The Elephant Crossing – Weekly Travel Photo & Product Review

The choice to cross obviously rested in the tusks of a powerful matriarch.  As she deliberated, surveying the water carefully for threats, her familial herd clustered around her with eyes open and surveying in every direction.  From time to time they would move ever so slightly closer to the water’s edge.  When they did, we readied ourselves, perched as we were in a raised observation platform atop a deck on the opposite side of the river. With equal care our eyes were focused as we surveyed the river as it stretched out before us…likely looking for the same threats the great matriarch worried about.  We spotted several crocodiles and a handful of seemingly docile hippos nearby. Were either threats? It was hard to know.

The Almost Brave Warthog – Weekly Travel Photo

Warthog Meets Elephant - Chobe Safari
The banks of the Chobe River in Botswana were home to a rather amusing series of events.  As we floated along and watched things transpire, we watched curiously as a rather bold warthog casually strutted in the general direction of what I believe was a young male elephant.  Full of swagger and strut the warthog marched right up in the general direction of the elephant, who at first ignored the approach and then as the warthog neared, turned a more attentive eye.  After a brief pause and standoff in which the two stared each other down, the elephant’s ears flared out and the warthog did a shockingly quick 180 before setting an energized pace for a hasty retreat.

A Lion Cub At Sunset – Weekly Travel Photo

Lion Cubs Playing at Sunset

With a glimmer of light reflected in its eye this young lion club relaxed with its brothers and sisters in South Luangwa National Park in Zambia.  The cubs’ mothers were out hunting and enjoying some free time away from the kids, leaving them to lounge in the late afternoon sun, chew on each other’s tails, and generally do all of the things you’d expect over-sized kittens to do.

Make sure to head over to flickr to see the rest of the album.

Would you like to see previous Weekly Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon T3i (600D) Camera.

The Polar Bear Throat Hold – Weekly Travel Photo

Wild Polar Bears in Churchill

Playing, fighting or somewhere in between?  That’s the question I found myself pondering repeatedly over the three days I spent on the frozen Canadian tundra just outside of the remote town of Churchill in central Canada.  Over the 72 hours we shared with the polar bears they put on great displays of physical strength while balancing them with awe inspiring shows of laziness and apathy that left me reminded of my cat, Riven. The bears periodically assumed a standing position for battles that tested their strength and allowed them to feel each other out in a mostly friendly atmosphere as they lounged along the partially frozen shores of Hudson Bay waiting….waiting…waiting for the temperature to drop and for the bay to freeze over completely. Once the waters freeze solid suddenly a frozen wonderland of snacks, treats, and fishing holes emerges which the the bears will explore during the winter’s cold, dark months.

Make sure to head over to flickr to see the rest of the album.

Would you like to see previous Weekly Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon T3i (600D) Camera.

Polar Bear Kisses – Weekly Travel Photo

Wild Polar Bears in Churchill

Growing up there were three bears. Brown Bear, which was your typical mid-sized teddy bear. Cinnamon Bear, which was on the small side and then White Bear. Given how original I was in naming the bears, it is perhaps no surprise that White Bear was a massive polar bear teddy.  Though it started out about four times my size, in recent year’s I’ve finally overtaken it.  Which meant it was also time to see a real polar bear in the flesh.  Acting on childhood dreams I tracked down a giant male at the Copenhagen Zoo and visited. Seeing my childhood play companion come to life was wonderful and brought back memories of a massive stuffed teddy bear.  You don’t realize just how huge polar bears are until you see them in person and up close. But, seeing a polar bear in the zoo is like watching the trailer to a movie. It captures the imagination, leaves you with mixed feelings, and sets the hook ensuring you have to see the real deal in its entirety.

So, you can imagine my excitement when just over a year later the Canadian Tourism folks awarded me first place in a photo contest. The grand prize?  A trip to Churchill, Manitoba for a three day polar bear safari with Frontiers North.

Seeing the polar bears in the wild is an awe inspiring experience (see my full posts on the safari). It’s something that everyone should see. Their size, their level of fitness, their curiosity, and their intelligence will captivate your imagination and leave you awed. This photo captures one of many powerful moments as the bears ran into each other, carefully evaluated each other, and then decided to play in the snow, putting on a fantastic show for us. While the bears were just playing, the power and force exerted was enough to crush human bones and occasionally drew  a little blood as spittle flew and their bodies collided.

Make sure to head over to flickr to see the rest of the album.

Would you like to see previous Weekly Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon T3i (600D) Camera.

The Lion Cub’s Gaze – Weekly Travel Photo

Lion Cubs Playing at Sunset

This magical moment happened in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park while I was on safari.  We had stumbled onto a group of five lion cubs between the ages of 4-6 months just before sunset. Their mothers were off hunting and the cubs were taking a much-needed break after a day full of exploring and childish antics.  This cub in particular was feeling quite relaxed, though he still kept a close eye on us.  He repeatedly lounged around, rolled onto his back, and then stared at us almost as if inviting us to head over and to give him a tummy scratch.  His gaze was incredible and cut right to my core. Hands down some of my favorite moments from the Safari.

Make sure to head over to flickr to see the rest of the album.

Would you like to see previous Weekly Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon T3i (600D) Camera.

The Monkey Soccer Mom – Weekly Travel Photo

Mother and Child - Chobe Safari - Botswana

While we may differ from monkeys in more than a few ways, some things remain the same.  Young baboons are every bit as curious, rambunctious, and entertaining as human children. They also appear to be every ounce the challenge for their parents to deal with.  In this photo from Chobe National Park in northern Botswana I captured a healthy mother and her rather animated child right before he launched himself from her back and into the nearby grass for a playful romp, roll, and flop.

The mother’s mixture of vexed parent and half-ignored mode of transport reminds me vividly of the small army of soccer moms (and dads) that descended on the rich green grass fields behind my apartment back in Arizona every weekend.  The kids could often be seen half-tumbling out of the mini-van’s sliding doors moments after the vehicles came to a stop. The raised voices of vexed parents chasing after them.

Both sights brought a smile to my face.  Though I will admit that I’m ever so slightly more partial to the oversize ears and awkward tail that define a baby baboon.

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon T3i (600D) Camera.

When Sky, Fire and Water Meet

Faces of Zambia

The sweat from my palms soaked the steering wheel as the tense muscles in my hip throbbed.  My body was on edge and had been for the entirety of the drive south.  Upon arriving in Zambia, I’d been informed by my family that I would be the one responsible for driving our rental car.  Ordinarily not a big deal, but it was my first time driving on the opposite side of the road and in a non-North American country.  The roads in the Luapula Province of northern Zambia did little to allay my fears.  Many are paved, but in such a poor state of repair that there are no such things as lanes.  In truth, you spend at least one third of most drives with one (or both) tires off the road, the car at a 25 degree angle while zig-zaging between potholes large enough to swallow a small tank. The scrape of the car’s undercarriage is a constant reminder that you zig-ed when you should have zag-ed.  By itself that might not be so bad, but then add in large freight haulers and buses that race along the roads at high speed. And if that is not enough, add in head-height grass which lines many of the roads and conceals everything and everyone.  My eyes constantly scanned the road for potholes with quick glance at my rear view mirror in search of large trucks bearing down on me. Then back to the sides of the road where I diligently watched for erratic movement from the veritable army of goats, small children, old grandmothers, and bicyclists who use the roads as walking paths and have a tendency to dart into traffic.  Despite constant and nearly un-blinking vigilance I  found myself forced to slam on the brakes  to avoid people and things at the last moment.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

As I turned the key off and the car stilled I let out an audible sigh of relief. Somehow I’d gotten us to a small guest house along the shores of Lake Bangweulu just outside of Samfya.  As I sat in the driver’s seat collecting myself, I wiped my hands on my jeans leaving dark streaks of sweat.  Finally, I allowed myself to take in my surroundings. The parallel-parking spot I had pulled into faced out onto what looked like a small sea. In reality, it was a sprawling lake.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

As we settled into great little rooms that opened out onto a small sand beach and a wonderful view of the lake, we all struggled with the day’s contrasts.  We had started out in my brother’s small mud brick and thatch hut. A building that is a lovely and cozy place but which lacks electricity or running water and has a small outhouse located behind it. Now, a few hours drive away, we were back on the grid with semi-reliable power, running water, and perhaps most importantly western flush toilets.  It made for a powerful contrast which set the stage for the rest of the evening.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

My brother David is a Peace Corps volunteer and he had brought us to Lake Bangweulu to see the sunset.  I’ll confess that as a big fan of sunsets, I wasn’t entirely sure why the multi-hour drive south had been worth the pleasure of a simple sunset.  Still, he was our guide, the local expert, and it was hard not to be won over by the prospect of a real bed and a cold beer.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

As the sun began to set and the early twilight of late afternoon settled over the lake, it quickly became apparent why the sunset was worth the drive.  Lake Bangweulu is known as the place where the water meets the sky.  It is an aptly chosen nickname for this unusual body of water.  More than 70km by 40km in size, the lake’s depth averages about four meters and fluctuates more than a meter between Zambia’s dry and rainy seasons.   During our visit in the midst of the dry season the lake still stretched beyond the horizon.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

Just beyond a small fence at the end of the beach, we watched as a group of children washed dishes, did laundry, and then set to fishing.  The children, some barely old enough to walk, participated in chores.  The older children kept close eyes on their younger brothers and sisters though I doubt the oldest was more than 10.  There’s a certain responsibility among the young Zambian children that I found incredible to watch … a certain level of maturity that most western children twice their age lack.  Perhaps the most powerful of which were the (slightly) older sisters who diligently took care of, disciplined, and watched over their 2 and 4 year-old siblings with great care and competency.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

Shortly after the children finished their bath and their chores, they wandered back up the bank. A young woman and her son waded down and out into the reeds with bamboo fishing poles.  With the poise, elegance, and stillness of a heron they carefully raised and lowered their poles, gently jigging and probing the reeds for fish.  Their patience and control reminded me in many ways of the street performers who pose as human statues, perfectly still and seemingly lifeless before moving smoothly to the shock and surprise of those passing by.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

In one last rush before the sunset stole the remaining light, a near constant flow of chitenge-clad women atop reed and dugout wooden canoes made their way past us.  Some used push poles to take advantage of the lake’s shallow depths while others had rough-hewn wooden paddles attached to long poles which they used from a standing position.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

The weather was perfect. The wind was still which left the lake with a glass-like surface and the air was thick with the haze of pale gray smoke from local controlled burns.   By day the late afternoon sky was devoid of clouds but boasted the moon and later the bright glow of a nearby planet.  The horizon itself quickly faded away, lost and indistinguishable from the lake’s smooth waters.   I’ve never seen a sunset that was able to so perfectly blend water and sky. The combination of gentle smokey haze, mirror-perfect water, and clear skies accomplished the unbelievable.  What was left were strange little boats that seemed to have taken flight to float among the clouds.  The sort of strange and mystical spectacle that one might see in movies of far-off places and imaginary lands – but never in the real world. Then the color changed. The soft blue-gray transitioned into a multi-spectrum rainbow centered along the horizon.  The sky’s dark blues re-emerged while the waves reflected the violets and purples of the next stage of the sunset.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

Then as the sun approached the horizon the violets deepened and transitioned into oranges and golden hues as the smoke served as a filter that split off the sun’s otherwise harsh rays and left it visible to the naked eye as a glowing red orb.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

I’m not sure how long the sunset lasted, I suspect close to 30 minutes.  It’s hard to tell though, as every 5 minutes it seamed to drastically change. The colors would shift, the haze would lift, the sun would slip into a smoke bank, or one of the local fishing boats would slowly cut their way across the horizon and in so doing add a new perspective and human element.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

As we sat on the beach enjoying a local Zambian beer I couldn’t help but feel an emotional connection to the area. One brought about and highlighted so beautifully by the sunset.  It was a thing of contrasts, just as Zambia and Sub-Saharan Africa is a place of similarly extreme contrasts. It can be a profoundly harsh place, but it is also a warm and welcoming place with its own element of profound hospitality.  A trip to the heart of Africa, one that takes you into authentic Africa, beyond the walled compounds and neatly pitched tents of safaris and large cities is a must.  It will change you by infusing you with a new perspective and understanding.  It will give you a renewed respect for all nature has to provide, a deep  sense of awe, and an opportunity to connect at a deep level with people who live vastly different lives.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

When we set out for Samfya to watch the sunset, I expected a few minutes of transient natural beauty.  A wonderful thing, but something that hardly seemed likely to offset the hours of anxious and uncomfortable driving required to get there.  As often happens in these types of situations, I was not only wrong but met with an incredibly rich experience that was one of the gems of my visit to Africa.  I’d place the sunset in my top 5 and will forever have its beauty and the wonderful musings that accompanied it burned into who I am and how I see the world.