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.

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.

botswana safari 2007 card no 4 304

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.

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

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!

Memories of travel food

Lunch at a bush camp in Botswana - photo by E Jurus
Lunch at a bush camp in Botswana – photo by E Jurus

One of my favourite things about travel is the cultural immersion, and a large part of that consists of the food we enjoy in different countries. What we’ve consumed has provided some of my most powerful memories over the years.

I can’t tell you much about the 400-year-old pub we had lunch at in Stratford-upon-Avon many years ago, apart from the creaky floors that dipped alarmingly on the second floor where the washrooms were, but I can recall in great detail the incredible chocolate cake we had – three layers of intense dark chocolate goodness piled with a velvety chocolate frosting, and drenched in rich pale-yellow pouring cream. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven!

In Egypt, on chilly nights on the top deck of our boat on the Nile, after dinner the crew would bring out an enormous battered steel kettle of steaming hot tea, which they served with hot frothy milk and lots of sugar. There was nothing better than being bundled up in our blankets, sipping this wonderful tea and eating digestive cookies at the end of an amazing day of sightseeing.

On the island of Bali, we hired a vehicle and driver to take us to see the rice terraces that were currently under cultivation – a spectacular experience, like being inside a giant emerald – and after a long day of touring with still over an hour to get back to our resort in Denpasar we asked him to find us a place to stop for dinner. He asked us what we like to eat, and then after a few minutes he pulled up in a tiny town at a place that looked like an old mechanic’s garage. We were a bit startled, but Wayan assured us that the kitchen was clean and the food was safe to eat. We decided that it wouldn’t be beneficial to him to kill off his customers, so we went in with him and let him order for us. We were the only non-Indonesians in the joint, which had only one big table where we were slowly joined by a few men from town who trickled in. We had a very spicy vegetable stew, rice and some bottles of pop. The men from town paid us some attention, but mostly chatted amongst themselves. At one point Wayan stepped out to buy a live chicken caged in chicken wire, which he put in the back of his small van. The entire meal for all three of us cost $8. The mother who was cooking and her daughter came out to meet us, so we asked Wayan to tell her how delicious everything was, which earned us a big smile.

Our camp cooks in Africa have been able to produce some of the most amazing food on a tiny stove rigged up on top of pop cans over an open fire way out in the bush. We’ve had everything from cheddar and bacon pizza to steak to pears poached in red wine with chocolate cake. Eating out in the open, under the African stars, with the sound of hippos bellowing in the distance, is an incredible experience.

You can’t plan for experiences like this – you stumble upon them, and they stay with you forever. They represent an entire culture on a plate. Forget tracking down a MacDonald’s or something that reminds you of home; that’s not why you’re there. Enjoy a memory that will make you smile on a cold winter day when you need some cheering up, and even better, bring home the recipe from that distant land and make it that day!