Into the Wild, Thai Style Part 2

Ike took us on one more boat-birding expedition at sunset that first day before we headed for bed. Our hut had no solid window coverings, just flaps that you could prop up to let the breeze in, so it was essentially open to the bugs flying in and out at will. As to bugs on the floor, I think they kept it meticulously swept, but the safest plan was to simply not look. We slept on the floor with the equivalent of a yoga mat and a sheet and I spent the night imagining that armies of creep-crawlies were marching up my arms, around my neck, and straight for my face. Gah!

Sunrise the next morning was spectacular as we rose before dawn to be on the water at first light. As promised, Ike took us even further into the most remote areas of the park in hopes of seeing some of the rarer birds. Hornbills with improbable shapes soared over our heads, looking like pterodactyls.

A pair of broadbills—crimson red with bright blue beaks—lurked just out of clear camera range. A turquoise and orange kingfisher dove off an overhanging branch.We saw monkeys and macaques clambering in the trees, as well as a slow loris sitting very quietly, no doubt hoping we hadn’t seen it. A large monitor lizard swam lazily past our boat.

For our second night on the lake, we docked at a camp that made the previous night’s accommodations look like The Ritz. This was well beyond where the tourist day-trippers ventured and there were only a few other guests, fishermen, most likely.

Before turning in, I went to brush my teeth at the one and only sink in the one and only bathroom. There was no water flowing from the faucet, which didn’t bother me as I was using bottled water anyway. So I brushed and rinsed and spat—and felt water splashing against my feet. I peered under the sink and realized that there was no pipe connected, the water simply drained directly onto the floor. Such a no-fuss solution to the problem of plumbing.

WARNING: The following paragraphs contain graphic material that may be disturbing. Reader discretion is advised.

So, sometime during the night, the one and only toilet in the one and only bathroom got plugged up. Which meant that morning found a gaggle of rather desperate guests wandering around in search of somewhere to conduct their morning ablutions. Being the sole woman in camp, I was probably more desperate than most.

Before continuing, I must harken back to an email exchange I had with Ike when organizing the tour.

Ike: Are you okay with a rustic camp?

Me: How rustic is rustic? I’m okay with anything except squat toilets.**

Ike: Ha, ha! No, I promise, absolutely no squat toilets.

Fast forward to the camp with the only flush toilet nonoperational. Someone kindly points me down the hill to a corrugated metal shack. I have a strong feeling that I know what I’ll find inside, and yes, indeed, there it is, the hole in the floor, and a big plastic cistern and scoop next to it (this is in lieu of toilet paper, of course).

We are all stronger (and more resourceful) than we know, and I’m happy to report that I did survive the ST challenge. Poor Ike was mortified when he realized what had happened and apologized profusely, but really, when you choose to go “into the wild,” you just have to accept that things might not go according to plan. Adaptability is all part of the adventure.

**Squat toilet: A hole in the floor over which one is expected to crouch while…well, you know. Not uncommon in parts of Asia.

Ike is Ike Suriwong, The Phuket Birder.

Into the Wild, Thai Style Part 1

Cheow Lan Lake, southern Thailand

It seemed like a good idea at the time….

A two-night, three-day birding tour in southern Thailand didn’t seem so crazy. We’d hire a guide, he’d take us to birding areas that we couldn’t reach on our own. A boat. Oh, yes, there’d be a boat, as our targeted area was centred on a large man-made lake where the water was the only way to travel. And floating bungalows. That should be a lark—imagine, sleeping in bamboo huts actually on the lake.

And so, in all innocence, we left behind the comfort of our hotel in Phuket pre-dawn to climb sleepily into Ike’s SUV.

Let me pause for a moment to speak, with fondness and with reverence, of Ike. I can honestly say I have never met a more personable character in my travels. Having struggled for two weeks in Thailand to be understood (my fault, not anyone else’s, as I speak no Thai), I was happily gobsmacked at Ike’s perfect command of English, to the point where I had to stop myself continually (and idiotically) remarking on it. Not only did he express himself better than a good number of my acquaintances back home, but his birding skills far surpassed ours. Often during the weekend, we would be listening to a cacophony of sound arising from the jungle, and he would suddenly cup his ear, point, and announce “great hornbill!” And by gum, if we stilled our ragged breathing and tuned out everything else, we, too, could hear the distant, soft hoot. Then, more times than not, just to prove that he wasn’t just making things up, we’d see the tiny but unmistakable silhouette of a great hornbill sail off across the horizon. Add to his virtues a ready sense of humor and a genuine kindness, and you have a good picture of him.

We were not Ike’s typical bird tour clients. Although you can’t exactly call us novices, as we’ve been birding for something like 18 years, we’re more like developmentally challenged bird tourists. We enjoy going to places where birds hang out, we like seeing the birds, I like to snap photos, but finding rarities is not a high priority. On this particular trip, for various reasons, we were almost completely unprepared. Serious twitchers* arrive at their destinations with a list of target species, having thoroughly studied their intended prey, and well versed in juvenile plumage, alternate color morphs, and vocalizations. We had a dogeared field guide borrowed from the library and some binoculars. We had no idea which species were rare and which were commonplace. We were like children, oohing and ahhing at the pretty birds when Ike pointed them out, nodding appreciatively when he gave us the names. In short, we were pathetic. Ike took this in stride.

Back in the SUV, sun just starting to peek over the horizon on the first day. Ike had described the itinerary thus: “The trip will begin with a drive to Sri Phang Nga, birding at the park, afternoon birding in a different location, then a drive to the lake. First day on the lake, we’ll go for birds around the eastern lower tributaries and then the last day we’ll move to another substation deep in the heart of the sanctuary to search for the rare species. On the last day, we’ll drive back to Phuket after lunch.”

On that first afternoon, we were thrilled to see our first pitta. Pittas are small, (generally) brilliantly coloured birds that skulk in the dark underbrush and are so legendarily difficult to see that one fellow spent a year travelling around the world on a quest to spot all 34 species of Pitta (see “Calidris reads: Costa Rica–The Jewel Hunter). This particular bird—a Malayan banded pitta—had been somewhat acclimatized to humans by the simple expedient of someone putting out meal worms in the same place in the jungle at the same time every day. Even shy birds aren’t stupid and this one obliged by showing itself just long enough for me to snap some photos. As far as we were concerned, this “twitch”* already made the trip a success.

We motored across the magnificence of the lake in a traditional Thai longtail boat, awestruck by the vertical green walls that thrust out of the water around us, hills and islands in rank after rank disappearing into the distance. There is no development on the shores of this lake, which is preserved as a park, thanks to the revered Thai king who spearheaded the creation of the reservoir. We occasionally passed another boat, usually full of other tourists.

Grey-headed fish eagles, ospreys, and white-bellied sea eagles flew by or perched on tree snags poking out of the water. A wild elephant drank and splashed on the shore.

We turned around yet another headland and spotted our accommodations for the night—the aforementioned floating bungalows. All the buildings of the camp are joined together by floating wooden walkways cobbled together from old bits of logs and lumber, many of which are half-submerged and/or rock alarmingly when you walk on them.

Lunch was a typical Thai spread of baked fish, rice, veg, and fruit served up in the—you guessed it—floating diner.

After a heavenly swim in the lake, we were laying down for a siesta when Ike called us out excitedly: “Ice cream!” Although it seemed like it must be a heat-induced hallucination, sure enough, as we tumbled out of our hut and hurried down the walkway, which rebounded wildly with every step, we spotted the last thing we expected to find in this castaway location: a beaming man scooping ice cream from a big tub in his wooden boat. Apparently, he makes a daily run of several hours to bring the treat out to the camp. How he kept it frozen, I have no idea. You could have any flavour you wanted, as long as it was vanilla. And although I’m usually a chocolate gal, I can tell you, I’ve never tasted anything more welcome than that plain vanilla ice cream, eaten on a floating dock on a steaming hot afternoon in a remote part of a jungle-shrouded lake in Thailand.

*Twitcher: A birdwatcher whose main goal is to collect sightings of rare birds, i.e., “twitches.”

Ike is Ike Suriwong, The Phuket Birder.

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