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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

North To Alaska

Summer 2019… My Seventh Summer In Alaska

As I have written and photographed Alaska many times over the last 7 years, I want to focus on maybe some images of Alaska that you have not seen before. Many of these images were taken this past summer 2019.

The summer cruise season is upon us, and there is no place better to cruise at this time than Alaska. I firmly believe that everyone should cruise to Alaska at least once in their lifetime. It is nothing short of magnificent.

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Haines, Alaska sunset

There are many ways to reach Alaska, including driving or flying, but nothing offers the spectacular views, convenience or entertainment of a modern luxury cruise ship. There are no luxury hotels at the ports, but the accommodations on passenger ships range from modest, budget-priced cabins to luxurious staterooms.

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Cruising Alaska for any budget…

 

Depending on your itinerary, there are several ports of call where you can embark, including Seattle, Washington, and Vancouver and Victoria, in British Columbia. Typically, Alaska cruises last seven days, but there is a 10-day cruise leaving from San Francisco. Another port where you can embark or disembark is Whitter, Alaska, for those wanting to visit Denali National Park.

Travelling the Inside Passage through British Columbia and Alaska allows you to appreciate the stunning landscapes and fresh air while relaxing on your private balcony as the ship glides through the calm waters. You may also see an array of wildlife, including orcas, dolphins and humpback whales, as well as bears, mountain goats and bald eagles.

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The Inside Passage north of Skagway

On most cruises, you will visit three ports of calls Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway, each of which have their own charm and distinct personalities. Each town has numerous restaurants, places to shop and what seems like an endless amount of tours and shore excursions. Tours are offered both from the ships and from private companies.

I have spent seven summers traveling to Alaska and the Inside Passage as an acupuncture physician on various cruise lines which has given me an insider’s view and perspective. Here are some of my favorite tours:

Two of my favorites are located in Ketchikan, a town of approximately 14,000 residents and Alaska’s first city. It is also the second-rainiest city in the United States, averaging 13 feet a year. Be prepared for downpours, but the majority of the summer season, the weather can be very nice.

Aurora Birds and Bears encompasses all of Ketchikan’s sights and sounds and specializes in custom tours. The owner/operator Rich Lee is a Native American of the Tlingit tribe. He was born and raised in Ketchikan, giving him a distinct advantage over many of the tour operators that are summer transplants.

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Black Bears during the Aurora Birds and Bears Tour

 

During a three-hour tour, you will be offered a history lesson on Ketchikan, enjoy the rainforest and a waterfall and visit “real” totem poles, not replicas. Lee’s biggest expertise, however, is locating wildlife. Many times on the tour, we encountered black bear, deer, bald eagles and, at times, even orca and whales have been spotted from the shore.

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Baby Sitka Deer during the Aurora Birds and Bears Tour

My other favorite is the Deadliest Catch Crab Fishing Tour. If you are a fan of the television show, you might be interested to know that the Aleutian Ballad of season two is now homeported in Ketchikan. Captain/owner David Lethine and his crew of merry misfits are all seasoned crab fisherman of the Bering Sea and share their vast knowledge during the three-hour tour. This hands-on experience enables you to hold live crab, spotted prawns and other creatures of the sea.

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Something he will never forget… holding his first snow crab

The highlight for many is a side trip to Annette Island, where dozens of bald eagles await your arrival. As the boat nears the island, 30 to 40 eagles leave their perches like a swarm of mosquitos as the crew toss herring into the water. It is literally like ringing the dinner bell as the eagles fly within feet of the boat, attacking the water in their quest for a free meal. It is truly incredible to behold and a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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Bald Eagles near Annette Island photo taken from the deck of the Aleutian Ballad

In Skagway, I highly recommend taking a flight over Glacier Bay National Park with Paul Swanstrom, the owner/pilot of the Mountain Flying Service at the Skagway Airport. This seasoned Alaskan aviator provides an unforgettable experience with each seat having a window allowing you to witness the grandeur of mountain peaks crowned with white virgin snow. Fly over multiple glaciers as they wind their way through the valleys of the countryside on the way to the sea. Flights range from one to two hours, with the option to land on a glacier or a remote beach.

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Flight over the Marjorie Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park

If you want to see whales, the capital city of Juneau is the port to book your whales excursion. There are numerous tours with a wide variety of options, including everything from private yachts to limited load tours to those offering a salmon bake and wildlife quests.

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Humpback whale bubble net feeding of Juneau

My personal favorite is the Discover Alaska Whale Tour. This limited load and small boat tour has a naturalist on board who will share scientific knowledge and research on whales and other sea life that you may encounter. The windows open in, so even in poor weather you are warm and dry and have ample opportunities to take photographs.

Yet another place to see and photograph whales is in the port of Icy Strait. This is not a common port of call but by looking closely at the different itineraries of the different cruise lines and ship you will find a number that do go there.

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Icy Strait humpback whale at sunset

One of the many reasons people cruise to Alaska during the summer is to experience its glaciers, many of which can only be reached by cruise ship. Words are hard to come by when trying to explain the sights and sounds of these glorious towers laced with blue ice. You will witness history as these living structures march only to terminate at the water’s edge and calving into the sea.

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The Hubbard Glacier calving in Glacier Bay National Park

For more information on cruising to Alaska and its ports, my book “Alaska and the Inside Passage – A Guide to the Ports, Tours and Shore Excursions,” covers this in greater detail, including my favorite restaurants and more excursions to explore.

What I think sets my book apart from most tour guides on Alaska (outside of my wonderful writing and insightful knowledge of the area, of course) is that I have included plenty of my own photographs (not stock photos). Consequently, my book is designed not only a travel guide, but also as a coffee table book. It is visually rich, but is small enough to travel with so that you can always have the information at your fingertips.

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I would like to close this entry with a few more shots taken this year… the summer of 2019.

A bucket list item for me… It took seven summers but I finally was able to photograph the Northern Lights. What sets this image apart for me is if you look close from mid upper to the upper left in the photo is the Big Dipper… just being at the right place at the right time.

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The Northern Lights near Juneau, Alaska

Near Juneau a large meadow in full bloom with the Mendenhall Glacier in the background.

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Mendenhall Meadow and the Mendenhall Glacier
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Living large near Ketchikan, Alaska
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Kodiak Brown Bear near Sitka, Alaska
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Two year old Kodiak Brown Bear cubs fishing for dinner – Sitka, Alaska
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Mountain Goats in the Tracy Fjord
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Spotted Seals in the Tracy Fjord

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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.”

Ketchikan… The Deadliest Catch Crab Fishing Tour

ALEUTIAN BALLAD… THE DEADLIEST CATCH CRAB FISHING TOUR

If traveling northbound your first port of call will be Ketchikan. A small scenic town of 14,000 people and one of the rainiest North American cities averaging 160 inches per year. In the summer cruise season the temperature averages in the high sixties.

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Ketchikan, Alaska

Today I find myself once again in Ketchikan, Alaska as I hurry down the gangway heading for one of my very favorite tours in Alaska, The Deadliest Catch Crab Fishing Tour.

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Aleutian Ballad moored in Ketchikan, Alaska

The tour is given onboard the Aleutian Ballad of season two. It is probably most remembered as the boat the was hit broadside by a sixty foot rogue wave nearly capsizing the boat and throwing the crew into the frigid waters of the Bering Sea. However in it’s homeport of Ketchikan, Alaska this is not an issue as you are in the calm, protected waters just off the coast.

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Aleutian Ballad outside Ketchikan, Alaska

Captain/owner Dave Lethin and his crew of merry misfits are “old salts” and extremely knowledgeable and entertaining. One thing that I have noticed over the years I have taken this tour is that everyone is treated like family including the guests.

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Captain/Owner of the Aleutian Ballad Dave Lethin

You will feel right at home sitting in comfortable chairs of the boats amphitheater style seating so everyone has a great view. During cold weather you are heated from above and also sheltered if you encounter any rain, after all this is Alaska. Another huge plus is that the tour is wheelchair accessible so everyone has a chance to enjoy this excursion.

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Captain Dave sharing his vast knowledge of the crab fishing industry

The Aleutian Ballad Crab Fishing Tour is very unique and is a hands on experience. You will be able to hold live crab, shrimp and other sea creatures after listening to the crew sharing their knowledge of the ocean and it’s inhabitants.

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A young mans first encounter with a tanner crab
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A young girls first encounter with a box crab
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Wheelchair accessible enables everyone to get into the act. Here a guest views the custom designed Alaskan Red King Crab Tank

One of my favorite highlights is traveling to nearby Annette Island. Here 40-50 American Bald Eagles swarm out of the trees like mosquitos and diving only feet from the boat feeding on fish thrown into the water by the crew.

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Eagles on Annette Island waiting for the dinner bell to be rung
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American Bald Eagle – Annette Island, Alaska

Many times I have heard guests say “I’ve seen eagles before we have them at home” and then those same people say, “I’ve never seen anything like this, ever”. It’s truly a once in a lifetime adventure not to be missed.

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Bald Eagles responding to the crew throwing herring into the water
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Bald  Eagle zeros in on a herring
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Bald Eagle Scores
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Bald Eagle soaring above the Aleutian Ballad

They are going to tug on your heartstrings as well. You will hear stories of friends and family that have been lost at sea. One day I was in the wheelhouse and Terry Barkley one of the captains. Terry is usually a very gregarious man always with a joke on his the tip of his tongue. But on this day, at this moment he stopped short. His face grew solemn and his voice softened. He told me how his brother lost his life just a few months before working on another crab fishing vessel. After a few minutes of quiet reserve Terry once again was back to being a cheerful and telling tales of the sea he loves so well. Pushing the memory deep inside at least for now.

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Captain Terry Barkley in the wheelhouse of the Aleutian Ballad

I talk of this, as does Terry to the guests at times as a prelude to the Aleutian Ballad Crab Fisherman’s Memorial Fund. The fund was started to assist family members and proceeds of the fund are distributed to the families of those lost in the Bering Sea.

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Captains Andy Pittard, Dave Lethin and Terry Barkley (left to right) haul in the Aleutian Ballad Crab Fisherman’s Memorial Fund Crab Pot

The crew will haul a crab fishing pot from the cold depths adorned with tags having the names of loved one written on them. Anyone can and is encouraged to do so in remembrance of a friend or family member that they have lost.

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Captains Andy Pittard, Dave Lethin and Terry Barkley attach donation tags to the Aleutian Ballad Crab Fisherman’s Memorial Fund Crab Pot

I made a donation and wrote the name of my daughter-in-law, Stephanie Pannell that died the year before at the tender age of thirty-four. After the tags are tied onto the pot it is sent over the side back to Davey Jones. At the end of the season the tags are removed and sent to Oregon to be displayed on a wall at the memorial.

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Donations tags on the Aleutian Ballad Crab Fisherman’s Memorial Fund Crab Pot

To join the crew of the Aleutian Ballad and experience this exciting adventure contact your ships shore excursion desk. You can also contact them directly by contacting Shauna Lee, Chief Operations Officer of the Aleutian Ballad at alaskacrabtour.com, email at shauna@56degreesnorth.com or call 888-239-3816.

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Shauna Lee the Chief Operations Officer of the Aleutian Ballad
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Danene Lethin “The Admiral” as she is affectionately known, the owner of the Aleutian Ballad holding an Alaskan Red King Crabs
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Captain Andy Pittard holding a red octopus
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Crew member Stephanie Hall with an arm full of tanner crabs
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Crew member Crystal Henning mans the onboard ship store

If you have taken a tour on the Aleutian Ballad and would like a coffee table book of your trip or would like a more in depth look please note I have written of my experiences and photography taken while onboard. It is available through this blog site both in print and in eBook format.

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Next Stop…. Juneau Bear Viewing and Fly Fishing for Salmon, Grayling and Dolly Varden

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Kodiak Family Lunch… Bear Creek Outfitters – Juneau, Alaska

North to Alaska…

NORTH TO ALASKA… THE PROLOGUE

My Africa adventure is a time that I will never forget. Thank you again Liza, Greg and Gillian Parker for your invitation to visit you and go on safari. And thank you Emile Sprenger de Rover for your hospitality and serving as our private guide.

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Greg Parker, Liza Parker and Emile Sprenger de Rover                                                     at Emile’s cabin in Ingwelala Private Game Reserve, South Africa

It is now North to Alaska and though this will be my sixth summer traveling to Alaska and the Inside Passage I still cannot wait to get there. The pristine waters, lush rain forests, mountains that glide upward from the sea and the vast numbers of diverse wildlife that inhabits the area make it just that much more special. As John Muir said… “The Mountains Are Calling… I Must Go!”

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Flightseeing over Glacier Bay National Park

I’ve always loved the mountains ever since I was very young. I grew up with my grandfather in Merced, California in the San Joaquin Valley. It was only a stones throw from the mountains, which we spent nearly every weekend except in the dead of winter. He was part Native American and passed on his love of nature, the mountains and the wildlife that lived there.

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Half Dome in Yosemite Valley from a flooded Cooks Meadow

Because of these experiences I have a deep-seated love of the mountains. After he died I moved in with the rest of the family to Laguna Beach, California, which is also a very special place for me and close to my heart. Even with that said the mountains are where I feel the most at home. My son Christian said it best when he was 12 years old… “Dad you are a Mountain Man not a Beach Boy.” And so it was to be for I have lived in Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe and the Wood River Valley in Idaho the vast majority of my adult life.

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Laguna Beach, California from Heisler Park

For the next couple months I will be writing and posting of my experiences in Alaska. I will be traveling as I have before working as an Acupuncturist at Sea on a cruise ship. This time my home is the Coral Princess carrying 2,300 guests and a crew of approximately 1,000 from countries all around the world.

We will be visiting the historic ports of Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway. We will also make side trips to view a number of glaciers in Glacier Bay, College Fjord and Yakutat Bay the home of my favorite glacier the Hubbard Glacier. At the end of the season we will also visit Icy Strait and Kodiak Island as we cruise to Japan, Korea, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Guam and Hawaii before heading back to Los Angeles.

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Ketchikan, Alaska
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Juneau, Alaska
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Skagway, Alaska

Each post I will select a different tour or shore excursion that has been a favorite and give you an insiders view of what you might expect if you travel to Alaska. It may not be by cruise ship as there are various ways to get here but cruising the Inside Passage to Alaska is by far the best way to go and offers you the best scenic views, chance of wildlife sightings. All of this from a luxury cruise ship filled with a variety of activities, wonderful restaurants and where you never to cook a meal or make a bed. And one thing that I have heard from numerous guests is… “we only have to unpack once”.

So get ready and lets travel North to Alaska…

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First Stop… Ketchikan… The Deadliest Catch Crab Fishing Tour

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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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

Feathered Friends of South Africa

Lets take a break from the storyline and enjoy some photography. Over the years as a nature photographer I have really become interested in photographing birdlife throughout the world. South Africa was no different and offered and abundance of different birds that I had never seen before. I diverse variety of species, size and color was truly amazing. This is just a sample of what South Africa has to offer the avid birder.

white fronted bee eater1 copywhite fronted bee-eater

european roller_kruger1 copyeuropean roller

lilac breasted roller_kruger1 copylilac breasted roller

white crowned shrike_kruger1 copywhite crowned shrike

burchell's coucal1 copyburchell’s coucal

hornbill_kruger1 copysouthern yellow-billed hornbill

fish eagle1 copyfish eagle

walhberg's eagle1 copywahlberg’s eagle

bateleur eagle1 copybateleur eagle

verreaux eagle owl_kruger1 copyverreaux eagle owl

franklin_kruger1 copyfranklin

guineafowl_kruger1 copyguineafowl

burchell's starling copyburchell’s starling

pied kingfisher_kruger1 copypied kingfisher