Welcome to the Life Safari Blog!

I will be using this blog to share my travel and photography adventures with you. It will include photo essays, trip reports, short stories, my impressions of  the different places I have been, and practical tips for specific destinations, things I have learnt from my travels, photographic tips and tricks I have picked up and musings about conservation and various other issues specific to the wildlife and places I have visited.

I hope you enjoy reading about my life's safari and please feel free to leave comments and ask me questions!

Me doing what I love best - photographing nature!

 

Sublime Svalbard Part 2

November 18, 2016  •  2 Comments

 

Sublime Svalbard Part 2

Our Svalbard adventure continued as the Polaris I headed up the coast of the Spitsbergen Archipelago, dropping anchor along the way in particularly beautiful and interesting places so that we could head to shore in the zodiacs to explore.

We hiked through incredible scenery and made the most of opportunities to photograph the unique birdlife.

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(Photograph of me photographing birds on shore care of Gerry van der Walt from Wild Eye, our fantastic guide!)

 

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As we headed further north we admired walrus hanging out on the ice flows that became ever more common.

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As we cruised along the coast and through the ice flows we scanned the shores and ice for signs of polar bears.

We visited the research center of Kenvikken and hiked up to the top of the mountain through deep pristine snow to an incredible 360 degree view. It felt like we were at the top of the world with the tiny ship bobbing in the bay below giving scale to this vast place. It was made even more special by laughing with friends at the top at our (mostly) failed attempts to get a leaping group photo….too weighed down with gear and tired from the climb to do a decent job!

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After particularly cold days out on the water or hiking we would come back to the ship and have chocolate krakens (a delicious hot chocolate and spiced rum drink we came up with!) and in the evenings we would have dark and stormies and whiskey with glacial ice and all share lots of laughter and fun with our new friends.

During the days we had great opportunities to practice birds in flight photography with the ever-present Northern Fulmars accompanying our ship. Gerry was always close at hand to give excellent photography advice and encouragement!

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As we got close to the pack ice we marveled at the incredibly soft and beautiful light at the top of the world.

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One morning it started snowing and we stood on the ship’s deck looking with wonder at astoundingly beautiful, complex and delicate snow flakes falling all around us, more lovely than I could ever have imagined.


 

We were treated to almost impossibly beautiful scenes as we travelled. Often seeing marine mammals such as walrus hauled up on the ice flows, adding even more magic to the scenes.

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As we reached the pack ice and we cruised our way through the massive icebergs, the ship pushing them out of the way with a very unique crunching sound!

 

Another wonderful part of the trip was getting to know our fellow travellers, hearing about their amazing experiences and having a ridiculous amount of fun. Truly I could not have chosen a more wonderful group of people to share this adventure with.

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 We watched hundreds of harp seals, bearded seals and ringed seals observing us from the ice. The harp seals were often flighty and would slip off the ice and porpoise through the water looking back at us on the ship.

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The bearded seals were a lot more chilled.....their incredible mustaches were something to admire, often with frozen droplets of water in the little curls at the ends!

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Another special moment to savour was being the northern-most people in the world for a time.....

 

One afternoon we used the zodiacs to glide up close to comic and charismatic Harbour seals who lounged and bounced about on rocks watching these crazy wildlife paparazzi with their big lenses taking photos of them!

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Next we used the zodiacs to whizz across a glassy flat ocean in zodiacs to watch and photograph the adorable and very photogenic puffins in the water around the cliffs where they burrow.

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We learnt about the animals of the arctic and more about the history of the place from Rupert our guide. Rupert is also a fantastic story teller and shared with us all many an interesting tale!

Gerry taught us all heaps about photography, composition and post processing in Lightroom in sessions during the days....

 

We visited Texas Bar, a tiny cabin in the middle of nowhere, with an interesting name!  Here we hiked up the glacial moraines to the foot of the glacier. On the way we were delighted to see a stunning arctic fox in her winter whites come out from behind a rock near us and skip slowly out over the hills.

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We were lucky enough to have a fellow traveller with us who is intrigued with the polar explorers and the history of the poles. He is also an excellent story teller and shared tales of the adventures of the polar explorers....Incredible stories of folly, futile heroism, bravery and endurance interspersed by marvels of human achievement. In the same environment it was easy for us to imagine these brave but often ill-prepared men battling to stay alive in this harsh land.  

These historic tales were made so real to us when later we landed at Virgohanna, the incredibly rough bolder strewn site of the launch of Andree’s ill-fated balloon adventure. We wandered among the rubble of the explorers' dreams in this eerie place with bones strewn about amid the wreckage of the camps from polar bears opening the graves and raiding the coffins.

 

It was quiet remarkable to be immersed in a landscape so epic and immense that even the snow-capped mountains seem small and insignificant because of the scale of the scene. The seascape was so enormous that when we saw a big storm front scud across the sea, it seemed tiny in comparison. 

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During the trip I felt privileged to watch some real masters of photography at work and learn from them as they generously shared their knowledge and expertise.

On the last afternoon before we returned to Longyearbyen we hiked up a beautiful mountain and surveyed the distant snowcapped peaks over the water, the tundra dotted with reindeer, an arctic fox trotting calming across the hillside down to meet some of our group below on the tundra, still in her darker summer coat turning to white as autumn advanced. 

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We were able to walk with reindeer so chilled about our presence that they would almost walk over you if you were lying down to photograph them and they decided to walk in your direction!

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On the final day, after docking in Longyearbyen, we went on a hike for a few wonderful hours through the rocks and tundra watching majestic adult reindeer and adorable babies.

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Then we were lucky enough to see an Arctic fox trot across the mountain sides above us foraging for food....

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Then the most amazing experience to end…..the magic of an arctic fox, wild and wary but unafraid, coming so close that all we could do was put our cameras down, grin delightedly at one another and marvel at the close encounter with this delicate looking beautiful creature tough enough to endure the harshest of winters.

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These are but a taste of the incredible experiences we had in Svalbard. This is a land of almost unimaginable scale and splendor, a place of exploration, bravery and struggle, timeless in its grandeur and beauty and one of the last great wildernesses of the world. A place of fun, friendship, and adventure and a place none of us will ever forget.

A huge thank you to Gerry from Wild Eye and Rupert from Blue Planet Expeditions for being the most wonderful hosts and guides you could ask for and for giving us all such an amazing experience. To my fellow travellers - thank you for making this expedition even more wonderful than I could have imagined and I hope to travel with you again in the future!

 

 

Footnote re bear

Seeing the bear in Magdalena Fjord was an incredible thing to see and yet also heart breaking. The bear was in very poor condition after a summer spent on the land. This magnificent and highly specialised bear has adapted to hunting seals on the pack ice and when on land can only scavenge for carrion, birds and bird's eggs, they may also eat some grass, kelp, or berries. This means that bears that are stranded on the land eat very little until they can return to the ice. With the climate changing the ice is receding further and further and the time the polar bears are stranded on land becomes longer and longer. This is very hard on the bears and means that many do not survive to return to the ice. This is particularly difficult for the females and cubs.  The female almost always dens on land (to keep her cubs safe from males who generally stay on the sea ice) and the cubs are born between late November and early January. The female would normally rely on being able to emerge from her den and hunt on the sea ice near the land for a time before being restricted to land for the summer. It is incredibly hard for the female now that often there is no sea ice near the land when she emerges with the cubs, leaving her to produce milk to feed the cubs for a longer and longer summer with no for herself food. There is a trend now towards females having fewer cubs and far fewer cubs are surviving to maturity. Sadly the struggle faced by the bears and all the other animals of the Arctic is very real and quite obvious. Climate change is warming their Arctic habitat faster than any other place on Earth, with devastating consequences and this trend is projected to continue. If going to the Arctic cannot convince you of this and the need to act now, nothing can. I do hope with all my heart that we can do what is needed to preserve this incredible wilderness and its wonderful and unique wildlife.


Sublime Svalbard Part 1

November 18, 2016  •  4 Comments

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Sublime Svalbard

(Part 1)

This is a land so wild and beautiful it will challenge your image of the world and may change you forever. So raw and real that it makes the “real world” that most of us live in seem fake and artificial. 

What a privilege to be able to explore this overwhelmingly beautiful wilderness with just 11 other traveller, 2 guides and 5 crew on our expedition ship the Polaris I. We boarded the ship in Longyearbyen, the world’s most northern city….it has a rather frontier and quirky feel to it, added to by the signs asking you to leave your guns outside the supermarket, not to park your dogs here and do not leave the city without a gun…..!

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As we boarded the Polaris I the excitement of all on board was palpable! Everyone in our small group quickly got to know each other, despite our introductions being interrupted by our first polar bear sighting! None of us could contain ourselves and we all piled outside onto the deck to admire the female and juvenile bears quietly resting in the golden light of evening. 

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(Not sure you’d be wanting to leave the safety of this holiday cabin any time soon if you were inside!)

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This was followed by the most incredible polar sunset (well the sun never really set at all but there sure was a light show as it dipped towards the horizon around 11pm!).

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As we continued on our expedition, wonderful moments beyond measure or description followed......

When we woke in Magdalena Fjord to a misty snowy morning which cloaked the mountains and laid an air of magic and mystique over the glorious fjord......

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As some of us soaked up the atmosphere and admired the delicately beautiful star-like snowflakes falling around us our 3rd polar bear was sighted! The bear was making his way along the shoreline right by our boat and we all watched in awe and wonder as the huge white bear ambled over the jumbled rocks by the ship and eventually disappeared over the ridge in front of us (see footnote re bear at the end of part 2). 

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Using the zodiacs we landed on a spit of sand to visit a large ugly of Walrus basking in the sun (yes, the collective noun for a group of walrus really is an ‘ugly’!!). These cantankerous creatures would intermittently rear up and ‘peck’ at one another with their tusks and some rolled down the beach into the water when they needed to cool off (or scratch!). 

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Later some walruses swam along with us while we were in the zodiacs, close enough to touch, curious, brave and so agile and confident in the water.

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Even the crew were excited when we saw a blue whale and her calf gliding through the water, even the calf was far bigger than our ship! Usually once they dive you do not see them again for 20 minutes, if at all, but these whales fluked and dove many times, perhaps the mother was teaching her baby to dive? An absolutely magnificent sight, especially against the glorious background of pristine snow covered mountains in the distance. Something that I never thought I would be lucky enough to see but that will remain in my memory forever.

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We were able to experience the incredible sights and sounds of huge glaciers calving with the booming thunder and enormous splashes!

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The serenity and beauty of the magical Arctic land and seascape was astounding.

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More about this incredible adventure in part 2!

 


Marvellous Madagascar - Isalo National Park

January 29, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

My apologies for the long wait between part one and part two of my Madagascar blogs! Life got away with me but the good news is a lot of the time I was busy I was out in the field adventuring and taking photographs so I will loots more to share....when I get time to write!

Isalo National Park in Madagascar is known as the "Colorado of Madagascar" due to its sandstone massif which has been eroded by wind and rain to form bizarre ridges (known as “runiformes”) and impressive gorges and canyons

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​This shows a stitched panorama of 15 images of the main massif, gives you an idea of the size of this enormous rock formation....we were still many kms away.

As we neared the massif and the local village we started to see the Zebu cattle grazing under the watchful gazes of their caretakers. These cattle are very important to the Malagasy: an embodiment of their owner's wealth which is a tradition originating on the African mainland. Cattle rustling has been a rite of passage for young men in the plains areas of Madagascar. This tradition continues but is becoming increasingly dangerous as the traditional weapons (spear etc) have been replaced by guns. The Zebu are used as draught oxen, as dairy cattle and as beef cattle, as well as for byproducts such as hides and dung for fuel and manure. Traditionally when a man dies all of his Zebu are killed and their skulls used to decorate his tomb. This is a tradition that the government is working hard to change as it is a factor in the extreme poverty in the South of Madagascar.

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A typical Zebu. 

After a pretty bumpy trip along the dirt road which took about 1.5hrs we arrived at the end of the road near a village. The kids from the village were playing in the river when we got there. As we set off with our guide Mana on our hike into the Canyon we had a long line of sweet Malagasy children trailing along after us chattering and laughing. Our guard of honour came as far into the park as they were allowed and delighted in showing us chameleons and interesting insects. The kids were adorable and actually waited for us to come back again before accompanying us back to the village. Not that many people were going to this area at the time when we went so our presence was obviously quite a novelty for the kids!

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Beautiful Dragonfly pointed out to us by our little guides!

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A chameleon the children proudly found and showed us.

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The amazing sandstone walls outside the canyon.

Once we got inside the canyon the vegetation changed completely and we were suddenly in a lush and damp forest. The canyon walls are a beautiful reddish, orange, pink, yellow sandstone and loomed over everything. There was a stream running through large boulders inside the canyon and the place was full of life: fish, frogs, birds, chameleons, insects, ferns and many other plants. 

It was stunningly beautiful. We walked, climbed and scrambled down to the end of the canyon marvelling at all around us then slowly headed back.

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A Paradise Flycatcher (Rufous) in the forest inside the canyon.

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The lush green inside of the canyon.
 
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Once we exited the canyon and farewelled our little escort of children, we drove a short distance away to where the enterprising locals had created a picnic area and were making delicious food for the local guides and visitors. The food was delicious and, as after our long walk we arrived when everyone else had left, we had the whole place to ourselves....apart from the many inquisitive lemurs that is! There were Ring-tailed and Red-fronted Brown lemurs, all very relaxed around us and indeed very curious! 
 
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Amazing luminous eyes!
 
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How cute are these red-fronted Brown lemurs?!
 
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These Ring-tailed lemurs were just as curious about me and my camera as I was excited to see them!
 
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Wow what an amazing day....we headed back to our accommodation and had a lovely meal with Mana and Tojo. The adventure wasn't over yet though as I decided to go out onto the rock formations near us and photograph the milky way. The stars were absolutely incredible and it was a moonless night, making the sky pitch dark and the stars light up the heavens like nothing I have ever seen before. Incredible!


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The Milky Way over the Isalo rock formations.

 

Sadly the next morning we had to leave this amazing area to head onto the next part of our adventure.

The scenery was stunning along the way....

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We also met these delightful children in one of the villages when we stopped for Mana and Tojo to get fresh paw paw snacks! The kids saw our cameras and everyone wanted to be photographed! We started with just a couple and before we knew it all the kids were there!

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The kids absolutely loved seeing their photos on the back of the camera and we have made prints to send to them via Mana when he next passes that way.

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Every day and every drive, walk, meal, encounter was an interesting and delightful experience in this incredible country with its wonderful people...... Next instalment: The Anja Community Reserve and the road to Ranomafana.


Marvellous Madagascar - Antananarivo to Isalo

October 04, 2015  •  1 Comment

My trip to Madagascar had been a long time in the making.....many years of wishing to see the "Big Red Island", sometimes called a living natural history museum or a Noah's ark or the Eighth Continent. My strong desire to see this incredible island stems from the fact that it is one of the world's most amazing biodiversity hotspots with 90% of its animals and plants found only here and no where else. Sadly, my feeling of urgency to see it soon stems from the fact that Madagascar's diverse ecosystems and unique fauna and flora are threatened by the pressure of the rapidly growing human population and other environmental threats. Indeed deforestation, as the result of felling for exotic timber, charcoal, slash and burn cultivation and grazing, has already rendered 90% or more of this island a barren grassland where once it was covered by forest.

I spent many happy hours researching the trip by reading every book I could find on Madagascar! I particularly enjoyed those written by imminent scientists and conservationists like Alison Jolly and Patricia Wright. These really gave me an idea of what a complex country Madagascar is with a tumultuous, unique and interesting history, culture and people. It also made me realise how challenging the conservation and political landscape is there.

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My time to visit this unique place had finally come after years of waiting and wishing and months of planning, homework and organisation. It was very difficult to narrow down the huge list of places we wanted to see to those which were realistically possibly within our time frame.....oh to have more time and more money, soooo many amazing places to visit! In the end we narrowed our list to eight national parks and the associated logistical travel......The organisation was made vastly easier and more enjoyable due to the capable and enthusiastic help of Danica Wilson from Encompass Africa. Although warned about the unreliability of the logistics in Madagascar and having built extra time into our itinerary for issues like plane delays and cancellations, no one really expected a full blown strike from Air Madagascar just before we left with all aircraft grounded for over a month! This necessitated the change of a large part of our itinerary to avoid the 5 internal flights we had booked to get to all the places we needed to go! Thank goodness for Danica who was an angel and reorganised everything just days before we left....although it was a rather more stressful lead up than I had hoped for but nonetheless everything was done in time and off we set for our grand Madagascan Adventure!

After an epic 32hr journey we arrived in Antananarivo, our mood somewhat dulled by exhaustion but nevertheless excited to begin the adventure! Revived by a good night's sleep, some excellent french pastries (one of the good legacies of the french influence over the country!) and Madagascan hot chocolate we were ready to depart for our flight down to Toliara in the deep south of the country where we would be met by our guide and set off to explore the Big Red Island! 

 

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Antananarivo

 

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The rice paddy fields of Antananarivo

Flying almost the length of the island on the 3 hour charter flight necessitated by the Air Madagascar strikes was incredible! We saw so much more of the island from the air because our tiny 3 seater Cessna flew at a much lower altitude than a commercial plane. We passed over the high altitude plateau, high mountains, the hilly spine of the country which from the air looks like the land has been crumpled by a giant fist! Sweeping plains intersected by wide braided sand rivers flowing into the sea. The majority of the land is just grassland after the terrible deforestation and deep red gashes of erosion stand out like wounds in the hill sides. Close to Toliara we started to see the dry deciduous forests forming patterns of shades of grey, green and brown below us. Then we flew over the large and elaborate tombs near the town and touched down on a deserted runway.

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Flying over the hills and rivers of central Madagascar with the smoke haze from the slash and burn and the erosion from the hills into the river visible.
 

 

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The rivers cutting through the hills of Madagascar

 

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A huge braided sandy river
 

 

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The dry deciduous forests in the south of Madagascar
 

 

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The Fiherenana River near Toliara
 

 

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The approach to Toliara
 

 

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Our tiny little Cessna!
 

At Toliara we met our guide Mana and, to our surprise (we hadn't expected a driver too!), also our driver Tojo, two of the most lovely people one could hope to meet and who made our journey so amazing. After loading our gear into the four wheel drive (most of mine was camera gear!) and a quick spot of lunch we set off for the drive to Isalo National Park. I don't think one ever forgets the first few hours travelling through a new and unique country, everything is different and interesting and exciting! I took so many photos out of the car windows as we drove through villages filled with children playing by the sides of the road, prehistoric looking long legged chickens with their chicks and village dogs. We passed big herds of Zebu cattle tended by the local Barra people, evidence of slash and burn, charcoal sellers, markets, zebu carts, the local Taxi Brousse (these overloaded, smoke belching vans take the place of buses in most areas Madagascar) and old trucks and cars also making their way along the sealed by often potholed national route 7 (the main "highway" of the country that runs from Antananarivo to the deep south). 

 

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Typical scene of the road passing through a large village 

 

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Large Zebu herds being transported by road on foot to market, they may take many weeks or months to get to their destination.....

 

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​Whizzing past the grassland and hills of the Southern Madagascan countryside 

 

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Zebu resting calmly in front of a fire started to burn off grass in order to induce it to grow green shots for the cattle. A practice very damaging to the environment.

On the way to Isalo we stopped off at Zombitse National Park and I could barely contain my excitement on out first expedition into a Madagascan National Park! The Zombitse forest is a dry deciduous forest and because we were there in winter time it was very dry and there was not a lot of leaf cover, just thick scrubby and quite bare bush but beautiful nonetheless! We walked along the winding pathways with Mana scanning the bush while our park guide trotted off to scout for animals. It wasn't long before we saw our first lemur, a most gorgeous and very surprised looking Zombitse Sportive Lemur. He looks so surprised because being a nocturnal lemur they are almost blind during the day time when they rest in tree hollows and branches. When they hear a noise they just stare towards the noise with huge wide eyes trying to figure out what it is but not really able to see you which makes them look rather shocked and horrified. So exciting to see our first lemur, I can hardly describe the feeling of amazement! 

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Hubbard's Sportive Lemur (Lepilemur hubbardorum) or the Zombitse Sportive Lemur

 

On our walk through this forest we also saw an Oustalet Chameleon, the biggest of Madagascar's Chameleons which can grow to an amazing 70cm long! I could hardly believe my eyes seeing this huge Chameleon, I didn't realise they got so big!


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We also saw other lemurs (Verreaux's sifaka, more Zombiste sportive lemurs and Red-fronted brown lemurs) as well as many birds (Crested drongo, Green sunbird, Lesser vasa parrot, Greater vasa parrot, Cuckoo roller, Pied crow, Madagascar buzzard, Madagascar bush lark, Madagascar kestrel, and Broad billed roller)....not a bad start!

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Hubbard's Sportive Lemur (Lepilemur hubbardorum) or the Zombitse Sportive Lemur

 

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Madagascar Kestrel

 

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Verreaux's sifaka

 

Once I could be dragged away (no mean feat!) we drove the rest of the way to our lovely accommodation near the edge of the Isalo National Park. There we enjoyed a lovely dinner with Mana and Tojo and a well earned rest before the next stage of the adventure....visiting Isalo NP the next day.....stay tuned for the next instalment!


Magical Mountain Gorillas and More - Part Four - Tracking the Rushegura Gorilla Family

June 06, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

Still glowing with happiness from our first encounter with the amazing gorillas as the next day dawned we were really looking forward to visiting another family.......Our second gorilla trek actually left from the Buhoma park headquarters just down the road. We started our trek by walking through the village we had visited on the first day then we walked up the mountain behind through the banana, tea and coffee plantations and into the community dual use or buffer zone land which abuts the national park. We climbed and climbed and climbed approximately 3km to the top of the mountain and over the other side into the National Park. There was a well defined track, making the going pretty easy at that point but it was still pretty hard work because of the steep and constant climb. The trackers got word to us that they had located the gorillas but they were still a fairly long way away…..so we kept trekking, often times with our guides cutting trails through the thick forest up and down very step terrain but through some of the most beautiful and dense forest I have ever seen. Our guide was great, stopping for frequent rests and only going at the pace of the slowest person in the group. We continued like this for another 4 hours or so before finally getting the word that the gorillas were very close and that we should leave our bags, get out our camera gear and move forward to meet the Rushegura family.

Te Rushegura family was made up of 16 individuals. However, they had split into two groups that morning after a fight with another family and everyone had scattered. The black back (or second in command) had taken half the family to another area and we had found the silverback and the remainder of the family. There was talk that probably the family was likely to split permanently soon with the black back becoming a silverback and retaining part of the family and creating a new group. The silverback had a few wounds from that morning’s fight but everyone seemed calm and were feeding happily. There was a female with an infant of just a few days old and the tenderness with which she cradled the baby in her arms was so sweet. This family was feeding and so moving through the forest, seemingly very slowly but it was quite a struggle to keep up! For such huge animals they move through this incredibly thick forest with such swiftness and ease, it really is very impressive.  

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The Silverback feeding. You can see some old wounds on his shoulder and face.

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A close up portrait of the gorgeous silverback.

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Delicately munching some delicious leaves!

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One of the sub-adults gazing into the trees.

 

What seemed likely very shortly afterwards our time was up (and we had strayed to within close vicinity of the border with the DRC and our guides were a bit nervous!) and we headed back to our bags. Only then did we realize how exhausted we were! We all had lunch, sharing food and water with the porters, guides and trackers and rested before slowly heading back down the mountain. Much quicker going down but very hard on the knees, back and ankles! All in all it took about 7.5hrs and we were done for but very very happy!!

I cannot describe the wonder of seeing the amazing Mountain Gorillas in their own wild habitat and being able to spend some time with these gentle and beautiful giants. Although costly we felt it was worth every penny and more, especially because a lot of the money goes into conservation. This really seems to be paying off with a doubling in population in the last 10-20 years. The local community also benefits significantly from the people coming to see the gorillas. They locals we talked to really appreciated the benefits brought by the gorillas and recognise their importance and the need to protect them. This was very heartening for the future.

The gorilla tracking certainly involves some strenuous hiking but for us this was part of the fun and adventure and we loved this part of the experience too. The forest is very beautiful and you really see what the Gorilla's environment is like and see them as they truly are. I wont downplay the level of physical effort involved, the mountains are very steep and the forest very thick, the terrain sometimes very trecherous, it can be hot, humid, wet, muddy but it is still wonderful and leaves you with a real sense of achievement at the end! Visiting the Mountain Gorillas is something that no one I have talked to who has done it regrets; despite it being expensive, time consuming and challenging to get there and can be hard going physically, in fact for most it is truly one of the most wonderful and memorable moments of their life, us included.

 

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