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This year (2015) found me landing by plane in Barcelona, Spain, again. It was my 5th birthday abroad and an appropriate mini-anniversary since Barcelona was where I spent my 1st declared “Birthday Abroad.” The declaration means that from that birthday on, I resolved to ignore this ignominious and malevolent annual documentation of my age by traveling to interesting far-away lands, thereby distracting me from having to acknowledge my steadily advancing age.
Last time I spent a whole week in Barcelona itself, with one day-trip to Figueres. This year, Erik and I rented a car and drove straight out of Barcelona to other locations in Spain, Andorra and France, and returned to Barcelona for just one day before flying back home.
The title of this post, "The Masters Revisited," is in reference to a post I made from our earlier trip. During this year’s trip we completed the “Dali Triangle.” In 2011 we visited the Dali Theater Museum in Figueres … one of the points on the “triangle,” being his most famous immersive creation and museum. I outlined our time there in my post, “Museums of the Masters.” The other two triangle points, northeast of Barcelona, we accessed this year from Cadaques.
But first, by pure luck, we stumbled across Dali’s imagination grounds. That is to say, the coastline that inspired much of his visual thought and ideas – Cap de Creus. We had time to kill in the morning before our ticketed time to tour Portlligat, his home for over 50 years, (must take guided tour to see the inside of the home). I saw on our map there was a lighthouse on the Cap, and that’s really what we were driving to. I happened to notice a pull-out along the road where a number of cars were parked and there was a trailhead sign. I suggested we check out whatever was there. And so we stumbled onto this stretch of seaside whimsy, where the rock fashions itself into shapes that can be interpreted like clouds, and the eroded volcanic rock produces fields of strange abstract shapes and textures. You can really see some of Dali’s iconic elements of his paintings when you look closely at the rocks. It was very cool and quite an epiphany.
Decades ago, some … shall we call him a moron … purchased some of the land and built a Club Med resort there, desecrating Dali’s organic muse. But about 10 years ago it closed down, and in a heroic effort by locals, was completely, utterly dismantled. Everything torn down and carted away to restore the natural shore lands. Impressive and a testament to the local love of Dali to so faithfully resurrect his beloved coast.
So, for the second point in the triangle, we visited his home where he lived with the passion of his life -- his wife, Gala -- at Portlligat on the northern end of the Costa Brava. Beginning from just a small fisherman’s hut in 1930, he eventually built a whimsical home and grounds overlooking the sea. From the museum brochure: “Taking that initial construction [the fisherman’s hut] as a basis, he created his house little by little over the course of forty years. He himself described it ‘like a true biological structure… Each new pulse in our life has its own new cell, a room.’”
Here’s a look at some of the rooms, filled with things bizarre, interesting, pretty, disturbing, and a list of other adjectives. Above all, one could never be bored in these rooms … so much to look at and contemplate. Even the sparsely furnished rooms have their own unique level of contemplation.
The themes of bread and of eggs are prominent in Dali’s working and living environments. (see, for example, the roof of the Theater Museum in Figueres … we’ll see more eggs below in a minute) The picture of the farmer couple in the first photo below is reproduced over and over in other paintings and decorations, it’s even stamped onto a set of china, the plates and cups. (and p.s. - am loving my rented 10mm wide-angle lens for this!)
In this photo, I’m looking up at a clear plastic floor in which the cut-out man is lying face-down on, looking into the room below him. This really amused me.
And here, as promised, a variety of eggs sitting around the outside of the buildings and nestled into courtyards and gardens.
Do you see the Michelin man next to the pool? There was another one nearby sitting in a rocking chair. I really loved the tangle of fabric snakes winding (well, snaking) around the pool, and the sitting nook at the end of it.
I first walked by this guy on the ground, and Erik was standing on a platform above it. He said to me, “Can you see what that is?” I replied a bunch of bricks or something. He told me to come up to where he was. Looking down, you can see it’s the figure of a man lying down. From ground level, it just looks like a random line of rocks in the yard. Iconic Dali, of course, seeing different things depending on the angle of view.
Dali was a lover of cats. (hurray) And there were several wandering around the courtyard where they sell a small selection of concessions. We would see many, many cats in nearby Cadaques.
And the third point on the Dali triangle, the Gala Dali Castle in Pubol. Pubol is a small town and the cobblestone streets around the museum are devoted to its promotion, with souvenir stalls and paintings on the buildings. The painting here is one of my very favorites of Dali’s … I took a picture of it at full size (which is huge ... much taller than I am) in the Figueres theater museum and posted it back in 2011.
Dali purchased the small castle for his wife, Gala, “to create an oasis of rest and refuge.” When she died, he made her mausoleum in the basement … a room heartbreakingly bare for a creation of the typically excessive Dali – simply the tomb and four animal statues gathered at the far end. After her death, he lived in the castle himself until his health became extremely poor and his friends moved him to live at the theater museum in Figueres. The whole castle, in fact, felt very somber and sad. Dali always claimed that Gala was his muse, and it seems like it was genuinely true. Living alone, his surroundings were spare, lacking that lustrous creativity of Figueres and Portlligat. His artistic flamboyance was perhaps merely the expression of his love for her.
Mysteriously referred to as “the blue room,” Dali slept here. It was the event of this room catching on fire that prompted his friends to move him to Figueres. Can you spot the thing that is not like the other things?
This was Gala’s private bathroom … on the right you can see the edge of the fireplace. I thought that feature was pretty neat – a little nook with a fireplace in it and a bench at either end of the nook to sit by it and warm one’s self. I also like the succession of curves you can see in the mirror, of the fireplace and the opposite wall reflected.
And here are the small gardens and pool at Pubol. Compare to the fantastical setting at Portlligat with snakes and Michelin men. The elephant, though, there are several of these statues in a small hedge garden at the castle. I really like these elephants, and posted a photo of this recurring Dali image from the jewelry gallery at the Figueres theater museum from our visit there.
And now … though this post is getting rather lengthy (… to complete the parallel to my original "Museums of the Masters" post from 2011) I present some photos from another Gaudi museum we visited during our one day back in Barcelona. We were quite excited to discover there was another museum here, having visited the Sagrada Familia, Parc Guell, the Batllo and the Pedrera last time. We stumbled across the Palau Guell because it was right down the street from our hotel, just a couple blocks from the Ramblas. Stumbling across things is always a bit more exciting than visiting something already on an itinerary.
The “palace” was begun in 1886 and finished in 1890. Like all of Gaudi’s architectural works, it seems to me much more modern than that. According to the brochure (yes, I started picking them up again), "It is the only example of domestic architecture that Gaudi completed and that has not undergone significant alteration." I really appreciated my wide-angle lens here at Palau Guell to capture some of the interior settings. The first is inside underground caverns that were used as stables.
Inside this large atrium-like room shown in the first photo below, was an impressive organ which regaled the throngs of visitors at regular intervals with a song that reverberated throughout this room and around the many-leveled house. I didn’t realize, actually, how many levels there were until I walked down the stairs all the way from the roof to the ground level!
And now, what I think is the crown jewel of features Gaudi designed into the homes he was commissioned for – the rooftop. These are always magical places with fairy cones and sculptures.
And it’s amusing to me that these imaginative rooftops look down onto the most ordinary of courtyards … in contrast they seem almost appallingly plain ... apartment buildings with laundry drying on the balconies.
To think that just above their heads lies such an opulence of imagination and creativity. I do wonder, though, if the blessed inhabitants of the Gaudi-designed homes utilized their magical rooftops for such mundane tasks as drying laundry.
OK, my dear viewers, I leave you here … having glimpsed some more Gaudi and completed the Dali Triangle.
Please note another warning on the ensuing content -- lots of indigenous nudity, so if that offends you, please do not proceed.
The coolest thing I saw in all of Namibia was the scene at a gas station we stopped at in Opuwo on the way to Epupa Falls in Kaokoland. The primary traditional tribe in this region is the Himba, but others make their home here as well. We all got out of the vehicle to stretch our legs. While our guide was dealing with filling the gas tank and buying supplies at a convenience store, and most of the others were conversing with a hawker who sold necklaces to the few tourists who stopped into the gas station, I was fascinated with the scene around me and stood silently, almost invisible, against one of the gas pumps, where no one paid any attention to me. It was not a place where it would be appropriate to take photos, so I have none. But I’ll never forget it because I’ve never seen anything like it – such a mixing and amiable mingling of people dressing according to their traditional culture and ones adopting completely Western attire. Typically this choice of fashion is indicative of an overall mindset, and Western and traditional don’t always mix so well. But walking in and out of this small grocery store at the gas station were (a) barefoot Himba people in completely traditional dress with their red-ocher skin and elaborate hairstyles; (b) people from the Herero tribe whose traditional dress was clearly colorful fabric and large cloth hats in the shape of bullhorns or a banana – one woman got into her little pickup truck and her hat was so wide that the tip stuck well out of her window, she tried to roll it up but could not proceed beyond her hat; (c) people of an Angolan tribe (we were very near the border) with long hair separated into many narrow braids; (d) native people dressed completely in Western garb with shorts or jeans, a shirt and shoes, and close-cropped unremarkable hairstyles; and (e) a sprinkle of white people, which at that time was only our own small crew of seven. It was truly a glorious cultural mixing pot. I was so enthralled with that scene I really hated to get back in the truck and leave.
Before I left for Namibia, in a conversation with my friend, Laura, a regular traveler to Africa, I had just returned from Iran and was soon to leave for Namibia, and I was talking about the discomfort of having to be so covered up in Iran with the long pants, long-sleeved shirt and headscarf and how other women wore a full black chador; Laura said, “And when you go to Namibia, women will be pushing shopping carts around topless.” Indeed, having visited these two countries back to back was quite hilarious to witness the difference in women’s “modesty.” This is precisely why I am passionate about traveling the world … the differences among both geography and humanity are so monumental, so fascinating, so stunning in their polarity, I simply can’t bear not to discover and witness them myself.
But the traditional cultures in Namibia are at a crossroads -- with tradition on one side and modernization, which in my opinion is basically synonymous with homogeneity, on the other. Both the Himba and the San can earn a living by showing their traditions to tourists … as I showed in my post about the San living museum, and we were in Kaokoland to photograph the Himba – this is accomplished by finding someone who knows a local chief and can strike a deal in which the tourists bring specified gifts in return for being allowed into that clan’s kraal to photograph the people inside as they basically just go about their daily chores. So it’s different than the living museum the San have created. Nonetheless, in my opinion, these opportunities are valuable to the locals. They provide desperately needed income in endemically impoverished regions, and I think there is inherent value in preserving traditions even if they eventually become only for show, this is better than losing them altogether. At this unique moment in time, the Himba who choose to keep the traditional lifestyle are doing so for themselves, their own free choice of lifestyle which they simply allow visitors to glimpse.
It’s hard to know how to feel about this crossroads … how to give people on each side their rights and dignity, and my respect and support. Right or wrong, I admit my prejudice against the shedding of traditional culture. So you will nearly always find me enthusiastically portraying the traditional, though occasionally I turn perhaps hypocritical in disagreeing with some customs I find intolerably barbaric.
Anyhoo … let’s get on with some illustrations of the different lifestyles the Himba engage in. First, the traditional – where we were allowed inside one clan’s kraal. We had a translator, a local Himba lady who no longer lives in a kraal or dresses traditionally, and works in the local tourist industry (in a hotel and as a translator/guide). As we walked around, she explained to us what we were witnessing, so we weren’t just stumbling ignorantly around the kraal, which is good because it was important to know, for one thing, not to step over a fire – they’re sacred to the Himba.
The first people we met were the chief and the eldest of his three wives. The chief was basking in the sun in a chair, and his wife was weaving a small basket from dried grass. Notice her elaborate hairdo. The long clay-packed braids with the tufts of hair at the bottom are part of every woman’s hairdo, but the rest of it, the formations on top of their head, are designed by each individual according to their fancy as they grow older. Really fascinating.
This gal was making a porridge with mealie, a type of corn flour, over a fire. The flour is one of the gifts we brought, along with Vaseline … in the past the Himba used a natural emollient to mix with the red clay to make their skin coating … that beautiful red coating that makes their skin look like silk. Now, it’s easier just to mix in Vaseline.
Here you can kind of see the elaborate nature of the women’s skirts. They’re made of stiff, hardened cow hide shaped into various patterns. They don’t really look that comfortable, actually, even though they are beautiful. But then, these are people who sleep on hardened cow hide mats rather than soft hide mats, and instead of pillows, rest their head at night on wooden neck rests. So I guess they have a different definition of comfort.
This is one of the daughters of the chief – everyone refers to her as a “princess.” Certainly an exquisite girl. These aren’t the best pics of her, I had amateur problems dealing with the lighting. But you get the idea how stunning she is. I have a string of photos of her when she's outside, looking askance one direction or another. It startled me to find the shot, second below, of the princess suddenly looking toward the camera for one frame in the middle of the series. In the bottom photo, she is sitting inside her hut.
And I totally adore the men’s traditional hairstyle. In the second photo, you can see they even make little caps for their braids. Ran into those chaps while in the “modern” village and the fellow in the first photo we met inside the traditional kraal. The other guy featured doesn’t have the traditional ‘do, but I loved his smile and friendly disposition.
And of course, the children … how dear they are. I don’t have much in particular to say about them, so I’ll simply present a bunch of pics for you. The first photo, though, does particularly amuse me, because somehow to me these kids in this pose look like they are a superhero team of veteran hero and sidekick, like a Batman and Robin … having just thwarted some evil plot and now looking off into the distance scanning the horizon for the next villain to vanquish.
I don’t know why this photo turned out so grainy, but in any case, I love it. A Himba kid inside the traditional kraal to whom I gave my sunglasses to try on ... just looks like such a badass.
So at this crossroads in time and choice of lifestyle, it was encouraging to see children on both sides playing together. The people who have crossed the tracks and live now on the other side, outside a traditional kraal, dressed in Western clothing, still live nearby (they haven't all just moved to cities). In this case, there is a village right next to the small swath of tourist lodges along the edge of the Kunene River at Epupa Falls. We couldn't go back to the traditional kraal in the afternoon, which disappointed me, so our guide arranged for a local to take me and a couple others for a walk through this "modern" village nearby, where the children were at first willing to be in front of the camera lens, but soon were all-out clamoring for the attention.
This girl in the foreground, below, floored me with her poise and beauty in this shot, for such a young child. At first she seemed a little shy, her smile reserved, until her mom asked me to take a photo of them together, and then she opened up a generous smile. Her little pal was quite the silly jokester. Nearly every photo I have of the girl in the background, she is making some silly or hilarious face ... this (and the photo above) were her few calm moments.
But now comes the conundrum of the crossroads, something I’ve struggled with for as long as I can remember. The first time I really confronted the issue was when I read Vine DeLoria’s book, The Noble Savage. It shocked and disillusioned me … my own sense of what I thought was right -- my sense that tradition trumped everything, its cultural value surpassed the value of everything else. As a general rule, my travel blog is for sharing what I see and hear (learn) while traveling, not for long discourses on cultural and anthropological theories or the complexities of wildlife and habitat conservation. But they are topics of interest to me. So let’s just stick to the visual presentation. I'll comment only that I personally found it hard to appreciate the "modern" village as much as the traditional kraal.
First, here are a couple domestic animals we ran into … a pig at the water’s edge, and a photo I just really love of a lone chicken strolling down the road (rather than across it). Does anyone ever ask why the chicken walked down the road?
This is a scene from the non-traditional village. In the second photo, if you can’t quite make it out, the mound beside the trash can is a mound of beer bottles.
These people offered us a drink of their homemade liquor. “Take just a tiny sip,” the guide said. At first I thought he said that for my own benefit because it was strong; later I considered it was probably because it might have been rude to drink too much of their hooch which had been offered for free. It tasted better than I thought it would.
Our local guide told me alcoholism is a big problem for Himba people who leave their traditional kraals. One unfortunate upshot, for example, is that crocodiles live on the banks of the Kunene River and he said it’s not uncommon for locals to get eaten because they’re so drunk they do ridiculously dumb things like try to swim across the river, or they fall out of their canoes because they’re too drunk to paddle. Why more of a problem for those who leave the traditional setting? Largely because of unemployment. Once they leave their traditional lifestyle of keeping livestock, they don't always find something else to do, so I guess boredom comes into play.
The marula tree grows across southern Africa and the fruit is often made into liquor. In fact, my favorite liquor in the whole world is amarula made in South Africa. It's a cream liqueur and delicious on ice or poured on ice cream! Anyway, I've even heard of animals getting drunk from eating overly ripe marula fruit. The local fellow told me that the Himba use marula oil (made from the fruit seeds) when pregnant women are not feeling well or worry they might be having problems with their baby ... they rub the oil on her stomach.
The woman below is not Himba, she’s from an Angolan tribe; and the man below was very accommodating when we asked to take his picture. I just love friendly people. Should I ever run into you on the street and you ask to take my picture, though it wouldn’t make a good one, I will always agree. :)
So my visit to the Himba culture, both traditional and changing, was brief, but it was an experience I'll never forget. The primary reason I wanted to go to Namibia was on account of the traditional cultures still existing. That ended up in meeting the Himba and the San. Originally I had thought to make this post about both Himba and San "at the crossroads" because the San of course are dealing with change, as well. But I think that would make this post overwhelming ... there are already 34 photos! So will save that bit for another time.
As the title suggests, Maui is an amazing island for its beauty and diversity in landscape and ecosystems. Most places and I are friends, but Maui and I have a special relationship wherein momentarily we were pitted against one another as foes. Though, me against Nature ... hardly a fair battle. I lost. But we'll get to that in a minute. Having been to Maui twice in recent years (three times total), I decided to post a roundup of my time there. If you haven't already been, maybe you'll see something here that nudges you to go.
Naturally, Maui is ringed by superb coastline and abundant marine life. Beaches are probably the first thing to spring to mind when the word "Maui" breaches your consciousness. So let's start instead with the more surprising features ... or the ones that surprised me, anyway.
Haleakala volcano. Visiting Haleakala was definitely a major highlight on Maui for me.
Our first glimpse of the extinct volcano came during a helicopter ride. We flew over the huge caldera. But truthfully, this is the least impressive view in my opinion. Hard to get a proper sense of scale and mystery or to feel its surreal nature.
The summit of Haleakala is above 10,000 feet. And it rises all the way from sea level straight up to that height, which is most impressive. Driving to the summit from the coast, you pass through several different ecosystems as well as drastically different climate. We started at the coastline at about 78 degrees, half way up we were engulfed in a fog bank and the thermometer registered 54 degrees. When we emerged at the summit, the sky was clear blue above us and 66 degrees. What was so cool is that huge blankets and towers of clouds lay below us as if we were in an airplane.
We hiked a short distance down into the caldera. It was a very surreal landscape. Apparently, you can actually camp down inside. The trail snaked back and forth traversing down the side of the volcano. Our shadows were amusingly elongated, much taller than our actual height. Clouds came and went with extreme rapidity. Sometimes you could see into the bottom of the caldera, then within minutes it would be completely obscured. Then just minutes later, voila! There it is again. Like a gigantic game of peek-a-boo. One time Erik and I sat down to take a self-timer photo and the clouds moved in like a sentient menace, something you'd read about in a Stephen King novel ... so quickly it was like the sky was breathing on us. Envision how fast you can see your breath travel on a cold winter's day ... we were so engulfed in this gray breath we could barely see the ground at our feet. The sun was obliterated. We sat silently in a creepy kind of awe. Then minutes later, the clouds thinned, the sun pierced through, one dagger of light at a time. And then it was sunny and cheerful again.
There is a plant that lives inside the volcano and around the summit which is found nowhere else on earth except on the Haleakala and Mauna Kea volcanoes! It's the silversword, and I guess you can see how it got its name. They can live up to 90 years and they only flower once. Ever. Just once, and then they die. But look how spectacular their one moment of flowering glory is. That plant is amost as tall as I am (5'5").
The bamboo forest. This was so neat ... a path through huge bamboo shoots. It was visually enchanting, but also acoustically unique. The sound of the bamboo swaying gently in the breeze made kind of a creaking, knocking sound which echoed through the forest. Such a sense of mystery, as you can't see anything around you except the bamboo. But when you reach the end, a glorious surprise awaits you. Though, I'm going to spoil the surprise with a photo of the impressive waterfall. Even so, it is so much more impressive in person ... the sight, the sound, the feel of the spray, the smell of the foliage. You will still be surprised.
The Road to Hana ... a waterfall mecca. I was familiar with the road to Hana by name. Probably my dad and I drove around it when we visited the island in 1991, but I remember little from that trip, mostly the snorkeling. Everyone raves about the road to Hana. OK, so we had to check it out. And it's truly lovely. If we could clear away all the vehicle traffic, it would be a motorcyclist's dream ... a continuous snake of tight twists and turns. Beyond the fun road and the lush green iconic tropical landscape, the most compelling feature is the abundance of waterfalls. Here's a little sampler of some of the waterfalls available to visit. Some of these are just off the road, some you have to hike a little ways to reach, and some are on the trail to the bamboo forest (which is along the Hana road).
Helicopter Ride. We gained a special bird's eye view of some waterfalls when we flew over the island in an open-door helicopter. This was a pretty cool experience to see the island from above.
Ocean Aquarium. Being on an island surrounded by underwater wildlife, with tons of snorkeling and scuba diving opportunities, I actually didn't expect to find an aquarium. But it's a pretty nifty place - went there twice. (also a nice gift shop if you're souvenir or Christmas shopping). This first fish below was so amusing to watch ... he was exceedingly friendly (or hungry?) and kept coming up to us with that huge grin on his face. I kept thinking, "Hey hey hey, it's Fat Albert!"
Lavender Gardens. And who could resist a place called "the lavender gardens?" There are indeed acres of this heavenly-scented plant high up on a hillside that overlooks the ocean, and if you want any kind of lavender-scented or lavender-flavored product, this is the place for you! Additionally, the grounds contain a nice botanical garden with many varieties of flowers, bushes and trees beyond the numerous species of lavender to be found. Unfortunately, I was a delinquent botanical garden guest and didn't read the little signs which would have told me what plant this splendid flower below represents. It's about the size of a dinner plate!
Lahaina is a sweet town with several tasty restaurants and lots of art galleries. My in-laws are the sponsors of our recent two Maui trips, and their favorite things are Lapperts ice cream - which we have several times during the course of a trip - and the magic show, "Annabelle and Warren." A massive banyan tree fills a courtyard downtown which is usually filled in the daytime with arts and crafts stalls.
And now finally to the coast. A beautiful but dangerous place is the Olivine Pools. It's a steep but interesting hike down from the road to the pools through corridors of eroded lava rock. The red mineral stripe is a striking feature. Here is where the ocean and I faced off.
And you can see here who was the loser in my tussle with the ocean ... that would be me on the left in the photo below. (and there are more bandages you can't see beneath my clothes) But I got to see something most tourists don't -- the hospital emergency room! You can read the whole story of my experience at what we came to call the Olivine death pools. If you can believe it, I hiked all the way to the waterfall at the end of the bamboo forest like this.
And out of all these ethereal, powerful, surreal sights and experiences, what is my favorite thing about being on Maui? Being in my own little hotel room in the mornings. The in-laws have scored a scrumptious condo unit right on the shore in an area not overrun with hotels and timeshares. A peaceful place where ... and here is the best part ... I wake up in the morning, go out on the balcony and watch sea turtles swim along the shoreline. It's so neat. And if you go swimming, they will often pass right by you. It's amusing to watch other people in the water from above them on the balcony and see how close a turtle is to them, half of them don't even notice! Here is the view from the balcony, panning left to right -- you can see how clear the water is, making the sea turtles so easy to spot.
And one last special thing I experienced on my most recent visit (August 2014) was the fabled "green flash!" Just as the sun dipped completely into the ocean there was a green flash that lasted only a fraction of a second. Every night wherever we ate dinner, we got a table with an ocean view hoping to witness this extremely rare phenomenon. What are the odds, right? But our last night we saw it. I almost wouldn't have believed it except a bunch of the waitstaff saw it also and everyone was exclaiming over it. So clearly, it wasn't just our imagination. Great ending to another great vacation.
I wrote this post as part of the #JustOneRhino travel bloggers campaign to support the Rhinos Without Borders initiative. The campaign is now over, the donation period has ended and travel prizes have been awarded. So I've removed those details from the bottom. You can still support the Rhinos Without Borders project directly.
It's been my immense privilege and pleasure to see both white and black rhinos in the wild in Africa. They are, to me, one of the most prehistoric-looking mammals on the planet. It's hard for me to call them "attractive," but rather, "fascinating." Utterly. Amazing creatures, and amazing survivalists.
Almost every day while I was volunteering taking census data in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi National Park in South Africa in 2010, I ran into a rhino, and usually more than one. All of my most heart-pounding adventures on foot were courtesy of rhinos. I think probably my fingerprints are still embedded in the skin of the ranger's forearm from the day when a black rhino charged a small group of zebra, who scattered, and then headed for the two of us. My ranger was, in the most literal sense, gripped by fear -- not because he was afraid but because wide-eyed, terrified me was gripping him so tightly. Clearly, we survived, but not before I lost about a pound in sweat.
Black rhinos are notoriously cranky and capricious. Though they are a bit smaller than white rhinos in body size, their ill temper can project them into more intimidating creatures. The difference between white and black rhinos has nothing to do with color, but mostly with body shape and eating habits. Black rhinos, such as the fellow below (in Etosha NP, Namibia) have a smaller, rounder head and a slightly prehensile upper lip; they are browsers, meaning they eat mostly leaves from low-growing bushes and trees. Their lip can grasp the branches so they can better strip the leaves.
White rhinos, on the other hand, are grazers ... they eat mostly grasses and have a longer head -- positively colossal -- with a very wide square upper lip ... I think of it kind of like a front loader, helping shovel in those short grasses off the ground.
These are the guys I ran into most often while walking through Hluhluwe-iMfolozi NP (HiP) in South Africa. Rhinos taught me how difficult it can be to obey orders from a ranger who is telling you not to move when all your adrenaline-soaked body wants to do is run like hell. Because rhinos have poor eyesight, it's best to stand still and pretend to be a tree unless you can find an actual tree to climb. Let me just tell you, you really have to fight your impulses to stand there and stare down a snorting multi-ton creature with a three-foot horn pointed at you. But when you do ... oh my, what exhilaration.
HiP is responsible for bringing back the white rhino population from nearly beyond the "brink" of extinction -- like, the rhinos were circling the drain with one foot already in it. It was an astounding accomplishment and wrote such an optimistic chapter in the annals of wildlife conservation. But the face of conservation had to change ... Africa's national parks became battle grounds. I remember reading, when I was a teenager in the 1980s, about Richard Leaky taking what then seemed a bold and drastic stand: forming paramilitary troops within national parks in Kenya who could execute poachers on sight. Now this military approach is a mandate if we are to offer meaningful protection for Africa's wildlife, and especially for the rhino species.
Right around 2010, rhino poaching in South Africa began to increase exponentially. When Erik and I were in Kruger, we saw truckloads of armed men driving down the roads. Usually if you see armed men roaming around, they are armed to protect, defend or assault humans for the sake of humans, but here we realized it was to protect animals. When I was volunteering in HiP, at first I thought our rangers had rifles to protect them and us from dangerous wildlife, but no, in fact the primary purpose of their weapons is to engage poachers and "eliminate" them when they are directly threatening wildlife. Think these militaristic measures are excessive? Poachers are paid to kill humans who stand in their way -- it's kill or be killed. A friend of mine interviewed a ranger in Zimbabwe who recounts a harrowing day under gunfire while on the job. Watch the interview HERE.
This little fella below, whom I watched drink and splash in this water hole at sunset in Etosha National Park, Namibia ... yes, he, my friends, given the liberty to do so will grow into a magnificent beast. There aren't many instances in which I feel the word "beast" is the most appropriate description of an animal. But in the best possible way, I think it's awesome for a rhino. When you see a full-grown one trotting toward you, "beast" comes to mind with all the terror, awe and respect befitting such a title. But look at this little guy here ... still just a little lump of potential -- so precious, splish-splashing in the water, so sacred to nature and to evolution.
Do you know what their horns are made of? Keratin ... the same substance as fingernails. When rhinos are born, there's just a little patch of keratin from which a horn eventually sprouts and grows, and becomes lusted after by a voracious and ignorant market primarily in Asia ... it does not have medicinal or aphrodisiac powers, it's merely a wicked-giant fingernail. The only regrettable power the rhino horn has is to lay bare the worst in humanity, to flay us open and expose our mind-erasing, morality-erasing susceptibility to greed -- the greed of kingpins who hire the local poachers and sell the product -- and our failure to properly address the issues that nourish poverty, so that men are motivated to do anything to feed their family, putting their own lives at risk and decimating their own natural heritage.
I remember Erik and I driving around Kruger NP talking for hours brainstorming ideas on how to protect the rhinos, simply out of emotion for these creatures. The poaching situation is more complicated than it might seem. There is the demand, the supply, the bosses, the poverty-stricken locals, the high-tech poaching rings versus cash-strapped national parks, corruption. And then ... reading The Last Rhinos by Lawrence Anthony illustrates another dimension: the bureaucracy, which would be laughable if it wasn't so tragic. And so now we are faced with only options of extreme measures to protect these creatures.
This is where the #JustOneRhino campaign comes in, which I'm pleased to support -- an initiative within the travel blogging community to help raise money to relocate rhinos from South Africa, the epicenter of the rhino poaching epidemic, to a secret location in Botswana, currently a low-poaching zone. The Rhinos Without Borders project seeks ultimately to relocate 100 rhinos, in order to provide them safety and boost the rhino population in Botswana, but the cost for each relocation is about $45,000 ... a daunting financial challenge. So the travel blogging community has banded together under the banner of Travelers Building Change to promote the Rhinos Without Borders initiative -- for several months, a different travel blogger each day is writing a post on their website about rhinos and this project. Read an interview with the project founders, Dereck and Beverly Joubert, at Green Global Travel.
If you have enjoyed seeing my pictures of rhinos from my travels, I respectfully suggest making a donation. Honestly -- this isn't an overstated doomsday sentence -- the opportunity to share such photos with you in the future is genuinely endangered and may not exist anymore before I retire from traveling. Rhinos aren't the only endangered species in Africa (and Africa is not the only continent with endangered species), and we can't all donate to every worthy conservation cause. I wish I could, but I don't have the resources and I'm sure you don't either. So we pick and choose and hope that the combined efforts of caring global citizens will ultimately help all of these worthy organizations and initiatives. This happens to be one I'm supporting and one I committed to sharing with others in partnership with Travelers Building Change. Now that the TBC campaign has ended, you can still support Rhinos Without Borders directly.
This rhino's got her eye on YOU! :) She was one of the rescued animals who made the UWEC (Uganda Wildlife Education Center) her home while I volunteered there. A magnificent white rhino. The last census report I heard on the northern white rhino, a subspecies native to Uganda and DRC, put the population at five -- the number of fingers you have on one hand. That's it. We failed to protect them. Hopefully we can redeem ourselves in southern Africa.
Learn More About and Support Rhinos Without Borders
The donors to the Travelers Building Change travel prize giveaway were those generous companies listed below.
And now let's chase each other! I love how the guy on the left is about to slide out in the turn, all four legs angled out. There's a lot at stake, as the champion impala males will take control over a whole harem of ewes, usually somewhere between 15 and 30.
The ladies, of course, are far more sensible and have a drink together at the watering hole ... harem mates, I suppose.
In this case, the fella on the right looks at a bit of a disadvantage with only a single full-size horn -- the second horn is just kind of a stump. I don't know if it broke off or was a birth defect.
One morning we spied these adorable lions cubs playing next to a water hole ... pouncing on one another and tussling. First time I've ever seen this in the wild, so it was quite exciting ... unfortunately, at the very edge of my camera lens's ability to capture (these are hugely cropped in), but it was brilliant just to watch them, photos aside.
A masterful pounce .....
And a masterful paw in the eye .....
Most of the action in Etosha is at the water holes. My first night in the park, I was enthralled to find several bull elephants sparring with one another. They weren't very serious about it, just sort of testing each other out. But it was fun to watch their interaction. I'm not sure how to gauge their age except by their body size as the elephants in northern Namibia have much smaller tusks than those in East Africa. But other elephants were quite a bit larger than these fellows, so I'm presuming they were on the younger side.
Fascinating to watch the interaction of their trunks .....
Here a couple youngsters are rough-housing in a boggy marsh. One definitely has the upper hand on the other one! I completely botched the photo opportunity -- not focused and especially the exposure was radically off ... it's a little less distracting viewed in black and white. And the little tykes are so cute in any case.
All these instances mentioned so far were in fun or only preparing for more serious confrontations, or ended without injury. But ultimately, the animals play for keeps. This poor black rhino had really taken a beating. Sad to say, the other side of him looked almost worse. He couldn't put weight on his one back leg. On the encouraging side, we saw him on several consecutive days, so he was hanging in there. But I wouldn't call his plight optimistic. By the end, he was looking pretty worn down, even a little emaciated. Our guide said his most likely fate was that lions would get him, sensing a relatively easy take-down. It was sad, but of course we all know that's the way nature works. It's humbling, in a way, to watch it play out on these vast plains in such an ancient drama.
But to end on a little happier note, here are two white rhinos sparring at a game reserve outside Windhoek. They almost ran into the safari vehicle, they were so close, not paying any attention to us as they squared off against one another.
Hope you enjoyed a little peek at some of the African animal's world of encounters and interactions. One particularly amusing interaction I saw, perhaps the most amusing as well as startling, was at a water hole in Etosha where two black rhinos were posturing with one another. They'd been at it for awhile and suddenly a very large bull elephant who had been hanging out at the water hole sucked up a trunk full of water and sprayed it directly at the rhinos! It was as if he just reached the end of his tolerance watching them bully one another, and just said, "Hey guys, cut it out!" The ploy, in fact, worked.