Halong Bay: Land of the Dragons

The Enchantment of Halong Bay…

The 15th century Vietnamese poet Nguyễn Trãi once described Ha Long Bay as “a rock wonder in the sky.” Anyone who has ever seen the place can easily understand why.

086 halong bay house 2_
Many of the local people live on houseboats next to the towering islands

A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1994 and the most-visited tourist destination in the Southeast Asian nation, Ha Long Bay is a spectacular cluster of more than 1,600 limestone islands and islets jutting out of a sea of rippled emerald green waters that evoke a sense of eternal ataraxia.

The peaceful serenity of Ha Long Bay — situated in Vietnam’s northern Quang Ninh Province, just 165 kilometers northeast of Hanoi — is echoed in the tranquil lifestyle of those who live and work here, creating a hauntingly beautiful otherworldliness that mesmerizes all that witness the place.

D85_1819 halong houseboat
Simple and tranquil living in Halong Bay

The islands, called karsts, are perforated with hundreds of winding caves and grottoes — the result of millions of years of weathering and natural erosion — that can be explored on junks and kayaks.

If you have the time and budget for it, you can also book a helicopter tour to be able to appreciate the grandeur of the towering verdant jade-green limestone islands from above, or you can opt for an overnight cruise to watch the shimmering waters of the bay as they change colors with the sunset and sunrise.

To the Vietnamese people, Ha Long has great historic and mythical significance. According to an ancient legend, it was here that the Jade Emperor — the ruler of all people — sent down the Mother Dragon and her children to help the Vietnamese ward off foreign invaders from the north. Not only did the dragons spit fire upon the aggressors, but also filled the bay’s waters with giant emeralds that acted as a barrier against enemy ships.

In the end, the Vietnamese people were victorious, and the emeralds were transformed into the lush, verde islands we see today. So great was the love of the Mother Dragon for the Vietnamese, she allowed her offspring to stay on Earth and to live and intermarry with the local people, thus helping them to gain celestial knowledge of agriculture and warfare.

115 halong bay kids 1
The name Ha Long means “Descending Dragon,” and even today, the Vietnamese people consider themselves to be descendants of the dragon

The name Ha Long means “Descending Dragon,” and even today, the Vietnamese people consider themselves to be descendants of the dragon.

Ha Long Bay was also the home of several of Vietnam’s earliest cultures, including the Soi Nhu (18000 to 7000 B.C.), the Cai Beo (7000 to 5000 B.C.) and the Ha Long (5000 to 3500 B.C.).

Over the centuries, the bay was a pivotal point in Vietnam’s wars and power struggles, and as late as the 19th century, Ha Long was still being used as a hub by Chinese and Vietnamese pirates.

But today, Ha Long is a peaceful fishing and farming region, disturbed only by the influx of tourists.

049 halong bay 2
The serenity of calm waters will overtake your senses

To get to Ha Long Bay, you can either take a four-hour bus ride (which may be overcrowded and include a barrage of local scents, often not very desirable), or hire a car and arrive in about three hours.

126 halong bay woman boat
Today, Ha Long is a peaceful fishing and farming region, disturbed only by the influx of tourists

Once in Ha Long Bay, take a two-hour ferry ride to Cat Ba Island and use it as your home base. Cat Ba City is a small waterfront community with many hotels, ranging from very basic hostels averaging $9 per night to the four-star Cat Ba Island Resort and Spa for a mere $85 per night. Another high end option the Van Boi Ecolux Island Resort on a private beach and cove at $107 per night. Remember, you are in Vietnam and the dollar goes a very long way.

PANA_1203 cat ba city
Waterfront Hotels in Cat Ba City, Cat Ba Island

Yet another option is to spend the night or several on a junk or a luxury boat that cruises the bay. Spending a night or two at sea away from the sights, sounds and light pollution of shore is relaxing. Now, combine that with the calm waters of the bay and the surrounding karsts with a bright full moon or with a dark sky under the stars, and you have a near-magical experience.

090 halong bay junk 1
Day or overnight cruising is one of your many options in Halong Bay

If you are an adventurous soul, you could take the path that I chose. I spent the first night in Cat Ba City, relaxing, enjoying a great meal and making arrangements for the next days transportation.

039 halong bay man boat
The two-hour journey from Cat Ba City took me through a maze of limestones islands and several communities of houseboats scattered through the bay like hidden gems

I hired a small boat that was no more than four feet wide and 20 feet long to take me to Cat Hai Island in the the Haiphong Province. The two-hour journey from Cat Ba City took me through a maze of limestones islands and several communities of houseboats scattered through the bay like hidden gems. I witnessed those living in the floating villages doing daily chores, fishing or just relaxing after a hard day’s work.

029 halong bay 1
My “water taxi” from Cat Ba City to Viet Hai

I had reserved a bungalow at the Whisper of Nature Resort, located in the small village of Viet Hai. Once my boat arrived, I could either walk about an hour to the village or take an official taxi, a scooter. I opted for the later. I joined my driver with my backpack strapped on and off we went for the one-mile drive.

DSC_1203 viet hai road
The road to Viet Hai

The small farming village is located in the heart of Cat Ba National Park in a wide valley surrounded by mountains. The village is very safe and virtually crime-free, a fact that the villagers take great pride in. Known as a “eco” village, the people of Viet Hai are very friendly and willing to share their lives with anyone they meet. It was easy to make friends.

P1020805_ viet hai bungalow
I had reserved a bungalow at the Whisper of Nature Resort located in the small village of Viet Hai

At the end of the concrete road, I arrived at my destination, the Whisper of Nature. There were a handful of small cinder block bungalows, all adorned inside with beautiful wood paneling, a bath, a comfortable bed a small patio.

There was a central kitchen, serving wonderful food in a large comfortable dining room. To my surprise, there was the best Wifi I had experienced since I had left the United States. Remember, I was three hours offshore in the middle of the mountains and jungle.

The manager also told me of a remote abandoned village down a dirt trail about 45 minutes away. The entire scene was surreal, with the abandoned structures, the mist hovering over the jungle and the sight of a lone villager walking through the fields, dressed in military fatigues and leading a solitary horse.

1564_ viet hai man 1
Away from the cities and all their trappings, the serene village of Viet Hai left me feeling calm and relaxed.

I spent four days in Viet Hai, walking through the village, the surrounding fields, visiting with locals and observing a day in the life of a “real” Vietnamese village.

Away from the cities and all their trappings, the serene village of Viet Hai left me feeling calm, relaxed and with a new outlook and sense of purpose in life.

There are many ways to explore Halong Bay. Viet Hai is just one of them. ´But whether you follow my path or find your own, you will never forget your visit to this magical place, Vietnam’s mystical Land of the Dragons.

Maui Wowie…

I recently found myself once again island-hopping the Hawaii isles. My favorite island, Maui, is the second-largest of the chain, and its wonders are well worth taking several days to explore since you will never be at a loss for somewhere new to discover.

2_maui coast
The rugged coast of Maui

The airport in Maui is located in largest city of the island, Kahului, located on the northern coast. Here you will find most of the big car rental agencies, as well as some locally owned rental companies. Being the Maui is a major tourist destination for both U.S. travelers and foreign tourists, and the added population of cruise ship passengers, if you are planning to rent a car, it is a good idea to book your reservation well in advance.

Kahului is the perfect base from which to explore the island. Less than 30 minutes away is the town of Lahaina, a small coastal village is filled with oceanfront restaurants and quaint shops. One of its best known features is the large banyan tree, with its limbs gracefully stretched out, providing amble shade from the tropical sun.

DSC 6319 iao valley
The thick, lush rainforest at the Iao Valley National Park is crowned by rugged mountaintops.

If you want a close encounter with a rainforest and the chance to see beautiful mountains, the Iao Valley National Park is just a 30-minute ride away from Kahului. It has several short trails to hike. But be warned, whether you opt for make the short ascent to the lookout or the descent to the river, you will be climbing a lot of stairs. If mobility is an issue, there are wonderful views you can enjoy without having to take any trails. Iao is not a large area, so spending 30 minutes to an hour will allow you to cover all there is to see.

Another adventure and one of the best known treks is the Road to Hana. Beginning in Kahului, the road winds its way along the coast and through the dense rainforest, navigating its 52 miles, 59 bridges the 620 curves that have made it famous. There are shirts and bumper stickers available at roadside stands bragging “I Survived the Road to Hana,” as well as drinks and plenty of places to get a bite to eat.

DSC 015 waterfall
One of the many waterfalls on the Road to Hana waiting to be discovered

The rugged coast and white sand beaches, are breathtaking, as are the dense green rainforests and scenic mountains. Scattered along the road are numerous waterfalls and cascades, many with banks to stop and to take photographs as the water surges over the edge of a cliff and tumbles down a mountainside.

The other famous landmark in Maui is the Haleakala Volcano National Park. It’s about a 90-minute drive from Kahului, depending on your experience driving steep mountain roads. Along the way, you will pass through the small village of Kula. Make a point of having a meal at the Kula Bistro, where the food is farm-fresh and very reasonably priced (but be prepared for a short wait, depending on the time of day).

DSC 6374 volcano
From the top of the volcano, you can get a spectacular view of the island amid a moonlike landscape of multi-hued rocks

The O’o Coffee Farm is about a 10-minute drive from Kula and definitely worth a visit. After short walk up a gentle slope, follow a dirt road which leads to a rustic farm building and the gardens.

Here you will be met by one of the farm’s very knowledgeable workers, who will describe the different types of award-winning coffee grown at O’o while you enjoy a complimentary sample. (You can also buy a bag or two of the farm’s brew to take home with you.)

Continuing toward the volcano, the road beings its long ascent to the summit. You will travel through lush green valleys and rainforests and a layer of clouds as you make your way to the 10,000-foot crest. The terrain at the peak resembles a moonscape of various colored volcanic rocks that are millions of years old, having been expelled during the mountain’s fiery rein.

DSC 6337 volcano
The island seems to be eternal swathed in a blanket of white clouds

Slightly lower in elevation is an additional parking lot and visitor center. Here you can take a steep hike to the top of hill with wonderful views of the crater on one side and the valley on the other.

Most of the time, the valley will be obscured by an ocean of white clouds as far as you can see. This view is particularly beautiful at sunset, as the sky changes color from blue to yellow to deep orange when the sun dips below the false horizon of the clouds.

Here’s a tip: On your way to the summit, take note of the several lookouts. To avoid traffic and a slow descent down the mountain, leave 20 minutes early and then stop at a lookout to marvel at the sunset.

DSC 6543 volcano sunset
Nothing is more spectacular than the setting of the sun over the false horizon of clouds viewed from the volcanic summit.

Also bear in mind that if you decide to come for the sunrise. you must leave very early and also make a reservation well ahead of time. Those without a reservation will be turned away.

Whatever itinerary you choose to follow in Maui, you are sure to find some unrivaled natural beauty that will leave you saying “mahalo.”

Tahiti… Paradise Found

I found paradise in Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora…

When you close your eyes and imagine white sand beaches, warm crystal blue water, rugged mountain tops and lush green valleys, what specific place comes to mind? For me, it is the Society Islands of French Polynesia.

DSC 014 tahiti canoes
For many, life in Tahiti has changed little since Captain James Cook landed in 1769

The Society Islands consist of the nine islands and five atolls, and contained within the archipelago are Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora. They were named in honor of the Royal Society by Captain James Cook, the English explorer, after his visit to the islands in 1769, and this overseas territory of France received partial sovereignty in 1977.

Today, it is an overseas collectivity of France.

The largest of the islands is Tahiti, which hosts Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia, with a population of 184,000 inhabitants.

Tahiti is the buzzling economic, political and cultural hub of French Polynesia, and is usually the first port of call for foreign tourists since it has the only international airport in the collectivity.

DSC 6000 tahiti from moorea
The island of Tahiti taken from Moorea

If you are planning on purchasing black pearls during your visit, Papeete has the largest selection and some of the most reputable dealers (although prices are usually somewhat lower in Moorea).

French Polynesia is world renowned for its black pearls, known for their dark, iridescent shades of black and silver, capturing the entire spectrum of colors of the rainbow.

DSC 015 tahiti huts
Once you get away from the hustle and bustle of Papeete, you will find that most of Tahiti is calm and relaxing.

Tahitian pearls are not actually black, as they are often referred to. Instead, the majority of Tahitian pearls are gray, silver, charcoal or shades of shimmering green, blue and gold.

And although it is true that they take their name from Polynesia’s most well-known island, Tahitian pearls are, in fact, not cultivated in Tahiti, but rather elsewhere throughout the waters of French Polynesia.

DSC 5783 tahiti sunset
Sunset at the Tahiti InterContinental Resort

Black pearls, which are named for the lip of the oyster (pinctada margaritifera-cumingi) that produces them and not for their own hue, can come in almost any shade, including peacock green, metallic gray, cobalt, cherry red and bright aubergine.

Although some colors tend to be more popular than others, the value of a Tahitian black pearl is determined by its luster, size and shape, rather than its hue. Unlike Asian or freshwater pearls, Tahitian pearls are rarely round and can come in very unusual forms, including elongated drops and asymmetrical pear shapes.

Because the black-lipped oyster is very large, Tahitian pearls tend to be quite large, In fact, they are usually between 8 to 16 millimeters long, although they can be as large as 20 millimeters long.

Personally, I would not recommend staying in Papeete since it is rather rundown. I have also had more than one taxi driver tell me there are a fair amount of unsafe areas in the city.

DSC 0007 moorea palm
You can find lots of hidden coves and beaches across the island.

That is not to say that the rest of the island follows suit. Within its 1,042 square kilometers, Tahiti has plenty of beautiful beaches, lagoons and a lush interior with numerous hiking trails to explore, as well as Mount Orohena, towering 2,241 meters above the sea.

One of the top must-sees in Tahiti is Fautaua Waterfall, a natural sparkling water cascade that towers 985 feet into a large pool. But be warned, it is a long and ambitious trek through steep slopes and tropical jungle to get to, so if you decide to go, bring comfortable hiking shoes and plenty of mosquito repellent. (Also, the falls are sometimes closed to tourists due to heavy rains and other climatic concerns, so check if they are open before you go.)

DSC 5783 tahiti waterfall
Even if you don’t make it to Fautaua, there are plenty of little waterfalls tucked into the Tahitian landscape that you can explore.

If you are a surfer, Tahiti’s Teahupao is known as one of the best surfing beaches in the world. The island is also ringed with small villages and a range of lodging from budget hotels and guest houses to private home rentals and exquisite luxury resorts, my favorite being the Tahiti InterContinental Resort and Spa.

Moorea is the second largest island and only a 30-minute ferry ride or a 10-minute flight from Tahiti. There is no city on the island, but you will find a number of small villages and hamlets. There are many tour guides on the island that can show you the sights at a very reasonable rate. The advantage of a guide is you will not miss any of the highlights and you will learn of the rich island culture.

DSC 6072 moorea village church
A village church in Moorea.

Another option is to rent a car and explore on your own. The advantage here is that you are on your own schedule and are able to stop and swim, have a picnic, dine at a café on the beach and take as much time as you like at any one location.

DSC 6011 moorea huts
The beautiful coastline and the blue waters of Moorea.

Moorea is the favorite of many visitors to the Society Islands. The only drawback is there are not many sand beaches to spread out a blanket on and enjoy the warm tropical sun. Instead, you will find a vast variety of lagoons to enjoy a swim along its coast. If you are an avid diver, you will certainly appreciate the multiple reefs surrounding Moorea that are inhabited by an array colorful tropical fish.

DSC 5961 moorea black sand
Moorea is known for its breathtaking black-sand beaches.

Those with an adventurous spirit might want to try diving with sharks and stingrays, one of the highlight tours of the island.

You may also decide to drive inland up a steep, well-marked road to the Belvedere Lookout. From this exceptional vantage point, you can get a bird’s-eye view of the island’s lush green Opunohu Valley 790 feet below and the surrounding mountain top of Mount Rotui towering above. The overlook also affords a wonderful view of Cook’s Bay, where Captain Cook first set foot on the island’s twin bays.

DSC 5968 moorea cooks bay
Belvedere Lookout in Moorea overlooking Cook’s Bay

Smaller still than Moorea is the island of Bora Bora, which for many is considered the Pearl of the South Pacific. Each time I have been here, I have chosen to rent a car and take a leisurely drive the 22 miles of road that wind gracefully around the Bora Bora coastline.

DSC 6081_bora bora
Palm lined coast and crystal clear waters of Bora Bora

There are two Avis car rentals on the island and the prices start at $100 for a small car. If you decide to rent a car, I’d advise making the reservation online well ahead of time since this is a port of call for many cruise ships and availability is often limited.

Each of the islands has its own unique personality, and unlike Moorea, Bora Bora has many white sand beaches to lay on and soak up the sun. Here too are large crystal clear lagoons to snorkel and wonderful reefs just offshore to dive and explore.

DSC 6133_bora bora
One of the many resorts lining the shoreline of Bora Bora

The Lagoonarium, a massive outdoor aquarium specializing in lagoon fish and marine life, offers close encounters with sharks and stingrays in a controlled environment for those who didn’t want to risk an open-sea meeting in Moorea.

DSC 6169_bora bora
Bora Bora is the smallest of the three islands, but its beauty and grace are seemingly endless.

The beauty of French Polynesia is eternal and has forever been captured in the post-impressionist paintings of Paul Gauguin. But just between you and me, there are still so many unexplored nooks and crannies on the islands to dive the reefs, surf the waves, climb the mountain peaks and just lay on the beach and soak up the rays of the warm tropical sun that Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora can become secret personal Edens for every person who visits them.

And that’s what makes for a true paradise found.

Photo Safari South Africa… Check

PART TWO… KRUGER NATIONAL PARK

After spending five days on safari in Ingwelala Private Game Reserve with Emile Sprenger de Rover, Liza and Greg Parker it was time for Part Two of the adventure.

Greg and I said our goodbyes to Emile and Liza and we headed out on a two-hour drive to the Kruger National Park in South Africa. I have heard of Kruger like just about everyone and I could not believe I was finally going to go on a photo safari there.

Greg being a native of South Africa has been there numerous times and arranged our accommodations for the next five days. His favorite place in the park is Orpen Camp, which we will stay at for the first three nights.

Orpen is a small camp and consists of a handful of small cabins, a small store and guest check-in facilities. About one hundred yards away just beyond the fence that surrounds the camp is a waterhole that many times is frequented by game.

After unloading and setting up our cabin Greg and I jumped back in his car for an afternoon drive making note of the time the gate closes for the evening. Greg is very knowledgeable of the area having spent so much time there photographing its wildlife and had a few ideas where to go immediately for that time of day.

A few minutes from camp down the main paved road Greg turned onto one of the many dirt roads that winds through the reserve. We were headed to a waterhole and bush area that he knew would more then likely have wildlife.

As we grew near there was a small heard of elephants ranging from large adults to small baby elephants.

elephant baby_kruger1 copy

I was amazed on how comical the baby elephants appeared. They would stumble, sometimes running into the larger elephants as they walked trying to keep up tripping over their own feet.

elephant baby_kruger3 copy

It really was a laugh watching them and we found ourselves lowering our cameras just to watch the show. Other times they seemed to be resting in the shade of the other elephants to get out of the hot mid-day sun.

elephant baby_kruger2 copy

Greg and I watched the herd slowly moving through the groves of trees and bamboo eating their fill. Many times we were only ten to fifteen feet away from these magnificent creatures as our cameras clicked away in unison. To be fair Greg would generously position the vehicle or lean back so that I might get the better angle for the best shot.

There was more then one time a mother elephant seemed a little upset that we were so close intruding in what she deemed to be “her space” and would stating advancing towards the car. Greg would laugh at me when I would calmly say “don’t worry mama we are just taking pictures, we are not going to hurt your baby with the camera clicking away”. After which he remarked that he did not know of another “first timer” that was so calm during a false charge from these huge animals.

elephant_kruger1 copy

I attribute this to my days with my grandfather that was part Native American. He showed me how to read the wildlife and how to read the warning signs they will portray. You must remember at all times these are wild animals, they will attack and kill you if threatened, especially here in Africa. You are in their backyard they are not in yours.

Day two started at dawn when the gates opened. It was a gray day, with dark clouds and spilling rain over the grasslands and bush. It had been a very dry season causing a drought so the rain was much appreciated. It made photography more challenging with the changes in the light and contrast often being very flat or having to use much slower shutter speeds then we would have preferred when shooting wildlife. After all they are living creatures and on the move much of the time.

Our quest this day was to photograph lions that thus far had eluded us and we were not to be disappointed. After driving for about an hour came across a pride of two males, three females and three cubs. They were in the grass and under a couple of low trees. We watched and photographed the pride under the dark and rainy skies for about two hours. The lion cubs mock attacked each other learning skills that will help them later in life.

lion cubs1_190

The females roamed the area looking for game or huddled with one of the males.

lioness calling1_190

lion_lioness1_190

We then left this pride and decided to look in a couple other areas where we heard of  other lion sightings. Following another dirt road we came across a small pride of three males lions sleeping. Every now and then one would stretch and roll over revealing it huge belly that was stuffed with a previous kill.

turning male1_190

There was also one lone female with this group that was injured. She would get up and walk limping unable to put any weight on her right front leg. Greg remarked that if this did not heal there was a very good chance that she would be left behind by the males and eventually die.

lion_limp_kruger1 copy

We did spot one more small pride of lions as we continued down the dirt road, stopped to take a couple photographs and continued our drive.

lion pride_female_kruger1 copy

As it was getting late Greg decided that we should travel to the waterhole to see if any wildlife had returned to cool off from the days heat. A large male lion was drinking at the waterhole. Greg assured me this was a great chance to get an unusual shot, as it is not something witnessed very often.

male drinking1_190

The following events that transpired left us awestruck in disbelief. First it was what we were witnessing and second as serious photographers what we were able to capture and record.

male thin1_190

To read the entire story of the day and the heartbreaking events that occurred please look at the blog post from April 21, 2018.  “Death of a King”.

skybed scar_kruger4 copy

The next day we decided to return to the area that we had previously photographed the first pride of lions. The day had a bright blue sky with a few scattered clouds the lighting was much better and would make it much easier to get a quality photograph.

We arrived but the pride of lions was gone. We continued down the road in hopes of locating them. Instead we were rewarded by finding a couple cheetahs that were close enough to the road to reach with our lenses. We were able to get a handful of shots before they became bored with us and disappeared into the bush.

cheetah_kruger1 copy

We decided to make a day trip and long drive to an area that we had heard that rhinoceros had been spotted. It was a long drive to the southern edge of the park. We decided to make an adventure of it traveling the back roads in hopes of photographing other game along the way. Unfortunately it was fairly bleak and not much was seen or photographed.

Arriving near where the rhinos had been spotted we drove slowly both of us scanning the bush for any sign. Then Greg called out “rhino!” Just a few yards away there were two rhinoceros rambling through the bush only stopping to grasp young leaves off a tree or to eat grass here and there.

rhino_kruger1 copy

Greg kept driving as I kept trying to keep track of the two rhinos that were darting in and out of the bush. We would stop when we could with Greg positioning the car so that I might get a shot. Luckily we both were able to get a few photographs before they turned and ran deep into the bush out of view.

Day Four and Day Five were on our way to another camp, Skukuza for two nights. Skukuza was a much larger camp then Orpen but not so large to be uninviting. Greg and his family have spent many days there on safari and another favorite he enjoyed. There are many different accommodations from small cabins to large homes, a restaurant, large gift shop and sits right on the banks of a large river.

Our hopes this day was to photograph a leopard, the only one of the Big Five that had eluded us. Greg said he knew of an area that once had a leopard that was near to camp. The drove down the main road as we scanned the grasslands and the bush. Circling back when Greg suddenly stopped the car. My heart raced in hopes that we found the elusive cat.

Instead what Greg spotted was a Verreaux’s Eagle Owl. As an avid birder Greg was very excited and said in the bird world this was just as an important sighting as a leopard. It was very regal as it sat perched on the limb of a tree watching as Greg and I raised the cameras and clicked away.

verreaux eagle owl_kruger1 copy

At one stop at a blind overlooking a large body of water we were able to photograph a number of hippopotamuses including a baby hippopotamus.

hippo_kruger1 copy

At the same location there was a very large Nile crocodile sunning itself in the mid-day sun.

nile crocodile_kruger1 copy

While overhead in a large tree a fish eagle scanned the water.

fish eagle1 copy

At one point a large monitor lizard crept out of the bush flicking its tongue until located a beetle here and there.

water monitor_kruger1 copy

Close to sunset a waterbok slowly quenched its thirst unaware that only feet away lay a Nile crocodile.

waterbok_croc_kruger1 copy

While in South Africa on safari we photographed a number of elephants, cape buffalo, baboons and wild dogs. We also saw a number of the antelope family including impala, waterbok, bushbuck, duiker, klipspringer, kudu, sharp’s grysbok and steenbok. We were also able to capture wildebeests, zebra and giraffe. Unfortunately yet again the leopard had eluded us but it was not for lack of trying.

Please visit an upcoming post for additional photographs of the wildlife that I was able to witness and the images I was able capture while on safari in South Africa for you to enjoy.

Larry

Photo Safari South Africa…Check

PART ONE…. INGWELALA PRIVATE GAME RESERVE

It is funny how things work out. When I first entered ‘Photo Safari in South Africa’ on my Bucket List I had no idea how this was going to happen… and then it did.

In 2015 I was working as an Acupuncturist at Sea on the cruise ship Island Princess where I met Liza Parker and we quickly became friends. Liza was the spa manager on the ship and my boss.

Like virtually all of the spa staff she was in her twenty’s and beginning her career and her life. Everyone but me that is, I’m in my sixties and closer to the end of my career then I am the beginning.

During the summer of 2015 we were making weekly cruises to Alaska and the Inside Passage. At one point Liza told me her parents were coming on board and fulfilling one of there bucket list items of cruising to Alaska.

When they arrived Liza introduced me and I quickly became friends with her parents Greg and Gillian. Greg and I clicked immediately as he was also an avid photographer. Before leaving Greg invited me to come to his home in South Africa and vowed to take me on a photo safari.

It took some time due to unforeseen circumstances. I contacted Greg in 2018 at the beginning of the year and said, “I’m coming and will be there in April.” Greg began the task of planning our trip. Over the next couple months Greg and I traded emails deciding where we were going to go. To be fair Greg did all the work and I just agreed.

I arrived in Durban, South Africa in early March just days after my contract ended on the Ruby Princess. I stayed in Durban for a week visiting one of my shipmates, Jillian Sunker.  I enjoyed Durban with Jill as my guide, introducing me to local dishes and she worked hard to make me feel at home.

durban beach1         Durban Beach, South Africa

There are two things that I find truly rewarding working on cruise ships. One is you are able to see the world and in eight years I have been to seventy-two countries and hundreds of ports, many multiple times. The other reason is the many friends you make, some of which will become life long friends like Jill and Liza.

After leaving Durban I flew in Johannesburg and was met at the airport by Greg and Liza. We drove to Pretoria where they have been long term residents and dropped me off at the apartment I rented for a week before we were to leave on our safari.pretoria view          View from my apartment Pretoria, South Africa

The week flew by and Greg, Gill and Liza took me on several day trips around Pretoria, taking me to dinner and showing me many of the landmarks. One of the evenings I was invited to a braai, what we Americans call a barbeque at their home.

This is where I met a family friend Emile Sprenger de Rover and his wife Jane. Emile in the recent past was a manager at the Ingwelala Private Game Reserve, an honorary game warden and has a small cabin there. He was kind enough to be our host, guide and driver at Ingwelala and allowed us to stay at his cabin.

A couple days later we left Pretoria just after sunrise to make the 6-hour drive to Ingwelala. During the journey we traveled through the city of Pretoria, the outskirts and into the countryside. Then the climb began as we wound our way through the mountain passes only to stop at a roadside stand to get a drink and admire the handmade items.

sa_mtn stand1         Roadside stand mountains along the way to Ingwelala

Upon arriving the four of us Emile, Liza, Greg and myself began to set up camp. It took only a short time after which we grabbed our cameras and climbed onboard Emile’s game vehicle and headed into the bush for an afternoon drive that extended well into the evening.

ingwelala gate1         Entrance gate Ingwelala Private Game Reserve

We bounced along the maze of dirt roads and through dry riverbeds. I was amazed how Emile kept track of where we were, literally every road looked the same with only slight variations. Greg, Liza and I did our best to scan the grass fields, look under and in every tree and bush for game and birdlife.

When I was young I went hunting almost every weekend with my grandfather who raised me. He was part Native American and had a reverence for the outdoors and all that lived there. He taught me much about how to find sign and spot game. I have used those skills in my adult life in hunting wildlife with a camera instead of a rifle. However I have to admit Liza has the eye of an eagle that far surpassed mine. I rationalized this thinking “well this is her backyard”.

During the drive we came across herds of impalas with young and old alike. It seemed almost everywhere you turned you would find anywhere from a couple to small herds of maybe 30 – 40 of these graceful antelopes.

impala_two1         Impala

It is the goal when on safari to sight the African Big Five. This consists of cape buffalo, elephants, lions, leopards and rhinoceros. I personally believe there should be a Big Six as cheetahs should be included. Over the ten days were photographed five of the six only lacking the leopard. We did come close one night but by the time we arrived the only thing left was the antelope the leopard carried into the tree only to return some time later that night.

Continuing our drive we also came across our first member of the Big Five, a cape buffalo. We rounded a bend in the road and there were two of these magnificent animals.  They were only about twenty feet away as they stood staring at us. As with all game in the bush you must be on you guard. Cape buffalo has poor eyesight and known to charge without warning.

cape buffalo1a         Cape Buffalo

On the way back to camp that night we made a run to the dirt airstrip that had been cleared leaving foot high brush. When we arrived Emile took out two handheld spotlights and we scanned the airstrip. As we drove we pointed the lights into trees hoping to spot a leopard that was said to be in the area to no avail. We did notice dozens of red eyes staring in our direction and Emile remarked out they were blue wildebeest. Which are very strange looking animals during the day let alone at night on lit by the handheld spotlights.

wildebeast_nite1          Wildebeest at night

Back at camp that later that evening we relaxed and talked about the days adventure. This was old hat for the three of them but completely different from anything I have done in the past.

Later that night while eating dinner we look over our shoulder and there stood a spotted hyena on its hind legs licking the grill. All animals in the reserve are wild and so was this hyena. With a few shouts and waving of our arms he decided to back off.

hyena_nite1         Spotted hyena visiting camp

This is one reason you do not walk around camp at night. There were hyenas and even a leopard spotted within the camp while we were there. All of have attacked and killed those that did not give them the respect they deserve.

There were many highlights at Ingwelala and one of my favorites was photographing a lone hippopotamus. Hippopotamus are highly irritable animals and very protective of their home turf. They are known to have killed many people that ventured too close and feared. We were in a blind and a safe distance watching with cameras clicking away.

hippo1         Hippopotamus

Then the hippo decided to give us a show. All of a sudden while swimming in its private waterhole the hippo slowly did a summersault stopping briefly with all four legs dangling in the air out of the water. It was quite a sight.

hippo_roll1         Hippopotamus on the roll

While in Ingwelala we photographed many different animals and birdlife. Even in camp we were visited by hyenas, dwarf mongoose, warthogs and nyala.

dwarf mongoose tree1          Dwarf Mongoose

warthog babies1          Warthog babies

The Ingwelala River where we stopped for a lunch under a shade tree and admired the view.

ingwelala river1          Ingwelala River for a lunch break

During our five days at Ingwelala were well spent and something I will never forget. If you ever have the chance to go on safari do yourself a favor and go.

greg_liza_emile_cabin1         Greg Parker, Liza Parker and Emile Sprenger de Rover at Emile’s Cabin

 

The Death of a King

We woke to a dark, cloudy day and rain in the Kruger National Park. It was Day Two of five in Kruger after five days of safari in the Ingwelala Private Game Reserve in South Africa.

Our agenda for the day was to locate and photograph lions, one of the Big 5 that had eluded us thus far. We have had plenty of other wildlife sightings over the last week including two of the other members of the Big 5, cape buffalo and elephants.

Greg Parker and myself set off in our private vehicle rather then in an organized game drive from the reserve. This allowed us to wonder freely at our own speed and in locations of our choosing. Greg has been to Kruger many times and a life long resident of South Africa and an avid photographer.

After about an hour of driving we came across a small group of four cars that had stopped and pulled to the side of the road. Located in the high grass and within several low-lying trees and brush was a pride of lions consisting of two males, three females and three cubs.

We spend almost two hours photographing the pride as the rain continued under the dark skies. During this time the cubs played with mock attacks on each other, the males remained separate from one another only clashing once and the females roamed the grasses or lay next to one of the males.

lion_lioness1_190

At one point a female walked through the grass calling for her cubs. She covered an area of about the size of a football field and disappeared behind us. I continued to take photographs out the car window, as you are not allowed to leave your vehicle in Kruger for safety reasons and for the well being of the animals.

lion cubs1_190

In a quiet voice Greg leaned over and said “Larry look in the side view mirror”. Glancing down I saw the lioness approaching the car on the shoulder of the road only a few feet away. I asked if I should roll up the window and Greg said just to be quiet, still and calm.

She walked right next to my open window. I could have literally reached out and touched her as she kept walking past me without a care in the world. She veered to her left entering the field again calling to the cubs, which now were running towards her.

lioness calling1_190

Soon after we began driving again in search for more wildlife and hopefully another pride of lions. We were not to be disappointed as within 30 minutes about ten miles away we spotted another pride. This one consisted of three males and one female. The female was injured and could not put any weight on her right front leg as she limped around the out stretched male lions sleeping in the mid-day sun. Every now and then one would roll over with their huge bellies stuffed from a recent kill, legs flopping from one side to the other.

turning male1_190

After spending time photographing two prides we continued down the dirt rode in search of other opportunities neither of us having any idea of what we about to witness.

We decided to try an area where we found a small herd of elephants the day before that was near a watering hole called Rabelias Dam near Orpen Camp. Upon arriving we notice a large male lion crouching on the shore.

male drinking1_190

As our cameras clicked away you could see something was off, his posture just did not look right. On closer examination looking through the lens his left hind leg was protruding and at a strange angle. After he had his fill of water he struggled to his feet hardly able to stand. What you did not notice while he was drinking, he literally was nothing but skin and bones.

male thin1_190

He slowly moved away from the water and staggered as if he was drunk towards a small rise. Every few steps he would stop to catch his breath, his head hanging low until he had enough energy to take a few more steps. Upon reaching the rise he turned to face the water hole and began his slow descent to the ground. About half way down he collapsed the rest of the way. It was evident he was in his last days if not his last hours on this earth.

male laying down1_190

As we continued to watch this once beautiful and strong lion a small herd of elephants arrived at the waters edge. The elephants drank, played squirting water into the air over themselves and others to cool down from the days heat.

elephant water hole 1_190

One of the larger elephants left the others and walked towards the rise not far from where the lion had collapsed as if to stand guard over the herd. At first he did not notice the lion lying low in the grass about 30 yards away trying to stay out of sight.

Then in an instant the elephant reared, ears outstretched and flapping as he took several steps back, trumpeted and charged the lion. Upon hearing the elephant start his charge all the other elephants started to charge as well, trunks in the air trumpeting as the ran towards the lion.

elephant charge 1_190

Maybe in his younger more virile days the lion would have tried to make a stand, at least roar at the top of his lungs. But not now, now it took every bit of energy he had to get to his feet turn and run.

elephant charge 2_190

After everything settled down Greg and I drove to find the lion. We found him lying in the grass, exhausted unable to move. We were no more then five feet from him as he lay dying in the shade of a tree. Dropping my camera we stared at one another locking eyes for what seemed for an eternity. I just wanted him to know that he would not die alone as he struggled to breath, his chest rising only every so often. Then a last twitch of an ear, his last breath, he was gone. The King was dead.

male dying1_190

Over the years as a photojournalist I have photographed people that had lost everything in earthquakes, fires and landslides, people that had been injured, people that were dying but I have never photographed anything as sad as this majestic animal, the true king of the beasts and master of his domain. I will never forget what I was so privileged to have witnessed.

male dying2_190

Later we learned that the name of this noble lion was Skybed Scar. The lion was well known in the Kruger National Park where he roamed and ruled for many years. He lived free and he died free.