Blue Nirvana: Humpback Whales in Tonga

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We’re floating with mask, snorkel, and fins on the surface of the open ocean. Peering straight downward, the rays of light fade into a dizzying expanse of deep blue, filling our entire vision. Below us, perhaps thirty to forty meters down, we can see a large humpback whale motionless in the water. To its sides, the pale edges of its pectoral flippers rest peacefully, subtly reflecting light back upwards. Soon we can make out the shape of a much smaller calf slowly easing outward from beneath its mother.

140901_Tonga_0522Moments later the humpback whale calf comes rising upwards. It reaches the surface for a breathe, and then plunges back under. With twisting turns it rolls its body over, pushing its belly upward as its still-floppy flukes wag up and down, splashing water to and fro. It rolls again, then sweeps its long pectoral flippers like a dancer’s arms, arcing its body into a quick turn as it glides straight past us, a big eyeball on the side of its head, watching.

Another twist and flick of its fluke, and the calf plummets back downward to the side of its mother. Imperceptibly, she has risen several meters in the water column, and is now slightly easier to view from the surface. The whale calf swims gently along her side, then down under her belly, eventually hovering almost out of view, perhaps nursing.

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Several minutes later, the calf’s head is poking out to the side of its mother again. The youngster slowly swims up past her head, rolling and rubbing its rostrum against hers in what appears to us as an affectionate display. Then the calf is once again gliding upwards towards the surface, directly towards us, angling slightly to breathe again nearby. The calf turns and passes much closer to us, rolling in a playful manner as it turns in a big circle while splashing its fluke across the surface, upside down. It begins to descend, then pauses and rises again to take another curious look at us before languidly swimming off to pass alongside another of us human swimmers floating like flotsam on the surface.

The massive mother remains motionless below.

140829_Tonga_7531After the calf’s third series of surfacing antics, it descends only perhaps twenty meters to reach its mother. It nuzzles her again. In time they both rise together. After watching the calf — a mere fraction of the mother’s length and girth — we gasp into our snorkels as we gaze at the enormous “Mother Ship” lifting upward. With her youngster swimming alongside her flank, the mother lifts and bows her immense head at the ocean’s surface to breathe. Her giant wings and tail fluke make lazy downward movements, like a gentle tai chi exercise, and together the two whales careen forward effortlessly as she breathes again.

Our small team of five swimmers paddle our flippered feet with great fervor, yet — compared to these whales — with only pathetic results. In the distance, we can see the mother taking another breath before she descends once again to her resting depth. She will remain there for perhaps another twenty minutes again as her calf explores the strange and very foreign world on the surface of their huge ocean home.

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Over a ten day period in Tonga, we had multiple wonderful encounters with humpback whales. Usually we were with solitary mother and calf pairs, sometimes a male “escort” was present with them, and occasionally we found some exciting male “competitive groups” – locally referred to as “heat runs” in Tonga. After decades of watching whales from boats and ships, these glimpses into the underwater world of whales were a game-changer for us. In expanding our minds and warming our hearts, this experience has forever broadened our understanding of the lives of humpback whales.

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Galapagos — Magical Shores

Along a favorite stretch of rocky shoreline on Isla Santiago in the Galapagos Islands, the surging waters of the Pacific Ocean create a magical performance with each pulsing wave.

Yin-Yang Waterfall from Jack Swenson on Vimeo.

(The video clip was shot in 2012 with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera. Back home, I created the soundtrack by fiddling with GarageBand on my Mac. Enjoy!)

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Seeing Spots! – On Safari in Southern Africa

After 10 months of travel, we now have the pleasure of reflection, reviewing images, and remembering the experiences that make our work so exciting. We’re catching up on our blog, a project that seems to require more time and focus than what we can typically spare while traveling for work. Following on the heels of our Namibia safari, we want to hop back to last August’s incredible safari in Zambia, Botswana, and South Africa. 

Zambezi River at Victoria Falls

Zambezi River at Victoria Falls

Our Botswana & South Africa Photo Safari began with a pre-safari extension to the Victoria Falls region of Zambia. There, the languid flow of the broad Zambezi River takes a thundering drop into a deep chasm. What makes Victoria Falls so impressive, and challenging to describe, is that the river is a mile wide as it plunges across the entire length of this gorge — it’s not pouring into one end of the gorge, but cascading across its mile-long flank. Here the earth has been torn open, instantly swallowing this massive river into a deep slot canyon with one narrow exit. As we view the falls, rather than standing at the bottom looking up, trails lead us along the opposing chasm wall only a few hundred feet away from the upper edges of the long line of falls.

As if ambushed by gravity, the river careens into this gaping fissure, pulling gulps of air with it as more and more water continues hurtling downward. The compacting air and crashing water then explode in rebellious exhalations, but the confines of the canyon force them to escape straight up, funneling skyward in blasting winds and wet clouds of dense mist. These plumes swirl into the air over the falls, conjuring rainbows from the tropical sun, then raining their moisture back upon the earth. From the guts of this great steaming chasm comes a constantly venting roar, giving the falls their local African name, Mosi-oa-tunya, or “The smoke that thunders.”

Local boy at Chief Makuni village, Zambia.

Local boy at Chief Makuni village, Zambia.

A yellow-billed stork flies along the Chobe River in Chobe National Park, Botswana.

A yellow-billed stork flies along the Chobe River
in Chobe National Park, Botswana.

From miles away, the plume of mist above the falls could still be seen as we visited the local village of Chief Mukuni. Yet while cruising on the river above the falls that afternoon, the powerful flow of water seemed muted as we savored a pleasantly tranquil sunset from a riverboat on the Zambezi.

Beginning our main safari, we all gathered together in Livingstone, and headed to Botswana. We crossed the Zambezi River at the bustling, border ferry at Kazungula, where the boundaries of Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia all nuzzle together. From there, a short drive took us into Chobe National Park where game is drawn to the waters of the Chobe River, a tributary of the Zambezi. Our primary interest here was spending afternoons cruising the river by pontoon boat, and watching and photographing hippos, crocodiles, a great variety of waterbirds, and the many thirsty critters that come to the river’s edge to drink. Chief among these are throngs of elephants, great family groups galloping excitedly down the dusty hillsides to reach the cooling waters of the river. It had been a very dry year with little or no rain throughout the safari areas, so the river is key to the animal’s survival.

Elephants crossing the Chobe River, Chobe National Park, Botswana.

Elephants crossing the Chobe River, Chobe National Park, Botswana.

Moving along the river by boat, we can ease in close to the drinking herds of elephants. We were in plain view, yet completely ignored by them as they drank and bathed, used their trunks to spray themselves with water, then mud and dust. As they “snorkeled” across the deeper waters of the river to feed in the lush grasses on the Namibian side, they raised their trunks high to breathe, then emerged the color of graphite with golden highlights from the setting sun.

Elephants emerging from the Chobe River in the bronze evening light, Chobe National Park, Botswana.

A herd emerges from the Chobe River in the bronze evening light, Chobe National Park, Botswana.

Aerial view of a river snaking it's way through the flooded Okavango Delta, Botswana.

Aerial view of a river snaking it’s way through the flooded Okavango Delta, Botswana.

From Chobe, we flew southwest into the wildlife rich Okavango Delta. This is another place where the environment revolves around a river, but here it is the seasonal flow of the Okavango River moving southward from Angola, before spilling out across and into the dry sands of the Kalahari Desert; an inland delta where there is no sea. Yet again, the waters bring life.

Classic view of a leopard at Chitabe Camp, Botswana.

Classic view of a leopard at Chitabe Camp, Botswana.

Returning each year to the Delta and to Chitabe Camp is always a highlight of our travels. It’s a splendid and friendly camp with excellent guides, staff, and outstanding wildlife viewing. Like magicians pulling a rabbit out of their hats, our guides began our first game drive by driving barely a half a mile from the camp, and then presenting us with one of the best views imaginable of a leopard lying luxuriously on a tree limb.

Curious cubs in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.

Curious cubs in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.

They’d found it there earlier in the day, but the sight of this elegant and unperturbed big cat right in front of us was no less staggeringly wonderful. Only a few hundred yards away from the leopard was a lioness with her small cubs. The following morning we went back to find the lion’s basking in the warm early light, the cubs playing as their mom rested. The leopard had moved off during the night.

Our final location in Botswana was the Mashatu Game Reserve in the country’s less-visited far eastern tip, nestled in a corner near the borders of Zimbabwe and South Africa. We headed this year to Mashatu Tent Camp, and could immediately see how extremely dry the region had become without rain for many months. The game viewing was still quite good, especially for finding big cats with spots.

Our first afternoon we found six cheetahs together; a mom with five nearly full-grown kids. Now this is quite a feat for a cheetah mother, as these cats often lose many of their young to other stronger predators prowling an area.

The following morning, half of the photo group accompanied Jack and a local guide to an underground photographic blind or “hide.” This one had been fabricated using a shipping container with a long slender viewing area cut across it before being sunk in the ground. From inside, our view and cameras were only inches above the ground level, and only a few feet from the edge of a small waterhole.

A fitting frame for an elephant herd, viewed from the underground hide at Mashatu.

A fitting frame for an elephant herd, viewed from the underground hide at Mashatu.

Doves and skittish impala arrived to drink, as well as a big male eland that had sadly become entangled in a wire snare (this would be reported to the regional game rangers to hopefully track down, dart, treat, and cut free). Then, arriving almost silently from behind us, came a herd of elephants, quietly shuffling in to drink at the waterhole. Their enormous legs rose like canons from the ground right in front of us, so close that you could nearly reach out and stroke their toenails. When several of them trumpeted, the blaring sound reverberated through the hollow metal container. Young ele’s nuzzled between their mother’s legs to get a drink.

Among giants; an elephant calf lives in a world of trunks and towering legs.

Among giants; an elephant calf lives in a world of trunks and towering legs.

Although we tried to be quiet, we struggled to contain our mirth at this astoundingly close and ground-level view. With our muffled “Wows” and “oh, my Gods,” and our multiple cameras clicking, it was certainly obvious to the elephants that curious sounds were emanating from this strange nearby box. Several of the elephants, at different times, sucked up water and then sprayed it in our direction with their trunks, scattering muddy droplets on our cameras and lenses, while the local guide laughed at our reactions.

Cheetah males attempt to mate with a reluctant female.

Cheetah males attempt to mate with a reluctant female.

During this marvelous encounter, Jack kept wondering and hoping that Rikki and her group were also having a good morning out on their game drive. Well, it turned out that they were having a fantastic time as well. They had relocated the cheetah mom with cubs, who had been joined temporarily by a coalition of three adult males (one presumably the father of the five younger cheetahs) now courting the mother. With these additional three males, the mom, and her five offspring, there were a total of nine cheetahs together, moving around and interacting with each other. The frequent overtures by the male cheetahs sparked defensive flurries of claws and snarls from the female and a few of the juveniles.

One less impala at Mashatu.

One less impala at Mashatu.

Last year's cub is all grown up.

Last year’s sweet little cub is all grown up.

Rikki was clicking her camera again and again, marveling at the scene (nine cheetahs! Wow!).All the while she was wondering and hoping that Jack and his group were having an okay morning sitting in the hide. When we compared notes on our outings, we both laughed as it had been such an exceptional morning for everyone.

All of this delight was only part of the festivities we enjoyed while at Mashatu. We also had several terrific leopard sightings, including finding one of the cubs we’d watched last year, now looking nearly full-grown and munching on an impala he’d just killed. As he ate his meal on a low fallen tree just above our heads, in the final glow of the sun he looked alternately sweet and innocent, and then like a fearsome predator — a cat’s many faces.

Impala drinking at a waterhole by camp.

Impala drinking at a waterhole by camp.

For the final days of this superb safari we returned to Mala Mala in South Africa. The lodge there felt blissfully lavish after our nights in the bush at the more rustic tented camp. But, typical of all the locations we choose, we were there because of the area’s outstanding wildlife. Mala Mala provided a fitting crescendo, with elephants and rhinos, lions and leopards aplenty, kudus and kingfishers, and even elegant nyala antelope nibbling the flowering bougainvillea around our cottages.

Among the amazing sightings, we had a leopard walk up and lie beside our vehicle to gnaw on the tire. A mother and cub leopard casually strolled by our vehicle countless times, the curious cub reaching up and nearly jumping on the hood.

A leopard cub's tail drifts past its mom, intent on hunting.

A leopard cub’s tail drifts past its mom, intent on hunting.

After following them for a while, we pulled away to enjoy a bite of breakfast “in the bush” — which is hardly roughing it with a table cloth, lush spread of food, and hot coffee and tea, etc. Finishing this, we started south, but the road was blocked by a gang of elephants. We got a radio call about lions being found not far away. So we turned around to search for them.

Lions ambushing an impala in Mala Mala Reserve, South Africa.

Lions ambushing an impala in Mala Mala Reserve, South Africa.
(That’s one less Mala Mala impala.)

We soon found the lions drinking at a pool by the river, and alternately lying in the shade. Several got up and ambled off into the bush, but with intent, as if stalking. After following them for a while, it became evident that something was afoot, and suddenly several of them darted ahead. A single impala came careening past our vehicle, and at that moment the lions ambushed a second impala only 30 feet away from where we were parked. Almost instantly, eight lions were on top of it in a ferocious mob, growling and gobbling down this hapless antelope that was all but devoured in less than 15 minutes from when it took its last breath. Horns and hooves were all that remained.

The lions, which are so often lovingly rubbing against each other with fondness, were temporarily transformed into snarling and quarreling enemies, lashing out at each other with clubbing paws and lashing claws as they each tried to lay claim to their own piece of the prize. Those cat’s have many faces.

A lioness escorts the pride's cubs across the river.

A lioness finds shallow water where the pride’s littlest cubs can safely follow her across the river.

We will return to Southern Africa this September, with great excitement and anticipation of the incredible wildlife experiences we will be sharing with our Photo Safari travelers. With many new itineraries being offered by Lindblad | National Geographic in 2014, at this time we do not expect to be leading a 2014 Southern Africa safari, but do plan to lead another safari there in 2015. Please let us know if you would like to be on the list to hear about that safari. Click here to see our 2014 Expedition & Photo Safari schedule.

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2012 Namibia & S.Africa: Stunning Desert and Wildlife

Dead Vlei, in the Namib Desert.

Cloud shadows dot Dead Vlei, in the Namib Desert.

It’s not hard to explain our attraction to Namibia. While the country is a striking contrast to the vision of Africa seen in the movies, of savannahs and umbrella acacia trees, in this vast desert there is stunning, rugged beauty in a palette from sandy whites to variations on tan, orange, red, ochre and brown.

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Desert elephant wanders along a ribbon of dry riverbed.

Our safari began in Windhoek where we boarded our two Cessna Caravans to fly to the far NW of the country, about 100 miles below the Angola border.  We spent our first days exploring in the remote Purros Conservancy, looking for the desert elephants who wander across vast territories to find food and water in the ribbons of green riverbeds that lie between islands of rocky mountains. We were happy to find the elephants, and also the very rare black rhino, giraffe, great gangs of ostrich, regal oryx, impala, steenbok, and klipspringers.

Himba women in the Purros Conservancy.

Himba women in the Purros Conservancy.

Purros is also home to a settlement of Himba, semi-nomadic pastoralists whose movements mirror the availability of grasses for their livestock. They are one of the last truly nomadic people in Africa. A few days in advance of our arrival we received word that the chief of the settlement had died. Most everyone in the community, and all of their goats and cattle as well, had moved to the north for the funeral, so we didn’t know what to expect. A handful of Himba women had remained behind to look after the younger children, and a few men as well. In past years we have visited a Himba settlement right on the Angola border (100 miles away), and we had brought photos from there with us. We showed the Himba women the photos, and they laughed and pointed to their friends and family. Nothing like family photos to break the ice.

Giraffe congregate at sunset in Etosha.

Giraffe congregate at sunset in Etosha.

From Purros we flew east to Etosha National Park, a huge expanse of dry landscapes surrounding the Etosha Pan. Each year here is different, sometimes there is water creating surrealistic views as we fly over the pan, sometimes we see only the

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We spent a morning watching a pride of lions led by this big male.

remaining patterns and tracks left behind in the dried mud. This was a drier year, which is great for wildlife viewing as Etosha has a network of roads that lead to a variety waterholes. Supported by solar pumps, there is an almost constant parade of wildlife to these holes — great family groups of elephants, herds of zebra, wildebeest, and impala, as well as giraffe and the superstar lions and rhino — all headed in to access these essential sources of water. (Why did the rhino cross the road? To get to the waterhole of course.) Hornbills and lilac-breasted rollers were perched along the roadway, while kori bustards and secretary birds were stalking the open plains.

Approaching a massive white rhino in the Ongava Private Reserve.

Approaching a massive white rhino in the Ongava Private Reserve.

After exploring the eastern side of Etosha, we did a leisurely full day game drive westward, arriving in the late afternoon at Ongava Private Reserve, a sanctuary for white and black rhino, bordering Etosha N.P. Ongava sits on a hillside looking down at a waterhole that is lit through the night.  On the morning game drive we encountered a great pride of lions inside the park, and the evening game drive graced us with wonderfully close up views of two white rhino. The highlight was the time spent at sunset in the “hide” (a blind) adjacent to the waterhole. Patience and quiet is essential at the hide, waiting and watching to see what animals come in to drink a mere 30-40 ft away.

The lights above the waterhole make the darkness beyond more intense, so you often hear what’s coming before it appears. The rustle in the bushes and crunch of gravel underfoot signals a pair of black rhino approaching. But, it’s the subtle approach of the stealthy ones that really make you squirm.

Breathtaking lion moment at the waterhole.

Breathtaking lion moment at the waterhole.

When three big male lions suddenly appeared from the darkness to drink at the near side of the waterhole they were so close, our group in the hide were all holding their collective breath. Suddenly the small wooden building seemed awfully thin-walled compared to these powerful animals! As the last lion turned to leave, someone coughed in the hide. The lion, only a few yards away, turned to give what seemed like an extremely long and serious stare at the source, it’s large yellow eyes glowing, before disappearing back into the darkness right next to the hide. Definitely a breathtaking moment.

Astounding dune formations make this an amazing scenic flight.

Astounding dune formations make this an amazing scenic flight.

Continuing our journey south, after our mid-day boat outing in Walvis Bay, we flew over the endless dunes formations of the Namib Desert in the late afternoon. From the air, it is incredible to watch as the shapes change and the color intensifies to a rich, ruddy orange as we approach the Sossusvlei area. The next day we encountered a very unseasonal weather front, and saw a remarkable thing, a big rain in the astoundingly beautiful, giant, orange, sand dunes of the Namib. While this weather presented a few challenges, the clouds gave us combinations of light and shadow for gorgeous photo ops in Dead Vlei and throughout the dune corridor. We finished in Namibia with a stunning Sundowner perched on the jagged hills above the desert floor. Gorgeous.

Unusual weather created stunning lighting over the dune corridor.

Unusual weather created stunning lighting over the dune corridor.

Our safari was far from over for those continuing on with us to South Africa and the Mala Mala Private Reserve. Mala Mala, bordering Kruger National Park, is renown for it’s amazing wildlife, especially it’s leopards. 50 years ago, Mala Mala made the transition from a hunting reserve to a photo reserve, so generations of wildlife have grown up in the presence of safari vehicles without threat. This is especially important for photographing the cats, the big cats, and the little ones too.

A pair of lion cubs curiously scan the sky as an eagle soars overhead.

A pair of lion cubs curiously scan the sky as an eagle soars overhead.

The reward of tracking leopards in the early morning.

The reward of tracking leopards in the early morning.

Here we watched as a cheetah waited, oh so patiently, for a herd of impala to get within striking distance, only to be discovered a split second before her attack. We were lucky enough to find lion cubs, lot’s of lion cubs, including a pair who were only a few weeks old. And of course there were the leopards — tracking two leopards on our first outing, finding a young female with a delightfully curious cub.

These were all amazing moments from the first half of our month in southern Africa. More on the Botswana & S.Africa safari to come, as well as Galapagos, Costa Rica & Panama, and most recently E. Africa! Too much travel, not enough time for blog posts.

If you are interested in joining this safari, click here for the 2013 Namibia Photo Safari Itinerary [with all the fine print]. Please Note: Lindblad will not be offering the Namibia Photo Safari again in 2014, and there are no plans for the foreseeable future.

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The Coast of Western Africa

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In March/April we experienced an epic voyage along the entire western coast of Africa aboard Lindblad Expeditions’ flagship, the National Geographic Explorer. We visited 17 different countries — though the status of Western Sahara remains in dispute, with Morocco currently controlling that coastal region — maybe it’s only 16. Nevertheless, it was an expansive journey allowing us to visit many fascinating and unusual places. Some countries, like Angola, Liberia and Sierra Leone, have only recently stabilized after years of internal war, while others have remained peaceful havens seldom visited by foreigners. Through it all, our most charming memories were woven together by countless welcoming smiles, exuberant children, and concerts by regional performers playing beguiling music. Here are condensed versions of some favorite memories:

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Sand sifts into abandoned rooms
in Kolmanskop, Namibia.

South Africa: We spent several days with friends watching penguins at Boulders Beach before joining the ship in Cape Town. Our final “Bon Voyage” event was an energizing concert performed by “Freshlyground,” one of South Africa’s top bands, at an outdoor amphitheater on Cape Town’s waterfront. A hot beaming sun, and pulsing African rhythms sent us on our way.

Namibia: Although we’ve been to Namibia numerous times, this was our first visit to the southern port town of Luderitz. In the nearby ghost town of Kolmanskop, we marveled at the desert sands sweeping into the rooms of the old abandoned buildings. [Read Jack’s Daily Expedition Report from Namibia.]

Flying fish in waters off Angola, Africa.

Flying fish off coast of Angola.

Angola: The chilly waters of the Benguela Current turned warmer as we sailed northward, encountering scads of flying fish and a rousing throng of hundreds of Clymene dolphins along the way. In the Angolan town of that same name, Benguela, we boarded an historic railway, the “Caminho de Ferro de Benguela” built in 1903-29 and now restored for passenger travel, riding back to the port town of Lobito where our ship was docked.  [Read Rikki’s Daily Expedition Report from Angola.]

Republic of the Congo: The eroded clay hills of Diosso Gorge reach like pink clay hands into lush green forests; a strangely beautiful tropical “Badlands.” During the evening at the steamy port town of Pointe Noire we ventured ashore to see a “Tradimoderne” musical stage performance by the local troupe “Lelu Lelu.” [Read our Daily Expedition Report from Congo.]

Equator Crossing: A festive, yet bizarre, event at sea for those land-lubbers who had never crossed the equator by ship. They faced the eccentric jurisdictions of ruling King Neptune, his queen, and their nefarious gang of pirates, courters, chamberlains, and medical technicians. Be Ye Warned!

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Selling chiles, Sao Tome Island.

São Tomé & Príncipe: This small nation is a tropical paradise consisting of two lush volcanic islands rising from the warm waters of the Gulf of Guinea. São Tomé, the larger of the two, is a green and mountainous island with many rural homes surrounded by fruiting and flowering tropical trees. Coffee and cacao (chocolate) are both produced here. Along the sleepy town’s waterfront, fishing canoes line the shores where children frolic in the balmy sea.

The southern end of Príncipe Island has precipitously steep mountains that look as if they were imported from the South Pacific. We spent a leisurely day at a quiet beach resort on the northern end of the island, enjoying the swaying palm trees and lapping waters of the sea.

Bagyeli boy at village visit outside of Kribi, Cameroon, AFRICA, 2012

Boy of the Bagyeli forest people watches visitors to his camp in Cameroon.

Cameroon: We had one of the most unusual outings of our entire voyage when we journeyed up the Lobe River by wooden dugout pirogues to a clearing in the forest where we met with a group of the Bagyeli, a forest people often referred to as Pygmies. Smoke rose from behind thatched huts, adding a mystical ambiance to their music and flailing dancers. Singing vocals were backed by the driving rhythms of their drums and percussionists beating rapidly and rhythmically on two long trunks of bamboo. [Read our Daily Expedition Report from this outing in Cameroon, as well as a video of the Bagyeli drumming and dancing with narration by our shipmate, National Geographic Global Luminary, Wade Davis.]

Woman and child in dugout canoe, Ganvie Village, Benin. [NO MODEL RELEASE]

Dugout canoe crossing Lake Nokoué near Ganvie, Benin.

Benin: The stilt village of Ganvie rises above the waters of Lake Nokoué just north of Benin’s busy capital. Dugout canoes and wooden pirogues ply  the waters around and through the village in a bustle of activity of people fishing or selling housewares. It was a colorful and vibrant scene.

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School children welcome visitors at Akato Viepe village, Togo.

Togo: The Fetish Market abounds with strange and macabre items used in the makings of Vodun (Voodoo) talismans, called fetishes. Some of us found our way into rooms behind the stalls where we were offered an unusual collection of fetishes to protect us during our travels. At the village of Akato Viepe, excited school children gathered around us. The teachers worked to maintain a sense of order, but the children’s glee continued spilling over their cheerful faces. The village had an enormous welcome ceremony for our group, with singing, drumming and great fanfare surrounding the procession of their local chief. That evening, one of the most famous Togolese musicians, King Mensah, and his band played a private concert for us on the ship.

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Entering the darkness of the slave dungeons at Cape Coast, Ghana.

Ghana: The historic theme of slavery was discussed in many presentations on the ship throughout this voyage, but without doubt the most powerful testimony came silently from the darkened rock enclosures of the former slave dungeons that we visited at Cape Coast Castle. It was haunting.

Children in classroom at Obaa's School, Monrovia, Liberia. [NO MODEL RELEASE]

Enthusiastic children at Obaa’s School, Monrovia, Liberia.

Liberia: Being the first tour ship landing in Liberia, this was an historic visit for Lindblad and National Geographic. But memories are a funny thing, sometimes you most recall the things that might be better forgotten. So it was with Liberia, a country torn by war. There are many nice things we remember, but they don’t jump out in our minds as strongly as these two awkward recollections: 1) The blown out remains of the former luxury Duccor Hotel on the prominent hill overlooking the port and city of Monrovia. 2) Rikki’s blown out shoulder rotator cuff from a fall en route to hear the Vice President speaking in the ship’s lounge. (She worked the remaining 12 days of this trip, and ultimately had it surgically repaired weeks later.) Apparently the Togo traveler’s fetishes didn’t work!

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Welcome to Sierra Leone!

Sierra Leone: The vibrant streets of Freetown offered a mesmerizing show for us as our bus struggled for an hour through the gnarled traffic of crowded downtown. It was an unexpected blessing as we were surrounded by color, movement, and friendly greetings wherever we waved. For a country that has recently suffered through years of war and hardship, it was very encouraging to see so much enterprise and vitality.

In the balmy air on deck after dinner we were treated to a live concert by the famous Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars band. The music lilted out across the pier below, where the night-shift workmen were joyfully dancing too.

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Adding woodblock patterns to fabric in The Gambia.

The Gambia: We experienced two intriguing and contrasting views in this tiny country. There was the dazzling scene as we walked through a large and busy local market in Serekunda teeming with vendors selling myriad things. The antithesis was strolling leisurely through peaceful woodlands in the nearby Abuko Nature Reserve where birds and monkeys moved tranquilly through the trees.

Exuberant children posing for photos, Goree Island, Senegal. [NO MODEL RELEASE]

Exuberant children posing for Rikki on Goree Island, Senegal.

Senegal: A short boat ride from the port in Dakar took us to nearby Gorée Island, rich in history, and abounding in vivid scenes. Colorful colonial buildings line networks of narrow alleys where goats amble and children play.

We traveled for more days at sea, encountering seabirds, dolphins, and the best views ever of numerous sei whales. (The name “sei” is an old Norse word for pollock fish that were abundant when these whales were sighted.)

Western Sahara: There are no tour busses here, and few people who speak English, so the local agent hired 50 local men with SUVs to caravan us into the desert for a special tented lunch. After visiting so many crowded cities, the sweeping winds across the empty expanses of the Sahara felt like a giant exhalation.

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Sand blowing across vast stretches of desert in the Western Sahara.

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In the Sahara:
Our driver spoke no English,
so we didn’t learn his name. We think he snuck aboard the ship…

Tenerife, Canary Islands: Who dropped us into Europe? What happened to all of the street vendors, and why is no one carrying anything on their head?

Morocco: We ended our epic voyage, and drove by smooth paved highway to the famed city of Marrakesh. The dizzying liveliness of the enormous, traditional Berber Market, or “Souk,” was captivating, but it was also . . . time to go home.

We’ve tried to whittle-down this long and amazing adventure into a single blog entry, which, however, still ended up being epically long. To see a more of our favorite images, scroll down to the slide show below.

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Photo Safari: East Africa 2012

Migrating herds of wildebeest and zebra in the glow of sunrise in the Serengeti.

We’ve been to Africa twice since we last wrote a blog update, and these two adventures were entirely different.

Dawn greeting at Giraffe Manor.

To stick with chronology, our first trip of the year was our annual East Africa Photo Safari which was splendid as always. Prior to beginning our safari, gracious friends treated us to a memorable night’s stay at the Giraffe Manor on the outskirts of Nairobi. The old manor buildings, built in the 1930’s, reside within a sanctuary protecting a herd of endangered Rothschild giraffes. The adjacent Giraffe Center manages an ongoing breeding program that has been successfully reintroducing this rare subspecies back into the wild. Staying at the manor, meals are regularly interrupted by enormous giraffe heads popping in the window to greet visitors. Our stay there was an extraordinary and memorable experience that felt a bit like a fairy tale.

Elephants crossing the Uaso Nyiro River in Samburu.

Our safari began in an unusual fashion. Typically we find lions and cheetahs, and then have to search hard to find a leopard, the stealthiest of Africa’s big cats. This year, everyone’s first cat sighting was of a big male leopard in Samburu. We then had several sightings of this gorgeous feline, before finding any of its brethren. There were many elephants around the Samburu area coming regularly to drink and bathe in the river. This year on safari we again had many wonderful encounters with young animals. In Samburu, we sighted an elephant calf that was likely only about one day old. Its ears were still wrinkled from being folded in the womb, and its attendant mother had to occasionally use her trunk to help the little feller back up on its feet.

People often ask, “How close is the wildlife?”

At Lake Nakuru, we found numerous endangered white rhinos, one with a young, yet stout-looking, calf. The Masai Mara was green with grass, and full of life. We encountered great herds of zebras drinking at waterholes, elephants in the marshes, buffalo, topi and gazelles aplenty. As always, we had fantastic views of the famous lions of the Marsh Pride.

The one that got away; a lucky topi (antelope in background) makes its escape.

At Little Governors Camp in the Mara, our meals were regularly interrupted by bull elephants that wandered into camp to shake fruits from the marula trees by the dining tent. Brrrrr-ump-bbbump-bump-bump, the small, round fruits came tumbling to the ground around the elephants standing by the open tent as they methodically plucked up fruits one-by-one with their trunks until satiated. The camp guards kept everyone settled quietly where we were until the elephants moved away. Often we were seated only a few yards from four mighty legs and the supple searching trunk.

Serengeti commuter traffic.

From the Mara, we flew into the Serengeti in Tanzania where we encountered the great migration of wildebeest and zebras moving northwestward into the Seronera region. Every game drive from our lodge brought us into the vast herds. Thousands of zebras clogged the road, and herds of wildebeest alternately ambled or ran across the plains in seemingly endless long lines. These great herds are constantly on the move, always searching for fresh grass to graze. As a result, each year we encounter them in different areas of the southern Serengeti. This year they found lush grazing in the plains right near our lodge in the Seronera area, and we were rewarded with astounding and ever changing views day after day.

Mother cheetah and cub resting beside our group’s safari vehicle.

Four furry cheetah cubs on top of mom.

We continued on to the Lake Ndutu region. En route, we had a mother cheetah and her young cub feeding on a recently killed gazelle. Once full, the two cats then sought shade beside and even underneath our safari vehicles as they digested their meal. (All of these African animals have grown up in the presence of safari vehicles, and either ignore the vehicles or use them to their advantage). At Lake Ndutu, we had more excellent sightings of cheetahs as a coalition of three brothers patiently stalked game on the open plains. We were fortunate to also find a mother cheetah with four absolutely adorable cubs.

The bigger show near Ndutu was the large pride of lions residing around the big marsh. This pride has numerous grown females, a large male, and a gaggle of cubs ranging from just a few months to almost grown who were often playing and wrestling with each other.

East Africa Feather-Weight Championship.

CAUTION: Objects in the rear view mirror are closer than they appear…

One morning, a hapless hippo strolled into the area, and the adult females closed in for an attack, but they then backed off as the hippo displayed its massive teeth. The lions settled back down in the shade to wait for less challenging prey.

Our final destination was the famous Ngorongoro Crater. Although it’s an extremely popular place for tourists, it’s also very popular with lots of animals, and there’s always plenty to see and to photograph. Continuing on our young animal theme, we watched a female wildebeest give birth to a calf. Within moments of being born the wet calf was up and teetering on its wobbly legs, before doing unintended head tumbles back onto the ground, then struggling back up again. As it tried to get to its mother’s udders, she walked around it, forcing the little calf to walk on its newfound legs. By the time it was 14 minutes old (we timed it), the mother and calf went running off to rejoin the herd.

Still wet behind the ears at 14 minutes old.

A couple of minutes later, a spotted hyena wandered over to where the calf had been born. The luck of being born before the hyena showed up, and the ability to begin running soon after birth made the difference in this little calf’s survival. During our day in the crater, we watched other young calves being chased by hungry hyenas. Each one managed to get away. One calf was saved at the last instant by its mother charging the hyena just before it caught the sprinting calf. Phew!

Something to smile about.

Africa is full of such drama, beauty, and strange miracles. It is the ultimate wildlife documentary that remains unedited as we watch its wonders unfold. Not all of the endings are happy ones like these, but the experiences are so often profound and enriching in our lives.

[Click here for the East Africa Photo Safari itinerary for 2013.]

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Returning Home & Schedule Updates

We finally have an extended stay at home after many busy months and lots of travel.
Our trips abroad interspersed with slices of time at home form a colorful patchwork quilt all stitched together by hours of packing and unpacking, laundry loads and TSA lines. During the past six months we’ve had the great fortune of visiting 19 different countries outside of the U.S., all in Africa except one. Yes, we’re a bit exhausted. And also exhilarated from all of the magical experiences we’ve enjoyed.

We’re grateful to now have a long break at home until our next African Photo Safaris in August. There is a lot to accomplish here at home, but the days are getting longer, and Seattle’s fickle weather keeps loaning us the sun for more days at a time.

We’ve now posted an updated version of our 2012-2013 Schedule highlighting our upcoming Lindblad | National Geographic Photo Expeditions and Photo Safaris that we’ll be leading this year and next. This year, for us, continues to be a year of visiting predominantly warm destinations; always pleasant and much easier packing, of course. Next year, in addition to taking groups to our favorite safari destinations in East Africa and Southern Africa, we’re very much looking forward to returning to Baja California, followed by itineraries along Alaska’s stunning Inside Passage. A highlight of next year will be again visiting Papua New Guinea, this time aboard the Oceanic Discoverer, and venturing once again into the wild highlands of PNG to visit the remote Huli tribe. We visited this region with Lindblad in 2006, and it remains one of the most memorable and unusual voyages of many years. Here’s a small taste of what we experienced then, and why we’re looking forward so much to returning to Papua New Guinea . . .

The warmth of the tropical islands . . .

The incredible underwater world . . .

The astounding Huli tribe in the wilds of the highlands . . .

 

 

 

 

 

In the weeks ahead, we’ll look forward to sharing some photos and stories from our recent African adventures.

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