World Elephant Day

When you think of Africa, what animal do you think of most? A good bet that it’s an elephant – their distinctive shape with widespread ears is such an iconic symbol. There are Asian elephants as well, which have smaller ears and a large twin bump at the top of their heads.

This is a special early post this week in honour of World Elephant Day.

African elephants are a wonderful sight in the wild. These massive creatures – they can weigh up to 12 tons) can be surprisingly silent when they choose – we have spotted them emerging from the bush unexpectedly without us even having been aware that they were moving about.

When watching them on safari, they are remarkably laid back as long as you don’t impinge on their personal space. A good safari guide knows how close to get without making them feel threatened.

If you do get a little too close, they will usually mock-charge by running towards you with ears flared and trunk raised, perhaps even blaring through their trunk. In certain situations they can get quite pissy, however.

There’s a large resident herd in Chobe National Park in Botswana, and most safari-goers embark on a short cruise on the Chobe River to see them trudge en masse down to the river for a drink and a bathe. There’s also a large and rambunctious resident troop of Chacma baboons. On one occasion we were watching the elephant herd peacefully roaming the river’s edge when the baboons decided to join the party. The baboons were making lots of noise and running all over the place, which really irritated the elephants, who proceeded to stamp up and down the river front, blaring loudly and shaking the trees with their trunks. The baboons were unrepentant, scampering around and creating chaos for several minutes. Eventually they seemed to tire of the game, leaving the elephants in peace once more.

In Kenya in Aberdare National Park, at a wonderful treetop lodge called the Ark, we watched animals at the watering hole while we were having afternoon tea in the lounge on the second level. We were highly entertained watching the water buffalo do end runs behind the back of a feisty teenage male elephant who seemed to feel that the watering hole was his and his alone and tried to evict them, with little effect.

As placid as elephants can be when you’re viewing them from a safari vehicle, any time that baby elephants are present, the adult elephants will be more protective, and male elephants in musth (heat) are essentially hormone-crazed and very dangerous.

If an elephant is in the road you’re travelling on, it owns it for the duration. Don’t ever try to bypass the elephant (as this tourist in Kruger National Park found out the hard way back in 2014).

It is amazing to watch them in the wild, doing what they do naturally, whether congregating for a sunset drink, bathing in a muddy puddle, or wading through the water to tear up great mouthfuls of vegetation for breakfast.

Elephants – in fact, all animals – are a gift, and we are privileged to be able to spend a little time with them in places like Africa. You can find out more about one of the world’s most majestic and enigmatic creatures, and how you can help ensure that other generations can continue to be amazed by them at the World Elephant Day website.

If you’d like to travel to Africa yourself and would like more information about where these images were taken, or about going on safari, please email me at liontailmagic@gmail.com.

The pleasures of golf?

It’s spring in North America and time to commence the annual ritual of the royal and ancient game of Driving Yourself Crazy, aka Golf.

I blame my husband for introducing me to the game when we were dating. Little did I know what I was getting myself into!

To people who don’t play, golf can be a ridiculous-looking game where you attempt to hit a little round ball with a weighted stick, and then chase down the ball wherever it may have landed, only to hit it away from you again.

Robin Williams had an extremely funny (and R-rated, for language) bit about the invention of the game in his Live from Broadway show; my favourite line is about the flag pin at the conclusion of each hole: “They put it there to give you hope”.

Novice golfers are excited about the game until they discover that having a great round on one day doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be able to even hit the ball the next time you go out.

Veteran golfers have a love-hate relationship that varies in degree. Golf is to a large extent a mental game:

  • being able to concentrate and remain steady through at least 72 swings at the ball over an 18-hole round, on terrain that’s constantly changing
  • trying to curb your frustration when you make a bad shot that should have been an easy one
  • tweaking your swings and strategy in an attempt to achieve consistency (which is pretty much a pipe dream – even the pros can’t manage it)

The game also plays with our heads by, no matter how bad a round we’re having, allowing us at least one great shot that encourages us to come back. It’s quite evil, really.

One of the things I like about the game is the opportunity to enjoy nice weather in beautiful surroundings. (Men will play in any weather, and that’s another story entirely, but women have more sense.) My hubby and I really enjoy playing golf in different locations, and often incorporate a round in our travels if it’s feasible. Every location has its unique fingerprint, and challenges. But that’s half the fun!

For our 15th wedding anniversary we stayed and played at the gorgeous Boulders resort in Arizona. It was so great we could have happily stayed there for a month. The comprehensive service took a little getting used to initially – from the moment we arrived and our car was swarmed by staff, everything was taken care of for us – but the acclimatization took less than 24 hours and then we were soaking it all in.

Our first round took place the afternoon that we arrived, and we completely psyched ourselves out about playing on a championship course – in short, we were terrible. We did enjoy the resort-course layout: frequent yardage markers to help you check your distances, drinking fountains and a washroom building every third hole, a cart with not only both ball and club washers but also a cooler with ice for our beverages and a little nozzle to spray water on our hot faces whenever we needed to refresh. The start times were spaced 10 minutes apart, so we were never crowded by other players.

We returned to the club house, dejected. But this was resort golf, an entirely different animal! The cheerful, laid-back staff told us not to worry about our scores and emphasized that they wanted us to enjoy ourselves. Their attitude was so relaxed that it allowed us to relax, and we thoroughly enjoyed our next round.

We embraced desert golf, where divots disintegrate, made of grass on sand; there’s no retrieving your errant ball out of the rough (full of cacti called ‘Jumping Cholla’ because they hook onto your skin and break off in large chunks!); and the bunkers are really diabolical (some with cacti and even big boulders in the middle, as if trying to hit your ball out of a deep pot bunker isn’t enough punishment for landing in there).

Arizona is gorgeous, though, and our package allowed my hubby to play four rounds while I played two and visited the fabulous spa in between. It was such a hardship, I just can’t tell you.

There’s something for everyone at The Boulders – we even booked a night hike with night-vision goggles that gave us a spectacular view of the Milky Way – so it’s a great all-around vacation spot.

A couple of years ago we golfed the Robert Trent Jones Trail in Alabama, a bucket-list item for a lot of golfers. The Trail was created in the 1980s as a way to bring in revenue to shore up the state’s retirement fund, and it’s worked brilliantly. There are 26 courses in 11 different locales running along a roughly north to south line through the state. Hubby chose the four courses he wanted to play, and as the first one was located in Mobile, just 2 hours from New Orleans, we drove down to that great Louisiana city first for a weekend to enjoy the food, history, ghostly legends and wacky Halloween Parade, then worked our way north along the golf trail.

When we arrived at our hotel in Mobile, the concierge approached me and asked if we’d had any trouble finding the hotel.

“No”, I replied, a little mystified by the question, “we just used our GPS.”

“But did it give you ‘Southern’ directions?”, he asked.

“Well no, I don’t think so,” I said, still at a loss.

“Well you see, this is how we give directions in the South”, he told me. “We say: ‘You go down the road a piece, then when you see the house where Old Blue’s sittin’ on the porch you turn right, then you go down the road another piece…’ ” My hubby and I laughed delightedly, and that exchange has become one of our most treasured memories from the trip.

The hospitality was exemplary, the courses were lovely and the Southern food delectable. One of the places we tried, based on a recommendation from the staff at the Hampton Cove course in Huntsville, was the Blue Plate Café. It’s such a faithful replica of a 1950s café that you assume it’s much older than it actually is. Created by two sisters who cook with their grandma’s old recipes, the café serves up wonderful comfort food. If you’re ever in the neighbourhood, you must stop there and have the fantastic fried chicken!!

The RTJ Trail has dedicated staff to help you plan your journey. They’ll book your tee times and even book hotels along the way if you want them to.

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It’s hard to take your game seriously when a family of warthogs is your peanut gallery

A nod to Africa for offering our most unusual round of golf to date. It took place in Zimbabwe at Victoria Falls. We rented clubs, and had planned to rent a cart as advertised on the course website but not actually available. The round was most memorable for the wildlife – crocodiles lurking in the water hazards for the unwary, impalas sprinting around the holes, and on one hole I had to wait for an entire family of warthogs to finish staring at me and wander away before I could tee off.

Unfortunately the weather was very hot, we had to walk the course, and there were no refreshments available during the entire round, so I had heat exhaustion as a result and slept for 14 hours. Nevertheless, I don’t know too many people who can say they had to face off against warthogs!

The most important piece of equipment you can have for taking up the sport of golf is a sense of humour. It keeps players sane. As the great Arnold Palmer once said, “I have a tip that can take five strokes off anyone’s game: It’s called an eraser.”

Awe and the expansion of our internal universe

When I started thinking about this piece, I was really thinking about the nature of things that appeal to us. I love tales of the supernatural, and I love Halloween in particular as a time to celebrate the supernatural and bring a little of it into our workaday lives.

There’s a reason that stories like The Wizard of Oz, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Narnia, Dracula, Star Wars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Goosebumps and the Harry Potter books, are all so popular. It’s not just that they feature the supernatural and people living exciting lives – that’s part of their surface appeal. I believe the deeper appeal lies in that they allow ordinary people (and, through them, the reader) to be heroes. If you look at every protagonist’s journey, they all get to fight evil/monsters and become something larger than what they were at the start.

By reading their journeys, we experience the same emotions they do, and imagine ourselves in their shoes. In the really great stories, we experience awe.

Awe is an intense emotional state where we’re transported into a new universe – a place apart from our ordinary lives where we are engulfed in a larger consciousness. Awe makes us understand that our daily little problems are just that; that the political issues in the world are ridiculous posturing and power plays by leaders who rarely genuinely care about the people they are supposed to be serving. We get a glimpse of how magnificent life can be if we rise above all of the daily garbage.

We can experience awe in different ways.

Awe is a fundamental appeal of religion. I remember, as a child, trying to understand the world and the place of religion in it, having been raised as a Catholic and going to mass dutifully on the first Friday of every month to ensure my place in heaven. I loved the quiet parts of those early Friday morning masses – the soft flicker of candles, the hush of a nearly empty church when I could absorb the beautiful stained-glass windows transporting me to a time centuries ago when people got to meet Jesus in person.

One night I had a profound religious moment—I was thinking about the universe, and imagining what would happen if you had a giant blackboard eraser and started erasing us, and the planets, and the stars in the sky. What would you have left, I wondered, and it struck me that that was where God lived. I was so excited that I had to share it with my mom, who I was trying to comfort for some reason. I’m not sure I was able to explain it very well to her, at the age of about nine or ten years old, but it has stuck with me to this day.

A shared sense of awe can bring people together in powerful ways, and so the dark side of religion comes out when a religious leader begins to manipulate followers for his or her own ends. I’m still very spiritual, if not a frequently practising Catholic, because I prefer to believe that there is something beyond our short lives on earth, a more expansive universe where goodness exists for its own sake. However, as our spiritual leaders on earth are just human, like the rest of us, it’s critical that we apply objectivity to what they’re preaching, and can recognize when their teachings are oppressing any segment of their followers. Everyone on this earth should be equal.

Awe can be found throughout nature. A glorious sunset, the vast firmament of stars above us (hard to see when masked by city lights; if you’ve never appreciated them you should find a dark-sky preserve and take a look!), the power of waves pounding on a beach, the beauty in flowers and butterflies…

Humans and animals can fill us with awe, when someone does something amazing for the benefit of others, or delivers a powerful musical performance, or a pet saves its owners lives by alerting them to fire.

These moments of awe reaffirm our belief in goodness, a belief that gets battered daily by the news. It’s even worse now that we have news at our fingertips. The job of reporters is to attract our interest, and they rarely do it with feel-good stories. As a society we’ve gotten so caught up in the superficial stimulation from electronic media that we don’t take the time to cultivate the deeper emotions that come from quiet reflection and moments of awe that are all around us.

My personal journey of awe, the one that turned my entire life on its head and brought me to this place where I can help others experience awe for themselves and enter a larger universe, took place in Africa.

My husband and I had decided to celebrate our silver anniversary with a safari. I spent several years researching and planning, but by the time we left our home for Africa we were numb. Within the space of two years we’d had a death in the family and had to put both of our beloved dogs to sleep. My job had changed dramatically when my manager suddenly departed to pursue a different career, leaving the rest of our small department to flounder in deep waters. I remember walking around London, England, our first layover and a place we both love, feeling as if I was completely wrapped in cotton batten, insulated and separated from the outside world. It was a strange feeling.

Neither of us had great expectations of the trip – we try to experience each of our adventures as they unfold. We arrived in Africa just flowing with the current. Our safari guide met all of his seven guests at the small airport in Maun, Botswana, and loaded us into two small bush planes for the flight to our first bush camp deep in the Okavango Delta. Our little plane chugged along at 1,000 feet, low enough for us to see elephants and giraffes grazing among the acacia trees. When we landed on a short strip of sand in the middle of nowhere and piled into the open-sided safari truck for the hour-and-a-half drive through the bush to the camp, we were engulfed by the smell of the wild sage bushes – salty, pungent and unforgettable – scattered among the thorny acacias, tall and short palms, and towering termite mounds. Sights, sounds and smells bombarded our senses, and the cotton encasing our emotions started to disintegrate.

botswana safari 2007 card no 1 059-001

That night, we lay in our dome tents under the vast African sky, listening to the sounds of fruit bats and tree frogs all around, with nothing between us and the wild except a bit of canvas and meshing. Wild animals could easily prowl right up to our tents if they wished, and we’d been advised to go carefully and in pairs to the toilet tents during the night if we absolutely couldn’t wait until morning. I remember lying on my cot, snugly tucked under a duvet, and experiencing the awe of being in that legendary place. It was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life, and it shredded the last of that awful, numbing shroud that I’d been living in for so many months.

Our safari was filled with amazing moments – staring into the golden eyes of a lion lying at the side of the road just a few feet away from our truck, watching an elephant spray muddy water over itself, seeing a leopard in the wild, watching a troop of baboons romp and squabble. When we visited Victoria Falls I just stood with my mouth hanging open – having lived in the vicinity of Niagara Falls for most of my life, I was prepared to be only mildly impressed. But watching millions of gallons of the Zambezi River thunder over the Falls with an almost deafening roar, and seeing the resulting mist billow a thousand feet into the air, we were awe-struck at the power of Nature.

We fell in love with lions when we went on a nature walk with two young rescued males, Langa and Loco. We walked the bush with them, held their tails and scratched behind their ears, watched them explore their world. They were utterly adorable and showed us another side beyond the majestic predator they would one day become.

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It wasn’t only nature that wowed us – our safari guide, with his vast bush knowledge and cheeky sense of humour, all the staff at the four bush camps we stayed at and the lodges in Zimbabwe and Zambia, and the many other Africans we met, became like family. Their warm welcome and passion for their countries, their lack of materialism and deep relationship with nature, left an indelible impression on us.

By the end of the trip both my hubby and I were loathe to leave. We experienced intense culture shock arriving back home, and it took me a long, long time to find a way to integrate that experience into my regular life.

In the end, I decided that I wanted to help other people experience moments of awe and beauty, to understand what an incredible planet we live on if we take those first steps to transcend all the pettiness and materialism that seeps into our lives from outside forces.

We are one race of people, the Human Race, sharing our planet with animals, plants, insects, mountains, forests, oceans and rivers, sunsets and rainbows, and every part, down to the tiniest piece, is essential.

It’s easy to understand that, when you look around you and let awe in. It’s impossible to understand that when your face is glued to an electronic screen or your hearing is muffled by a headset. While I love a good computer game as much as the next person, and am, of course, bringing you this message through your computer or mobile phone, our attachment to electronics is increasingly isolating us from our fellow inhabitants on this grand planet. I believe we can trace a lot of troubles in our society to that source.

If you want to live in a larger world, one where you can see the best of humanity instead of the worst, where nature will fill you with both peace and awe in equal measure, where the universe can truly be seen in a grain of sand, a flower petal or the wings of a butterfly, you need only take those first steps along that path.

Weekly Photo Challenge – a lily admiring its reflection

Night lily at sunset in the Okavango Delta, Botswana - photo by E. Jurus
Night lily at sunset in the Okavango Delta, Botswana – photo by E. Jurus

A quick post this week as my hubby is having hip replacement tomorrow — such is family genetics. Two surgeries over the next few months and then we should be able to resume travelling to see more cultures and take more photos. For this week’s challenge, Reflection, I thought I’d post a photo I took of one of the beautiful night lilies that float around throughout the vast flood plain of the Okavango Delta in Botswana. They bloom near sunset, and you see hundreds of them on a late afternoon boat cruise around the deeper waters of the flood plain that’s formed as rain water from Angola rushes down the length of the Okavango River into neighbouring countries. This particular lily seems, like the Greek legend of Narcissus, to be admiring its own lovely image in the water around it, glowing in the late afternoon light. The lilies are one of the highlights of a visit to the Delta, nodding and swaying as your safari guide silently glides a traditional dugout canoe, called a mokoro, through the shallower waters or bobbing as your small motor boat passes towards evening. If you’re looking for an escape to sunshine and tranquility, head for the Delta!

Cee’s Which Way Challenge – signs of fire in Kenya

Sign on the lawn at Lake Nakuru Lodge, Kenya - photo by E. Jurus
Sign on the lawn at Lake Nakuru Lodge, Kenya – photo by E. Jurus

Yes, the sign says “Fire Assembly Point”. We were in Kenya during the dry season in late February, and there was a fire still smoldering all around our lodge in Lake Nakuru National Park. We’d arrived at the gates with a massive plume of smoke overhead, and had driven to the lodge inside the park through a blackened landscape full of smoke and licks of flame. The fire had broken out a couple of days previously, but our guide assured us that the lodge was intact and safe. From this sign on the grounds, through, it was clear that fires are fairly common during the dry season.

Signs of trouble ahead as we approached Lake Nakuru National Park - photo by E. Jurus
Signs of trouble ahead as we approached Lake Nakuru National Park – photo by E. Jurus

Lake Nakuru is a soda lake, one of several strewn through the Great Rift Valley. The alkaline water holds an abundance of algae, which in turn attracts millions of pink flamingoes — it’s so famous you’ve probably seen a photo of it already.

Firefighters out patrolling as we went on our afternoon game drive - photo by E. Jurus
Firefighters out patrolling as we went on our afternoon game drive – photo by E. Jurus

Driving through a smoldering landscape - photo by E. Jurus
Driving through a smoldering landscape – photo by E. Jurus

Although the fire covered a lot of ground, the wildlife seemed unfazed, and many scavengers were feasting on a bounty of dead rodents and other small ground-dwelling animals. The periodic fires are nature’s way of giving the landscape a fresh start. We saw a great variety of wildlife, including white rhinos, a troop of olive baboons, and many spectacular birds around the shores of the lake. The fire kept its distance and we had a very enjoyable visit. Our startling introduction to the park was just icing on the cake 🙂

Winter escapism – Plan a safari!

Herd of giraffes, Savute Reserve, Botswana - photo by E. Jurus
Herd of giraffes, Savute Reserve, Botswana – photo by E. Jurus

Much of Canada and the U.S. are having a punishing winter this year. My favourite form of escapism is to spend time researching and planning a new adventure. For a few hours I can immerse myself in someplace warm and exotic.

Going to Africa is a classic adventure, immortalized by Hollywood in many films, from fantastic to kitschy to wild and woolly. I’ve had the good fortune to travel to a variety of different places, and Africa is still tops in my books. There’s a feeling that you get when you’re gazing across the endless savannahs, or canoeing through thick reeds, when you look into the face of an elephant coated in red dust, when you sit around a campfire at night listening to hippos grunting at each other in the distance, that makes you feel connected to the planet and the eternal cycle of life in a way I’ve not experienced anywhere else. (I invite you to share with me other places where you’ve felt the same.)

Dirt-coated elephant, Samburu Reserve, Kenya - photo by E. Jurus
Dirt-coated elephant, Samburu Reserve, Kenya – photo by E. Jurus

Doing a safari usually ranks pretty high on people’s bucket lists, but I’ve chatted with a lot of people who find it overwhelming just getting started.

I can sympathize – it took me several years to plan and set up our first safari. To help you start creating yours, I’ve posted our first planning guide: Theme Trip – The Safari. You’re going to have to do your own research to create a shortlist of places you’d like to go, but my guide will provide you with:

–          some essential information to start narrowing things down

–          an understanding of what a typical safari day is like

–          recommended things to pack

–          what you need to know about health matters

–          photographic equipment essentials

Research is key. Decide what animals you’d like to see (gorillas, for example, only live in hot humid jungles), what other activities you might
want to do (ballooning, mountain climbing, visiting a tribal village, wine-tasting, white-water rafting…), and what time of year you can travel in. Then decide on your budget – that will be your biggest determining factor.

Samburu villagers performing tribal dance, Kenya - photo by E. Jurus
Samburu villagers performing tribal dance, Kenya – photo by E. Jurus

There’s so much to see and do, I couldn’t put it all into the guide, but there are some good travel guides to different parts of Africa available, and lots of info on the internet. I’d also recommend picking up travel magazines about Africa and researching any of the safari companies that interest you to see if they have the style you’re looking for, as well as the credentials.

Next you’ll want to read the LTM guide, make your final destination choices, and start getting ready.

There’s much more information that I didn’t include at the risk of turning the guide into a novel, but I welcome any questions you may have – just post a comment and I’ll do my best to supply what you need to know. Happy planning!

Bataleur eagle, Okavango Delta, Botswana - photo by E. Jurus
Bataleur eagle, Okavango Delta, Botswana – photo by E. Jurus