Faithful readers will have noticed a lot of wildlife photos on this blog. My father had a great love of animals — we were regularly rescuing injured birds and feeding area squirrels — and instilled it in me. In high school I loved my first biology class, and decided that would be my career path. I entered university with the idea of eventually doing cancer research, but I landed my first summer job with the Ministry of the Environment, and that changed my focus. I majored in Ecology: the study of how the entire world, from the creatures that hang around a pond in a forest to everything on this planet, is interconnected. Every segment is critical, and we humans have arrogantly ignored that for the most part.
People often speak of the ‘circle of life’ in Africa, where it’s obvious and transparent. In the photo above, taken in the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, a large pride of lions had killed a zebra and were enjoying dinner late in the afternoon. Scenes like that epitomize life in Africa: the loss of a zebra feeds an entire family of lions. This was an important meal for the lions, as their species is listed as ‘vulnerable’, only one step away from ‘endangered’. Yes, the top predator in Africa isn’t doing well at surviving.
As we watched the lions eat, other species gathered around. First the jackals showed up. They’re called “opportunistic” predators — they’ll hunt small animals and birds, and will scavenge from larger kills.
It didn’t take much longer for the vultures to arrive.
Both of these serve as cleaners in the ecosystem. By the time they’ve finished off what the lions haven’t eaten, there’s no longer any meat to decay and attract pests. They’re an essential segment of the circle of life.
And while we feel awful for the animal that was killed, we understand that if the lionesses don’t make the kill, their little cubs won’t eat either.
We permit species to die off at our own peril, not to mention losing the beauty and gift of their existence.
It’s hard to convey how beautiful lions are when you see them in the wild. Their rippling golden fur and mesmerizing golden eyes just can’t be adequately captured by a camera. I took a lot of photos trying.
Can you imagine a world without lions? Within our lifetime that’s a real possibility. Future generations may never be able to go and see a lion walking the plains of Kenya, or Botswana, or South Africa. And every species that we lose is one more piece out of the global ecosystem that supports all of us. If we lose enough pieces, that ecosystem will no longer work.
On World Wildlife Day, you can help by adding your voice to the groups doing their best to prevent further species erosion. You can find out more on the Global Citizen website.
This week we’ll look at signs that touch you on an emotional level. They may make you chuckle, scratch your head, feel a pang, feel trepidation or its opposite, relief, or even make you hungry/thirsty (often because of where they’re located).
The photo below reminds me of a fantastic place where we had breakfast in Ireland. We’d missed the breakfast slot at the hotel, but the front desk staff recommended this place on a local farm, whose name refuses to stick in my head. However, I can always bring up this photo with the place name thoughtfully imprinted on bags in which to cart off loaves of their fresh, crusty bread.
Our lodge deep in the Amazon jungle along the Madre de Dios river, served up a wild assortment of irresistible cocktails. I believe I tried the Anaconda 🙂
On a trip into eastern Ontario last fall, when the pandemic situation on our province was still largely contained, we visited a farm market that’s famous in the area but danged hard to find, even with a GPS. We’re glad we persevered, though — a dazzling assortment of homemade and gluten-free products listed on the sign behind the counter. We’d tucked a cooler in the back of our pickup truck in case there was anything we wanted to come home with; we filled that up and stuffed a couple of paper bags full of fruits and vegetables in between the golf clubs on top of that!
A little libation of the colonial variety with a flight of beer, helpfully labelled, at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.
Something every hot and thirsty traveler wants to see, a roadside stand offering fresh tropical fruit juice.
Signs of delight
I loved this bumper sticker so much I had to take a photo of it, in the town of Sleepy Hollow in New York State.
Knowing is half the battle 😉
A hiking trail through some woods had a section created especially for all children of all ages.
This vervet monkey in Kenya clearly needed its morning java.
Clearly this fellow would be the solution to all of life’s problems 😉
Of the ‘what the heck’ variety. This sign could also fall under the ‘induces trepidation’ category. We saw a number of signs like this in eastern Tennessee. Really, why would anyone need to rent a machine gun?!
This sign only fell into this category after we drove round a mountain for over an hour trying to find the spot, unsuccessfully, followed by blowing out a tire as we went back down the mountain, put on the spare on the side of a steep and narrow road and limped the rest of the way down to our bed-and-breakfast. Let’s just say that signage in Ireland lacks a lot of pertinent information and frequently stumps the GPS in your rental vehicle.
A wave of nostalgia
I grew up in the Woodstock era. I was much too young to be allowed to go, but the scrappy little music festival ended up making history and defining a generation. When we found out a few years ago that the site had been restored and was available to visit, we had to go — to stand in the place that was such a big moment in our youths and to share in that moment even if only in retrospect.
We also grew up with the Charlie Brown comics. One of the annual Christmas-season events in our house is a viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas — we never tire of it. It remains a popular show to this day, but I’m not sure more recent generations realize what a time capsule it is — children walking around by themselves after dark, lots of wide snowy undeveloped spaces and frozen ponds to skate on, the popularity of metallic trees… We’d been down to the fantastic ICE! show at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville once before while spending Christmas with one of our cousins, and on a return visit as soon as I found out that the theme that year would be A Charlie Brown Christmas I booked the tickets! It was a chilly blast from the past to walk through the entire story done in larger-than-life ice sculptures.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow has always been my favourite spooky story, with the big bad as a dead Hessian soldier on his jet black horse with a flaming pumpkin for a head! In another aha moment, as soon as I found out that the town of Sleepy Hollow actually exists (originally called North Tarrytown but adopting the name from Washington Irving’s most famous story out of affection and marketing value), I knew we had to go. The entire area is Irving country and replete with all kinds of Halloween events. But most important of all, you can walk across the modern incarnation of the bridge that helped inspired Irving in his 1820 tale of terror in the wilds of Westchester County.
Although this style of signage was iconic of an earlier generation, when you stumble upon one now it’s a perfect little time capsule of a bygone era when post-war life was good, the economy was booming and North America was full of innocence and optimism.
Shiver me timbers!
As a devotee of haunted attractions, I love the creativity in signage used to intrigue us and make us wonder if it’s safe to go on.
Of course, this photo is of one of the least-frightening Halloween attractions around, but it’s an opportunity to turn into a five-year-old again for a few hours.
Busch Gardens in Williamsburg does a little eerier version — not too frightening, but lots of atmosphere!
Signs throughout the park during the day promise thrills after dark.
Here in Ontario, Fort Henry in Kingston takes advantage of its built-in architecture to turn into its creepy alter-ego once the sun goes down.
Next week we’ll continue on this theme with poignant signs that give us insight into the tears of the past.
As always, all photos are by me and all rights are reserved.
The more my hubby and I travel around our planet, the more special we realize that it is. We’ve also seen what’s been lost already — creatures already extinct, more headed there now, and entire habitats destroyed by humans. If humans aren’t careful, within our lifetime there may be no more lions, no more elephants, no more orangutans, no more polar bears.
And the loss of each species degrades the entire ecosystem, until a point where it may threaten all life on earth — even ours.
Many people around the world are working very hard to keep that from happening; you can read about some of them on the Earthday.org website.
And to show you how special our global ecosystem is, I want to share with you one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya. It’s not on the standard safari-tourist track, which is both a shame and a blessing. This is a longer read, with lots of photos; I hope you enjoy it.
Located more or less smack-dab in the centre of the country on the fringe of northern Kenya, Samburu is about a 7-hour drive north from Nairobi, along paved highways that pass through numerous small towns holding fascinating slices of Kenyan life.
Our safari vehicle was essentially a van with big slider windows, as well as a pop-up top; this had to remain closed while we were on the main roads. However, as soon as we turned off onto the reserve property, our guide opened the top up to allow us amazing views as we rode through the ruddy landscape.
Our lodging for two nights on this mobile safari was the Samburu Sopa Lodge, and although it’s only a mid-range lodge, it remains one of my favourite places in all of Africa.
The lodge is fairly remote, surrounded by miles of wilderness in all directions. Thatch-roofed buildings blend into the landscape, and have a casual feel, as if you’re staying at your own second home. The rooms are simply furnished but comfortable, with full bathrooms and electricity for part of the day (typical for remote lodges like this), which means you can use some small grooming appliances and charge up your camera batteries when needed.
The rooms each have their own walled patio looking out onto the surrounding bush — lovely places to sit in the morning or at dusk…
…and often a great place to watch wildlife meander past. Our room was visited every morning by a very inquisitive Yellow-billed Hornbill, which would perch in a nearby tree and squawk loudly.
The main areas of the lodge were atmospheric and authentic without being pretentious. The photo below shows the walkway from the lobby to the dining room.
The dining room was one of my favourite places to spend time, overlooking the wide acacia-studded savannah. We’d often see animals grazing in the distance while we were eating a meal — Baboons, Dik-dik and more.
Game drives start early in the morning, just as the sun is making its way over the horizon.
Samburu is located in the drier northern part of Kenya, so there were many standard African species of animal as well as some specially adapted for arid conditions. We were there in the dry season (late February), which was actually a fantastic time to go. Most people go in our summer to see the Great Migration, whereas we practically had the reserves to ourselves, and the dried-out landscape allowed us to have wonderful views of the animals. It was easy to see this tiny Dik-dik, one of the smallest types of antelope, in the shade of a thorny bush.
On the other hand, you can never miss the raucous Olive Baboons, quarreling and romping as if they own the place.
Secretary birds are common in eastern and southern Africa, with their spiky headdress picking up the morning light.
There is a lot of bird life in Samburu, including some species we hadn’t seen before, making it a bird-spotter’s paradise for creatures like these spectacular Vulturine Guinea-fowl…
and the sleek Eastern chanting-goshawk.
The East African Oryx, or Beisa Oryx, is well-suited to the dry landscape, able to retain water by raising its body temperature to avoid perspiring.
Two unusual species that are found here and hardly anywhere else are the gorgeous Reticulated Giraffe — the photo below shows one grazing just yards from another group’s safari vehicle —
— and Grevy’s Zebra, which lives in only in northern Kenya and Ethiopia, and can survive up to five days without water. It is strikingly beautiful, with narrowly-spaced stripes that cover its face and extend all the way down to its hooves. (The standard zebra that you’ll see in most photos is Burchell’s Zebra.)
One of the most unusual antelopes we’ve ever seen lives in Samburu as well — the Gerenuk, also known as the ‘giraffe-gazelle’. It not only has a much longer neck than most antelopes, but can also stand up on its hind legs, stretching its body into the higher portions of trees to graze where other antelopes can’t.
Elephants in Samburu have the same grey hides they do elsewhere, but bathing in the reddish dust has given them their ruddy hue.
Even the termite mounds are red-tinted, making them look like strange alien growths against the dry grey shrubs.
Just as in other parts of Africa, roads through the reserve are minimal and make for quite an interesting ride as you bounce and sometimes tilt sideways along the way. Roads back home in North America aren’t nearly as much fun!
Of course the big cats make a home in Samburu. Leopards are here, although we didn’t spot any, but we did see this cheetah family out on the prowl…
,,, and these lion cubs chowing down on their evening meal in the shade with their mother.
Lions are stunningly beautiful out in the wild. Because of habitat loss and diseases caught from being forced to turn to livestock for food, they are rapidly reaching endangered status. It would be heart-breaking indeed to lose these magnificent creatures.
Samburu Reserve runs along the banks of the winding Ewaso Ng’iro river, which was almost completely dried up during our visit. Nevertheless, it had a lush, primordial beauty, fringed by riverine forests sprinkled with multi-branched doum palms (seen in the photo below). This is what I have always imagined the Garden of Eden looked like.
In fact, as we stood on the red sands of Samburu, I had the most remarkable feeling: as if we’d stepped far, far back in time to when the world was created. There was no sound except the breeze rustling through the trees and the animals walking through the bush. The land seemed to stretch endlessly into the distance, beyond the blue hills and devoid of any other humans or the stamp of civilization. The land felt ancient and untouched.
The Samburu people, who are believed to have migrated from the areas around the Nile, have a village near the river, and we had the opportunity to visit it.
They still live in a very traditional way, in huts constructed of tree branches and other found materials. They keep the lions out at night by closing the gap in a thick perimeter fence made of thorn branches.
As a semi-nomadic people, they hunt but also keep cattle, let out for the day to graze.
Women wash their clothing at the river, even during dry season.
Children do chores and play, as all children do…
… while the adults put on their colourful robes and performed traditional dances for us. They make beautiful beaded jewellery; I bought a necklace from the woman who made it.
We also saw a demonstration of how to make fire in the old way.
The provision of a school by the government has curtailed their nomadic existence, and we also saw the odd cell phone around the village.
A word of warning should you ever go to Samburu and make a point of visiting the village: take lots of water and cover up well. We spent two hours in the hot sun, and as fascinating as it was, by the time we returned to the lodge I had some heat exhaustion, relieved by beverages and a long dip in the cool on-site swimming pool.
Sunsets in Samburu were glorious as our guide brought us back to the lodge; in Kenya, as in many African countries, night drives are forbidden because the spotlights used disturb the animals.
One of the most amazing stories to come out of Samburu — you probably saw it somewhere in the news media in 2002 — was the wild lioness who, instead of killing and eating a vulnerable baby oryx, decided to adopt it. You can read more about it on the African Wildlife Foundation website.
No one knows why the lioness decided to adopt the little antelope, whose mother was still alive and would stop by to feed her baby — perhaps it’s just the magic of Samburu.
As always, all photos are by me (unless otherwise specified) and all rights reserved.
This month the world celebrated International Women’s Day. This is an interesting event for me because it shouldn’t need to exist. It shouldn’t require a special occasion to recognize the contributions of women.
When I was in university studying biology I spent a couple of summers working for different sectors of the government. There were an assortment of female and male students, and most of them were great to work with, but I still remember one fellow in particular who declared that he would never work for a female boss. I can still picture him spitting out those angry words.
Women’s rights have come a long way in my lifetime, but I still see so much divisiveness.
We consider ourselves modern, at the pinnacle of human achievement in recorded history, yet we continue to devalue people who are different, whether it’s another gender, skin colour, religious belief, or any other number of other characteristics that diverge from our own. Every creature on this earth has a place, whether it’s human or non-human, and deserves to be able to live in peace and harmony.
One of the things that my hubby and I have learned on our travels is that people all over the world are the same as us: they live, love, laugh, cry, feel pain. They want the same things – to be able to provide and care for their loved ones, and to be treated with dignity. They may choose to live their lives differently than we do, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. We need to get over our fears and embrace other styles and viewpoints; there’s often a lot we can learn.
We’ve encountered remarkable people wherever we’ve gone. One of my favourite stories involving women comes out of Kenya, the first African country to start offering commercial safaris.
Kenya is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. It’s also highly developed, meaning that the game reserves you visit on safari are in pockets separated by long roads edged with civilization. The main roads are in decent shape, but once off of those your driver spends their time playing dodge ball with numerous, sizeable potholes. It’s impossible to drive in a straight line on the country roads, and vehicles constantly zigzag back and forth across lanes to avoid the biggest ruts.
We were amused by the experience – until our guide couldn’t avoid one gigantic hole on the road to the Masai Mara Reserve. With a big bounce and a loud bang, the left rear tire of the van was shredded.
So there we were, a guide and six passengers, stuck in the middle of nowhere, just miles of lion country and the odd tiny Maasai village. We all clambered out of the van and watched in the dry-season heat as my hubby and the guide removed the damaged tire and tried to put on the spare.
When the old tire was off, they discovered that it wasn’t actually the road that damaged the tire – when leaf springs meet pitted asphalt, they don’t come out of it well. Our leaf spring had been dislodged and bent, so it wasn’t just a matter of changing the tire. They struggled for a while but the vehicle’s jack wasn’t able to lift the van high enough to get at the spring.
By that point, we’d begun attracting a lot of attention from the nearby village. Quite a few people came over to us with various things they thought might help, from crowbars to odd pieces of wood and metal.
Nothing worked, though, until the village’s matriarch brought out an old exhaust pipe, slowly walking over with her wonderfully wise face. Like all great matriarchs, her wisdom and experience saved the day. I took this photo of her after a few of us got back into the van briefly to get out of the blazing afternoon sun.
My hubby was able to use a couple of rocks and smash the leaf spring back into its accustomed spot, and the spare tire was bolted into place. We only managed to limp about a mile down the road, though, before the jury-rigged system gave out, and our guide had to radio ahead to our lodge for rescue.
For a different kind of adventure, I recently stumbled upon a great movie called Maiden, the true story of Tracy Edwards, who at the age of 24 took on the male-dominated sport of yacht racing by putting together the first all-female crew in the famous Whitbread Round-the-World Race.
Many influences shaped Tracy’s determination to take on the challenge, not least the early death of her father and her mother’s remarriage to an abusive man.
Tracy ran away while still a teenager and began working as a cook on a charter boat, still trying to work through the emotional baggage. She fell in love with sailing and after a lot of cajoling was able to sign on as cook on one of the yachts participating in the 1985 world race, but even after sweating the more than 25,000 miles of rough open water with the all-male crew, she never felt truly accepted by them, and became resolved to enter an all-female crew.
Through reminiscences by Tracy and all the young women who signed on, and actual footage from the time, the movie documents Tracy’s ads for a crew, the derision she received, and the exhausting quest for a sponsor when no one was willing to take a risk on a crew with no men. She did eventually find a single sponsor – and I won’t spoil things by telling you who it turned out to be – and she and her fellow adventurers spent a year repairing a used boat.
By the day of the 1989 race departure, the crew of the boat now named “Maiden” had been thoroughly trashed by the media and some of the male crew on other boats, a variety of whom were also interviewed throughout the film. No-one beside Tracy and her crew believed they would even finish the first leg of the race from Southampton England to Uruguay. All the men expected them to give up partway and turn tail back to England.
I’ll let you discover what happened as the ladies of the Maiden battled calm spells, raging seas, cold so severe that snow often coated the deck of the boat, and endless days of non-stop rigging and navigation. I will only say here that those remarkable women made history in a way they never expected.
The movie has streamed on several stations lately, and hopefully one of the services like Netflix or Prime Video will pick it up. If you can catch it, you won’t regret watching this testament to what people are capable of when they strive to achieve something bigger than themselves.
My dad was ahead of his time. His generation viewed women only as wives and mothers, but he encouraged me to study science as a career choice. When I was a little girl and wanted a bicycle, he took me to the bank to open my first bank account and helped me save up enough money to buy one. Years later, he taught me not only how to drive but also the basics of car maintenance — he showed me how to check the oil, change a flat tire, top up the windshield washer fluid.
When I was just seventeen and adventurous, I decided I wanted to drive 300 miles to visit my great-aunt in the city I was born in, and he agreed to let me take the family car. He drew a map for me of how to get there while avoiding the craziness that was Toronto traffic at the time. My mother, who couldn’t drive herself, came along with me, but in contrast to my dad’s calm assumption that I’d do just fine, she prayed surreptitiously most of the way. She was a good sport, though, and we had quite a few laughs along the way.
I was lucky — both my parents raised me with a strong sense of ethics and taught me how to be an independent woman. When my husband and I decided not to have children, they supported our right to make that decision for ourselves.
Not all young women in the world have had that encouragement and respect, so the annual celebration of International Women’s Day, just around the corner on March 8, is so important because it’s also a celebration of equality for all genders, whether female, male or any other. The theme this year is EachforEqual, which speaks to exactly that point.
There’s a photo contest attached to the event, but I’m not a competitive person (except when playing Backgammon, at which I’m ruthless 😀 ), so I’m happy to just post my own photos of wonderful females from my travels.
Pestilence, fires, plagues of locusts and political chaos – one might be forgiven for thinking that the Four Horsemen are loose!
But none of that has changed the fact that our world is a beautiful, fascinating place.
We are a global family. Maybe we’re as dysfunctional as regular families often are, but we are nonetheless all linked together in a world-wide ecosystem. We need to stay connected to each other on a deep personal level, to understand, to help, to educate.
We need to preserve our global home, which as humans we have resoundingly trashed, there’s no doubt about that. People are afraid for our future, and so some extreme solutions are being proposed.
There has been a lot of travel shaming recently, with suggestions ranging from don’t fly to don’t travel at all. While the coronavirus situation will certainly have an effect on our travel decisions until it’s over, I think the environmentally-prompted messages to stop travelling completely are completely wrong.
Travel is one of the greatest educators we have available to us. I don’t say ‘tourism’, I say authentic, respectful and responsible travel. There is simply no substitute for visiting another place and experiencing it first-hand – talking to the people who live there, sharing their food, seeing the wildlife in its own natural habitat, getting a feel for what another culture is truly like.
My husband and I were fortunate to be able to travel to Ireland and Northern Ireland last fall. I’m a huge Titanic buff, so the opportunity to stand on the slipway where the epic ship was built in Belfast was an amazing experience, but so was the Black Cab tour that we took to gain an in-depth understanding of the Troubles. Belfast is a lovely city with lovely citizens who were so warm and welcoming, but we could feel how fragile the peace is, and how worried everyone was about the repercussions of Brexit.
Going on an adventure teaches you resilience, and often a lot about yourself at the same time. Visitors to Africa often find it a transforming experience on many levels, and TripSavvy lists a safari as one of their 10 Most Romantic Adventure Trips You Can Take.
On a trip to Kenya we spent some time in remote Samburu reserve, where tall giraffe and red-tinted elephants wander among the thorn trees nearby and purple hills roll away into the hazy blue air for as far as the eyes can see. We stood on the rust-coloured ground, and I had the most profound feeling of having stepped back in time through eons to when the world was new, and we might have been the only creatures upon it. It was an extraordinary experience, and I wasn’t alone in having it.
Some of our best and most memorable experiences have been the unscripted interactions with local life.
One night in Bali, after suffering from a migraine all day, I asked my hubby if we could just go up to the restaurant on the roof our our beach resort. It had a Mexican theme, which was oddly the rage in the main city of Denpasar at the time, and our eating there was more a matter of convenience than expecting great food. It was a hot, humid night, but the cooler air on the rooftop was soothing. We were the only patrons, and the entire restaurant staff trickled slowly out to chat with us as we enjoyed the truly excellent Mexican meal they made for us. They pulled up chairs around our table and asked us all kinds of questions about Canada, including “What do you do when it snows?”, to which we replied, “We go to work just like usual.” They were flabbergasted that we would drive in the snow. It became one of the most memorable nights of our trip through southeast Asia.
In the town of Chivay in the Andes, our tour stopped for lunch before lurching up to the top of Colca Canyon to watch the huge condors fly. The restaurant owners kept a pet alpaca in the courtyard, which my hubby and I were immediately drawn to. For some reason the friendly little camelid decided that my hubby’s hiking pants looked really appetizing, and we laughed as it tried determinedly to snag a bite out of one pant leg.
Staying at home teaches you nothing. Staying at home stunts our burgeoning sense of connectedness.
Staying home will only promote insularity, xenophobia and fear, and people do terrible things when they’re afraid. When we travel, we begin to understand how alike we are to other people on our planet. We share the same joys and the same pains, the same desire to share life with someone special, the same need to leave some small legacy behind. The differences in how we approach these are what makes each culture so rich and fascinating.
There’s no substitute for sitting in a restaurant overlooking the lights of Hong Kong harbour at night, trying to look elegant while attempting to spear your slippery scallop with a jade chopstick. In a small town about half an hour away from Vienna, my mother’s best friend embraced her as they reunited for the first time since nursing together during WW2 50 years before, then served us rich coffee and a delectable Austrian torte in her flower-filled house. In Cairo we ate mezze in a dim restaurant filled with the aromatic smoke from huge pans of sizzling falafel. We had afternoon tea in New Zealand while watching, and feeling, Tongariro volcano rumble in irritation on the near horizon.
The wonder of standing in the Temple of Heads at Tiwanaku, one of the most enigmatic archeological sites in the world, where an ancient civilization flourished so high in the Bolivian Andes that they were above the tree line and had to invent new techniques to grow food, is something you have to experience in person. As is having breakfast in the morning sunlight as the mighty Zambezi river flows swiftly by just a few feet away..
What we need is for travel suppliers to find more sustainable ways to provide their services, and as travelers it’s equally our responsibility to be good guests. That means: