vultures, an elephant and a few zebras.  Besides seeing a kill I don’t think anything could top this drive.  I could go home happy now, but I still have 2 days left. 

African Elephant

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

First Few Days in South Africa and Kruger National Park

Kruger Sunset
I spent the last few hours of the London-Johannesburg (Jo-burg) flight staring out the window and the relatively road-less land in the southern half of the African continent.  The few roads I saw looked made of only dirt.  The landscape drastically changed within about 45 minutes of landing in Jo-burg.  The barren landscape turned into what could have easily been any suburban area in the US.  The whole city seemed like any other city in the developed world.

I didn’t explore the city much at all because I’ve walked around enough cities in the last week and have some more to come next week that I actually want to check out.   My first night there I went out to dinner with my friend Alex who lives near Johannesburg.  He said, “here in Johannesburg we’re very first world, but just remember, you are still in Africa.”  Then he told that I shouldn't leave the walled/gated compound of my hostel at night due the part of town I was in. 

White Rhino
Rhino Poop!
I had planned on renting a super long telephoto lens and extra camera body for wildlife in Kruger and it was going to be delivered to my hostel in the evening and I had to pay for it in cash since I wasn’t going to their shop.  The closest ATM what more than half a mile away so I got some good exercise that day because I made a few trips back and forth so I wasn’t carrying hundreds and hundreds of dollars all at once.  I don’t know how many miles I logged that day, because half the time my debit or credit card would be declined at the ATM and I’ve have to go back and call the bank on Skype and tell them that it was really me using my card in an “at-risk” country, despite having already called them and notified them of my travel plans

Spotted Hyenas in the rain.
Burchell's Zebra
The next day I got picked up early in the morning for the five hour drive to Kruger National Park.  We drove through poorer areas and shantytowns on the outskirts of the city.  The landscape for the next few hours reminded me of the Central Valley in California with a few million less people.  Citrus groves, macadamia nut trees and tree plantations lined very well developed (thanks to the 2010 World Cup in the area) highways.  The horizon was dotted giant coal fired power plants with coal mines every few miles to fuel them.

Nile Crocodile
Kruger National Park:
When it comes to wildlife, Kruger is like the Yellowstone of South Africa.  If there are cars stopped along the road it means there is some sort of animal there, even if it is only an Impala.  I say “only” because I’ve already seen thousands of them.  The guides call them the McDonalds of Kruger for a few reasons: 1. They have an “M” in black on their butt, 2. They are absolutely everywhere and 3. Most carnivores eat them.   The driver laughed at me when I asked him to stop so I could take some photos, but since they are everywhere we’d never stop to check them out. We finally did stop.  They are smaller than I expected…a large male is probably only about three feet tall.  I now compare people stopping to see them to people stopping to see a deer or chipmunk in Yellowstone.  Elephants are becoming the same; they might be compared to stopping to see an Elk in Yellowstone—a bigger deal, but they are still everywhere.

A small group of the hundreds that I saw every day.
African Elephant
As soon as we entered the park we saw a few hundred impalas, a water buffalo and a baboon within the first five minutes.   We got to the fenced in camp and I settled into a permanent safari tent (with a fan and fridge) situated right next to the electric fence with a sign telling me not to feed the hyenas that roam outside the fence at night.

One of six lion cubs we saw during a night drive
White Rhino in the bush
Our only game drive that day was very productive sunset drive where I got my first taste of real African wildlife: 3 elephants, a warthog, 2 kudu, 2 white rhinos, 3 giraffe, a lioness with 6 cubs, a martial eagle and 3 banded mongoose—all in 3 hours. 

African Bush
I’m in day four right now and have seen pretty much every major animal except for a cheetah.  More to come next time the internet is working.

The only wildebeest we saw
Those things are huge!

Ten Hours in London

On my way to South Africa I had a 10-hour layover in London.  I figured I should make the most of the time there and explore the city a little bit.  After clearing immigration, customs, storing luggage and taking the train into the city and then returning to check-in, go back through security and walking miles through the passages of Heathrow Airport to get to my gate I only had about four hours in London. 

To make the most of it I took the express train into the city, which was more expensive, but only took 15 minutes versus the hour it would have taken on the Underground. 

I played tourist for a while and, of course, had to go see Big Ben.  I’d love to go back and spend more time there instead of rushing through.  I also made a last minute decision to take a ride on the London Eye, which is a giant Ferris wheel with glass capsules that you stand in during the ride to give you a 360-degree bird’s eye view of the city.

 I also found a classic London pub on a random street between Big Ben and Paddington Station to have some fish and chips and a cider.  I’ve decided that New Zealand does fish and chips much better than England…I’ve never heard many good things about English food anyway.  And compared to microbrews in the US, English beer is also pretty bad.  But what they do very well is cider.  Not the overly sweet cider that we have in the States—the English cider is almost bitter with just a hint of apple.  It is absolutely delicious.  Another thing they do well is pouring beer and cider.  The amount of care that was put into pouring the perfect glass was very impressive.  That may be one of the reasons why the cider tasted so good?  And they only way to watch them pour was to keep ordering them until I ran out of the few British Pounds that I got from the ATM.

As long as the internet works over the next few days here in Kruger National Park, South Africa I’ll post about my first few days in Africa. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Chicago in a Day

Chicago and Lake Michigan from the Willis/Sears Tower.
I'm definitely not a city person, but they are fun to visit sometimes.  They are usually full of good food, architecture and my favorite sport, people watching.  And they absolutely fascinate me by how much goes on in such a small space.

Here are a few photos from playing tourist in Chicago with my cousin last week:

The new Skydeck on the Willis/Sears Tower

Looking straight down from the Skydeck.

The Bean

A random guy under The Bean

I leave tomorrow morning for Kruger National Park, South Africa and hope to get London photos up ASAP.