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

Weekly Photo Challenge: Family – Vervet Monkeys

Adult and baby vervet monkey, Botswana - photo by E Jurus
Adult and baby vervet monkey, Botswana – photo by E Jurus

I love photographing primates. Their behavior is so much like ours — affection, maternal love, play, grumpiness, exasperation… I can watch them for hours; they’re the entertainers of the African bush! This is a photo of vervet monkeys in the Moremi Reserve of the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Because of the grizzled face on the adult female, she’s likely the grandmother or an older aunt of the youngster; they often take on babysitting duties. Primates have very strong family bonds, so it’s really common to see hugs like this, but it never gets old.paw2014

Finding that authentic experience

Samburu tribesmen demonstrating how to make fire the traditional way - photo by E Jurus
Samburu tribesmen demonstrating how to make fire the traditional way – photo by E Jurus

My travel sources have lately been reporting a surge in people looking for an “authentic” experience in places like Africa.

Let me begin by saying that one of the biggest obstacles for finding something ‘authentic’ is a traveller’s preconceptions. If you’re looking for a time capsule, you’re not going to find it – there are very few places untouched by modern civilization.

Trying to plan something authentic actually to some extent defeats the purpose. You can’t stage-manage this type of experience; you can arrange for a tribal visit, for example, but you must proceed on it with an open mind and no expectations about what might or might not happen.

A case in point is a visit to a native Samburu village that our safari group enjoyed in Kenya a couple of years ago. It wasn’t on our scheduled itinerary, but our guide suggested it and we were all immediately on board.

Just the fact that the tribe lives in a village is a change from their traditional way of existence – the Samburu were originally nomadic, but a few years ago this tribe received a schoolhouse so that their children could be educated and they’ve had to stop moving around in order to be close to the school.

In many ways the tribe still lives very traditionally, though. The village consists of huts with a frame of tree branches held together with mud and covered in whatever materials they can scavenge – old cardboard and paper, bits of cloth… The huts are an extraordinary sight, surrounded by a thick ‘hedge’ of thorny tree branches that’s too wide and dense for predators to penetrate. During the day the tribe opens up the hedge to go in and out, and at night all the animals (mainly cows) are brought inside and the gaps are closed.

Samburu village surrounded by thorn hedge - photo by E Jurus
Samburu village surrounded by thorn hedge – photo by E Jurus

The villagers dress in colourful robes and jewellery for visitors, but we did see women down at the dry bed of the Ewaso Nyiro River doing laundry in t-shirts and loose skirts. Near the Masai Mara reserve, we saw Masai people dressed in a mix of traditional and modern, often incorporating bits of modern clothing, such as pants and tops with a brightly-coloured cloth as a shawl. Regardless of how much of the Samburu robes were for our benefit, it was a joy to see the wonderful clothing that remains from ancient times.

Bits of modernity have crept in as a result of the tribe staying in one place: the villagers offer tours and sell crafts to bring in money, and our guide had a cell phone to communicate outside the village.

The visit was a fascinating experience, though – the villagers demonstrated some native dances and how they made fire, we sat on benches under a tree where they hold their village meetings, and we sat inside one of their huts to see how they live on a daily basis. The Samburu are known for their elaborate beaded jewellery, and I treasure a necklace that I bought from the hands of the woman who made it. My husband bought a great spear from one of the men – the spear with the tufted leather guard on the blade in the photo below.

Traditional Samburu dances - photo by E Jurus
Traditional Samburu dances – photo by E Jurus

Yes, we paid for the tour and were hit up for donations to the school, but if I’d known in advance that the tour would be available I would have likely brought school supplies as a donation anyway.

As we finished the tour we were steered down a path lined with villagers selling their crafts, and they were a bit aggressive, but they were just being entrepreneurs. Obviously the tribe is aware that visitors like to buy jewellery and spears, and we were happy to buy something on location as opposed to in a shop in Nairobi.

Authentic experiences require interacting with local people in however they live their normal lives, not expecting a historical moment frozen in time. This usually means getting a bit down and dirty, so to speak – avoiding luxury accommodations and getting out into the streets to walk around.

If you truly want a real African safari, e.g., go camping in the bush! I’ve stayed in luxury lodges as well, and while they are lovely, save that for a couple of days at the end of the trip as a treat after roughing it. There’s nothing like being immersed in the African bush for a week or so, as in the days of early safaris. With a good safari operator, you’ll be quite safe, and you’ll experience the magic of sitting under the great African sky at night listening to the sounds of animals settling down for sleep, sleeping yourself snuggled under duvets while the chilly night air fills your tent, waking up to the raucous call of birds, and eating delicious meals cooked over wood fires. It’s an amazingly exciting and peaceful experience at the same time.

Safari tent, Okavango Delta, Botswana - photo by E Jurus
Safari tent, Okavango Delta, Botswana – photo by E Jurus

When we were in Egypt many years ago, for the first couple of days in Cairo we felt like we were in a fishbowl riding around from sight to sight in our tour bus. It wasn’t until we had some free time and walked to the museum and the market from our hotel on the Nile that we really began to feel a connection to the people and their culture. Never fill your leisure time on a tour with back-to-back excursions – leave some time to just walk about, sit in a sidewalk café or restaurant, and watch the ebb and flow of life around you.

One of the best experiences we’ve ever had took place on our last day on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. We were flying out that night, so we arranged with our resort to have a driver guide take us on a tour of some of the island before we headed for the airport. We visited the botanical gardens, some wonderful Hindu temples, a sacred lake, a jungle waterfall, the Seven Coloured Earths of Chamarel (naturally coloured sands), and ate fresh guavas handpicked for us by our guide Roger. Since our flight wasn’t until late, we inquired about somewhere to eat dinner other than at the airport, so he took us to a little place he knew on the side of the road across the street from the ocean. We sat out on the front porch and had a fantastic spicy chicken curry with rice while we watched the traffic go by and were waved at by the passersby. It was the perfect way to end that trip.

If you want authentic experiences, you need to get away from the luxury spots and obvious tourist traps and truly interact with the locals – walk where they walk, eat where they eat, and genuinely engage them in conversation. See how they really live, not how you’d like them to. You’ll be surprised by how much you can learn about the world by accepting it for what it is.

The new Samburu village school - photo by E Jurus
The new Samburu village school – photo by E Jurus

Cee’s Which Way Challenge – bridge in the Okavango Delta

Log bridge in the Okavango Delta - photo by E Jurus
Log bridge in the Okavango Delta – photo by E Jurus

I’ve come across a fun participatory photo blog called ‘Cee’s Which Way Challenge’, where the challenge is to post a photo with a directional subject – roads, bridges, walkways, paths, etc. Here’s my first contribution.

This is one of my favourite all-time photos. I took it in Botswana in 2007 on my very first safari. It was a mobile camping safari visiting 4 camps in 4 different parts of the country. Our first camp was located in the Okavango Delta, a world-famous wetland that we’d gone specifically to see.

The Delta is formed by the Okavango River draining directly into the hot, dry sands of the Kalahari Desert. These waters, unlike with most Which-Way-Banner1rivers, never reach the ocean, instead spreading across the sands and forming a permanent wetland around islands created by the higher spots. The waters fluctuate seasonally, with the biggest influx of water taking place in spring as the January & February rains in Angola swell the river waters and wash about 1,200 km southeast into Botswana.

Doing a safari in the Delta is an adventure! Some of the islands are fairly large and dry, with deep sandy roads weaving between towering termite mounds, tall date palms and short wide fan palms, and the pungent salty scent of wild sage. Others may be tiny islands just big enough to land on if you’re out on a mokoro ride (a dugout canoe that has long been a traditional form of transportation in the Delta).

There are bridges across the shallower waters between some of the islands, like the one in this photo. It was close to being flooded over, though – the approach to the bridge was already swamped. I took a shot out the back of the safari vehicle as another vehicle approached to give perspective – if Indiana Jones had ever visited southern Africa, this log bridge should have been in the movie!

The cold winter months here in southern Ontario always make me long for exotic, warm places!