Creepy Crawlies 3: Fiends From Hell

“The ants go marching one by one….”

Actually, they don’t. At least not when you’re talking about army ants, or driver ants, as they’re sometimes called. What they do is form marching “columns” that vary from a few ants in width to a wave pouring over everything in their path.

Until fairly recently, everything I knew about army ants came from two childhood sources: a 1938 short story titled “Leiningen Versus the Ants” by Carl Stephenson, and a children’s book, Alonzo and the Army of Ants, written by Murray Goodwin in 1966. In both books, the ants are portrayed as a horrifying, unstoppable force of nature:

“They’re not creatures you can fight—they’re an elemental—an ‘act of God!’ Ten miles long, two miles wide—ants, nothing but ants! And every single one of them a fiend from hell; before you can spit three times they’ll eat a full-grown buffalo to the bones. I tell you if you don’t clear out at once, there’ll be nothing left of you but a skeleton picked as clean as your own plantation.” [“Leiningen Versus the Ants”]

What better to titillate the fertile imagination of a child? Naturally, I was fascinated and frightened in equal measure.

When I began travelling to the tropics as an adult, I somehow believed my chances of seeing these fearsome creatures were about the same as running into a tiger. I mean, if they were that dangerous, surely someone would have got them under control or something. Or there would be fences. Or warnings. In Africa, you see signs about how to act around elephants and hippos. In Australia, there are crocodile warnings. Nowhere do you see signs warnings about army ants.

However, somewhere in my readings about birds, I learned that there are certain species of birds that follow ant armies for a very particular reason.

“During their hunt, many surface-raiding army ants are accompanied by various birds…which devour the insects that are flushed out by the ants, a behavior known as kleptoparasitism.[1]

Sneaky buggers, eh? But they get their just deserts, because they in turn become dessert for bigger birds—raptors—who also follow the swarms and prey on them.[2]

What this all boils down to is a bird photographer’s dream: a bunch of birds that are too absorbed in lunch to pay much mind to large lenses being poked at them:

“While focused on feeding on these invertebrates, birds at army-ant swarms typically allow very close approach by people—within 1 or 2 meters in many cases—often providing the best opportunities to see [and photograph] many of these species.”

In my case, I did things backwards (as is so often the case), stopping by the roadside in Costa Rica to photograph a roadside hawk (yes, that’s its actual name). After shooting from the car window, I thought I’d try getting out and moving a bit closer, as the hawk seemed absorbed in watching something and disinclined to move. I opened the car door silently and ever-so-slowly reached my foot toward the ground, always keeping my eyes on the bird. Until something moving below me caught my attention. I glanced down and realized we had stopped the car in the middle of an army ant swarm.

Roadside hawk accompanying army ant swarm.

Not knowing how many beloved ant citizens we had crushed with our metallic behemoth or what gruesome revenge their comrades would wreak upon us—Were they even at that moment scaling the walls of the engine compartment, breaching the flimsy barriers that stood between the ravening horde and our shrinking flesh, soon to pour forth with gigantic clacking mandibles from vents and other car orifices?—we elected to retreat to a safe distance.

That was a small swarm, just a few square metres in size. And we didn’t really see the kleptoparasites in action that day. Perhaps the presence of the hawk kept the smaller birds in hiding. Our next army ant encounter, however, provided a spectacular example.

We were staying at a small jungle lodge in the Yucatan. There were few guests, just a couple of the cabanas were occupied and the staff were usually nowhere to be found. As we returned to our hut after a walk, we spotted a column of ants moving along the main driveway. This group was about a metre in width and extended back into the jungle farther than we could see. Intrigued, we followed the ants as they marched forward.

They moved along steadily, searching everything in their path methodically and efficiently to find food. They swarmed up each twig of every bush and plant to flush out whatever was there. We could see spiders, grasshoppers, beetles, and other insects frantically leaping or running to escape. Some made it, others were tackled by the ants and quickly disappeared under the onslaught. You could actually hear the rustling of the vegetation as the ants moved through. It was mesmerizing and extremely creepy at the same time.

We began to see the small birds that accompanied the column. They hung in the bushes just off the ground, keeping close watch on the progress of the army. The insects that managed to elude the ants were often snapped up by the birds instead.

I was able to approach as close as I dared to take photos. The antbirds ignored me and the ants seemed to have little interest in us.

Soon the column entered the courtyard in front of the reception office, an open building in the tropical style. There was no one inside. As the ants fanned out to search the clearing, we realized they were also going inside the building. I wondered if this was unusual and if we should tell someone, but we hadn’t seen any staff members for quite some time.

Our main concern was to avoid being encircled ourselves. We figured we could easily outrun the army as long as we had at least one clear path, but didn’t fancy putting our feet down in the midst of those soldiers. We watched and waited as long as possible, with the ants around us on three sides getting ever closer, then we took our leave.

Later, we talked to the manager and he shrugged the whole thing off. The ant armies came through the property regularly. They didn’t bother people. As for them storming the reception building, he said, that happened a lot and was of no concern. In fact, he welcomed the conquering army, because the ants swept in, searched the building thoroughly and hunted down any resident bugs, and then quickly left without disturbing anything else. Sure enough, when we returned to the clearing, there was no trace of the column and no ants in the building.

The fearsome army ant: just a cleaning brigade on the move. If Leiningen only knew.


[1] An excellent Scrabble word.

[2] Apparently, there is no existing term to describe raptors that feast on army ant kleptoparasites, so this is your opportunity to coin a word. Uberkleptoparasites?

Creepy Crawlies 2: The Lovely

In my last post about multi-legged critters, I covered some of the scarier bugs I’ve encountered on my travels. This time around, I almost hesitate to use the term “creepy crawlies” because, to me, most butterflies, moths, and caterpillars are beautiful and not at all frightening. However, I realize that’s not the case for everyone.

A couple of years ago, I posted a photo of myself with a large cecropia moth clinging to my fingers. I was so thrilled to see this amazing insect up close, but someone commented “I’m terrified and you’re showing it off!!!” I don’t think she would have been too happy about another moth-related incident that happened during that trip.

We were staying in a nature retreat on a jungle-covered mountainside in Ecuador. On our first evening, we returned to our cabin after dark (the sun sets early that close to the equator). The kind manager had stopped by our cabin and helpfully switched on the light over our door so that we could find our cabin easily. Unfortunately, the light had attracted a cloud of moths and the door was covered with them. We had the good sense not to open the door immediately (it opened inward) or they would have all been inside the room. We turned the light off and tried to shoo away as many as possible, but we still had a dozen or so that flew in. Mark caught some and put them outside, but he couldn’t get them all. I spent that night dreaming of moths and woke up many times when a pair of fuzzy wings blundered into my face. (Apologies to the moth-phobic; they have probably run screaming out of the room by now.)

Moths, I suppose, are associated with nighttime, darkness, and mystery, whereas butterflies are more often classed with sunshine, flowers, light, and beauty. I’ve seen a field full of butterflies with transparent wings, such that you could see right through to the body and opposing wings.

I’ve chased the stunning blue morphos across fields and forests in Central and South America, trying to capture its beauty in a photograph. This large butterfly, although not rare and certainly conspicuous, is maddening due to its habit of floating around but never alighting for more than a nanosecond. I would follow it forever, waiting for it to rest with those iridescent lapis lazuli wings outstretched. It would land; I would tiptoe up, focus, and—gone. I finally snapped one in Mexico, but, of course, my mediocre photo doesn’t come close to the reality.

Blue morphos butterfly

Yes, sunshine, flowers, light. Oh, and did I mention mud? It’s a curious fact that these glowing creatures that flit along on the breeze are often found on patches of mud. I would guess that they are seeking moisture? Or maybe just cooling down? But Google turns up this interesting tidbit: “Like other animals, butterflies need salt and minerals in their diets. By sucking up puddle water, butterflies are able to accumulate salt and minerals in their hind gut while passing the water out their anus. This process is called ‘puddling’.” Who knew?

I’ve observed this behaviour in many locations, but most strikingly along the Napo River in Ecuador, where I spotted a gathering of butterflies whose wings were outlined in white, making them appear as if they were cut out of paper.

Before any of these critters were lovelies, they all started out as caterpillars, some of quite bizarre appearance. One can easily understand the concept of camouflage, trying to blend in with surroundings in order to avoid being eaten. But the marching line of neon-green-saddled caterpillars that I spotted on a forest path in Panama seemed to be doing anything but avoiding notice. The dark spot surrounded in white in the centre of the “saddle” pretty well shouted “target,” while the spiky protuberances covering the rest of the body warned “hands off!” Luckily, we took its advice and didn’t touch, as I found out later these oddballs are quite venomous, delivering a sting similar to a bee’s.

Outside a lodge on the eastern slopes of the Ecuadorian Andes, I walked past a ball of white fluff on the path, assuming it was a seed pod from a tree. Then I did a double-take, realizing I hadn’t seen any other similar puffy balls anywhere else in the vicinity (trees, when they drop seeds or leaves or whatever, tend to do it in multiples, not singles). At closer look, I discovered a fuzzy white caterpillar with long black “twigs” sprouting from its back. Was it attempting to disguise itself as something inedible, a fungus perhaps? Impossible to know.

Fantastical or fancy, moths, butterflies, and caterpillars are always fascinating and I look forward to photographing more on future travels.

Do butterflies, moths, and caterpillars inspire Ooooo! or Ewwww! from you? Let me know in a comment.

The surprising underside of a blue morphos

Creepy Crawlies 1: The Enemy

Purple tree tarantula

We were having dinner on the outdoor patio of a monastery in Trinidad when a gigantic beetle came hurtling out of the darkness and crash-landed in the middle of the food and cutlery on our table. As it lay groggily on its back, waving its legs at us, Mark reached out and deftly allowed it to hook onto his arm, flipping it upright so we could admire it before he escorted it to the edge of the patio and sent it back to its family and friends.

Encounters with many-legged creatures are not unusual when you travel in the tropics and not all of those critters are as harmless as a beetle. There are, of course, mosquitos, flies, roaches, and other pesky things that are nothing more than The Enemy: the huge, inch-long Amazon equivalent of a horsefly that managed to bite Mark through his clothing, drawing blood and leaving a visible gash in his shoulder, or the tiny flies that swarmed our faces atop a 30-metre high viewing platform in the jungle. They crawled into our eyes, noses, mouths, ears. They roamed across the lens of my camera every time I tried to take a photo. “Sweat beasts,” the guide informed us grimly.

The Yemenese cockroaches that shared my family’s first house in that country were of epic size and prodigiously robust. I remember them as being at least 2 inches long in body with antennae extending 6 or 7 inches beyond that. To kill one, you first had to slow it down by showering it with highly toxic insecticide administered with a pumped spray gun. When it was literally swimming in a pool of deadly chemicals, you could then commence beating on it with any sturdy object to hand, e.g., hammer or crowbar. Often, it would still attempt to walk away. Cockroaches will inherit the Earth.

Spiny orb-weaver spider

I have an ambivalent relationship with spiders. They frighten me in a primal way (and I probably frighten them in an equally primal way), yet they are fascinating and can be beautiful. Outdoors, and safely poised in a web, they seem less threatening, and I can cautiously admire. But when found indoors, and most particularly ANYWHERE NEAR MY BED, the thin veil of scientific detachment is torn asunder and I run screaming in the opposite direction.

Tarantulas have crossed my path twice. On the British Virgin Island of Tortola, Mark and I were walking back to our hotel at night, strolling a few metres behind a young couple. Suddenly, the woman ahead gave a little shriek and jumped, and then quickly moved on. When we reached the same spot, we saw a big tarantula just beside the sidewalk, moving very slowly. I looked down at my sandaled toes and imagined accidentally stepping on the spider in the dark. Many years later, when we stayed at Sacha Lodge in the Amazon, there was a good-sized tarantula hanging out in a tree right next to the boardwalk between the dining hut and our room. The spider had no interest in us gawking at it with flashlight in hand. It merely crouched in the shelter of the tree’s loose bark, waiting….

The Caribbean islands have giant black millipedes that are harmless but quite startling when they erupt out of the leaf litter right next to where you’re snoozing on the sand.

In Costa Rica, we encountered a praying mantis with its eerie alien face. I’m sure it was just minding its own mantis business, but I had the urge to snarl: “Get away from her, you bitch!”*

Finally, there are ticks, which love to fall on you as you stroll down an overgrown jungle path, crawl under your clothes, and commence to suck your blood. Nice, eh? The icing on the cake is that they also carry lots of nasty diseases which they are more than happy to share with you. So when I found a tick on my arm in Mexico, we panicked and did exactly what you are not supposed to do, grabbing it with tweezers and ripping it out. We then raced to the grocery store and tried to find rubbing alcohol to sterilize the wound. (Probably we should have thought of that before we tore the creature in half.) Unfortunately, when we asked the pharmacist for alcohol (in very broken Spanish), he helpfully directed us to the extensive selection of liquor, wine, and beer. Clearly, we were tourists and tourists always want to buy liquor, right? We could not get across the idea of alcohol as anything other than booze. I would have resorted to buying vodka and pouring it over my arm, but in the end we did find rubbing alcohol by wandering around until we spotted it on the shelf.

But don’t get ticked off by this description of the scary creepy-crawlies. There are also the lovely and the intriguing, which I’ll cover in future posts.

*Aliens, 1986

Panama Memories

With our recent three-week trip to Panama still fresh on my mind, I am sorting through some 1,500 photos. The best part about travel photos is that they remind you of moments from your trip that you might otherwise forget, and so I’m recalling the day-by-day highlights (and a few lowlights).

Highlights:

  • Howler monkeys waking us at dawn with their whoops and roars.
  • Plunging into the gorgeous pool at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort after a long, sweaty hike.
  • Watching a stately tall ship sailing up the canal.
  • Awe-inspiring tropical rainstorms that pound the roof and create torrents on the streets.
  • Feeling the whoosh of a hummingbird’s wings as it flies by your ear.
  • Bobbing in the warm waves off your own deserted beach at Playa Blanca.
  • A long, slender, brilliantly green snake visiting us on our hotel balcony at Morillo Beach.
  • Cheering for tiny baby turtles as they struggle across the sand to reach the sea.
  • Ripe papayas, bananas, pineapple, and passionfruit for breakfast.
  • Hiking jungle trails at dawn when everything is still dark and silent and the bugs haven’t yet arrived.
  • Nutella cheesecake and glorious local Kotowa chocolates in Boquete.
  • Seeing the flashes and rumbles of distant thunderstorms in the surrounding hills as you lounge in the mountainside pool at La Brisa del Diablo.
  • Superb dinners at La Brisa prepared by Olga.
  • Stripping down to your underwear to swim in an emerald crystal river because you didn’t bring a swimsuit and it’s so incredibly hot and you can’t resist and there’s no one else there anyway, so why not?
  • Witnessing the life-and-death battle of a hawk and black snake played out just a few feet from the road.
  • Tiny frog on the path, smaller than my pinkie fingernail, and giant cane toads bigger than grapefruits sharing our pool at The Golden Frog Inn.
  • The excited nightwatchman at our inn calling us over to show us a sloth climbing (very slowly) along the power lines.
  • French pastries at the St Honore bakery near Gamboa.
  • Flocks of gregarious and noisy parrots and parakeets congregating at their night roosts each evening.
  • Enjoying the technological majesty of the Panama Canal locks at close quarters.
  • Not stepping on a miniscule snake along the trail, a snake that I first thought was a big worm until it slithered away rapidly in typically snake style.

Lowlights

  • Mosquito bites on top of “chagira” bites on top of other bites. I don’t know what those chagiras are, but despite their size (a pinprick), they bite like horseflies and leave blood, swelling, and maddening itchiness behind. Oh, and did I mention the ticks? Yes, it’s a jungle out there.
  • Traffic around Panama City. Unbelievable. Multiple lines of cars, buses, taxis, trucks, and motorcycles fighting to move forward a few feet. The only guidelines seem to be: try not to hit anything or anyone. Beyond that, anything goes.
  • Potholes. The main roads are mostly good, with just the occasional pit to keep you on your toes, but some of the side roads are more holes than flat surfaces.
  • Losing my monopod. Sigh. In the excitement of trying to photograph a mixed flock of birds, I must have dropped my monopod and forgot to pick it up. It’s probably still lying in the grass at the road side.
  • Mexico City airport security confiscating the tiny Allen wrench from my photography kit. This was a piece of metal about two inches long and half as thick as a pencil. It has passed through many previous security scans without comment. “No pasa,” the guard said sternly. Mark commented later that they were clearly afraid I was going to attempt to disassemble the plane.

Knot Spots: Leopard skin capes—Or are they?

Image source: Gareth Whittington-Jones, Panthera.org

Spotted: Safari News, Spring 2018

Spots are the name of the game for members of the Nazareth Baptist Shembe Church in South Africa, whose traditional costumes include leopard skin capes. With millions of followers of the faith, a single Shembe gathering can put thousands of the animal pelts on view. Such popularity is bad news for the cats, who would much prefer the skins stay with the original owners.

Panthera, an organization dedicated to the conservation of the world’s wild cats, has stepped in with Furs for Life, a project to supply low-cost faux fur capes to those who use them in cultural practices. After five years of effort in promoting the switch, the 21st-century twist on this old fashion statement now sees about 50 percent of ceremony participants draped in fake spots, amounting to about 18,000 leopard lives saved.

Nice work, Panthera!

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.

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.