Posts Tagged With: travel

 
 

Lemur Love – Madagascar’s Unique Monkey-types

In honour of #WorldLemurDay, I decided to skip posts about anything in the area where I actually live and instead focus on a trip I took to Madagascar in January.

Madagascar is as cool as its name suggests. It is wild, it is rugged, it is magical, it is bizarre. A true land of extremes, it features a slew of inhabitants that seem to exist in a vacuum, and, in many ways, really do. Most of the wildlife on the island is endemic, meaning it occurs nowhere else in the world. And, as is the case in so many places worldwide, those species are disappearing. Quickly.

Aside from a short takeover stint from France, which decided to colonize the country in the 1900s, the Malagasy, their ways, traditions, and language have remained firmly footed and constant throughout the country and the centuries. And both the Western and the Malagasy cultures have often been at odds with the local wildlife.

Home to both the world’s largest and smallest chameleons, the looks-like-a-mongoose-on-steroids carnivorous fossa, and the ONLY place lemurs occur naturally, Madagascar is a stunning land of contrasts, rife with conflict and challenges. In fact, it feels like a Hollywood cliche – a kind of biological lost world torn between the technological advances foisted upon it by Westerners and the ancient traditions that bind the Malagasy people to their past.

Like so many African countries, Madagascar suffers from excruciating poverty, resource gouging by outside interests, and a complicated history stemming from colonial rule and subjugation. Cultural beliefs also often act as a hindrance to the conservation of the local wildlife. Fady is one such example. Fady are cultural taboos and prohibitions, and they wreak havoc on species like the island’s quirky aye-ayes.

Aye-ayes are a type of lemur that looks sort of like what you might get if you crossed Yoda’s hair with the face of a perpetually surprised and alopecia-addled mongoose with Mickey Mouse ears. So they are not only one of the less adorable creatures of the animal kingdom (unless you are a fan of the fugly, as I am), they are also believed to be an omen of death. Which doesn’t win you a lot of friends. The story goes that if one points its bony little finger in your direction, you are as good as gone. Not surprisingly, the aye-aye is not a fan favourite for the locals. In fact, one might say that these poor creatures are persecuted. Luckily, they are nocturnal, making their dalliances with humans less frequent. Had they been diurnal or crepuscular, they would’ve likely gone extinct long ago.

Though I wish I had, I did not get to see an aye-aye while I was visiting Madagascar, but I did see quite a few other lemur species, including a pair of rough-necked lemurs who lived in the trees above a lodge I stayed in on the tiny island of Ile aux Nattes. These particular lemurs made a low, almost demonic barking sound as they bounce about from tree to tree, feasting on mangos and dropped both their scraps and their poop on whatever is below them. One of them was very inquisitive and friendly, climbing down from the tree tops for a scratch behind the ears from a willing human now and again. This particular lemur also took a shine to my toothpaste, which I had to wrestle from her surprisingly tight grip more than once during my stay. Crest, just so you know, your ProHealth toothpaste has at least one lemur fan.

In contrast to the ruff-necked lemurs’ somewhat unnerving bark, the indri (also the world’s largest lemur) sing a hauntingly ethereal song as they cruise about the forests of Andasibe. With a musical symphony that begins at daybreak, their calls reverberate throughout the trees, pinging from one section of the forest to another as the primates get their day going and start their search for food. Their calls remind me a little of whalesong, with that almost whimsical sine curve of sliding arpeggios swinging high and dropping low. Indris also have impossibly long eyelashes, which I’m sure has nothing to do with their singing, but it’s just an observation. And while they are no less inquisitive than the ruff-necked lemurs I met, they don’t come right up to you looking for an ear scratch. Which is disappointing to someone like me, who would probably touch every animal I could if I didn’t think I might potentially lose a hand (or at least some fingers) in the process. I was that child in the store who could not help herself from picking up EVERYTHING. It’s shocking I still have all my limbs.

Anyway, in celebration of these beautiful animals, I thought I’d share a few pics of some of the locals I had the privilege of meeting on my whirlwind jaunt through this mystical island. Enjoy! And please, if you’re interested in visiting this amazing country, message me. I’m happy to offer suggestions and advice. It’s an epic adventure worth the challenges and the price tag. And you’d be doing some good for conservation AND humanity because the local communities (human and wildlife alike) could seriously use the tourist dollars.

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Categories: adventure, Africa, Animal, Conservation, Madagascar, nature, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Five days, three tyres, a set of shocks, a flock of birds, and about 10,000 burned calories later… the whirlwind Namibia extravaganza

Sooo we decided to take a trip to Namibia. Driving. In a little VW Golf. In defense of the car, it was unfair to drag it over such roads. In defense of me, a 4×4 was simply not in the budget, so as with most things in life, we improvised and rolled with what we had. Here is a bulleted blow-by-blow account of our whirlwind tour.

  • Cape Town to Fish River Canyon in one day. This is 977km (607 miles). It is lovely for a few hours outside of Cape Town, then it gets dry. Then drier. Then it’s just dust everywhere. And a few sheep. (Saw my first actual black sheep!) And some odd-looking trees called quiver trees. And lots of rocks. Then no more trees at all. Just rocks. And finally nothing but tan-coloured dirt.
  • A very slow and unwelcoming border post. But they did eventually let us through. (To their credit, they were much nicer and faster on the way out – though not sure if I should read into that or not.)
  • welcome-to-namibia-jvitanzo

    Arriving at the border between South Africa and Namibia

  • One blowout on the empty dirt roads from Ai-Ais to Hobas camp. I also would like to add that we sadly took out more than a few birds on our travels. Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible to slam on brakes on loose sand. Birds that decide to sit in the middle of the sand/dirt road seem to be simply asking for a quick death via grill.
  • broken-car-jvitanzo

    our sad little VW Golf loses a shoe on the rough roads in southern Namibia

  • No restaurant on-site once we arrived at Fish River Canyon (and we’d packed nothing but some nonperishable goods), so food and drink options are limited to the small shop at the reception area, which had little more than tinned beef, bread, and milk.
  • A beautiful sunset spent sitting – sundowners in hand, because though we couldn’t get food, we could get alcohol – at the edge of a massive and empty canyon, lulled by the shushing of a warm wind, the gentle cries from a pair of Verreaux’s Eagles somersaulting like acrobats through the air, and pretty much nothing else. There was not another human for miles.
  • A night venturing out into the empty space behind our camp, startling a dazzle of zebra (no joke, that’s what a group of zebra is called), tracking down frogs, and practicing our star photography. Stumbled upon an old car that looked like it had been abandoned there a few decades ago. Briefly made me wonder if, given the roads we’d arrived on, and the fact that we still had a long way on more dirt roads to go to Sossusvlei, our car would be joining it in this desert graveyard.
  • Waking up to a chorus of what sounded like a million different species of bird. Watching a lone baboon make his way through camp, checking every bin he passed in a search for tasty morsels. A morning spent lazing about, bird watching, followed by a full day in Fish River Canyon, walking in extreme temperatures amongst shale, some limestone and quartz, and not much else. The only mammals we saw, other than the baboon at camp, were a hare and a klipspringer. Even the birds and the reptiles were quiet. The afternoon was spent in the pool in a vain attempt to cool down. A minor disruption of gunfire as someone shot towards the troop of baboons coming down the hillside towards the camp. The baboons tucked tail and did a 180 out of there. Then silence.
  • Evening braaing with a can of beans, a can of bully beef, and some potatoes. And a big slab of chocolate. Because I will always find a way to make sure chocolate is somehow involved in any activities.
  • Twelve hours driving from Fish River Canyon to Sesriem Camp, after a rough road incident along the way that set us back many hours and possibly even more years of life, given the stress levels it induced. (Be forewarned – paved roads in Namibia aren’t actually paved in the sense of being sealed like tarmac, and locals have no qualms about running into the road – and into your car, though I’ve found this in South Africa as well.)
  • Set up camp and scouted out the neighbours, which included about a thousand sociable weavers, a horned adder, a few dozen barking geckos, a Bibron’s thick-toed gecko, and a striped pole cat (of which I actually only saw the butt-end as it ran away from me). And a house cat that apparently lives in the tree above our tent. We named him Frisky. He got a can of tuna fish.
  • Walked into springbok on my way back from the ablutions.
  • Five am wake-up call, one-hour drive to the dunes, six hours trekking in 40-degree heat (Celsius, not Fahrenheit), through mid-calf-deep sand, to climb massive dunes, find some web-footed geckos, look at dead trees, and avoid being pummeled by surprised oryx and ostrich. Much water consumed. Made friends with a few European swallows and a random beetle that fully appreciated the bits of apple tossed their way.

    As a note: it’s 65-km trip from the entrance of the park to Sossusvlei and Deadvlei, so best to stay in the camp at Sesriem (where we stayed), which is right at the entrance. Or you can stay at the 5-star lodge (where we would’ve liked to have stayed, but could not even come close to affording).

I should add that a dune is a lot like a body of water –it’s hard to gauge distances, and everything seems a lot closer than it actually is. Our little dune seemed like a trifle until we actually started climbing. It didn’t take long until it was all burning calves and thighs, with us eventually crawling on hands and feet the last few dozen meters (no joke, at one point I was literally trying grab the sand in hopes that I could pull myself up), and then collapsing at the top, where we sat for a good 15 minutes just taking in the view. And letting our heart rate settle back down to a reasonable pulse.

On the return to the bottom, we attempted initially to slide down. Sand is not like snow, unfortunately. We slid about three meters and then stopped dead, sinking into the deep drifts. We had no choice but to walk down on our rubber legs. Along the way, we met a few web-footed geckos hiding out underneath or near the dune grass.

Once we reached the bottom, we headed onwards to Sossusvlei and Deadvlei.

Because we didn’t have a 4×4 we had to walk to the main area of Sossusvlei/BigDaddy/Deadlvei from the 2×4 parking lot, a distance of 10 km roundtrip. Apparently, there is a shuttle, though I don’t recall ever seeing it, and for whatever reason we decided not to take it. I’m not sure what we were thinking. Deadvlei is another 1km once you get to the 4×4 parking lot.

When we finally got close to Deadvlei, I took off my shoes and walked in my socks. The shoes were making it harder to walk in the thick sand, and the sand was way too hot for bare feet. The socks were the perfect happy medium.

I have to say, I try to stay in good shape. I exercise pretty much every day. And I almost didn’t make it. My legs have never felt more like soggy noodles in my entire life. 

  • Afternoon spent passed out in the tent, sleeping off what was probably heatstroke.
  • Early evening meeting the local sociable weaver population, which converged at our camp in search of crumbs (see photos below). We had many to contribute to the cause since our rolls had gone stale. Ecstatic birds flocked all around, squeaking happily, popping off to tell their friends about the buffet at Campsite 10, and bringing back reinforcements. Birds met the otters, Seaweed and Barnacle; birds harassed horned adder; birds gorged on every morsel of carb they could find; birds dispersed. Quiet resumes.
  • Delicious braai, night walk that culminated in finding one lone scorpion and a rather befuddled oryx. Last night of sleep under the brilliance of the Milky Way before heading back to South Africa. I don’t recall my head even hitting the pillow that night.
  • scorpion-namib_desert-jvitanzo

    Scorpion under UV light, Sesriem, Namibia

  • Early morning wake-up. Pack up the car. Sixteen hours driving from Sesriem to Cape Town. A very friendly border patroller who offered to buy our car as we hit the South African side.
  • Saw more snakes and scorpions passing through the Cederberg roadworks than we did in the actual desert. One scorpion looked to be the size of my hand. Ces’t la vie.
  • A trip to the garage gets us four new rims, three new tyres, a total realignment, new shocks, many gallons of water and plenty of elbow grease to clean off the dust.
  • Sleep for 24 hours straight.

Namibia was beautiful. I’m glad I went. But I don’t think I will be returning unless someone else is driving their car, and it’s a luxury 4×4 kitted out with a packed fridge and cooler.

 

TRAVEL TIPS

If you are keen to go on an adventure and would like to follow in our footsteps (in which case I would HIGHLY recommend you bring more supplies and make use of that shuttle at Sossusvlei…), here are a few useful links:

Sossusvlei (and Deadvlei and Fish River Canyon) – general information

The Cardboard Box (travel tips for all locales we visited)

Sesriem Camping (http://www.nwrnamibia.com/sesriem.htm)

If you’re averse to camping, try the Sossus Dune Lodge

And if you want to step it up about 40 notches, &Beyond has a lodge there as well: the Sossusvlei Desert Lodge

Hobas Camping (http://www.nwrnamibia.com/hobas.htm)

I also highly recommend going no later than November and no earlier than March. Unless you REALLY love excruciatingly hot and dry weather. I was there at the end of October (I know, I’m a little late with my recap), and it was already scorching.

Also, if you’re keen to hike in Fish River (which looks stunning, but which wasn’t open for hiking when we were there), you need to go between May 1 and September 15. That is the only time the trail is open (and for good reason, given the chance of drowning in flash floods and/or dying of heatstroke at other times). If you’re keen, read this article first on how to survive the hike, courtesy of Getaway Magazine.

 

All rights reserved. ©2016 Jennifer Vitanzo

 

 

Categories: Africa, Animal, Baboon, Bush, Camp, gecko, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

South African Adventure #58 – A Loo With A View

It isn’t every day that your toilet looks out on, and is open to, a game reserve.  No door, walls made of thin sticks clumped together – a lovely white porcelain throne overlooking the tranquil wilds of Africa.  Perfect for when you’re alone on the bowl and pondering life; not so perfect when there are other people around who can hear every little splash.  It’s humbling on multiple fronts, and the concept of ‘getting back to nature’ takes on new meaning. When nothing but some skinny strands of metal separate you, in your (quite literally) vulnerable position, from multiple possible death-inducing scenarios, and there is nothing to shield others from the less savory of your bodily functions, ego gets flushed down the pipes with the rest of the toilet’s contents.

The toilet I speak of (and there IS only a single toilet) sits quite literally at the edge of the fenced-in area in our campsite, about three feet (or around a meter for our metrically-obsessed) from a wire fence that doesn’t look like it could keep out a chicken, let alone lion and elephant.  I’m not even sure if it’s electrified, and am not volunteering to test it out regardless.  If the opportunity arises, I’ll just have to leave it to fate and put my survival skills to the test.  Would be kind of interesting to see how well, or not so well, I fared without a gun or other man-made defense accoutrement against true apex predators, but again, not going to make the effort unless I have no other choice.  Again, not volunteering.

I learned what I was made of on a recent sleep-out in Tembe Elephant Park, where I parked my vanity on the back of the Land Cruiser and embraced the rustic little village of pre-fab houses that made up our camp. Solid walls? Check. Bed? Check. Sheets? Nope. Curtains? Nope. Privacy? Zilch. I was glad I brought plenty of layers of clothing.  They might at the very least deter some of the vast array of insects inside the house from snuggling up in my armpits or in other areas I’d prefer not to think about.

While the accommodations were spartan, the campsite itself was full of life, courtesy of seven very happy people celebrating being able to let loose for an evening in a place where letting loose often means the possibility of losing limbs.  Letting loose here doesn’t happen often, and when it does, you cherish it.  You do what any self-respecting South African does.  You buy a whole bunch of meat and throw it on a grid set over a mass of burning coals, crack a beer or a cider, and braai.

Braaing is the SA equivalent to bbq-ing.  Sometimes lion, leopard and hyena come to the party, though, giving it a uniquely African element you simply cannot recreate anywhere else.  A pit is dug, filled with the appropriate type of wood – appropriate because the wrong wood being burned could land you in the hospital here because of the toxins it releases – and a small fire is lit.  Over a few hours, you sit around this ember-inducing circle, drinking, sharing stories, and waiting for the coals to heat up enough for the big event.

Once enough suitable coals are available, any remaining wood is pushed out of the way and a large metal grid goes over the coals, followed by multiple types of meat – steak, boerewoers (literally translates from Afrikaans to ‘farmer sausage’), burgers, whatever your fancy.  Meat comes from cows, ostrich, warthog, and just about every type of local antelope large enough to provide a decent cut.  A braai master is declared who is responsible for ensuring the meat is properly cooked.

Veggies aren’t really necessary.  Meat and alcohol are the only important elements here, but since we had a vegetarian with us, we needed at least one veggie option.  We opted for ever-popular corn (‘on the cob’ to Americans).  South Africans call corn mieles (pronounced ‘meelies’).  Why, I have no idea, and neither does any South African I’ve asked.

At any rate, corn is never a good thing for open bathrooms.  The first night wasn’t an issue, but the next morning, mieles were making waves.  Thankfully, we all ate the corn, so everyone was on the same embarrassing level.  It’s amazing how strongly you bond with people when you don’t have the luxury of shame or ego…

After a relatively early rise and a thorough clean-up of the camp, we packed up every last morsel, bit of rubbish and ounce of pride, and headed back to main camp.  We all observed each other’s need for silence on the trip back, hangover etiquette intact in reaction to the combined result of too many drinks, a bumpy drive on an open vehicle in very cold temperatures, and the need to pay attention because of the possibility of running into wildlife at any point.  Once we disembarked, we all fell into couches, chairs and beds, miserably clinging to pillows and covering our heads in an attempt to make the day-after pain subside.  By noon, we were all human again.

All rights reserved. ©2011 Jennifer Vitanzo

View from the loo, aka the toilet

camp toilet giving new meaning to going au naturale in the bush

 

Categories: Africa, Animal, Bush, Camp, Conservation, Education, Field Guide, South Africa, Training, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

South African Adventure #27 – Mambas in the Rafters

The other day, I walked into my bathroom, turned on the water to wash my hands, and – out of the corner of my eye – saw a rope fall from the ceiling. Rope? There was no rope in the bathroom. I swear my lizard brain kicked into gear a split second later because I very quickly stepped back against the canvas walls, somehow knowing I had to get out of the way. The rope was actually a snake. Had I stayed in place, I would have been blocking its only escape route (which was, unfortunately, right past my legs, no matter where I stood).

At first, the snake literally bounced around the floor, a potentially venomous jumping bean, unable to get any traction on the screed concrete. Eventually, it wriggled enough and threw itself past me, around the corner, and behind my bed.

I had to keep an eye on the snake (or in this case, pay attention to where it went and make sure I kept tabs on where it might go next), so I calmly walked past the bed, grabbed my cell, and called my fiancé, who has been handling snakes almost all his life. “Snake,” I said. “What kind?” he asked. Strangely, though I hadn’t gotten a good look at it and wasn’t particularly familiar with snakes to begin with, instinct told me what it was. “I think it’s a mamba,” I replied.

He quickly made his way down to our tent with snake tongs in hand, checked the snake’s whereabouts and confirmed that yes, it was indeed what is often considered the most feared and deadly snake in the world.  Apparently, the color (which, contrary to logic, is not black but gray), the size (thin and long), and the shape of the head, which is coffin-shaped, give it away.  Easier to identify when it’s curled up behind the bed, but when a snake is writhing about at top speeds in a dark room, it’s hard to tell what it is, except that it’s either a live wire (and since we have no electricity, that was ruled out immediately) or a snake.

After a bit of a struggle (the snake was happily ensconced in our mosquito netting and really didn’t want to leave), my fiance managed to get a good grip on it, get it out of the tent, and take it a few kilometers away to release it into the bush.  Valiant ranger saves the day.  The only problem is, mambas are territorial and arboreal.  And we have a bit of a squirrel problem in our roof.

A week later, I heard scuffling above my head, and what was looking down on me?  A little, gray, coffin-shaped head.  Mamba.  Guessing it’s probably the same one.  However, since it’s almost impossible to get up to the eaves of the roof to find it, we can’t really get it out.  In my book, though this is not good, I’m okay with it.  As long as it stays in the roof and gets rid of the squirrels, it can stay.  If it drops back in on me while I’m in the bathroom, we might need to relocate it to different pastures.  We’ll see.  At the moment, mamba and I seem to have reached an understanding.

I have many of these types of understandings out here. The geckos can hang in my house because they eat insects. Same with the frogs. But if the frogs are the really noisy kind, they get relocated as well.  You’d be amazed how loud a single frog can be. And frogs are kept to a minimum because they are a favored treat of spitting cobras and other terrestrial snakes. Arboreal is ok.  Terrestrial is not. They end up under your bed by choice, not default (as was the case with the mamba).  Not good.

I even tolerate some spiders, as they too eat insects. Some, however, cannot stay for reasons of personal safety. Black and brown button spiders cause much pain and illness, so they get the boot by way of Doom. I know, not exactly very conservation-minded of me, but my house is my kingdom. You invade and you get war. They do the same to me.

Baboon spiders get kicked out, though not through death by insecticide. They just get gently moved back outdoors by way of notebooks, brooms, or being nudged along by an article of clothing. Scorpions have to go as well, as many can very easily land you in the hospital. And they don’t eat the mosquitoes, so they don’t provide any necessary service to me. They don’t pay rent, so to speak, they don’t get to stay.

The nyala family that calls our camp home can stay as long as they want, though. They trim the hedges and mow the lawn on a regular basis, keeping the grass short and helping to keep hiding places for snakes to a minimum. And, shallow though it may be, they are awfully cute. They decorate the lawn nicely.

I’d like to add one note about this whole experience. Mambas are often labeled as aggressive snakes. I did not find that at all with this one, or any other snakes I’ve encountered since arriving in Africa, except for one baby Mozambican Spitting Cobra that we almost ran over (which I think probably entitles it to be aggressive). Snakes strike when they are threatened, or to kill food, and I promise you, for the vast majority of snakes in the world, you are WAY too big for their menu and biting you is a waste of their precious resources. Usually, they make a point to avoid you, and with the exception of puff adders, who have a habit of just sitting lazily, will hear the vibration from your footsteps and flee before you ever spot them.

Like pretty much everything else in the animal kingdom, snakes have learned that their best defense against humans is to avoid them.  Our mamba did everything in its power to avoid me and my fiancé, and never once did it lunge at us or show off the reason behind its name – the midnight black inside of its mouth. What you see on TV, even those ‘wildlife documentaries,’ is not always reality. Snakes are NOT around every corner, and also not always aggressive, and they should only be handled by professionals, as it is very easy to misidentify and mishandle them. Please keep that in mind the next time someone yells ‘SNAKE.’ The venomous monster they’re pointing at might actually be a harmless little brown house snake. Or the harmless little black snake in the corner you try to pick up might be a highly venomous baby forest cobra. Point is, leave them alone, and if you don’t want them around, get a professional to remove them for you.

Below are some images of our local snake population, including the mamba from my bathroom.

Black Mamba Removal

Puff Adder Bathing

 

All rights reserved. ©2011 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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