Posts Tagged With: wildlife

Lions and Tigers, Without the Tigers

After an 18-day separation (to the hour! 432 of them!), my laptop and I have been reunited. I’m a little suspicious of what mischief it might have gotten up to during two unaccounted-for nights in Paris when it was supposedly stuck in Customs, so I am scanning it for STDs and other viruses. But so far, it appears happy and healthy, so herewith is my final post from Nambia, written over two weeks ago.

We’ve now finished the final leg of our stay in Namibia, camped outside Etosha National Park in the northern part of the country. Well, “camped” is not exactly the right word: “pampered” might be a little more accurate. There are four game camps just outside the entrance to Etosha, the two best known being the more rustic Andersson’s and the snazzy one for people with more money than us called Ongava. We were booked at Andersson’s but mirabile dictu, due to an overbooking snafu we were upgraded to Ongava.

It is in many ways similar to Doro !Nawas, an open-air pseudo-rustic (but actually nicely appointed) lodge on a hillside surrounded by spacious bungalows. But the bungalows are air conditioned – no small thing in 90 F (32 C) heat with zero percent humidity. Yeah, you read that right. Towels are practically superfluous here: you air-dry in about 30 seconds after stepping out of the shower, and throughout the day you guzzle water as though your life depended on it. Which it pretty much does.

The lodge is not fenced in, and there is a manmade watering hole on the grounds where consequently a panoply of wildlife parades past us as we watch from the outdoor deck where meals are served. We can even see the watering hole from our bungalow but the view is more direct from the main lodge, and it is quite the spectacular treat to ogle the various beasts at our leisure. Leading down from the lodge is a rough path leading to a hunting blind (which they call a “hide” here), so that we can invisibly ensconce ourselves about 10 meters from the watering hole to get up close and personal (so to speak) with the animals. Our first big prize was this guy, who strolled over at about 9 PM on our first night.

This is a black rhino. There is white variety as well (actually light gray in color) that we saw two days later.

I should add that there is a slight but interesting downside to this lodge watering hole setup. Because the animals are attracted to the watering hole, and because the grounds are unfenced, it is not uncommon for visitors like rhinoceroses (rhinoceri?) to wander the grounds after sunset. We were firmly instructed not to move between the main lodge and our cabins after dark without an escort.

The landscape here is different from Damaraland. Though I would not have though it possible the air is even drier, and but for the small range of hills where our lodge sits, billiard-table flat. The surface is coarse packed dry soil and hardpan clay, the vegetation a sea of scrubby bushes, stunted acacia trees, and foot-high dry yellow grass stretching to the horizon. It is, in other words, classic arid African savanna at the end of the long dry season (and suffering a four year drought in the bargain).

In addition to this challenging landscape, there is a vast region of pure dry salt lakebed hardpan called, descriptively if unimaginatively, The Pan. It’s a white crystalline deathscape covering a suffocating 8600 sq km (3300 sq mi), about the same size as Puerto Rico. Unlike Puerto Rico, it is home to nothing but a few scrub bushes and shimmering heat mirages from horizon to horizon. It resembles the Bonneville Salt Flats, or possibly Hell.

Despite this unpromising geography, Etosha is known for its wildlife, and our first day here did not disappoint. We seem to have good wildlife karma on these trips: we seem to find the animals whose likelihood of discovery our guides hastily and mistakenly discount. In Patagonia three years ago our guide said that we should hope to spot a few condors; we stopped counting at 60. This morning a few people in our group asked if we’d find cheetahs, and our well-meaning guide attempted to manage our expectations by explaining that they were rare and hard to find, and that we should not be disappointed if we did not see any in our three days here. So of course we found a family of them in our first hour.

We spent nine hours in the bush on our longest drive, from 7 AM to 4 PM, and racked up an impressive list of finds, which we added to on subsequent days. This list is our “catch”:

  • Baboons (Chacma)
  • Cheetahs
  • Dikdiks (the smallest antelope)
  • Elephants
  • Giraffes
  • Ground squirrels (not much more exciting than the ones you’re used to)
  • Hartebeests
  • Impalas (Black-Faced)
  • Jackals (Black-Backed)
  • Kudus
  • Lions
  • Mongooses (the yellow variety, which are rare)
  • Oryxes
  • Ostriches
  • Rhinos (both black and white variety)
  • Rock Hyrax (look it up)
  • Springboks
  • Steenboks
  • Waterbucks
  • Wildebeests
  • Zebras

That doesn’t even include the (non-ostrich) birds: secretary bird, hornbill, bustard, goshawk, hawk eagle, guinea fowl (countless of them, squawking about underfoot like their feather were on fire), and numerous others. (I am not a bird person and tend not to keep track of them in my head very well.) Not a bad haul.

The nine hour game drive was a long and thirsty stretch, marked by an interesting break in the middle in the form of a bag lunch in an unusual place. The park authorities have set up a little retail oasis in the veldt, situated next to a watering hole. It has a post office, the inevitable gift shop, rental cabins… and a shaded bleachers about 15 meters from the watering hole. So we ate our sandwiches while watching herds of zebras, springboks, and oryxes wade into the shallow water to drink and cool themselves. Not your typical lunch break.

Having described all these animals, I feel obliged to show you some of them. So here are some photos from the past three days.

As you can see it was quite the trip, an adventure in its own right. Our enjoyment was greatly enhanced  by the congeniality of the group and the over-the-top affability of our tour lead Lloyd. His own enthusiasm really amped things up a notch. At our farewell dinner (an hour ago as I type this, but probably two days or so before I can post it from London), we thanked him with a group serenade, written by our travelmate David to go with Bob Hope’s signature melody, “Thanks for the Memories”. (You can see the original on YouTube here.) It rather nicely summarizes the past few weeks, and it would be fair to say that Lloyd was moved, despite our questionably melodic (read: “atrocious”) singing.

Thanks for the memories
The sand went in our shoes
We even saw gnus
And then we climbed Dune 45 and saw fantastic views
So thank you
To Lloyd

Thanks for the memories
A cool and breezy day
We cruised on Walvis bay
Some pelicans and then some seals came on board for a stay
So thank you
To Lloyd

Thanks for the memories
Went up in a balloon
Encountered some baboons
And listened to the children sing a Na-mi-bi-an tune
So thank you
To Lloyd

Thanks for the memories
We learned to understand
The desert elephant
And then we watched the waterholes as animals descend
So thank you
To Lloyd

Thanks for the memories
For watching the sun set
For everyone we met
You helped make each experience the best that we could get
So thank you
To Lloyd!

Categories: Africa, Namibia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Who Is Geyser Soze?

We had an ethereal display early Wednesday morning, as we arose at 4:30 AM — an hour I was heretofore unsure even existed — to make another long drive, this time up to the El Tatio geyser field, way up at 14,000 ft into the mountains. We met up with our group at 5:00 AM and first made a short ride outside of the lights of town so that we could admire the night sky. Which was incredible. With no lights at all for many miles around, the Moon had set and the sky was crystalline: the Milky Way shone brightly enough to admire the dust lanes; the Large Magellanic Cloud (a small irregular companion galaxy to the Milky Way, for you non-astronomers) floated like a glowing cotton ball the size of the Moon; and the Southern Cross had just broken the horizon. It was breathtaking, yet another reminder of why we make trips like this.

The reason for the insanely early hour is rooted in the geophysics of these particular geysers. As Julio explained it to us, these geysers, unlike (say) Old Faithful, are in continuous rather than periodic eruption (as we would shortly see) and their strength depends on the temperature difference between the surface temperature and that of the underground superheated water. The bigger the temperature difference, the more vents are in eruption, and the better the display. Hence it is best to arrive at or before sunrise when the air is nice and cold.

Yeah, nice and cold. As in 20 @$$(#{#*ing degrees. We drove through the predawn darkness up, up, up the steep mountainside over unlit invisible unpaved roads, jarred by the washboarding and the ruts, till the sky began to lighten behind the peaks and we found ourselves on a flat plain dotted with steaming fumaroles. We stepped out of our nice comfy heated van and BAM! Welcome to lung-searing mountaintop cold. We had been forewarned, of course, and had dressed in about five layers of shed-able clothing in preparation for the later warmth of the day ahead, but for now every layer was a blessing.

There was only light wind, thankfully, but the cold on our hands and faces was bad enough, amplified by the oxygen deprivation of the 14,000 ft elevation. It was a weird sort of homecoming for me, the surroundings reminiscent of my Mauna Kea days (coincidentally the same height); I had about 5 minutes of lightheadedness, then stopped noticing it. I was lucky never to be significantly affected by the altitude at Mauna Kea, nor here, but others in our group (including Alice) felt noticeably uncomfortable and impaired. My biggest problem was my hands; my fingers were numb with cold but of course I needed them ungloved to operate the camera.

Andean geysers at dawn (blue tint courtesy of iPad camera)

We were on a flat volcanic plain a few miles across, settled in a smaller area about a half mile on a side with scores if not hundreds of steam vents, many spewing boiling water in a suitably geyser-like way. The ground was dark as basalt and smooth enough to walk around easily, crisscrossed with frozen rivulets of groundwater and dusted with salt crystals. The steam vents were everywhere, their perimeters painted with so-called thermophilic algae, primitive orange and green organisms that thrive in the boiling, mineral-laden water. The scene was lit by orange breaking dawn and the still-indigo sky, and walking among them was a stroll on some hellish planet. To my surprise there was little very smell of sulphur.

We wandered among the vents and through the clouds of steam, some merely curling wisps at our feet, others majestic swirling towers ten or fifteen feet across. There were some marked walkways — they’ve lost a few tourists to the boiling pools, invisible underfoot in some of the steam columns. But there would be no parboiled visitors today.

…and an hour later

The sky continued to lighten, saturating the surrounding peaks in orange and revealing adjacent rock-strewn fields of clumpy, straw-like grass. After an hour or so the sun had completely cleared the peaks and warmed the geyser field, and as promised the multitude of steam columns started to diminish noticeably. Our driver Mario and our local guide Camillo had by this time prepared an outdoor breakfast for us, so we made our way back to the van to enjoy warm toast (prepared on a gas grill), ham, cheese, cake, avocado, and — most welcome of all — hot drinks. I am not sure which part of me enjoyed the hot chocolate more: my mouth and stomach as I drank it, or my chilled dry hands, simply from holding the mug.

We were in full daylight as we made our way back down the mountain, and now we could see how treacherous the drive up had been in darkness, the road rutted and boulder-strewn, and serpentine with hairpin turns. Our return trip, Julio explained, would be marked by several stops to search for birds and wildlife.

This seemed unlikely to me, my view of the Martian landscape being informed by three years at the nearly-lifeless summit of Mauna Kea. But things are different here. We were not 20 minutes underway when we encountered a herd (flock? pod?) of vicuñas, sending us into a picture-snapping frenzy that a short while later would feel silly in retrospect, as the damn things were all over the place.

The vizcacha, which you do not dip in your coffee (Google photo)

Other than a herd of domesticated llamas — and I had not known this, but all llamas are domesticated — the other mammal of interest that we encountered was one that I had never heard of: the vizcacha. (Points for you if you’ve ever heard of it.) With a name like an Italian breakfast pastry (the leading V is pronounced like a B), the vizcacha looks like an oversized rabbit at the front — with pronounced long rabbity ears — and some kind of mutant lemur at the back, with a long furred tail. It is a rodent, not a lagomorph, and thus despite its appearance more rat than rabbit. It’s about 16″ long plus the tail. We encountered a group of several of them, and one ran behind the van and up the hillside, an unexpected sight in itself because when they start to move you instinctively expect them to hop, which they do not.

The bird life was also (to me) surprisingly abundant and diverse. We stopped at a small lake, covered in parts with a thin layer of ice. There we saw crested ducks, giant coots, Chilean teal ducks (bright blue bill!), and more, all greater in number and variety than I would have expected, and quite the sight against the near-frozen lake nestled in the blasted landscape.

We arrived back at the hotel a little before noon, in time for lunch and a nap before heading out on our late afternoon outing to the nearby Valley of the Moon. (You better believe that this trip takes stamina.) I think that in our travels that this is the third or fourth desolate venue that we have visited that is named after the Moon. I suppose that at some time in the historical past it became de rigeur the world over for hardy but unimaginative explorers to gaze upon their desert discovery and declare that it looked like the Moon. If I were their trusty but intolerant native guide I would have said, “Can’t you do better than that? This is the fourth frigging volcanic desert valley that we’ve named after the Moon. Doesn’t it look like anything else? Mars? Detroit? Anything?”

Apparently not, and the Moon it is despite the absence of any craters. But it is suitably alien, the rock formations and trackless grey sand dunes resembling the most remote parts of the American desert southwest. With one major exception: the salt. Smooth mica-like salt incrustations and quartzy crystal outcroppings define the surface of the rocks on every scale, anguished-looking formations and even whole cliff sides coated with patchy white grains as though dusted in powdered sugar. It’s a paradoxical sight, making some of the craggy formations look like some kind of Pastries From Hell.

Valley of the Moon. That’s salt, not snow! (Google image)

Rivulets of rare rainfall erode pencil-wide channels down the rocks as they dissolve the salt, giving many of the formations a fluted appearance as though their surface was the fusion of bundles of narrow stalactites. But the really cool part is that some of the walls talk.

Not in English or Spanish, of course: they whisper in, I dunno, Rockish I suppose. But in one canyon there were whole walls tiled in sheets of transparent salt crystals, whose thermal expansion and contraction in the cycle of the desert day is different from the underlying rock itself. And so there is mechanical stress as the sheets and incursions of crystals try to pull away from the rock to which they are fused, and you can actually hear the battle taking place: faint whispery crackles and deep hollow pops, every second or two. It’s ghostly and a little eerie, like the rocks are talking to you. We stayed for a few minutes and listened, and I would happily have stayed longer. (Not so Alice, alas; even with hearing aids her poor hearing prevented her from hearing the geological conversation.)

We drove to high ground afterwards to strategically position ourselves for the sunset display, and while we were there our driver and guide set out a charming little wine and cheese table for us. This was last night in the Atacama, and so it was a little celebration of the few days that we had.

The grand finale, of course, was the sunset, an atypically colorful one due to the presence of some unseasonal clouds. The clouds burned furious orange and pink, the rugged valley below and the distant volcanic peaks turning color in synchrony. You will have to wait till I process my photos later this month to see what it looked like — the iPad’s lousy camera could never capture it — but it put quite the exclamation point to our visit thus far.

Categories: Patagonia | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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