Sacha Lodge: Amazon Adventure Part 2

Sacha Lodge’s canopy walk, 30 m above the forest floor.

When last we met, gentle reader, I was lost deep within the Amazon jungle, pitifully dehydrated and starved, surrounded by merciless headhunters and savage wild animals, swooning in the steadying embrace of my brave companion, as we faced, unarmed, the rapid onslaught of a particularly bloodthirsty-looking individual.

“Lemonade, madame?” he inquires solicitously, proffering a tray of iced fruity drinks.

This is the conundrum and delight of Sacha Lodge: there is no question that you are in the rainforest, light years away from any town. There are piranhas in the lagoon, caimans directly underneath the boardwalk upon which you stand, tamarin monkeys swinging nonchalantly overhead, and tarantulas within armsreach. Yet your weightiest decision is whether to choose fish or beef for your main course. I’ve always been more than a little timid about the dangers of the Amazon, but—as with so many things—once you’re actually there, it all seems exciting and fun rather than threatening.

That’s not to say there aren’t safety concerns. As we sipped those welcoming drinks, the manager gave us the orientation talk with all its do’s and don’ts. We were assigned two guides and given our own little tour group, probably because, being birders, we were the odd ones out. (Trust me, no sane person wants to be stuck in a group with birders.)

Our four-night stay was quite regimented: up every morning by 5 am when the guide knocks on your door. Breakfast at 5:30, hit the trail—or the canoe—at 6:00. The guides decide your destination. One morning, you climb the canopy walk (30 m of stairs). Another morning, you take a different 30 m of stairs to a platform atop a massive kapok tree. A third day, you might go on a longer canoe ride to more distant birding areas. What gets done when depends on the weather and the interests of the guests.

Back at the lodge by 10:30, you find that you are peckish (after all, breakfast was a loooong time ago), so naturally, there’s a snack waiting for you out in the open-air dining pavilion. Then a bit of leisure time before lunch, followed by more relaxation during the hottest hours of the afternoon. Take a swim in the lagoon, read, catch up on your sleep.

At 4 pm, you’re out again with your guides for more exploration, in our case, via small canoe up the various waterways (see previous post “Birding By Boat”) where the wildlife-spotting opportunities change constantly. Birding is a challenge, as the area boasts nearly 500 species, many from families completely foreign to us: antbirds, manakins, jacamars, woodcreepers, etc.

Hoatzin

The first day, we easily spot one of my targets for the trip: the primitive hoatzin with its funky hairstyle, clambering awkwardly through the trees. The next day, we find the boat-billed heron, huge dark eyes peering through the gloom. On the last day, I spot a massive anaconda on the bank less than a metre from our boat. And monkeys, always monkeys, noisily feeding and moving through the forest: capuchins, red howlers, squirrel monkeys, night monkeys, tamarins.

As darkness arrives, you head back to the lodge for the most formal meal of the day, when guests compare notes on what they’ve done and seen that day and wrestle with the aforementioned challenge of choosing between several tasty menu options.

Finally, you stagger back to your cabin and fall into bed, not minding at all that it’s only 9 pm. You might struggle to stay awake for a few minutes to enjoy the deafening chorus of night sounds, frogs, insects, and lord knows what else, competing to be heard a few inches from where you are laying your head, but you won’t win that battle for long. Before you know it, that 5:00 knock is tapping at your door.

“This is like summer camp for grown-ups,” my husband pointed out. I don’t know if he was referring to the early lights-out, the structured, supervised activities, or the joy of being outdoors all day, every day, but overall, I think he hit the nail on the head. It wasn’t all fun and games—hiking in stifling heat and humidity while giant carnivorous flies attempt to harvest chunks of your flesh right through your clothes is not my idea of a good time—but it was all worth it. Sacha Lodge provides a superb adventure for those of us who dream of the Amazonian jungle but like our comfy beds at night.

Do’s and Don’ts for Sacha Lodge

  • Do not forget to count your malaria pills before you leave home. (See previous posting “Malarial Muddle.”)
  • Do not forget to stock up on high-powered insect repellent before you leave home. You may not find any in Quito.
  • Do not worry about being clumsy when climbing in and out of the little canoes; I’ve already set a Guinness World Record for awkwardness that is unlikely to be beaten any time soon. Besides, the guides do take good care of you.
  • If you have the time, do take the car trip down from Quito to Coca rather than flying. It’s a beautiful way to see the mountains. You can fly back, so you don’t have to do the drive up.
  • Do bring a swimsuit so that you can enjoy the lagoon pool. Probably the only chance you’ll ever have to swim in the Amazon waters.
  • When the guide offers you a rain slicker, do not be brave or stoic or think you know better. Take the d**n thing or you will regret it. I was already wearing a rain jacket and a rain poncho and thought the one he offered would be extraneous. Wrong. Welcome to Ecuador, where two raincoats are not enough.
  • The lagoon at sunset.

Rebel With Claws

MY road. Photo by Marian Buechert.

One of the greatest thrills of African safaris is that you never know what you’ll encounter. You could cruise for hours, seeing little but dirt and brush, until you’re hot, thirsty, discouraged, and anxious to find a bathroom. What keeps you going is knowing that an unforgettable sighting might lie just around the next bend. Literally.

It had been that kind of day in one of the more remote parts of Namibia’s Etosha National Park. Being at the height of an unusually dry season, many of the waterholes had dried up and wildlife was scarce. We had heard that there were rhinos in the area, but many miles of slow searching had failed to locate any. When the shadows lengthened in the late afternoon, we turned our car wheels toward camp.

As we drove around a corner, I could see a patch of shade thrown across the road ahead. Something was lying in the darkness, enjoying some relief from the desert sun.

“Leopard!” I whispered with intense excitement.

On our first trip to Africa, we had not seen a single leopard. My South African-born friends warned that the spotted cats were notoriously difficult to see, much more so than lions, which tend to laze around in large groups during the day, not paying much attention to vehicles and their ogling passengers. Leopards, on the other hand, are nocturnal, solitary, and usually wary of humans. On this, our second African safari, we had caught only two fleeting glimpses of leopards hidden in the tall grasses.

This fellow, however, was definitely not hiding.

Assuming he would disappear at any moment, we stopped the car a good distance away and I snapped shots with my telephoto lens. The big cat looked unperturbed and showed no sign of concern. He had no intention of moving from his cool spot unless absolutely necessary.

Well, he was in the middle of our road back to camp, where we would be given a serious lecture and possibly even a fine if we turned up after sunset, so we needed to get past him.

We did what one does in these situations: we inched the car forward, stopping every few feet to take increasingly close-up photos of the still-recumbent cat. I eventually had to switch to a shorter lens because he was simply too close for my telephoto.

It is important to remember that in order to photograph wildlife, one must have the window of the car rolled down. Also that leopards are lightning fast, incredibly agile, and completely lethal. The closer we approached, the more I pictured myself lying flat on the seat of the car, dodging the talon-swipes of a leopard plastered against the side of the car with his foreleg stretching in through that open window. But there was no question of shutting the window; I was in the throes of the shutter madness that grips photographers. MUST GET PERFECT PHOTO the imperative screamed somewhere deep in my dinosaur brain, ignoring the danger signals blaring from the more sensible lobes.

How dare you disturb my repose! Photo by Marian Buechert.

So we crawled closer, until the leopard finally, and with a clear look of being put out, sat up. That was it. He sat and stared at us from a couple of metres away. So much for being wary of humans. His gaze was calm. I looked at his golden eyes and wondered what it would be like to be dinner, knowing those eyes were the last thing you would ever see.

At least now there was room for us to squeeze past. As we did, he decided enough was enough and nonchalantly wandered to the side of the road. For a short distance, he and we kept pace and we could see how perfectly his colours and spots blended into the dry vegetation.

Then we left him in peace and moved on.

At dinner that evening, I proudly showed everyone the photos. The waiter, a native Namibian, was keenly interested. He said he had never seen a leopard before, as he came from a farming area where, presumably, the cats had been driven out long before.

Later, I asked a wildlife expert why “our” leopard had been so cooperative. Probably a young adult, a teenager, he guessed. Cocky and full of himself. Too young and stupid to fear anything yet.

So it was just my luck to run into the James Dean of the African bush. I’m glad we both came out of it alive.

 

Disdain. Photo by Marian Buechert.

The gaze of a hunter. Photo by Marian Buechert.

 

 

Kakadu National Park, Australia

Cattle egrets fly over a billabong in Kakadu.

“You’re going to the North? What for? There’s nothing there but crocs and stinking heat.”

This was the encouraging conversation I had with someone from Queensland, Australia, when I mentioned that our next destination was the Northern Territory. Given that Queensland itself has no shortage of either crocs or heat, his opinion of the north was worth noting.

The answer to his question was simple, however: Kakadu. The park had been on my bucket list since we watched Kakadu: Australia’s Ancient Wilderness, part of the PBS series “The Living Edens.”

Recognized as a World Heritage Site for both its natural environment and its cultural significance (thanks to over 20,000 years of Aboriginal occupation), it’s one of those places that you don’t get to by accident. You’re not toodling along a pleasant country lane when you notice a sign “This way to Kakadu” and you decide on the spur of the moment—because you have nothing to do between lunch and teatime—to pop in for a bit of a look-see.

From the west coast of North America, we flew 17-plus hours to Cairns (in Queensland) and then a further 2.5 hours to Darwin, the closest town. We then drove 3 hours to get to the centre of the park, the little village of Jabiru, where we rented a tiny cabin for four days.

Yes, it was stinking hot. And yes, we saw lots of crocs. But we also saw thousands of birds, remote and unforgiving landscapes, peaceful billabongs, and awe-inspiring rock paintings.

Kakadu isn’t always this dry and dusty; we visited in August, probably the driest part of the year.

The magpie geese are plentiful and happy after a season of good eating.

 

Little corella in Jabiru town.

Sunrise on the Yellow River cruise.

Nanking heron hiding along the Yellow River.

White-bellied sea eagle enjoying her breakfast along the Yellow River.

Gum tree.

Great egret spear-fishing.

Big croc on the Yellow River.

Rainbow bee eater.

Billabong. Yes, as in: “Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong….”

Forest kingfisher.

Aboriginal rock art.

Rock painting of Tasmanian wolf.

Red-collared lorikeet

Loved this Wicked Campers Beatles tribute spotted in a Kakadu parking lot.

Etosha National Park

Rush hour at Okaukuejo

A few months ago, I wrote about National Geographic and how it has influenced me over the years. I vividly remember seeing the NG special Etosha: Place of dry water back in 1980 and being enthralled by the scenes of wildlife congregating around the waterholes.

When we planned our second trip to Africa in 2012, I was drawn to the idea of spending time exploring Etosha National Park. My research indicated Namibia was a relatively safe and accessible country where we could drive around on our own—as long as we carried two spare tires and glass insurance. The Namibian roads are notorious for destroying tires and windshields. We flew into the capital of Windhoek, picked up a rental car, and motored north to the park’s eastern gate, Von Lindequist.

So the deal in Etosha, as in many African parks, is that you can self-drive the roads without a guide between daybreak and sunset. You cannot go off the roads, but you can stop anywhere it’s safe to do so in order to watch wildlife or take photos. Outside of the secure fenced camps and very occasional rest areas, you CANNOT—and this is the cardinal rule of independent safaris—you cannot get out of your car under any circumstances. You want to stretch your legs? Tough. You need to, um, relieve yourself? Better practice holding it in. Because if you’re caught outside your car, it’s immediate expulsion from the park and a hefty fine. Or you could be et by a lion. Your choice. Oh, and make sure you’re back at camp by sunset or it’s also a fine.

Rules notwithstanding, self-driving is an exciting and rewarding way to tour Etosha. It’s such a vast area (over 22,000 km2) that even with 200,000 annual visitors, you’re still going to have lots of space to yourself on any given day. Compare that with Yellowstone’s 9,000 km2 and 4 million visitors per year.

We spent six nights in the park, three of them in the wonderful Okaukuejo Camp. Often rated as the best waterhole viewing in all of Africa, Okaukuejo looks like nothing much if you arrive when the animals aren’t there. It’s just a big puddle with rocky banks, surrounded by a lot of dry, barren land. You wonder why you paid upwards of $300 per night to stay in a chalet overlooking the waterhole.

But that’s before the parade begins.

First, it might be a bevy of dainty springbok, nervously stepping between the stones before surrounding the water and drinking. Then, a mixed herd of zebra and wildebeest, larger and heavier in body, wade straight into the pool and plunge their faces in. From a distance, you can see an organized line of oryx with their sweeping sabre-like horns approaching single file. A rhino or two might join the crowd. Majestic giraffes spread improbably long legs wide apart so their heads will reach the water. An eagle swoops down to a landing and dips and lifts her beak until she has her fill. It’s busy but calm—until the elephants barge in. Nobody argues with the ellies; most accept that their time at the waterhole is done and move off along the commuter routes, faint game tracks sketched in the hard ground. The great grey beasts own the place as long as they choose to drink, blow, play, roll, and muck up the water.

When they finally wander away, it’s the dark of night. You’ve been watching all this from the balcony of your chalet and now realize that $300 was well spent. Then a lion roars somewhere nearby and you think what it would feel like to hear that sound if you were not safe in a chalet, but camping somewhere out in the open. The whole pride—several lionesses and a number of sub-adult cubs—emerge from their hiding place and pad to the bank, standing side by side to lap in synchronicity. A hyena skulks on the fringes, wary of the big cats. Finally, a large owl glides in without a sound.

This is Okaukuejo. But Okaukuejo is only the first among many waterholes in Etosha. Your days run something like this: wake early, grab some food for the road, be in your car and ready at the camp gate when it opens at dawn. Putter down the gravel and dirt roads at a walking speed, searching, scanning the bushes, grasses, trees, skies as you go. Rainbow-coloured birds like the lilac-breasted roller and the European bee-eater could be perched on any twig and wildlife roams freely through the open country, but in the dry season, you can simply park beside any waterhole and wait for the animals to come to you.

When the heat of the day makes sitting in a car unbearable, you head back to camp for some lunch and a siesta, or, at least some shade time.

Later in the afternoon, you hit the roads again for the last couple of hours before sunset (circa 6:00 or 6:30 pm). As the sun nears the horizon and you turn the car back towards camp, intending to make the evening curfew with time to spare, you will inevitably come across some amazing sight—like giraffes in a courtship dance, or a huge martial eagle perched on a fresh kill—that you simply must stop for, such that you end up squeaking through the closing gate a few minutes after the deadline.

Apres dinner, you can stroll down to the floodlit waterhole to watch the nightly show begin one more time—from behind the safety of a large fence.

To most North Americans, Etosha seems like a remote and difficult place. “Namibia? Where is that? And why are you going there? Oh, to visit a dry salt pan. Of course….” For me, however,  it was even more wondrous than the pictures I’d carried in my mind for over thirty years.

Watch my short video of Okaukuejo waterhole here.

Have you finally visited a place you dreamed about for years? Did it live up to your imagination or disappoint? Let me know in a comment.

Lilac-breasted roller

Okaukuejo waterhole

Sharing the water

That water looks mighty tempting. Now, how do I get my mouth down there?

Springbok rumble

 

 

 

Australian Anomaly

Is there anyone who sees a picture of a platypus for the first time and doesn’t think it must be something dreamed up by a Pokemon designer? Come on now–duck bill, lumpy tail, webbed feet, furry body, and venomous spurs on its hind feet. That can’t be right. And what are we all told about mammals: that they bear live young, right? Oh, wait, who’s got their paw raised in the back row? Yes, Ms. Platypus…What’s that? You’re a mammal and you lay eggs? Then provide milk to your babies through pores in your skin? How…special.

Certainly, the first British scientists to see a platypus pelt were flummoxed by the strange little creature’s appearance and believed someone was hoaxing them by sewing a duck’s beak onto a rodent’s body.

I was still very young when I learned about the existence of platypus (or platypuses, but not platypi, although there is some argument to be made for platypodes and platypoda). They were mythical beasts from a far-off exotic country, in the same category as kangaroos and Tasmanian devils. Unlike many other fascinating foreign species, platypus cannot be seen in zoos outside Australia. (They don’t like to breed in captivity. Neither do I.) I decided then that if I ever made it to the Land Down Under, I had to see a platypus with my own eyes.

Not so easy, as I discovered in my pre-trip research four years ago. To begin with, they are now extinct in some places where they once lived, such as South Australia. According to Wikipedia, their distribution in the wild is “unpredictable” and “not well known.” While they are out there, they are usually shy, nocturnal animals. Being semiaquatic, they spend a lot of their time underwater in murky streams. TripAdvisor’s forum “Where to see platypus” was discouraging: “Chances of seeing them in the wild are slim. No—make that almost non-existent….[G]o to a zoo.”

When I read about Eungella National Park and realized it was within reasonable detouring distance from my planned route through Queensland, I was skeptical. Sure, they promoted themselves as a “haven for platypus,” but maybe that was just hype. In any case, with wild animals, there are no guarantees. What were the chances of an average tourist like me actually seeing one? I told myself not to get my hopes up, even as I booked a stay at the Broken River Mountain Resort, located next to the park.

After a terrifying drive up the steep mountain road in the absolute darkness of unlit wilderness night, my companions and I checked in at the resort, and were assured that the platypus could be seen, sometimes from the viewing platform, often from the river bank under the bridge—but only at dawn and dusk. We settled into our cabin, dreaming of monotremes in the morning. Unfortunately, it was winter, the park is at a chilly altitude, the cabins are heated only by woodstove, and all of us failed utterly at getting a fire going in said heat source. I piled on every piece of clothing I carried in my luggage, huddled under the blankets, and shivered my way to sunrise.

At least we didn’t need to waste time getting dressed before waddling down to the river. No one else was there. We visited the viewing platform, but nada. We wandered up to the bridge and waited some more. In my heart of hearts, I knew this was a fool’s errand. So I was astonished to spot a faint v-shaped ripple heading up river. Something was underwater, moving with purpose. It could have been a turtle or a large fish but, of course, it wasn’t. It was my mythical creature, as I clearly saw when it surfaced. There it was, duck bill, plump tail, furry body, big webbed feet, and all.

Over the next two days, we spotted the platypus several more times, always at dawn or dusk, always near the bridge. Mostly they swam by at a leisurely pace, coming up for air for a few seconds as my camera clicked away, then diving again, but once we watched one feeding in the company of a little pied cormorant. Platypus use their “duck bills” to stir up the stream bed and uncover worms, larvae, and other edibles. The bird would dive at the same time as the platypus, and often came up with a fish. My guess is that the mammal’s activity incidentally flushed out the cormorant’s prey, making the bird’s hunt easier. The oddest part about this was that the cormorant would peck the platypus, as if encouraging or harassing it to dive. Maybe it was just communicating. Whether the platypus benefited from this relationship was not clear. I see someone’s doctoral thesis on the horizon….

This video, shot within a couple of days of my own visit to Eungella, shows this fascinating behavior. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ocq2jq4I4t8

Seeing an incredible animal like this in the wild is a life-changer. You realize that there really are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. If platypus exist, then why not unicorns and sasquatches? Would they be any stranger? Who knows—maybe somewhere out there in some unexplored corner of the most inaccessible jungle there is even an honest politician.

Wild Animals I Have Annoyed

Elephants are majestic and beautiful. The babies can even be cute, with those little trunks and mischievous eyes, hiding between Big Mama’s massive legs. Awwww.

Elephants can also be very, very scary.

It was my second trip to Africa and I had already seen a lot of elephants. Elephants tearing up trees for lunch. Elephants bathing in rivers and rolling in the wet mud. Elephants playing or trundling across the horizon on elephant business. I had been extremely close to some of those pachyderms. Not that I approached them, but often when I stopped at roadside to watch, their meanderings would bring them near. They would continue doing whatever it was they were doing, clearly aware of my presence and about as concerned as if I were a small, harmless mammal, which is probably what I was from their towering point of view. They seemed like gargantuan but amusing vegetarians.

I had read all the safety tips for safaris and I never, ever left my car. So long as you’re in your car, the guidebooks say, the animals see you as a part of it and, since they have long since learned that cars don’t do much other than chug along well-worn tracks, they view you as neither prey nor predator and, consequently, of little interest.

As I drove slowly down one of the backroads of Kruger National Park, my car topped a hill. Below, about a hundred metres away, a herd of elephants was crossing the road. I stopped the car to enjoy the sight and to stay a non-threatening distance away. The group consisted of cows and their offspring of various ages.

As the parade wound down, the tiniest calf of all scuttled across, followed by the largest cow. I guessed that she was the matriarch of the group, bringing up the rear to make sure no one was left behind or nabbed by lions in her absence.

Maybe she was feeling especially protective of that newborn calf, or maybe she didn’t like the way my car was perched above them on the hill. Whatever it was, she turned in the road to face me.

Oh, crap, I thought.

All the signs of an elephant preparing to charge flashed through my mind. Direct stare: check.  Ears flapping: check. Trumpeting: check. Trunk swinging: check.

Double crap.

I threw the car in reverse and began backing up just as she charged. It is nearly impossible to drive rapidly backwards down a narrow, winding road while keeping terrified eyes on an elephant that is looming ever-larger in your windshield. Within moments, I missed the track and backed firmly into a thorn bush.

The elephant pounded up to the bumper of the car and stood there, swaying with menace. She stamped her feet so close that I was sure she was going to mash the hood. I wondered briefly if the damage waiver on the rental car covered crushing by angry elephant. She backed up and made repeated short charges at the car, trumpeting furiously all the while.

I remembered every detail of every photo and video I’d seen that demonstrated the destructive power of the great grey beasts—the tusk thrust through a window, the rolling of a VW Bug to the edge of a precipice, the flattening of a sedan when an ellie chose to make a joke out of reclining upon said vehicle.

I shouted to my companions: “Get down, and don’t look her in the eye!” as if the challenge of our puny gazes could incite this behemoth to any greater wrath.

The matriarch was shortly joined by a second, smaller cow, which ran around the melee, calling excitedly. I thought perhaps this was Big Mama’s teenage daughter, come to join in the fun of terrorizing tourists. Luckily, she provided a desperately needed distraction for the murderous matriarch. After what seemed like an eternity of close and hostile action, Big Mama turned away for a quick tete-a-tete with her daughter. Instantly, I slammed down the accelerator to send the car past the two elephants, and shot off down the road, in the opposite direction to the herd, needless to say.

Shaking with fear, I spent the next couple of hours reciting nonsensical expletives and repeatedly reminding my companions that we had actually just been charged by an elephant, like it would have somehow slipped their minds.

Do I still think elephants are majestic and beautiful and sometimes cute? Absolutely. Would I go to Africa again on safari? In a heartbeat. Do I want to see wild elephants up close and personal? Not on your life. But I wouldn’t trade this memory for a month of free nights in a calm, safe resort hotel.

Have you had a frightening encounter with wild animals while travelling? I’d love to hear about it.