Welcome to SKJ Travel ... my narrative blog where you can join me vicariously as I adventure around the world. In the archives you'll find posts from some of my travels ... these are very casual "letters to home" style accounts of what I did, with lots of photos. To read my formal articles, they're listed in each archive home page, or visit one of the blue buttons above: Articles/Guest Posts, Interviews, or Literary SKJ, or see the Travel Essays section (right side below archive -- mostly documentaries). Friday Photos are updated weekly, and Tuesday Tales are updated sporadically. You can follow SKJ Travel on social media at:
Updated Tuesday December 1, 2015 Updated Friday January 29, 2016
Most recent blog entry: "Popoyote Lagoon 2015 - Ixtapa, Mexico" (below)
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Here is 2015's photo spread from the small wildlife refuge in a mangrove swamp at Playa Linda, Popoyote Lagoon in Ixtapa, Mexico. I look forward to seeing what I've come to think of as "my" animals each year. It's hard to say who is my favorite between the roseate spoonbill birds, the iguanas, or the American crocodiles. But it appears that I never tire of photographing any them. (See pics from past years here.)
I guess maybe I consider the spoonbills the most special because there is no bird like this anywhere near where I live! They seem very exotic to me. And I've watched their population grow at the lagoon. The first year I there, there was one breeding pair. Now there are several. They are pills to photograph because they hang out in the dense mangrove foliage. It's hard to believe such large birds fly around in that space, but they do!
And now presenting the crocodiles, for whom the refuge was established. The other creatures who make it their home are just happy upshots, they found the reserve to be a suitable and pleasant place for themselves as well. But the lagoon was fenced off to protect the crocodiles. These are big boys! Again it's hard to believe so many hang out in this narrow mangrove lagoon, but I've seen 20 or more sharing a small piece of sand to sun themselves. I'm so clever, I call this series of two pics, "Croc pot." :)
Now we add a little unfortunate fish to the croc pot ... but if you notice, he is a rather toothy fellow himself. Reminds me of Star Wars movies where no matter how big and scary one carnivorous creature is, there is always a larger one who comes and gobbles up the first one.
And now a collection of crocodiles showing us their best sides.
Now the iguanas, which I find consistently fascinating -- simultaneously mesozoic and medieval, representing great ancientness and evolution, but looking as if he's wearing a knight's suit of chain-mail armor. Though to be sure, any knight wearing such flashy colors on his armor would have been mercilessly teased. This male iguana particular amused me getting all jiggy with this twig. First he looked like he was dancing with it and then he climbed up it and showed me his belly, which I don't normally get to see on these guys who are usually scampering around on the tree limbs.
Traffic jam in the trees! Move it, Bubba!
And now the iguanas want to show off their best sides, too. I definitely consider their tongues one of their best, if slightly creepy, sides.
Just like when I'm in Africa on safari, my favorite photos are always ones in which different species of animals are hanging out together. Here are some brave birds casually strutting along the shore next to the crocodiles. I guess you gotta do your business even in dangerous waters.
A couple other birds to show ... the ubiquitous white egret and the somewhat more rare boat-billed heron. Its cousin the green heron hangs out here, too, but they are typically elusive to me. Maybe next time!
And lastly, a little turtle love.
Continuing our little safari in Etosha National Park in northern Namibia ... (see the last two installments: "Birds and Those With Patterns" and "Wanna Tussle?") now we'll visit another category of creatures ... those with tusks or horns ... in other words, those with sharp pointy things growing out of their head somewhere. Tusks grow from the mouth, they are essentially massive, elongated teeth; and horns grow from the head and are are essentially crazy fingernails -- made primarily of keratin, the same as nails and hair. I guess technically, they would be "headnails."
We might as well start with the big boys! The animal above which I love few others -- elephants! Those who have had the increasingly-rare privilege of living to old age are often called "tuskers" because of their large tusks ... they keep growing over the lifetime of an elephant. One of the most beloved beers (a lager) in Africa is Tusker beer. :) Naturally, I would know and be familiar with a side note involving beer! The first pic below kind of gives a sense of how the elephant really towers over his savanna mates. An oryx by itself (the creature facing us) does not seem a particularly petite animal. But he looks more like a toy standing near an elephant!
An elephant trunk has a staggering number of muscles. Typically literature will refer to either about 40,000 or well over 100,000 ... it depends on how you are classifying the muscles, whether larger muscle groups or individually. You get the idea either way, that the trunk is an appendage over which the elephant has exceedingly fine motor control, and with its prehensile tip, it can be used to do everything our human hands can do and then some. For example, we cannot store water inside our hands! Trunks are perhaps the most topographic and textured limbs on any mammal, and I think they are one of the most fascinating things one could occupy their time with watching.
In addition to sucking up water to release in their mouths to drink, with its Hoovering power they can also suck up water and mud to spray over their bodies in showers and mud baths. The dirt in Etosha is often a light grayish or chalky color. This guy is really giving himself a power wash!
Here is some interesting behavior we observed ... this elephant was eating a termite mound. First he curled his trunk all around it, investigating it and almost seeming to caress it. The he opened his mouth and started nibbling off the top of it like it was an ice cream cone.
Elephant love! Well, OK, as sweet and loving as this pose below looks, it's actually two young males practicing their sparring skills. Though they were tussling (see more tussles), it was not aggressive ... sort of that line down the middle between play and fight.
And now a much smaller critter with no less impressive tusks relative to their body size ... warthogs. Like elephants, both male and female warthogs have tusks. Besides looking for the requisite junk to determine the sex of a warthog, you can tell a difference by their faces ... down by the jaw, males have a third set of lumps -- the "warts," for which they are named. (This is similar to sexing a giraffe by the little horn nubs on their head ... the older males have a second set.) The warts are not actually hard solid growths, they actually store fat.
Moving on to critters with horns ... Horns are one of the methods Mother Nature uses to express some of her whimsical creativity. A lot of people on safari kind of overlook the antelope species, perhaps because they are typically relatively plentiful and don't have as unique or endearing characteristics as the iconic mammals of Africa -- elephants, rhinos, cheetahs, etc. My favorite antelope species is the kudu. Their corkscrew horns are magnificent. I just can't help imagining if the keratin growths on humans came in such wicked lengths and shapes as the keratin growths on antelopes. Imagine having corkscrew fingernails! haha.
The oryx have impressive horns, as well. Their shape may be nothing to write home about, but the length can be impressive indeed. Because of these great spikes on their heads, they make kind of an epic outline on the flat grasslands (giraffes are the only other animals about which I have this epic-on-the-savanna impression).
I've never seen a black wildebeest, whose horns orient a little differently, but blue wildebeest are one of the most popular animals on the plains. Of course, probably the most famous event in all of Africa is the wildebeest migration up in Kenya and Tanzania. This isn't that exciting of a photo, but it's one of the very few I've taken in which the animals' faces are somewhat visible. So often their dark snouts and eyes make them look like faceless black masses. I think professional photographers must have a special trick for capturing them where their faces are visible without blowing out their bodies into a white abyss.
This is one of my favorite photos just because it shows three very different antelope species getting along just peachy-keen fine. If only the human species were as tolerate and friendly as the antelope species. My favorite safari pics are the ones with multiple species in them.
Springbok are sweet little antelopes. One of the few antelope species in which, like wildebeests, both males and females have horns; the female's just tend to be smaller and daintier than the male's. This was the most plentiful species I saw in Etosha.
Below, we have a female black-faced impala ... these are actually a different subspecies than the common impala, and an endangered one. If you see a pic of one of these, it likely came from Etosha, their main stronghold. But apparently the population in Etosha is still only a little over 1,000. However, the Etosha population began with only 300 animals relocated there from elsewhere for their protection. So though there are more depressing stories of species losing the conservation battle than you can shake a stick at, this one is a success for Namibia.
It's an increasingly special experience to witness a rhino in the wild. I count myself extremely fortunate to have spent loads of time around primarily white rhinos, but also some blacks, in South Africa. And we saw this fellow, below, two days in a row in Etosha. For more on rhinos, including this guy and photos of the little tyke I saw in Etosha, see my "It's Come to This: Saving Just One Rhino" post. While it was nice to hang out with this black rhino, he unfortunately was not very healthy, he had been in a fight and was beat up pretty bad. Our guide didn't feel particularly optimistic for him. But we did see several other healthy ones at the water holes associated with the park camps.
African safaris are not cheap. Especially if you have to fly in from another continent. As with any type of travel, there are certainly more and less expensive ways of doing them. But when I encourage you and anyone else who has never been to make a safari a priority in their lives, I'm not flippantly assuming you all have buckets of money. I myself certainly don't! I realize most of us have to make decisions and priorities in our lives. For me, it's worth not eating out at restaurants at home and not seeing movies in the theater and buying my clothes second-hand to spend my resources instead on being in the presence of these majestic and unique and ancient creatures. And every year that passes I feel more and more drawn to them as their time on earth becomes steadily more precarious. I think that if I had infinite amounts of money, I would pay for everyone on the planet to go on just one safari and see these animals first hand. In my little private Utopia, this would result in the evaporation of indifference and apathy toward the welfare of these animals, which would necessitate solving the underlying problems that threaten the wildlife's continued existence, primarily the eradication of the endemic poverty of the people who live next to the national parks established to protect the animals. As it currently stands, very few of those native people receive sufficiently tangible benefits from the parks they (a) cannot even afford the entry fee into, and (b) are supposed to respect the resident animals of, while their family is destitute. The buyers of poached animal parts most definitely can easily make a choice whether or not to buy them, and carry a moral responsibility not to. The people who desperately need to feed their hungry family ... their choices are not so easy and clear.
But lacking the magical infinite pot of gold ... I hope you enjoyed following me on vicarious safari. :) Now we will enjoy our cold Tusker beer as the African sun pulls a sky of stars behind it as it sets.
OK, here's Part 1 of a little safari through Etosha National Park in the north of Namibia. I made one other post from here, "Wanna Tussle?" about animal interactions. But now we're just on safari ... in this article we'll see some birds and an arbitrary categorization of mammals -- those with patterns. I didn't have a great camera or skills, but it's just fun to share safari ... animal pics never get old to me.
So ... giraffes! The giants with patterns. When I'm around them in the wild I always feel such peaceful awe. They can certainly have their aggressive moments among each other -- fighting for females and fending off predators. But among the puny humans who crane their necks to look up the length of the giraffe's unfathomable neck, they are typically docile, staring dispassionately through their wide and gentle eyes, batting a set of long eyelashes.
They, above all other savanna creatures, compose an epic story of the landscape and the nature of movement. Humorously awkward in some poses, they display an unparalleled grace while traversing the wide open plains.
Walking to a water hole, the giraffe towers over the other thirsty critters with that grace of theirs. Then the grace quickly evaporates as soon as they have to bend down to reach the water! They scoot their legs out one at a time until they are sufficiently "tripod"-ed to reach the ground. When they stand up, they jump up and pull both front legs in together simultaneously.
A behavior not seen too commonly, this giraffe is sucking on a piece of bone ... a behavior called osteophagia. They don't actually eat the bone, just suck on it like a hard candy which releases calcium and phosphorous, which are both beneficial minerals to the giraffes, particularly in regard to their large bone structure. Makes me think of when I sucked on candy cigarettes as a kid.
And here is another animal with spots. My favorite spotted animal, actually. I just got a tattoo of one on my shoulder I like them so much ... the cheetah! This was only my second sighting of cheetah on safari and I was so excited I just about lost my cool over it. The guide, who expertly spotted these three young cheetahs eating a meal in the high grass, told me explicitly to "calm down." I was just a bit beside myself. My camera and lens weren't quite up to the task of capturing them as they were very far away and surrounded by the tall grass. But oh well ... I spent most of the time watching them through the guide's strong-magnification binoculars. These pics are hugely cropped in.
At first we only saw one cheetah head. Then a second popped up, and then a third. The we saw the blood around their mouths and realized they were eating a meal. Then they began licking each others' faces to clean them off. So cute. I sure wish I could have gotten some nice pics! They are likely brothers who have left their mom's care, as they will often stick together.
Now let's move onto zebras ... the most popular images of zebras are of a bunch of them lined up in a perfect line drinking at a water hole, and that does make for a damn sweet photo. Maybe someday I'll be lucky enough to snag such a shot. But I like this one for its chaos of lines and shapes.
Here's a mini line, I guess. What I like about it is the one zebra who's got his eye on me. Uh-oh! I've been spotted! At the time, I had no idea what the consequence might be for being recognized by a zebra, but it turns out it was nothing immediate. Hard to say what future hardships could be blamed on this incident. It reminded me of a scene that would exist in the Far Side world, though I can't think of a clever caption.
And now some zeebs hanging out in a small thicket.
Jackals are cute and wily and the little devils of a campground! In South Africa it was the vervet monkeys, but here the jackals were the ones to watch for. I slept outside on a cot in a sleeping bag (very awesome) but I had to keep my shoes and any stray bits tucked underneath my sleeping bag so the jackals wouldn't run off with them. One night a jackal came into our crib thinking he was going to score some yummy treats, but when he pulled the huge cast-iron skillet off the table he got a bit of a surprise ... it was a little heavier than he imagined and made a completely scary racket. Foom! Off he ran.
Birds are creatures I have not sufficiently appreciated until I started traveling to Africa. I still don't have very many photos of them, but there are some lovely specimens here in Etosha. The most stunning is the lilac breasted roller. I was also terribly excited when our guide spotted these fellas because I specifically wanted to have an opportunity to photograph them. Their coloring is so spectacular ... just imagine if we humans grew things on our body of such varied and vibrant color, like what if our hair grew naturally in a rainbow palette such as this.
Flamingos! These are such fantastical birds, by which I mean birds of fantasy and imagination and drunken tropical holidays ... swimming in rum punch along with toothpick umbrellas, and posing on peoples' lawns, and lit up in strings of bar lights, heck I even have floating candles in the shape of pink flamingos. Their plastic prevalence in festive atmospheres kind of makes them lose their credibility as real-life creatures. So it's fun to run into them in the wild just being hungry, feathered birds.
The tallest of the birds in Etosha ... the ostrich. Are they the tallest birds, period? Hmm, I don't know. Google it and let me know. I like ostriches, though I liked them more before I spent time around them in the UWEC and realized what ill-tempered and downright scary animals they can be! So I'd rather watch them from afar. Or at least from amiddle, in a vehicle that can outrun them.
The kori bustard is a healthy-sized bird, it can reach over 4 feet tall. They're pretty incognito strutting through the brown grass in their brown feathers.
The bataleur eagle, on the other hand, has a bright and intense face. He's a bit intimidating with his penetrating stare, or glare, or hexing gaze ... difficult to tell exactly what's going on behind those eyes -- calculations, curses, ridicule, pitying the fool ... haha. Who can say for sure.
A blue-eared starling. Also has intense eyes but they seem like just flashy wardrobe components ... they don't make me wonder what is going on in his little head nor ponder whether or not I should be frightened of him.
A dark chanting goshawk below. He sounds so sinister, chanting darkly, but he's light and bright and cheery with orange. But he's got a keen eye on somebody here ... methinks that lunchable somebody might agree more with the "sinister" idea.
OK, now it's time for yours and my lunch, to siesta after our morning game drive. We'll come back to finish the safari with tusked and horned creatures ... next post. :)
About equidistant between Andorra and Barcelona is the renowned Montserrat. It would be easy to visit as a day trip from Andorra; as it happened, we stopped by on our way back to Barcelona. Erik asked me, "So what is this place?" I'm not sure he was thrilled with my answer of, "I don't know, but everyone talks about it." And they said things like, "Oh, you must see!" And my Barcelona guidebook listed it as a top day trip to do from there. It just seemed there was a lot of hubbub around it, and I put it on our itinerary on that flimsy knowledge alone. I didn't research it beyond reading it was a place of pilgrimage for some, and that there was hiking involved in seeing it. I just noticed it was directly on our route and figured I would be silly not to stop by, at the very least so I would know what it was!
In our ignorance, we also had some confusion about where to go once we got off the highway and where to park our car. But we decided to just keep driving up and up the mountainside that rose abruptly and dominated over the plains. Imagine our pleasant surprise when we discovered Montserrat for ourselves. Now, some might call me a poor traveler for being so ill-informed. But this method of travel is a lot of fun, oh detractors, for the thrill of discovery. With no expectations, mediocre sites are cool, and amazing sights are overwhelmingly awesome and joyful to explore. Plus, there are no expectations to turn into disappointments. And so I present to you our happy trails around Montserrat.
Upon arrival, you see the Benedictine monastery nestled into the imaginative rock spires and shapes of the mountain ridge. It's like Mother Nature cupped her hands just to hold this work of man.
We decided we should do hiking first as it was already afternoon when we arrived, figuring we could see the inside of the monastery as the last thing in the day, needing neither sunlight nor warmth to enjoy. When we discovered the next funicular (yay! love funiculars!) up to the trails at the top was arriving in the next 10 minutes, we decided to head straight up, disciplining our growling tummies to have a bit of patience while we exerted ourselves. The tummies weren't overly thrilled with our decision, but we managed. At least we had a water bottle!
There are trails all along the ridges and cut into the sides of the mountain. It reminded me of visiting Huashan in China, with it trails along its five peaks and occasional hermitages for its Taoist monks to engage in spiritual contemplation. Here, a little church-like hermitage perches, kind of lonesome, on a ridge ... sandwiched between overlooking a vast plain and loomed over by a vast sky of clouds.
Paths cut into the rock are fun to walk along.
Making our way across the paths and up through the crevices in the rock -- which, to be honest, were a little arduous and slippery heading straight up the natural cuts in the rock -- rewarded us with some spectacular views. For a sense of scale of the mountaintop rocks themselves, notice that the two little colored dots on the rock directly below are people. (open any pic in this post in a new tab to see at larger size)
Inside the courtyard of the monastery ... one of those shots that took some patience to grab in the couple seconds in which there were no people in it. Even though I'm no professional photographer, it's still fun to pursue one's own idea of the photograph they want to get. Patience paid off.
And more patience inside the church ... Fortunately, worldwide, people tend to clump into herds at tourist sites, so almost always there will be a break between clumps if you can just wait it out. Pretty much the only word that comes to mind for most of the tour around the sanctuary is "gold gold golden gold." OK, if you've been there, you'll call me out on the fact you're not supposed to take photos inside the church. But you know, when you are surrounded, literally, by people snapping pics on their cell phones and cameras, you almost feel like a chump for being the only person sporting a camera around your neck who's not using it, just letting it hang there like a dead chicken. So .....
One day from our mountain base in Andorra we decided to strike down into Spain to see what we could find. Our only real destination in mind was the city of La Seu d'Urgell which is the home of the Bishop of Urgell, who is the co-prince of Andorra, as explained in "Ambling Through Andorra." We knew this wouldn't take the whole day, so we remained open to any sights that caught our eye to explore spontaneously. This day, Erik was the champion at noticing fun activities. On the way to La Seu d'Urgell, he noticed a sign along the road that said "Castellar de Tost." Seemed to us indicative of a castle, perhaps, and Erik was particularly drawn to it on account of it sounding like "toast" ... we have to check out the castle of toast!
So up the exceedingly narrow and twisty road we drove until we came to a lovely ruin, which though not a castle, we had all to ourselves. It reminded us of some of the ruins we explored in Ireland, just lying around so casually and randomly in our modern landscape. Such ghosts. Such fairies. You heard -- fairies. We're not new-agey people who see spirits and nymphs and angels and whatnot, but Erik will swear he was surrounded by a swarm of fairies at an ancient ruin we were given secret directions to on a napkin from a guy we got drunk with at a pub (see "Passenger" in my travel essays section for more on this). Anyway, the ivy-covered lonely ruins of Castellar de Tost gave us a distinctly similar feeling, though we did not actually see any supernatural critters. Yet, we did get an odd craving for a piece of butter-slathered toast.
By now we had learned that in this region, restaurants close by 3:00pm until about 6:00pm. So there is no such thing as a late lunch. We learned this, of course, through lessons the hard way. So as we were getting close to La Seu d'Urgell, Erik noticed the car's clock and had the astute and timley realization that if we didn't pull over at the nearest restaurant, we'd be going hungry. Fortunately, there was a huge restaurant kind of randomly just off the highway. Looking almost like a truck-stop, but it was just a large restaurant ... there were cars in the parking lot -- a good sign. We rushed in the door practically wringing our hands with anxiety wondering if we were too late. Nope, we were seated and menu-ized; we chose one of the lunch specials, which included appetizer, main course, dessert, and a bottle of wine (each) ... for a stupendously reasonable price, considering it's Western Europe. We kind of expected truck-stop quality food for such a price. But the appetizer alone was as large as a main course ... I had a delicious meat and bread tray that was so overwhelming, I can't even remember now what I had for the main course even though I did, in fact, stuff one down my gullet. Along with a bottle of wine. At 3:00 in the afternoon.
Then on to La Seu d'Urgell. A nice town in a wide, high valley among the Pyrenees.
There wasn't too much to see in the town, mostly I was interested in seeing where the bishop lived and ministered, since he is the co-prince of Andorra. I expected that the cathedral and abbey where he resided would be really opulent. I don't know why, just somehow having the additional secular power with his religious Catholic power, I envisioned a place of luxury. Like how popes, although leaders of a religion that teaches piety, live among one of the largest treasure troves on the planet in the Vatican. But no, his digs are very modest indeed.
The skies started to cloud over and we decided it was time to head for our home base in Andorra. On the way to La Seu d'Urgell, Erik had noticed a go-kart racing track along the highway. He said that on our return home he wanted to stop there, and I was all game. In Cabo San Lucas (Mexico) we had a blast riding 250cc karts on a track, and that's what they had here. Though the people didn't really speak English, and we no Catalan, we managed to understand each other on the important points through Spanish, hand signs and our familiarity with the basic process. Fortunately, we accepted the option to wear rain suits, because on our second race it starting raining vigorously. This ended up being a good lesson in how severely wet roads can adversely affect your vehicle. The first few laps in the rain, I was convinced there was something wrong with my kart. I beat Erik in the first race and now I was pulling the wheel the same way and yet spinning out left and right, and crashing into the median while Erik zoomed past me. It took me awhile to figure out what was causing the kart to behave so differently and then to learn how to compensate for the wet pavement. So, we did two races and split the wins. It was a lot of fun.
Here are a couple window shots from the car to give you an idea of some of the landscape we drove through.