Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Hiking in Switzerland

Hiking in Switzerland
The plane from Madagascar to Paris flew almost directly over the route I will be hiking; looking down I noticed the high passes still seemed to have quite a bit of snow on them Alpine Hikers told me most of the passes are clear enough for safe passage, but one might be impassible – however, with two weeks before I reach it they thought it might clear.
The trip from Berlin to the first stop, Schwarzwaldalp hotel, was uneventful – beautiful scenery, a very slow bus up the mountain that cost an astounding 27 Swiss Franks for a 40 minute ride. The road from Meiringen is very steep and very narrow – like a Forest Service road with good pavement; whenever two vehicles meet one has to pull almost completely off the road and stop; sometimes one has to back up a ways to come to a suitably wide spot. The drop-off is steep enough to be rather scary for much of the journey. Schwarzwaldenalp is set in a virtual pasture, a green meadow that leads up to a modest but steep and rocky hill. It has the qualities of a rustic ski cabin – my room is so small it was very challenging to sort out my belongings and separate what goes in the suitcase with the transfer driver and what I carry in my backpack. Dinner was quite good, and ended with a lovely fruit salad topped with sorbet made from black currents – definitely something I want to repeat.
Slept well – there is a small but very steep and noisy stream not far from my window – that and the sound of cow bells were lovely. Cow bells accompanied me all the way up to the pass and along the high path, across two gondola paths to a clear mountain lake, then down to Grindle… At first the sky was quite cloudy – but as I neared the top of the pass enough of the clouds cleared that I had gorgeous views of several famous mountains including Eiger and Jungfrau. They played hide and seek behind the clouds most of the day; otherwise it was a lovely walk, wildflowers everywhere, warm enough that I finally unzipped the legs of my hiking pants to turn them into shorts.

Thursday, July 7
My room in Grindelwald was very nice – had a balcony with a good view of one of the mountains.
Today dawned warm and sunny – great day for a hike. At the advice of Alpinhikers I took a train up to Alpiglen – 2000 feet above the valley floor – to start the hike there. The train is narrow gauge, driven by a cogwheel that engages a center ratchet rail. It was packed with tourists – not one of whom got off with me at Alpiglen. Also at the advice of Alpinehikers I took the Eiger Trail – it switch-backs steeply up at least 1500 feet, then continues to climb slightly less steeply toward the base of the Eiger Face, which it parallels for a mile or so, just beneath where it gets vertical. Spectacular views – although from that bottom perspective it doesn’t look nearly as high as it actually is.
Following the directions, and not realizing until too late that an alternate trail provides a potential shortcut, I walked down to the pass, Klein Scheidegg, where my way to the recommended alternate trail (across the railroad tracks and down) was blocked by several hundred tourists queueing up to pay $50 or so to ride up to the restaurant on a shoulder of Jungfrau – tour guides were guarding the only passage through the fence, and I had to shoulder my way to the front and pretend I was part of a group from India to get through the gate and cross the tracks. That having been accomplished, it was a very nice hike through woods and meadows, with many spectacular mountain views along the way. It ended with a steep descent, over 1500 feet, to the level of Wengen, which is a small tourist village perched on the edge of a glacial valley, about 1600 feet up from the valley floor. (That descent is how I will start my day tomorrow.)

Saturday, July 9. My knee was not happy with that steep descent, so I decided to take the train down to Lauterbrunnen and walk from there. I also bought a knee brace, and dosed myself liberally with motrin. All that worked – my knee actually felt better when I reached Obersteinberg. They day was somewhat cloudy, but quite pleasant for the walk. For the first couple of hours the peace and bird-song was disrupted every half hour by helicopter racket, but as I entered the upper part of the valley that faded, leaving only bird song and cow-bells. The valley is a typical U-shaped glacial valley, close to 2000 feet deep, with sheer walls and frequent waterfalls, many of which would dwarf Multnomah Falls.
Eventually I headed up the very steep – but well-maintained – trail to the top of the canyon, where the pastures are merely steep, not vertical. (I feel certain Heidi did not suffer from acrophobia!) As soon as I broke out of the forest I found myself sitting in a meadow with a spectacular view of one of the Tschinglehorn, beyond the end of the valley. It was a lovely, idyllic place to have lunch and rest my feet. After a half hour, I continued on – the trail still had close to 500 feet to climb to get to the level of the family farm / mountain inns that line up along the top of the canyon. Steep-sloped (if they had snow on them I wouldn’t ski down them) lovely meadows with cows and sheep, frequent barns… Finally my trail joined the main trail, shortly before hotel Tschingelhorn, where several hikers were enjoying drinks and lunch on a lovely terrace. Unfortunately, lunch tends to be sandwich and pizza, and I can’t drink the beer, which is what I really want. Another 45 minutes through meadows (some almost level, although 20-100 meters back the meadow slopes steeply uphill toward a spine of sheer rock 800 feet above the trail.) I finally came to Obersteinberg, a rustic, mostly stone two story farmhouse/hotel that dates to the beginning of the 20th century and boasts a fantastic view.
I had an apfelsaft – carbonated apple juice, closest thing to a beer I could think of, checked in, the walked back along the trail a ways to a semi-secluded little meadow on the edge of the steep drop-off, where I napped for a while, then did some pushups and stretches and wandered back. Eventually I realized that the trail continues on along a more or less level stretch toward the end of the valley so I followed it for 35 minutes, past the end of the glacial valley, a box-canyon actually that ends abruptly in a wall of 1000 foot cliffs. Another half hour would have taken me to a small glacial lake at the foot of a glacier, but I had waited too late, and my knee didn’t want to climb the final 150 feet or so.
Dinner was rather odd. The innkeeper assigned tables – instead of putting me in one of the empty seats next to a window (I guess she thought the couples seated at all the window tables would not want an intruder) she stuck me with a family of four women and two young boys. She served a salad of simple lettuce leaves – good but plain – then brought the main course; rice and a kind of meat stew for everyone else, a plate full of crisp but somewhat oily hash browns for me, with one fried egg and two very thin tomato slices on top. I asked her if I would have any meat and she explained that the sauce had flour in it so I couldn’t eat it. It apparently never occurred to her to hold back a half pound of the meat and just fry it in a frying pan. No dessert, fruit, or anything.
Breakfast was downright skimpy – bread for everyone else, three rounds of puffed-oat cakes with jam for me, one small piece of cheese apiece for everyone – about an inch by two inches by a quarter inch. That was supposed to sustain us through 10-12 mile hikes. Fortunately I carried lots of snack food! I have mixed feelings about Obersteinberg. It is a neat, historic old inn, in a spectacular location, easy to find solitude and absolute quiet (except for songbirds and cow bells). However, the innkeeper made absolutely no attempt to accommodate my dietary needs – cooking my portion of meat without sauce could not have been that great a challenge.
The day broke clear and beautiful today, so I took the high route, up to the foot of the huge rocks that line the ridge. It was rather vertiginous – a somewhat narrow trail cut into the side of a hill so steep it would qualify as a cliff if it did not have grass and flowers growing out of it – don’t dare turn an ankle or stumble, because it wasn’t self-evident that you’d be able to stop from rolling or sliding down and over the cliffs below. The view is spectacular, but I didn’t look at it until, a mile and a half along, I came to a place where the slope eased off and the risk of a fall slighter. Then I came to a trail that leads up a very steep slope to an almost level flower-strewn meadow, 700 foot climb but stunning both for the mountain scenery and for the flowers. I sat there for a half hour, ate the one fruit-nut bar I’d carried up, then slowly ambled back down to where I’d left my pack, sitting down to enjoy and photograph the flowers in several spots along the way.
The rest of the trail wound along through meadows and finally ended a wooded area, where it turns steeply down – and becomes gravelly and treacherous. Fortunately it is not so steep that you can’t take really short steps, which reduces the strain on knees and other joints. Still, nearly an hour later, I was glad to be off it and back on a (relentlessly) sloping upward gravel road that leads to Murren. Along the way I saw farmers out in the steep meadow, recently cut, where they were turning the hay by pitchfork (much too steep for any farm machinery, I think). I also saw several meadows filled with triangular structures about six feet high, a post sunk in the ground with two other posts bracing it – these are placed there to slow the movement of snow down the slippery grassy slope and reduce avalanche risk. I had wondered about avalanche – I can’t see how snow could ever not slide down those slopes, and apparently they get 7-10 feet a year.

Sunday July 10
This second day in Murren was scheduled to be a take it easy, rest up day – a nice hike on the bench above Murren laid out. Beautiful weather; I started out at a nice stroll, stopping to take pictures even though the sun was still on the wrong side of most of the mountains. Around 11 I came to a junction with a trail that led rather steeply up toward a ridge; I didn’t know if I wanted to work hard enough to go clear up but decided to see. I headed up, and after thirty minutes, about halfway to the ridge, came to a level grassy meadow, containing the bottom of a ski lift. I decided that was high enough for a take it easy day, so took off my shoes, put sun block on my feet, and spent a very nice hour and a half – ate some snacks, did some stretching exercises, took a half nap (head propped up so I could see the mountains across the canyon – principally, Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau. A few other people exerted enough effort to get to that idyllic place, but we spaced ourselves out enough for a feeling of true solitude.
Other highlights of the day: coming upon a herd of cows all jingling their bells; a symphony of bells with Eiger in the background. Lots of lovely flowers. Loitering long enough to get a photo of Eiger with at least some sun on the north face (not visible from Murren). Low-lights: a biting bee-like insect (it left huge patches of blood) forcing me to zip my long pant legs back on and spray with bug repellant. Coming across a youngish woman who had fainted in the trail – several people were with her, shading her from the sun while the medics arrived by helicopter – and I assume took her away. Someone said heat – although it was not a particularly hot day. But if she’s not used to high altitude and has not been drinking enough water (and eating enough salt), dehydration is certainly a possibility. I haven’t heard if she was all right. Otherwise it was a lovely, peaceful day – and I’m optimistic about the weather for tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 12
My luck held just a little longer – yesterday dawned clear, warm, and lovely. I was able to get breakfast at a quarter to seven and head up the road before 8. The trail climbs steadily until it reaches the end of the ridge, where it goes up what seems to be about 800 feet of switchbacks – then it runs almost horizontally for a mile or two, across a steep meadow to Rotstuck Hut, a café and guesthouse located almost at the end of the canyon, at the foot of the Sefinenfurke pass (sort of like the Last Homely House). The predicted clouds had not yet begun to form, but I still wanted to get up over the pass as early as possible, so I went on ahead. Along the way, at one of the many fence crossings I overtook a couple of young me (Germans or Swiss, I’m not sure) who paused, I think studying their map, while I walked on ahead. I also passed an older man, who didn’t appear too happy about the sudden steepening of the trail. I never saw him again – I don’t know if he gave up or if he eventually made it over the pass. By now the trail was quite steep again, winding among boulders until it came up to a shoulder with a good view of the pass itself. Still no clouds, so I stopped here to take off shoes and socks and let my feet have a rest while I had some water and a fruit-nut bar. Just as I was leaving the rest stop the two young Germans caught up with me – I think they also stopped there for a rest, because when I looked back a couple of turns later I didn’t see them. I came to a turn of the trail from which it was possible to see the entire pass and the trail leading up to it – it was obvious that a large snowfield still lay just below the pass, fairly steep and at least 100-150 meters in length. But I knew several hikers had successfully negotiated it so I pressed on.
When I reached the snowfield it was as steep as it looked – over 40%, steep enough that a person who slipped would likely slide all the way to the bottom – and possibly crash into the rocks at the bottom. On the other hand, the snow was soft on top – soft enough to dig in at least 3 inches with a good hard kick, and there were still depressions from previous hikers to kick into. Looking behind, I noticed the two young Germans had reached the bend from which the snow-field was visible. Apparently they were waiting to see if I made it before coming any farther.
I climbed up almost to where somebody had strung a rope from the pass; the snow got steeper, and a little harder, but with a firm kick I could still get a pretty adequate toe-hold, so I proceeded to climb up to the rope, which I used for a while – I’m not sure how much it helped, though. Another 20 meters and I came to a section of rock the rope crossed, but it was pretty crumbly – looked like disintegrating shale, not good footing at all. So I stayed on the snow, and worked my way around the crumbly rock to an area that appeared to be part of a switchback on the (mostly buried by snow) trail. I pulled myself up onto it, and the footing seemed pretty solid, so I walked the remaining 20 or 30 meters to the pass. The young men were still watching from the curve in the trail. I sat down to rest and take a few pictures – thought about stopping for an early lunch but it was not even 10 – 3 hours after I left the inn. I did have another fruit-nut bar and take some pictures, including a picture looking back down the snow-field, with Eiger, Moengh, and Jungfrau in the background. Another hiker came up from the other side and we chatted a while, then both went our respective ways.
I was delighted to see the Swiss had built a long, very sturdy staircase up over the steepest and trickiest part – so I descended maybe 200 feet on a long, long series of stairs. Getting down through that crap would not have been fun.
The first part after the staircase section was still quite steep, not steep enough to be seriously dangerous but I still wouldn’t want to slide. Finally I came out of that broken rock to a reasonable meadow – not really flat, but flat enough that I could sit and take my shoes off to give my feet another rest – I also found a spot near enough to thistle-free that I could do a little badly-needed stretching.
The rest of the climb down from the pass was the normal Swiss hiking experience – a very steep descent through lovely (but almost vertical) meadows, with cowbells and bird-song. Although one weather site had been adamant that there would be a thunderstorm at 12:30, clouds didn’t even begin to form until I reached the Inn. After checking in and having an Apfelsaft (carbonated apple juice, almost as good as a cold beer would have been) I took a walk down to see the Wildwasserweg – an incredible place where the glacial melt (thick grey soup) has carved a narrow canyon through the limestone, so that a series of waterfalls are in a long sinuous crevasse / cave – very impressive. I took a few photos which I will upload to my photo-blog.
Finally, about dinner time it started to rain. then, about bed-time it started really storming. Because the weather stayed nice for so long, I had begun to entertain the hope that the forecast stormy spell might dissipate, but it was not to be. It stormed all night long, and I awoke this morning to dense fog and light rain. The rain stopped long enough that, along with an American couple who were also staying there, I got a nice walk down the Wildwasserweg to a village about 6 miles farther down the valley, where we caught a bus to the train station and a train to Kandersteg.
The weather forecast still calls for at least two more days of heavy rains, thunderstorm, and fog – as I sit in my hotel room in Kandersteg I can not even see the hill a quarter mile away. So I decided my hike over the Sefinenfurke pass would have to be the premature end of my Swiss adventure. The forecast for Amsterdam between now and my flight home is sunny and mid-70s; a lot more appealing than thunderstorms, heavy rain, highs around 40 and possible snow flurries.
I was disappointed to miss the last three days of the planned hike, particularly the Hohturli pass (9000 feet – not even to be considered in this weather). But it was a great adventure, a great series of hikes.

Friday, June 24, 2016


The day started with a 4 a.m. wakeup and a 6:55 flight to Diego Suarez. There we were greeted by our guide for the next 3+ days, who guided us past the customary airport pandemonium. We drove for close to three hours on a government route, most of which was full of potholes, some big enough to hide a VW beetle. We passed hundreds of small shacks, and passed through two different towns having their weekly market day / fair; streets jammed with people selling, buying, and just seeing their friends. All very colorful. Many of the shacks have vendor stalls in front, offering fruit, soft drinks, and green coconuts. We stopped at one and bought a coconut each – they shave it down to the nut, cut the end off so you can drink the mildly sweet juice. Then they whack it in half and cut a thin slice of the husk that you use to scoop out the thin layer of coconut flesh, still gelatinous inside the shell. It is quite a treat on a hot day. Here in the north of the country it is much warmer than in the central highlands – it felt like it must have reached close to 90 during the day.
We arrived at the resort area in time for lunch – a stir-fried vegetable dish, skewers of zebu, rice, and coconut chicken (like Thai curry but with very little spice). Then we picked up a spotter and headed for the Ankarana national park for animal and rock formation viewing. At the very entrance to the park we encountered a family of crowned lemurs feeding on a couple of fruit trees (African dates). We took some photos then walked on through a really nice tropical forest. Along the walk we saw three other species of lemur, tufted brown lemur, the closely related Sanford’s brown lemur, and the sportive lemur, a nocturnal animal who hides during the day – sometimes, fortunately, in view of our camera lenses. Some were pretty high in the trees and hard to see, but we were able to get quite close to others. One sportive lemur was hiding in a hole in the tree trunk, with only his head showing, but another clung, only partially hidden, in a half-hollowed spot about ten meters up the tree.
We also did some hiking through the limestone formation that forms a huge part of the park, called Tsingy – a sea of grey rock formations with sharp tops and weird formations that resulted from sulfuric acid rain after a volcano eruption about a million years ago.
The resort where we are staying is comfortable, a double and a single bed consisting of foam mattresses on a platform, nice and firm. It was quite warm but with the help of a fan we managed to sleep pretty well. Dinner was unexciting to say the least – I had rather stale tuna and Eric had unexceptional curried chicken. Wine was $11 for a pitcher that may have contained 2/3 liter, very poor quality and very expensive after the great wines we had in SA.
The second morning we went for a longer walk in the same area, but went further, to a hanging bridge across a canyon in the limestone formations that led to a nice overlook across an expanse of the rock. We saw more lemurs as well as a small pale snake and two gekkos, one green and one very dark, almost black. In the tsingy field we saw a couple of species of euphorbia, also poisonous. According to the guide lemurs can also eat the euphorbia as well as another plant that produces cyanide – researchers have not yet determined how they neutralize the poison or whether it protects them from parasites.
After lunch and a rest through the heat of the day we went to a different part of the park, where we watched a family of half tame lemurs at the edge of a big campground (unoccupied now but probably heavily occupied later in the season). Then we walked through the rain forest to a huge pit where we descended about 135 steps to the entrance to a fascinating limestone cave – lots of bats of three sizes, then deeper in the cave some lovely stalactites, stalagmites, and columns.
Dinner was quite a bit better the second night – shrimp in a nice oil and garlic sauce with rice, a tomato salad, and a fruit salad for dessert. By the end of the second day I had 269 pictures of lemurs – obviously some weeding will be required. They are lovely animals – in their behavior they remind me somewhat of a cross between a house cat and a small monkey. Lemurs are abundant in Ankarana National Park – the only real threat is criminals who sneak in to harvest hardwoods, and pressure to open the park to prospecting for sapphires, which have been found nearby. However, several NGOs are active in promoting alternative ways for local people to make a living without further incursions into the park.

On Thursday we drove to another park, in the rainforest atop a mountain overlooking Diego Garcia and the bay. It was considerably cooler up there, and quite muddy from several hours of rain in the morning. We walked through parts of the park Thursday afternoon and again Friday morning. In addition to several species of Gekko and Chameleon, all unique to this island, and some frog species unique to this island, we also saw a family of tufted brown lemurs in a large tree next to a picnic area, where they were feasting on the new tender leaves and flowers of the tree. They were so intent on their feeding that we were able to get quite close to them and took some nice pictures. The chameleons we saw included a representative of the smallest species in the world, a tiny fellow about an inch long. I have a picture of Eric holding it.
We stayed in a B&B, The Litchee Tree, that was a strange combination of elegance and Spartan bad design. It occupies an early 20th century French mansion with a sweeping view of the bay. Our room was large, with a large double bed and a single bed, all very cozy. The electricity was on only from 5:30 p.m. until 10:30, and there was not a single plug in the room for recharging camera or cell phone batteries. The bathroom had a lovely pottery sink - and no place to put soap in the shower. The owner ranted so much about tourists wanting wifi that Eric didn’t even ask about it. Dinner was quite good – a simple but elegant frittata followed by a delicious fruit salad. However, the wine list was on the ultra-high side; the cheapest bottle in the rack was over $35.00 (we had become used to excellent wines in South Africa for $5-6.) Very odd place; I don’t know I could recommend it.
Finally on Friday we drove back to Diego Garcia where we had a great lunch in a posh hotel – both of us dressed in our muddy hiking clothes. A great crab salad, different from what I expected – potato and other vegetables instead of lettuce, followed by squid strips sautéed and served with some mixed sautéed vegetables. All very good. Then we were taken to the airport for the flight back to Tana.

A word about the countryside. I have already written about the terrible roads. People live along the roads in small villages and a couple of larger towns, mostly in quite small unpainted shacks. All along the road are little stands, often just a table with a makeshift roof of boards or palm leaves. Some sell soft drinks, some sell fruit – maybe two or three kinds, or just green coconuts which they chop off for you to drink the juice. Many sell bottles of lemons or other food pickled in lemon juice. In the towns, these little stands line the streets, with different wares – cloth, rope laid out in long lines for inspection, meat, various garden produce, live chickens, light hardware. We drove through on a market day when two of the larger villages were filled with people, most of them dressed in their finest clothing. Some of the young women were wearing jeans and t-shirts, but some were wearing lovely African print skirts. Our guide, Simon, explained that these are mostly married women, who are expected to dress more elegantly and traditionally. On special days they choose skirts with sayings that match the mood of the day – happy sayings for a wedding or festival, somber sayings for a funeral. Everywhere you see women, and some men, carrying surprisingly large and heavy loads on their heads. The women in particular, almost all the women of any age, seem to have a well-developed sense of style and elegance in their dress and carriage.
In Diego Garcia, you see many men on foot pulling rickshaws and rickshaw-like wagons loaded with freight. You see oxcarts everywhere – more in the countryside, but some in the city as well. You also see groups of peoples sitting more or less idly in front of shops and houses everywhere, city and country – the unemployment rate is quite high, and most people get by with a series of brief jobs, and by selling whatever they can to each other. Our guide talked quite freely – if discreetly – about the corruption which is a drag on the entire society. It is apparent that the owners of vehicles who use the roads for commerce would save enough money on repairs to pay for fixing and paving the roads – but Simon says that they would be unlikely to find anyone they could trust to give the money to, so everyone evades whatever taxes there are.

It rained most of the way to the highlands, eased off once we arrived at the resort, then rained again. The highway is much better maintained than the one we drove on in the north – this highway connects the capital with the major seaport, on the other side of the island, so more money is spent on maintenance.
We had lunch on the veranda between bouts of rain – fairly good shrimp salad and a meat dish.
We checked in to the hotel then walked around the local village, which was quite interesting in itself. It was built about a hundred years ago, initially by soldiers from one of the colonial wars, then became a railroad town. The houses are of wood, mostly unpainted and small, though there are still some houses from the colonial era. Streets are muddy and lined with small stalls, like the highways. As we entered the main part of town we saw a man with a table, on which squares were numbered 1-6; he was shaking a cup with three die in it; children who looked as young as five or six were placing bets on the squares. Shops sold raw meat, whole chickens, vegetables, fruit, dry goods of various sorts – all hanging or lined up on small tables; most shops were perhaps ten feet wide.
The highlight of the day was the night walk, before dinner, that lasted 6-8. We picked up a national park guide, John, who is very good at finding animals of all sorts – three species of tree frog, two of chameleon, and two lemurs. The rain stopped and the sky briefly cleared; we walked along the paved road, which was good considering the weather. At the very end he found a mouse lemur in a tree only a few meters from the road.
Wooly lemur: A whole family in a tree, most half obscured by branches. One near the top completely visible, but inactive – feeding on leaves, not moving much. Another lower down on a large branch we could see better. Fairly large (the largest of the nocturnal species), and definitely wooly, white stripe on the legs makes them more visible. Erect posture; unlike other lemurs we’ve seen they don’t go upside down – we saw the lower one climb down the branch; she climbed down tail first, like a human would, rather than head first like the other lemurs.
Goodman’s mouse lemur: the one we saw close at hand was stocky, short neck, large head with dark markings and pointed ears which, along with the huge eyes, made it look rather like an owl. Larger than a mouse, actually – more the size of a small squirrel, maybe 4-5 inches long. It sat for a remarkably long time while the guides shined bright flashlights into its eyes and we all admired it, then scurried off into the dark forest.
Frogs: White-lipped tree frog, actually with an entire white underbelly – a bit smaller than our familiar leopard frogs. A leaf-green tree frog a bit larger than a 25 cent coin, which flattened itself to the thickness of a coin as we inspected it, and a brown tree frog with a gold belly. Remarkably, John saw the small green tree frog from across the road – we had to get a few feet away from it to see it, even with him pointing it out.
Chameleons: two very small chameleons, one almost white.
We finished the walk with a half hour left before dinner, so detoured for a stroll through the village and a stop in a village night-club – a shed with thatch roof and concrete floor with a local band playing through a bank of about six oversize speakers – most of the people inside were men and boys, from maybe 6 or 8 into late 20s, a few young women but not nearly as many as men. Outside the door was a makeshift merry-go-round filled with kids having a great time – sitting on benches that look like park benches, fastened to a round wood platform suspended from a pole in the middle that was sunk into the ground.

Sunday morning we got up to rain. We had a scheduled walk in Montavidia National Park. We drove about 10 km, over an hour, to the park gate, then another 5 km, another hour, into the park itself, over a road that resembled Hunt Road, where I grew up, in the early 50s before it was covered with adequate gravel, after a heavy spring snow melt and two weeks of rain. John, the park guide, commented that forests and roads don’t go together – if a good road is built, people quickly cut down and steal the valuable trees (including Rosewood and several other species of valuable hardwood) and the forest disappears.
We had barely entered the park when John spotted some bamboo lemurs at the roadside. Madagascar has an indigenous species of bamboo that grows very tall and bends over in an arc, almost touching the ground, with small clusters of leaves every couple or three feet. The bamboo lemurs disappeared pretty quickly – Eric managed to get a couple of shots first, using my waterproof camera. It was a good sign.
Halfway to the parking place, John spotted a golden sefaca lemur – second largest on the island. It stayed around while I took several photos of it, with Eric holding an umbrella over me and my camera, then made a spectacular leap, or rather drop, down to a lower branch, followed by a lateral leap to another branch where it disappeared. As the name suggests, it is a brownish gold on top, a paler color, almost grey, underneath. It looked big enough to weigh 80 pounds but Elperon, our guide said it weighs about ten kilos. The difference suggests a pretty thick fur.
We reached the muddly parking area and began our walk, in a light rain that intermittently increased to heavy, then decreased to a near stop, then started again all day long. We walked up a long rather slippery hill – I was glad I’d brought the trekking poles, one for me and one for Eric. The parks people have done a good job with stone stairs on the steeper parts, but the tree roots were wet and slippery, and the clay soil slippery in places. We stopped after about ten minutes to watch a family of common brown lemurs in a tree – we tried a few photos but they were pretty far away with the sky behind them – I mostly just watched them through my binoculars until they dropped down beneath the level of intervening brush. We climbed on up to a viewing platform where we took a few pictures while John went out looking for lemurs. Elperon told us most tourists would not make it that far – they took us up to the viewing platform only after seeing that we took the slippery steep trail in stride. He later told me he and John had discussed me (in Malagasy of course) and wondered at the fact that I am still an active vigorous hiker at my age. (I encountered that kind of preconception throughout the trip.)
We rambled around in the mud and rain for another hour or more, as the rain slowly soaked through my rain jacket, without seeing anything more of note. When I realized my shirt was feeling a little damp I put the iPhone into a ziplock and the Canon into a larger plastic bag to keep them from being damaged. Eventually John decided we weren’t going to see any more so led us back to the road, about a km from the car. He commented “we may see something on the way back to the car.” He was right. About halfway there he spotted a small group of red-bellied lemurs, which are quite rare (Elperon said he hadn’t seen any of them for over a year.) Eric and I both took several photos as the lemurs moved from one tree to another – unfortunately no photos of their spectacular jumps from tree to tree.
Back at the car we took our sack lunches to a shelter near the car and ate them. We had encountered several other tourist groups, most of whom hadn’t seen any lemurs, although the group who shared the shelter with us had seen a ring-tailed lemur, which we have yet to see. The rain increased, so we picked our way through the mud back to the car to drive back to the lodge and try to get some of our clothes dry. John said we would drive slowly because we might see something along the way – and once again he was prescient. On the way back we saw another bamboo lemur on one of the curved bamboo stalks. This one sat still while Eric and I took a dozen or more photos, then jumped down to a lower branch where it sat for another five minutes while we took more. John said this was a good thing about the rain – they tend to be more still when it’s cool and rainy; without the rain we might not have seen any at all.

The night walk was even better than yesterday. The rain eased off, and finally stopped when the walk was about over. This time we walked along a forest trail; began by spotting three of the four chameleons active in this area, a very small one, the stumptail chameleon, named for its unusually short tail, a larger green one, Parsons chameleon, a juvenile of a species that as adults is the largest in this area, a whitish one that turned brown as we watched it called the elephant ear chameleon because of its large ears that lay back along it’s neck, and one called the Satan chameleon because of its horn-like points. We caught a brief glimpse of a mouse lemur before it descended rapidly from its tree and disappeared, then watched two wooly lemurs for five or ten minutes. Finally, near the end of the walk, a virtual miracle: a mouse lemur crouched on a small branch maybe 5 feet from the trail, looking at us with its huge eyes while we took dozens of photos, a few of which actually turned out. It has a very cute face, small mouse-like ears. After a while it moved to a lower branch, stared at us for another minute or so, then disappeared into the brush. As we returned to the parking lot the clouds cleared and stars came out – a perfect evening.

Our last full day here was brilliant – but also made us feel that we had timed our visit pretty well. The clouds cleared somewhat, and it rained only a little during the morning, not at all during the afternoon. On the morning walk we spotted a group of brown lemurs fairly high in the trees – ended up barging off through the bush to get a somewhat clear shot – I only got a few worth keeping; Eric managed to get a few more. Then we spotted a couple of golden sefaca lemurs high in one tree. I got several good shots, looking upward so all I got was butt and tail, with a couple of shots with a head, looking over its shoulder. About then several more groups showed up and we were surrounded with over a dozen people of various nationalities, most with no sense of being silent etc. – getting into position for a better shot through the trees was almost impossible. The guides suggested we move on and leave the sefacas to the crowd. Along the way my hat got knocked off my head by a low branch – I picked it up and put it in a pocket but it dropped out again and I thought I’d lost it.
We walked through the woods – lovely in the morning light, for another hour or so, hearing the calls of the indra all around us – the guide said they are territorial calls; they sound somewhat like whale songs although shorter; they carry for a mile or more. After a while John left us to go out scouting through the brush; he came back and led us along a faint trail through thick brush, up one very steep, muddy incline and down another – very difficult walking on sometimes slippery clay; we were very glad of the trekking poles. I was also glad of my previous hiking experience, which helped me find footing on the difficult terrain.
We finally came to a spot from which we could see two indras. As we watched them we realized one had a young baby with her – we could occasionally see the face of the baby as it peeked out from under the mother’s arm – Eric managed to get a couple of very good shots of the baby – I only got one because at just about that time my lens got fogged up inside the outer cover, which can’t be removed. Fortunately, the fog cleared away after about a half hour.
The lemurs decided to move off – it is a marvel to watch them leap sideways 15 or 20 meters to another tree, then a second, then a third, almost effortlessly. When they had gone the guide led us down another even steeper and more slippery trail into a ravine, and up the other side to a point where we could see three of the lemurs. We watched them for a half hour, taking some recordings of their calls, before clambering back up the hill to a better trail and walking back to the trail.
After lunch we drove to one of the other resorts that has a private reserve called Lemur Island – a fair-sized patch of forest surrounded by a rather narrow canal (shallow moat, perhaps) wide enough to keep the lemurs on the “island.” We got into a small plastic canoe, which a guide paddled across the water into a slip, where we got out. While he went back to the guide a welcoming committee of common brown lemurs approached, walking along the handrail beside a walkway above the rather moist ground. When the guide appeared (with a sack of cut up banana pieces) the lemurs swarmed all over us (literally), climbing on shoulders and outstretched hands, looking for their reward – a small piece of banana. After a bit some other tourists showed up, and our guide led us to another boat landing, where we boarded another plastic canoe to be ferried across to yet another island, where we could also see golden sefaca lemurs in the trees, and black and white tufted lemurs, also in the trees, as well as the rather shy bamboo lemurs (about the size of a house cat) and hordes of common brown lemurs. We stayed there, close to the landing, while they came to us. The golden sefacas did not actually clamber onto us like the black and whites and the common browns, but they did come down close enough to pose with us.
The bamboo lemurs are odd – they do not like to be touched, and seem somewhat fearful about coming too close, but they clearly want to be part of it – even when there are no bananas to be begged (and they don’t seem nearly as enthusiastic about the fruit as the common browns – they prefer to munch on bamboo leaves and grass, but they stayed fairly near, within a couple or three meters. The golden browns are more enthusiastic; several climbed up and perched on us; one adopted Eric and perched on his shoulder for almost the entire time we were there, an hour and a half or more, playing with his hair and his beard, sometimes with his hat, and at one point his glasses (he took them off and handed them to me.) Another one climbed up on me and sat contentedly on my shoulder, occasionally licking my shirt (by now, after three days in the rain forest, probably quite nutritious). From time to time he would lick my hands and nibble on my fingers in the way a pet cat often does – at first it made me a bit nervous (their teeth are sharp) but the bites were very gentle and restrained, again like a pet cat or dog. At one point a couple of black and whites joined the fun, climbing up onto our shoulders for a photo-op. In the background, the larger lemurs, especially the black and whites and the golden sefacas, would occasionally do a round of jumps, from one tree to another four or five times in a row.
The experience was sublime – a nice rounding out of the Madagascar experience. First we saw the lemurs and various lizard species in their natural habitat, natural behavior, sometimes quite distant and occasionally close enough for a really good look. Then we had the extended play and photo session with the half-tamed lemurs on lemur island. It was very nice – even nicer because the rain had stopped and we could enjoy it more or less dry.
The next morning we had planned another walk but Eric discovered his flight was that day – a day earlier than he had originally thought – so we had to leave for the drive back to Tana (Antananariba) right after breakfast.

Overall assessment: We were both very glad we decided to include Madagascar in our itinerary. It is a beautiful island, with wonderful people. Contrary to my preconceptions, it is as much or more Asian than African – the first settlers came from Indonesia, and half the current residents are of Asian descent. The culture is also a blend of the two. The situation faced by the lemurs and many other animal species unique to Madagascar is not as dire as I had been led to expect, although they are certainly under pressure, especially from logging and mining. The guides we encountered are very committed to preservation, and they happily speak of the many NGOs involved in the work.
Poverty is, as we expected, widespread. The forest areas are characterized by very traditional farming – ox-drive plows or human labor to till the soil; very little evidence of any labor saving machinery anywhere. In the cities as well as the countryside, unassisted human labor seems to predominate – everywhere you see the human-pulled carts, often loaded with hundreds of pounds of freight (and occasionally with another person riding on back along with the freight.) In populated areas, every bridge and every stretch of river or creek that can be easily accessed is the site of women doing their wash in the river, and usually spreading it out to dry on riverside rocks or grass. Women and a few men are seen everywhere carrying loads, often what appear to be quite heavy loads, on their heads. The main means of transportation is walking, sometimes four or five miles to the nearest market town, carrying goods to sell in to town, carrying purchased goods back, usually on the head or back, or sometimes in a person-drawn or occasionally ox-drawn cart. The houses in the countryside in the warmer north are flimsy shacks of thin boards with thatch roofs; in the cooler central highlands they may be made of compacted and dried mud or concrete, even though wood is the more traditional building material. Aside from the main highway, paved and kept up because of its role as a connector to the seaport, the roads are pot-holed dirt roads, some showing signs of having once been paved; streets of the small villages are mud.
The experience of seeing these remarkable animals in their natural habitat is incomparable, as it was in Africa.
It appears that we arrived just before the opening of high season – the last two days we found many of the forest trails crowded, and Elperon tells us that for the truly high season, late September through October when more animals are out and the weather is dry and warm, you need to book accommodations a year or more in advance. That may be a good thing for preservation – the more people depending on eco-tourism, the more support there is for preserving the wild basis, but inevitably the nature of the experience will change. We felt very lucky to be able to observe the animals in their natural habitat and generally enjoy the rain forest as a place of quiet and solitude.
Here even more than in the rest of Africa, avoiding gluten was a problem – compounded, perhaps, by the fact that Eric has a mild allergy to lactose, which seemed to confuse the issue. Very few people understand these issues; they often overgeneralize, assuming I can’t eat dairy products, or eggs, or rice, or even French fried potatoes. My French pronunciation is not good (I have never mastered either the nasality required for most French words or the particular rhythm and musicality of the language) and comprehension is made even worse by waiters’ inability even to conceive of someone wanting a meal sans ble’. Eric, who does much better at least approximating the nasal intonation, could sometimes achieve at least a limited comprehension – at least of the language, but not reliably of the underlying need. I never felt entirely confident that what I was eating was entirely free of a bit of flour.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

South Africa

I met a former student and current research colleague, Eric Jensen, in Johannesburg airport for the flight to George, where we were met by an old friend of mine from way back in my days at Stanford. He and his gracious wife Linda have been our hosts here – Linda has set up what she described (accurately) as an “ambitious” agenda for seeing some of the many highlights of the southeast coast of SA. We have visited a preserve where we walked with (actually slightly to one side of) a pair of lions (attended by a guide and three trainers, who attended the lions every move.) It is a rather awe-inspiring experience to spend an hour in the company of these magnificent and powerful beasts – well trained, used to people, but still definitely wild. We went to another preserve where we fed and petted elephants. When you feed them, they are behind a sturdy restraining barrier; they reach forward with their trunks to receive the pieces of fruit you hold out with your hands. (Yes, they provide water and soap to clean off the elephant snot later.) Again, trainers all over the place watching them – still, one I was touching and petting kept sidling toward me, and I had the distinct impression she would have liked to step on my foot, which I carefully kept out of her way. (I experienced similar behavior from cranky cows during my farm childhood.) Again, it is rather intimidating and definitely awe-inspiring to be next to these beasts. We spent another hour in a large forest developed as a monkey rehab center – ten species of primate, including ring-tailed lemurs and one other lemur species. Most of them are rescue animals, either formerly abused / neglected pets or abandoned orphans. The large area, if I remember correctly over 1000 hectares, is filled with enough trees that the animals can travel from one end to the other in the canopy. Other than the feeding stations with enough food (fruit, pasta, some meat) to ensure they do not compete and fight with one another, the area is a natural forest. Visitors are prohibited from touching or feeding; the idea is to “re-wild” the animals for eventual release back into the forest. All of them zip around so fast that taking decent pictures is very difficult; I only got a handful. A particular highlight was crossing a long swinging bridge where a dozen or more were clustered – apparently hoping to catch an unwary tourist with something shiny hanging loose. Monkeys have stolen sunglasses, purses, and even an i-phone. We kept our belongings firmly in hand as we watched their grooming, mock- (and occasionally real) fights, and general play on the bridge.
Linda had rented a cabin at a national park on a particularly spectacular section of coastline at the mouth of the Storm River. The cabin was clean and comfortable, the view spectacular – a rugged rocky coast very reminiscent of the Monterey Peninsula, with 300 meter headlands plunging into the sea, shale and limestone formations, crashing surf, lush green forests. Eric and I agreed that one could easily spend a week here – there are several interesting hiking trails in the area, no sand beaches where we stayed but some very nice ones within a short drive. The little store inside the park isn’t much – one would need either to plan to eat in the restaurant or bring sufficient food (like many of the parks I’ve visited in the US). Between there and George the highway is lined with game parks and preserves; we only touched the surface.
At 34 degrees south, the latitude and climate of George are also similar to Monterey. We visited at the beginning of winter (early June); the nights have been cool (you occasionally need a coat) and the days very mild – short sleeves or a light sweater. Our hosts tell us it is rather warm in summer, but it would be ideal in spring and fall.
Before we left the Storm River we crossed a suspension bridge, then climbed up (about 300 meters) to a spectacular viewpoint. Then we went to a drive through a dense forest, where apparently there are some wild elephants no-one ever sees – but their damage is apparent. In this forest is a group of abandoned houses that have been taken over by a troop of baboons; very eerie watching them – like an end of the world movie.
Yesterday we went to some game parks where we fed baby giraffes (baby – but I had to stand on tiptoe to keep the bottle upright!) We walked with lions – a rather interesting experience, and I had the opportunity to ride an ostrich – a bit scary (they have two speeds – stop and full run) but a lot of fun. The trainers did not explain how to steer, stop, etc., but they ran along beside the bird the whole way to control it.

Hunting camp
One of Manie’s friends, Barry, came over and spent the night; in the morning we packed up clothing and supplies, drove over to buy some more food and pick up a second friend, Rassie. Then we drove the same route as yesterday, but continued on up a long valley, over another range of hills and into the semi-arid area called the Big Karoo. The landscape is reminiscent of the Western US upland plateau – low hills with barren mountains in the background, desert plant communities, and when we reached the area where they were planning to hunt, the same harsh cold wind.
I learned that in South Africa, the owner of the land on which animals are found owns the animals. Animals in the national parks are the property of the government; animals on a farm the property of the farmer – most of whom construct high game-proof fences. They manage the game carefully, culling the herd to keep the population in line with forage and selling the rights to kill (and take home) the animals to supplement their income from sheep and cattle. To my surprise there is no other hunting license – you pay for what you kill, not for the right to hunt in the first place. The farm where we stayed has a four bedroom house with beds for 14 or 15, a reasonable kitchen and dining room. The farmer, whose daughter is married to Barry’s son, came to greet us – his name is Olaf but he told me to call him Odie. By looks, mannerisms, and (I gather from Manie) political attitudes he would fit right in in any farm area coffee shop in Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, etc.
Dinner was cooked over the coals from an open fire in a kind of shed to protect from the wind – a bommie, I think – while we had drinks and chatted. When it was ready we carried it into the dining room where I added salad thoughtfully provided for me by Linda. Lots of stories about previous hunting trips; Barry told of going for a boat ride in an estuary infested with rhinos, crocs, and sharks, and how his brother almost got them killed by speeding over the top of a rhino – which could easily have tipped them into the water, where plenty of predators would have been happy to make their acquaintance.
It was quite cold at night but I slept pretty well, disturbed only by the constant sound of the wind. I got up early as usual, did a little stretching, and made myself some coffee then did a little work on my photos. When everyone was up and had had breakfast, Odie came and set up a target for the guys to sight in their rifles. Then we drove out to a large valley with a good sized herd of springbok. Odie positioned all three hunters several hundred meters apart a few meters up the slope of a steep hill above the herd. I stayed with Manie to watch how they did it. Some hands on horses more or less herded the springbok up to the waiting hunters, who waited behind the cover of bushes. The first group that ran in front of Manie was going quite fast, and the females were in the back. He lined up the rifle but did not get a good shot. After fifteen minutes, the herd came back, somewhat slower; one of the males paused and looked over its shoulder. Manie took the shot and shot it cleanly just below the ear; it dropped instantly, kicked for a minute or two, and was still, with its back fur ruffed up – which Manie tells me happens when they die. I waited with him a while, watched two lone males pass, just beyond Manie’s comfortable shooting range (up to 200 meters). Then Manie went down to slit the animal’s throat so it could bleed out, but he did not gut it yet. I gather he waited so long for fear of spooking the herd, since he still wanted to shoot two more. I later learned that a consequence of the delay is that the liver and heart get an objectionable strong taste – they are usually left in the veldt for the jackals.
I picked up my pack to go for a walk. I crossed over the ridge, walked along the back side of the ridge, climbed up to a high rock for lunch with a view, walked a ways farther behind the ridge, crossed over and came down the hill behind Rassie, who had just shot his third and final springbok. He showed me a desert tortoise he had found, and we walked to the desert road to wait for the others.
The hunt went generally well, with just a couple of snags. A young male broke his leg, so the horse riders cut its throat. Then the very last shot was through the jaw; they had to chase it down to be sure to kill it cleanly. We piled the carcasses in the back of Odie’s pickup and drove back to the hunting lodge. The springbok apparently knew when the hunt was over – as we drove around they ignored us and grazed peacefully, half the herd within easy rifle shot. I think they have learned through conditioning that men on foot and on horseback are trouble, but vehicles driving around are not.
We had barely unloaded our stuff into the house when it started to rain, at first softly then a hard, wind-driven cold rain that lasted a couple of hours. The weather had clearly changed. After the rain it cleared up for a few minutes, then clouded up again. The wind died for a while, but by the time I got up the next morning it was blowing again at about the same 20 knots. The skies were completely clear; temperature just above freezing. After breakfast Odie came over and said he had arranged with a neighbor for me to take a walk in an interesting hilly terrain, lots of interesting rock formation. When it warmed up a bit, everyone piled into Manie’s SUV and we drove over to the place. The owner is a really nice guy; he outlined a walk that I thought he said is 3 km. I started walking; after a while the track started climbing up into the rocky hills. It circled around, at least a mile from the road and a mile or two beyond the pickup point – a total of 2 ¼ hours, walking at my normal brisk pace (3.5 to 4.5 mph, probably averaging 4). It was the longest 3 km I’ve ever walked – but it was interesting country, very nice walk.
I used the rest of the day to sort and bring some order to my photos. At about 4 Odie showed up with his son-in-law for a visit, and invited us to come to the main house to watch a rugby game – Springboks against Ireland. It was an interesting way to end the hunting trip – Odie gets as worked up about rugby as he does about politics. It was an exciting game, ending with Ireland up one goal but SA came within a foot of scoring a final tying goal on the last “try.” Ireland was the underdog, but their defense was tougher and they won on turnovers, one to SA’s seven. We went back to a meal of baked potato and springbok liver, which is very very good; nicely textured, mild, with only a hint of gamey sharpness.
As Manie commented, the farmers live here because it’s the life they chose. It’s not an easy life, but from my observation they have very warm family relationships. The main farmhouse is quite comfortable, large and well furnished. There is a fireplace in the living room and he brought a portable heater in to the TV room for the game. I enjoyed meeting them and experiencing their way of life for a few days.

About the animals:
As I’ve talked with the various guides, and had the opportunity to observe many wild animals (as well as half-tamed animals here in SA), I’ve learned quite a bit about these animals and their behavior.
Danger: The animal the guides fear most is not the lion, it is the hippo. The hippo rarely comes out of the water during the day; when it does, the guides clear out. It is unpredictable, easily annoyed, and very fast. The guides fear lions mainly at night; during the day they are predictable and, as long as you don’t corner or threaten one (or its cubs, of course) unaggressive. Elephants are respected but not feared unless they get upset (shining a light in one’s eye is a good way to get it very upset) they are ordinarily not aggressive. Leopards are rarely out in the daytime; at night they like all the other predators are very much feared. Rhinos – the one I observed is very unaggressive; they named it “No Worry.” Another in the same area is unpredictable and easily annoyed – the guides keep tourists at twice the distance from him as from the others. All wild animals, of course, are dangerous if approached or threatened, but most will give warning signals (for elephants, like moose in the US, a shake of the head is an early warning.)
“King of the beasts.” Not really. Lions are slow relative to their prey and must get close enough to take the prey animal down before it can react – they are good for only a short burst of speed, and take a long time to recover. On the hunt, they move at a slow amble, stopping to rest every hundred meters or so. They hunt both alone and together; when hunting together one lion will circle out in front of the prey in an ambush. When hunting alone, they crawl, belly to the ground, from one bit of cover to the next to get as close as possible. On average, only about one hunt in seven is successful. After an attempt, it takes a couple of hours to build energy back for another try. Male lions will take a kill away from the female (leaving her cubs to go hungry) but hyenas will take a kill away from any lion. I was amazed how long it took the single lioness to kill the young kudu. It was apparent that, up until the kudu was all but dead, had she lost her grip he would have been able to get away – and had she let him get into a position where he could get at her with his hooves, he could have broken her leg or even killed her.
Cheetahs do not protect a kill from any other predator – even wild dogs can drive them away. They depend on a burst of speed to take down the prey, and their lean build means that they could easily be hurt badly enough to lose that one advantage. Even in an area as game-rich as the Okavanga Delta it is not an easy life for any of the predators.
If an animal (predator or prey) is wounded it often means death. I did see one male lion with a detectable limp – a hind leg was wounded in a territorial fight – but the guides said it is still a good hunter and still able to hold its own against other males. Since the cheetah relies on its strength, even a minor wound to a leg can mean starvation; that’s why they will allow any other predator to drive them away from a kill. Male antelopes often have a broken horn – they can still survive but it greatly limits their ability to compete for females. The territorial and mating fights are serious business, often fatal. For example the curved horns of the impala sometimes lock, and the animals will starve to death unless a predator happens upon them, which will usually happen.
Prey animals often herd with other species: each has a unique set of perceptual defenses, and herding together allows them to benefit from the entire range. In the desert, where forage is scarcer, there is more competition for forage, so cooperation is a little less common and usually limited to species that specialize in different forage.
According to one of the trainers, elephants have long memories and hold a grudge. After feeding elephants he always shows them the empty bucket so they won’t think he’s holding out on them – he told a story about one elephant who held a grudge against him for several years and, when he let himself get in a vulnerable position, tried to kill him. When I was near one of the elephants I noticed it kept leaning toward me, and recalled how cows will sometimes try to step on your foot; I was careful to keep my feet out of its reach and moved away as soon as Eric had taken a photo.
The ostrich has only two toes; the main toe has a long sharp nail that can disembowel an enemy at one stroke. It can kick only in front, so the bird is virtually always approached from the side or back.
In the South African game parks, they have trained lions, elephants, ostriches, and other normally quite dangerous animals to allow limited interaction with humans. However, there are always trainers present, and, like the guides in Botswana and Namibia, the trainers keep a close eye on the animals, and if anything seems out of the ordinary they bring the encounter to a rapid close. Even so, it is an intimidating and awe-inspiring experience to be so close to a lion or elephant – or, for that matter – to a giraffe or ostrich. Even with the training, these animals are still wild and still very much to be respected.

I finally ran out of luck with respect to weather. Linda came down with a bad bronchial flu so Manie and I drove to Capetown alone, stopping overnight in a small tourist town at the foot a mountain – I think it is a very pretty mountain but we couldn’t see much of it for the clouds and rain. It slowed down and finally stopped about the time we checked in. Manie crossed the street to a little pub where I joined him after trying – unsuccessfully – to get onto internet; turns out the phone company had crossed the lines to the lodge and hadn’t managed to fix the problem yet. The tavern was decorated like something from San Francisco circa 1967. I ordered a gin and tonic and Manie a whiskey and passion fruit; she initially poured brandy in his glass and, I realized as soon as I sipped mine, soda instead of tonic. On the wall someone had written in large letters “supercalifragiexpialidocious” and that seemed quite fitting. However we walked down to a restaurant where we had a good meal of ribs.
The next morning I walked over a mile down the street and back in a beautiful morning; then we had breakfast and drove on. We hadn’t gone 1/3 of the way to CT before the rain started again, quite heavy most of the way – at one point as we went over a low pass the clouds were so low and it was raining so hard that visibility was less than 50 feet – quite frightening. The next morning the rain had slowed and, after we picked Eric up, ceased altogether. Eric and I did some shopping then walked a couple of miles along the base of Table Mountain – we realized it was too late to go all the way up since we had theater tickets for the evening.
The play, District Six – Kanala, was very interesting. The background: District Six was an area of Capetown in mid-20th century that was composed of a vibrant blend of races – Black, Colored, White, Indian, and others. In 1961 the Apartheid government designated it a White area, ad 1964 they moved everyone out to different areas and demolished the neighborhood, bulldozing all the buildings to rubble. Promises of new housing were never realized, and for decades nothing at all was done with the cleared land. The play is organized around a young woman looking through her grandmother’s photo album; the actors acted out vignettes about life in the District based on the photos – mostly through song and dance. The contrast between the somber back-story and the vibrant, life-affirming music and dance gives the play a tremendous resonance and vitality. Eric and I could understand maybe ¼ of the dialog and lyrics since much of it was in Afrikaans and other languages and/or in heavily accented dialects of English. The SA members of the audience frequently laughed at humor we could only guess at. Even when we could understand the dialog, much of the humor referred to local cultural events and practices. In spite of the language and culture barriers we both enjoyed it tremendously; I felt it was a fitting part of my visit to South Africa, which is drawing to an end, a celebration of the diverse cultures and tragic history of the place, and of the spirit of the people.

On Saturday we went to Robben Island – the prison island where Mandela was imprisoned for several years. It was interesting, but not very well organized and poorly managed – a missed opportunity, really. They put us on huge busses, five seats across (2 and 3) – Eric and I both in the center seat, could see hardly anything; they stopped only once, at a snack stand where there was nothing to look at, before letting us out for a tour of the prison itself, which would have been very interesting had we been in a group of 10 or 12 not 55+. The guide on the bus was no better than a voice recording would have been – the guide in the prison a little better, but it was hard to understand him or even hear him with so many people. Both Eric and I felt the time could have been much better spent at a museum. If they ever get their act together this will be a great tour but for now we wished we had skipped it.

Sunday – our last day here – was better in spite of a driving rain. Manie drove us down to Boulder Beach, near the end of the cape, where there is an observation area for a large nesting colony of South African penguins. They are beautiful and interesting to watch and the scenery along the way is spectacular. In spite of getting rather wet and cold we enjoyed it immensely.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Namibia May 2016

My first day started out a little earlier than planned – I did not realize Namibia time is an hour earlier than Botswana – ended up rising at 4 am rather than 5 as planned. I will sleep well tonight – although I may find the absence of hippos grunting and baboons barking a bit disconcerting. The flight from Windhoek was interesting – began like a major flight, with security check and everything; pilot and co-pilot – and the plane was a six seater with me as the only passenger. Starkly beautiful desert mountain country, deep box canyons carved by the rather scarce rains, scrubby trees scattered here and there. We landed on a gravelly airstrip hardly distinguishable from the surrounding terrain – disconcerting to hear the crunch of rolling gravel under the wheels instead of pavement.
I was met by my guide, Mervin, who called a San tracker when I told him I wanted to walk before lunch. The tracker, Gideon, is a nice guy, very knowledgeable, good at explaining the finer features of the desert and how to track animals ranging from oryx (plentiful around here) to the small beetles that gather moisture from fresh antelope droppings, and who must dig a hole in a firmer spot of sand to keep from dying in the midday sun. He also showed me the burrow of the white dancing lady spider. The female constructs a trap door, just like the trapdoor spider in Queensland – but this spider is not very poisonous if at all. He showed me how to track the spider, the little jumping mouse, the local ground bustard, and chameleons – with his considerable help I managed to see and photograph one of the latter. Apparently they are not that easy to find and see, so I felt great about it.
I am writing this on a lounge chair in the shade of my tent-cabin, which is actually quite luxurious – gorgeous view of the desert mountain across the valley. The resort I located near the crest of a large dune, above he airstrip. This place is very different from Botswana of course. I was warned not to expect to see many animals, but already I have seen a number of them, enough to satisfy me, and the landscape really is beautiful, in much the same stark way that southern California is. It appears that a major oryx trail runs across an open area right in front of our tents so I will see plenty of them.
Lunch was great – smoked salmon on an avocado slice, chicken salad, passion fruit cream custard. Afterward I went for a vigorous 35 minute walk over a couple of dunes, which left me feeling great after such a long spell of idleness, then sat on the deck in the shade until 4:00, time for my afternoon / evening drive.
The afternoon / evening drive was nice – dunes in the evening twilight. Dinner was spectacular. It began with the kitchen staff humorously presenting the menu – first the chef explained each course in English, then one of his helpers translated it into one of the local languages, clicks and all, singing it. Very fun. The main course was springbok steak – which I had been hoping for – cooked to perfection, juicy and tasty. I ate slowly savoring each bite, so as usual was the last to finish.
The kitchen staff here, like at Selinda but in contrast to Kwara, take pains to assure, when the desert is flour-based, that my gluten-free dessert is of high quality. I am beginning to regard that as a sign of true excellence. At dinner the dessert for me was a small light crème with a delicious pear poached in red wine. For lunch both days it was a truly wonderful fruit salad.

May 24
Second day started with another walk with Gideon. We didn’t see many animals but he told several wonderful stories about the beliefs and customs of the San people. When we came to a fairy circle, he explained some of the large variety of scientific theories about them – he favors the theory that termites clear the circle and keep it clear. But his people teach that the souls of their ancestors gather to dance in a circle and the fairy circles are the dance spaces.
When we came to a certain low bush called ostrich grass that has long straight stems, lined with spiky thorns like the acacia tree, he told the most charming story about his people’s ancient marriage customs. When the elders decide a young man is mature enough to be married they visit a neighboring tribe and negotiate for a bride. Then they tell the groom’s cousin to tell him to prepare himself. The elders prepare a house for the couple, then when time for the wedding arrives, they build a fire. The bride, covered with red powder, sits inside the new house. Her family gather on one side of the fire, his family on the other side. Her grandparents come and sing and dance outside the house until she comes out. Then she leads them to the fire, singing and dancing, and pauses in front of her family, where she continues singing and dancing. The groom then leads his elders, singing and dancing, toward the fire. Along the way, he gathers branches from the thorny bush, shaped like arrows, and makes a makeshift bow – not a real bow, but a ceremonial one. When he reaches the fire. he shoots the spiky arrow so that it sticks to the animal pelt she is wearing. Then he continues around the fire to his family. The bride takes the thorn branch from the pelt, and sticks it to her breast, signifying “this breast belongs to you forever.” The then proceeds to the groom, removes the thorn branch, and hands it to the groom. He sticks it to his breast, signifying “my heart is yours forever.” Then the elders of the two families lead them to their new house, where they instruct them in the ways of a marriage couple. However, the marriage is not yet complete, and they may not yet share a bed. The next day, the young man must go out hunting alone, kill an Oryx, and bring it back to camp by himself. He may not return until this task is complete. Once he returns with the Oryx, he has demonstrated that he has sufficient hunting skill and strength to become fully a man, and the marriage is complete.
The other story, when we came to a plant called euphorbia (sp?) that looks a lot like a cactus, tall and round, but belongs to a different plant group entirely, he explained that the milky juice from the plant is deadly poison: if it touches your skin it causes a painful burn-like rash; if it gets in your eyes it can cause blindness, and if it is ingested, death comes quickly. (Other related plants are less strongly poisonous, but still troublesome.) He explained how his people discovered which plants can be eaten and which are poisonous. If they chance upon something that looks like it might be good to eat, they prepare it and feed it to a very old member of the tribe, who can no longer walk and no longer participate in the functioning of the tribe. If the old person survives and experiences no problems, the new plant becomes part of their diet.

After breakfast Mervin took me for a longer, rambling drive past the original Wolwedan camp and down onto the plain, where most of the animals other than oryx are to be found. We did see several springbok – beautiful animals – so I now know what I feasted on last night so gloriously. We saw one ostrich at some distance – barely close enough to photograph. At lunch I talked to another guest who saw both of those plus zebras and baboons. Luck – or perhaps the quality of the guide. Melvin is nice, but doesn’t really rise to the standards set by the guides I had at the last couple of camps.

Overall assessment: The dunes are quite impressive and quite beautiful – but not more so than several places in the American west. The staff at Wolwedons are very good, kitchen staff excellent – with one exception. It seems all the resorts have a tradition of a “sundowner” – they pack some light snacks and drinks – gin and tonic, wine, whatever, and have a little cocktail party out somewhere in the bush. At Selinda the staff always packed things I can eat; at Kwara they never did; here there will be a few pieces of fruit or, tonight, some bacon wrapped around olives (pits still in them – careful!) But there were also some things clearly made of wheat flour. Similarly, they deliver coffee makings first thing in the morning, with some cookies that also looked suspicious to me – no explanation whether I could eat them or not, so I did not. Otherwise the staff handled the challenge of my dietary restriction quite competently. My guide was indifferent – not terrible but not brilliant either. Gideon, the San who took me for walks was much better – more knowledgeable I think, quite funny, enjoyable to be with. I think Mervin got ticked off at Gideon because Gideon explained the nature and uses of several of the plants, and co-opted part of what Melvin planned to say. I’m sure there’s enough about this desert for both of them if they really knew their stuff.
I enjoyed the visit – two days was definitely enough, and I suspect there are other places in this region that I would have found more worthwhile. I later learned from another visitor that there are Neolithic cliff art sites and an interesting cave nearby – either or both of which I would have enjoyed far more than driving around looking at sand dunes and oryx for hours.
I hope I will see some of the really interesting desert plants like the baobab tree, for example. It was interesting, however, to see how much plant and animal life can be supported in a desert that gets maybe an inch or two of rain per year – just off what the plants can extract from the fogs that blow in off the Pacific.

Tok Tokkie Trail
This three day hike was definitely the highlight of my time in Namibia. We first visited a sustainability training center, NaDEET (Namibia Desert Environmental Education Center) which was quite interesting. They’re doing some amazing stuff – recycling, solar power, minimizing water and power use. Then we arrived at a waterhole where we began the first leg of the trip, about 2 miles over a series of dunes – not large as the dunes in this area often seem to be. One member of the party, Ruby (from Texas struggled with the first three dunes – her husband, Adam, and I hung back with her to minimize discouragement, but finally she asked the guide, Richardo, ro arrange for the truck with our supplies to pick her up along the way. She rode in the truck the rest of the way, probably a good thing since it got more difficulty. She had recently had heart surgery and gotten out of shape and had not got back into shape. Two French couples made up the party – very nice people with good sense of humor.
The first day’s short hike ended at a fixed camp atop a large broad dune, with a beautiful panoramic view. What a camp! The staff, Lulu (the chef) and Willie had laid out army cots with thick mattresses and bedrolls for me and each couple, spread out over the dune probably 30 meters apart, each with a little solar powered light, a rug to step on to keep from tracking sand into bed, and three little camp tables. Two toilets, a good distance from any “desert suite,” were marked with solar lanterns and a signaling system, white on one side, red (occupied) on the other. In the center was a camp kitchen where Lulu worked her magic, with a canvas wall on the upwind side, and a counter perpendicular to it. A few meters from the counter stood a long table, spread with table clothes, wine glasses, and flatware. The table was set with four solar lights, each embedded into the top of a pint mason jar so the light pointed down into the jar; in the bottom of the jar, a bit of sand with topical items like a little sculpture of the tok tokkie beetle or a bit of oryx dung and acacia fruit. Drinks were served as soon as we had settled in drinks were served.
We sipped, admiring and photographing the sunset and examining the ever-present oryx through binoculars. After a while we seated ourselves and Lulu and Willie came out to announce dinner – as at some of the other camps, Lulu in English and Willie translating into his own childhood language.. I don’t recall all the dishes except that they were uniformly excellent – one I do strongly recall was the kudu steak, served the second night, which was tender and very tasty, kind of like the best elk I’ve ever had, but with a slightly sweeter and very complex, subtle taste.
Breakfast was an assortment of cereals, yogurt, fruits, cheese and meat, and bread and jam. Lunch, left for us along the trail, was sandwiches. They took very good care of me, with gluten free cornbread, and gluten free versions of all the other dishes, including dessert.
The second day we hiked for an hour or two over a series of ever higher dunes, then off onto rocky terrain, then onto a rocky trail that wound around the side of a mountain called “horse-shoe mountain” because of its shape. In addition to the ubiquitous oryx we saw a few springbok and several herds of zebras. We did not make very fast progress, because Richardo kept stopping us to point out some interesting feature of flora and fauna, including the dancing white lady, a rather large trapdoor spider that digs a hole a foot or more into the dune, lines it with silk, and constructs a trap door at the top of silk – like the trapdoor spiders we saw in Australia. You can find them by the subtle crescent-shaped indentation in the sand above the trapdoor.
The trail steepened and got rougher as we progressed around the curve of the mountain toward a pass between it and another mountain, a total climb of about 400 meters. On top we stopped for tea / coffee and chocolate cake – Lulu provided chocolate covered cornbread for me; not quite the same, but quite good. Then we headed down toward the plain below – a much rougher descent. One of the French ladies was lagging behind, so I lent her one of my two trekking poles, which she later said made it much easier for her. At the bottom we walked for over a mile across a field strewn with rocks from pebble to small boulder in size, rounded the foot of another mountain, crossed a series of four increasingly high dunes, to our second camp. It was set up as before, except that the “suites” were set up in hollow spots in the top of the dune. Not as convenient for seeing the horizon but otherwise quite cozy.
Each night, the stars were spectacular until the rising moon, 4 days past full, put an end to star-gazing. Everyone went to bed soon after dinner, around 8 or 8:30; it was very pleasant, almost magical to lie under a cozy feather bed / duvet, feeling the cool breeze on my cheek and looking up at the most brilliant display of stars I’ve seen since my childhood (before all the desert entry farms filled Idaho skies with dust). In the morning, I woke up around 4:30 each day, with the smell of dew-wet grass, which lingered for about an hour until about the time Willie brought around coffee and hot water to wash, when the warming air had dried it all off the grass.
The setup for washing was quite interesting – a sort of plastic bucket on a folding 4 legged rack with a tin can to dip into the water after Willie had poured in the hot water – each can had four holes punched in the bottom so when you hung it from the top of one of the legs, four soft streams came out to wash with.
The third day we walked over dune after dune, a total of over two hours, back to the headquarters shared by the tok tokkie trail people and NaDEET. There we had refreshments, said goodbyes, and my driver arrived to take me to Kulala Desert Lodge.

Kulala Desert Lodge
This place is situated across a dry wash from the dunes – did manage to see some Ostriches here. The first evening my guide, Cliff, just took me out for a brief drive then up onto a high ridge for the ubiquitous :sundowner” – gin and tonic and some light snacks, this time stuff that I could safely eat including jerky made from kudu which is very good. Dinner both nights was good – I was spoiled by some of the previous resorts. The room is comfortable, with a nice, fairly modern bath.
The one full day I spent here was a lot better than the first afternoon and evening, which were rather boring. It started with early breakfast and a drive out to a famous pan – a dried up seasonal pond/lake – overlooked by a 350 meter dune called “big daddy.” A group of four friends from Oklahoma joined me; they are all nice people with a good sense of humor so I enjoyed being with them. Two are retired doctors, the other two geologists – very convenient; they explained many of the features we saw, including dune shapes.
Along the way we stopped for a brief walk that included a look at the dancing lady white spider, aka trapdoor spider. Cliff actually dug it out for us so we could see it – much larger than I thought it would be; I took a few photos of it. We all took several pictures of interesting dunes along the way. When we reached “Big Daddy” one of the other guys and I decided to climb it; the others decided to climb a shorter, 100 meter high dune and we decided to meet in the pan. About two thirds of the way up the other guy turned back so I plodded on – climbing sand is not at all easy. At the top there was a group of what must have been thirty US high school girls; I could barely find a place to stand on the top much less actually take pictures. Finally they left, giggling and yelling all the way, and I was able to take some pictures before I descended, half glissading in the heavy sand. It took 50 minutes to go up, 10 to go down. A lot of fun, and the first really strenuous exercise since leaving Germany.
After lunch, we met at 2:30 for a drive out to a very old canyon, eroded by occasional floods from a sedimentary rock that combines sand with pebbles and rocks up to several pounds. Very interesting. Another sundowner, and back for dinner.

Overall assessment:
The dunes area of Namibia is a bit of a letdown after Botswana. It is promoted for the scenery – which would be spectacular for someone who lives in Eureope or eastern U.S. It reminded me of nothing so much as New Mexico with oryx, zebras, and a handful of ostriches. I would have been happy with the Tok Tokkie trail and maybe one full day to see a few of the other sights.
Wolwedans is a pretty luxurious place – excellent food, well managed, but a mediocre guide and not much to look at other than sand dunes and oryx. Kulala is comfortable and well-maintained but not nearly as well managed. Several frustrations: I did not get hooked up to wi-fi until about 30 minutes the morning I left; other guests said the had problems, but most were able to hook up once in a while. I would get connected to the kulala server but “no internet service.” There was supposedly a password but the login page never showed up. Staff gave contradictory and confusing answers to questions like meal times – I ended up hanging around the dining room from 6:30 until 7 the first night, waiting for service; the second night, I joined my friends at 6:40 and they were already seated and ordering. Laundry: I was told it would be picked up in the late afternoon – others were told first thing inn the morning. I gave up and washed a few things that absolutely had to be washed in the rather small sink. The guide, Cliff, was better than Mervin, at Wolwedans, but not up to the Botswana guides. (At least he doesn’t drench himself in perfume as several of the Kwara guides do.) Kulala uses closed-top vehicles instead of the open-top used elsewhere, which means two very wide blind spots, one on each side. As a result it was impossible to see when we were approaching something interesting until we were almost past it – the only ostrich I saw that was close enough to see (or photograph) clearly, I barely saw as we sped by because of that blind spot. By far the best here in the dunes area is the Tok Tokkie trail, which was magic from start to finish.
Several people I met here rented cars to drive around southern Africa, and all swear by it, as a chance to really see the countryside. But when I flew out toward Damaraland, I feel I saw the countryside as well as I would have on the road – a lot faster, with a lot less hassle. I can see how it would work with 3 or 4 people traveling together, though.

This area is radically different from the dunes.. This is lava rock over limestone and sandstone, so it is dotted with flat-topped buttes reminiscent of much of the intermountain west. The camp setup is familiar – very comfortable, open tent rooms with a clean, very serviceable bath; meals served at a common table – only ten rooms, so not a huge crowd of guests. Routine is similar to other camps – staff sings and dances in native tongue at dinner time, great food – very nice. Good guide; very interested in rocks.
I discovered what may be the reason for the gluten problem I had – the person who greeted me told me they had been informed that I have “a preference for gluten-free.” I quickly informed him it is not a preference but a medical necessity – and made sure to talk with the cook as well, which I will continue to do. Later, at lunch the second day, they served a rice dish, then came to inform me that it wasn’t gluten-free and wanted to take it away. So there is a good deal of confusion, understandable I suppose. On the 2nd night they led us down to an outdoor place they have fenced off and set up for outdoor dining – a great experience overall. It was somewhat spoiled for me when the server brought me a dessert, then came back and took it away from me – apparently it was not g-f. Usually they bring some kind of substitute but this time they didn’t. I don’t really care, but after a while one of the women in the foursome sharing a car with me looked at me and asked “Aren’t you going to get a dessert?” For some reason that underscored for me the overall confusion. The next morning the manager apologized to me, which made me feel somewhat better about it.
The g-f issue intruded in a more unpleasant way the last day of my stay there – I woke up in the middle of the night with gluten poisoning; as a result, reluctant to get to far from a bathroom I gave up a sunrise walk I had planned. This was the third such incident in two weeks, so the consequences were more pronounced than usual – I’m not sure what is happening, but I suspect the chefs are using some bottled sauce on some of the steak dishes without reading the ingredients label fully. One more example of the general lack of understanding about this. I will have to do more investigating.
The first afternoon we visited a local village – people who were relocated to this wasteland from South Africa not long before South Africa lost its control over Namibia. They have adapted to the landscape, have gardens and livestock – but their cut of the tourist dollars is very welcome. If I understand correctly, the local population gets about a third of what we pay, which makes me feel considerably better about the costs. However, as I chatted with my guide, Teek, later, he gave a somewhat more cynical view. We visited a pretty little valley the afternoon / evening of the second day, with short cropped grass and several beef cattle, many of which did not look terribly fat. Teek talked about how desperately difficult farming is in this area – little water, poor forage, especially in a drought, poor prices for the beef. The third morning, we visited what had been a similarly pretty little valley, which farmers had burned from one end to the other in an attempt to make more room for grass for their cattle. Teek also saw lion tracks – he drove to the farm and talked to the farmer who said lions had killed one of his dogs and injured the other the previous night. We talked about the conflict between farmers and wildlife, especially lions – Teek said the farmers were supposed to get paid for any cattle killed by wildlife, but said it rarely happens, and that much less of the tourist money makes its way down to the local people than the official line suggests. It was a bit depressing but not surprising. Teek did have an optimistic side – Namibia, which is quite a new country, is trying to learn from the mistakes of other countries, notably Zimbabwe. However, prices rise fast, especially for housing, and the value from natural resources do not make its way back to the people.

In search of the wild elephant.
The second morning we went on a game drive, in search of a newborn baby elephant. Along the way we saw a flock of ostriches, several herds of springbok, some mountain zebras silhouetted against the sky, a couple of jackals at a bit of a distance. We found tracks from a couple of lone males, then Teek went to where he thought the main herd would be, and found a huge bunch of prints, what looked like 20 or so elephants. We followed the elephant trail as they zig-zagged through the spring-fed valley, found several tracks headed for a rocky hill – we could hardly believe they would make a newborn elephant cross such difficult terrain, but Teek drove around the hill. He heard over the radio from another guide who had seen sign of them going up a different valley; we met the other guide, who went off to the left following the trail. Teek, on a hunch, drove up to the top of a rocky little hill and stopped at what looked to me like the edge of a cliff. He climbed to the top of the hill, swept the valley with his binoculars, and saw a couple of them in the trees. So we all clambered back into the vehicle and – to my surprise – he drove over what I had interpreted as the edge of a cliff, actually just a steep rock-strewn slope. We bounced down over the rocks and sped toward the site, where we saw several elephants browsing on the tree branches (I got a nice shot of one elephant with a branch in its mouth) and several others, including mother and baby, in the shadows beyond. The guide said the distance from where they had been previously spotted was about 40 km – a long way for a newborn baby, I would think. We watched them, relaxing in the shade of an acacia, for a couple of hours. I got some really nice photos of the baby, including a blurred shot of it falling down and some nice shots of its mother helping it back to its feet. I also got some shots of other slightly older juveniles playing and rolling around under the feet of and in the shadow of the adult elephants, which makes it slightly difficult to following the action.
Tracking the elephants: They always set the hind foot down on and slightly ahead of the front foot, so you can tell the direction of movement by which circle is complete. When fresh, each print has ripple marks, which fade with time and wind. They also leave signs like fresh droppings with still wet sand from the urine, and bits of broken branches they have ripped off of the trees for food. Teek, like the other really good guides I’ve had, makes a lot of guesses based on his knowledge of the herd’s typical behavior and the terrain of the landscape – sometimes he’s wrong but often he’s spectacularly right.
The following day my companions left so I was Teek’s only guest. I wanted to visit a nearby petroglyph site (which I later discovered is a world heritage site). We drove around first – viewing the burntout valley, etc. seeing a flock of ostriches and several other animals. Teek told me that the ostriches have an interesting social structure. The alpha female lays eggs and the other females lay eggs in the same nest, but only the alpha male and female tend the eggs and then the chicks.
The petroglyphs are really great, although difficult to photograph because of the odd angles and glare reflecting off them. Some of my photos are very good but many are hard to read. They drew by scratching off “desert varnish,” like the Navaho, but they often engraved the picture much deeper. The only abstractions are circles with a dot inside, a symbol for water. Otherwise, local animals prevail: giraffes and hippos, which are also symbols of water. There were several varieties of antelope, several elephants, some quite lovely.
After I had toured the rock art, Teek asked if I wanted to go back to the lodge or if I was willing to go with him to see if we could find where the elephant herd went. That sounded like an interesting adventure so I said “let’s go.” We had some coffee, some g-f chocolate muffins the staff had made for me and some of what I thought were g-f chocolate cookies (a later experience cast doubt on that – but that is a different story.)
Teek drove up the valley, watching for tracks crossing the road. We saw a couple of single sets of tracks, but did not find the main herd tracks until we had reached a point where the valley started narrowing. He drove across the valley and back, then drove to the opening of a steep draw and stopped. He said they were probably heading on their annual migration to the foot of a large mountain some distance away, and they would either follow the road as it wound around the mountain or go up one of these draws. We started to walk up the steep rocky hill with the initial idea of climbing to the ridge to see if we could see them, then Teek motioned me over to where he was, to see if we could see tracks in the sandy bottom of the creek bed. We didn’t, so we circled back to the vehicle – a nice 40 minute walk in all. He went back to the road and drove along it for a ways, then turned up a rough track, up to the top of the ridge. We got out and looked down into another draw, where we saw several of the elephants, far below us. Teek started laughing, I think because he had managed to figure out where they were. However, as we drove back to the lodge, he mulled over the issue of leading a newborn elephant calf over such difficult terrain, and decided at least the mothers of the two young calves must have stayed behind with the calves.
Teek also explained some differences between the desert-adapted and other elephants. The desert elephants never tear down trees or even break off large branches; they never stay at one water hole too long – he says they preserve their environment. They do rip small branches off a particular tree, strip the bark (which is nutritious) and leave the leaves for other animals – the trail of stripped branches with fresh unwilted leaves is one of the signs we had used to trail them.

Desert Rhino Camp – final Namibia destination
Basically similar layout with one addition – a self-appointed “pet” jackal, a nearly grown pup who hangs around in the mornings and evenings in spite of the staff’s attempt to discourage it. Very pretty animal who doesn’t understand the law against feeding wild animals or making pets of them.
The first day there were only two other guests, an elderly couple who left Zimbabwe 40 years ago and now live in South Africa, Janet and Dusty. Dusty is very interested in photographing birds, particularly the more challenging very small birds. The result can be rather boring for a non “birder” – as long as five minutes at a time sitting in the middle of nowhere while he tries to focus his camera on a rather boring-looking sparrow-sized grey bird with a slightly long beak. Otherwise, the first evening’s game drive was pretty interesting – saw a mother hyena nursing her pups, a couple of jackals, a desert giraffe. We came back to meet the trackers for Save The Rhino who were scheduled to help us find a rhino the next day, then had a very nice dinner in a dining place set up next to the small pool – and first met the self-appointed pet jackal.
The next morning it was up at 4:30, breakfast at 5, and off to find rhinos at 5:15. As we bounced along over the miserable roads (I finally took a photo of one) we saw several other animals (after the sun rose) including more giraffes, lots of springbok and steenbok and of course the ever-present oryx. (Not to mention several more tiny grey birds with subtle distinguishing features and a few larger, actually interesting birds.) Finally the guide got a radio call from the trackers who had found a rhino for us. We drove up to where they had stopped their vehicle, got out, and followed them, single file, along the road to a point downwind and slightly uphill, maybe 50 meters from the animal, who was contentedly and noisily munching on a low bush near some euphorbia bushes, and continued to do so while we took photos for about 20 minutes.
There are several varieties of euphorbia – all of which are quite toxic to most animals. The euphorbia bush is interesting – rhinos and kudu are the only animals who can safely eat it, and it forms an important part of their diet. There are two varieties around here, one has fibrous long grey green stems, which both rhinos and kudus eat. The poison in their blood kills parasites. The animals get moisture as well as nutrition from the bushes. The other looks like a cactus, with thick ribbed stalks lined with spiky thorns. The black rhino uses his pointed prehensile lip to strip off the thorns to get at the stalk - white rhinos do not eat them.
After our time was up (guests are rarely allowed longer than 20 minutes with a rhino, less if the animal seems at all disturbed) we drove around some more, saw several ostriches, mostly at a distance and running away. We also stopped at an area thick with Welvicha, which I had noticed and wondered about. They have only two broad leaves, which usually split into thinner sections as they grow. The leaves are a dark grey-green, turning brown then grey as the ends age and die; they can live over a century, grow very slow, and look like they are almost dead the entire time. The leaves have a leathery or plastic texture; the male has thin pollen stems, the female fruits that look like small upside-down pine cones. They do not actually flower – they belong to a category of their own, with no relatives. Elephants sometimes rip them up to eat the roots; antelope sometimes chew the leaves for the moisture and nutrients and spit out the fibrous remains.
We also stopped and tasted the brilliant green ostrich salad plant, a succulent that is not poisonous and is rather tasty – a hint of lime – but survives a thirsty and hungry world because its leaves are exceedingly high in mineral salts – it tastes like something you might rub on a margarita glass, but not something to put in a salad. (I guess the local people have not discovered margaritas or it would be endangered.)

Overall assessment: It took a while to get used to the different rhythms etc. in Namibia but once I did I have found it worthwhile. It adds considerably to my understanding of Africa generally, and also added a lot to my understanding of several species, especially elephants. It is very interesting to observe how the behavior of identical species is adapted to two remarkably different ecologies. Namibia itself is beautiful but in a harsh, forbidding way, not unlike Death Valley. The desert is 60 million years old, and 60 million years of wind have blown away most particles big enough to be picked up by wind, leaving a landscape that is either strewn with rocks of various sizes or covered with dunes from the sand that blows in from the Atlantic. This sand itself has an interesting history – it washes down the Orange River, is carried north by an ocean current, washes up on the shore of Namibia and is blown in by the prevailing winds which blow from the west.
The camps are almost all quite well run, with excellent food and friendly, enthusiastic staff. They tried hard to understand and deal with my dietary restriction, with mixed success – the failures are probably due to food industry labeling practices, although I’ve not yet worked out exactly what is happening. Watching the guides at work here, as in Botswana, was a big part of the pleasure of the game drives and walks. They know their animals well, and approach tracking as an exercise in puzzle solving. They tend to begin with a “canned” package that will appeal to the average tourist, but I found that showing a consistent interest in culture and animal behavior encourages them to open up and share much wider range of knowledge – a huge advantage of staying longer at one place rather than hopping from one camp to another as many tourists do. Longer stays also makes it possible to observe and understand a wider range of animal behavior and ecological relationships.
Flying in and out is interesting – gravel air strips; the guide is expected to get you there a half hour early and drive the full length of the strip to check for hazards – usually animals nearby ready to bolt across. Aircraft are usually 6 seaters, I had one 4-seater, sometimes 12 seaters.

One final adventure on the way out. When the bush plane was due to arrive the wind gauge was showing 15 knots, with gusts to maybe 25 – perpendicular to the runway. The intrepid pilot (a young South African woman – about ¾ of the bush pilots seem to be from SA) circled around, started the landing, and just as her wheels were about to touch the gravel her right wing dipped and almost touched the ground as a gust hit the plane. She jerked back on the throttle, climbed rapidly, radioed the guide that she’d be back in three minutes, circled around again, and this time made a perfect landing. I reassured myself that she’s done this lots of time, etc. etc., and, admittedly with a bit of trepidation, climbed into the plane as per her instructions. With me as the only passenger, she taxied onto the runway for a perfect takeoff. Fortunately the next strip, where I was to change planes for my flight back to Windhoek, is in a much less windy area, no incidents.