As a cat lover (big and small), I was hell-bent on a leopard sighting. This solitary, secretive feline had eluded us on two different safari trips in Africa. Sri Lanka had to be the place.
Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park is said to be home to at least 25 of these beauties. During our February tour of the island nation, we visited that park as well as two others. Sadly, no leopard showed his spots to us. We did see elephants, rabbits, a spotted deer, one wild boar, a mongoose, turtles, lots of birds including numerous peacocks. And, a sloth bear, a rare sighting according to the guide.
“Most tourists don’t see the leopard,” a guide later told me. However, we did learn that the day prior to our visit to Yala and the day after, lucky tourists did spot the evasive cat. We felt cheated.
No leopard, but lots of magnificent elephants. Some 4,000 Asian elephants, an endangered species, make their home in the tiny nation. Herds of 200 or more are a common sight in August and September in Minneriya National Park. The herds we saw in that park were much smaller, 25 to 30, but fascinating. The pachyderms are obviously accustomed to tourists and come very close to the safari vehicles. Guides know many of them by name.
I was intrigued, touched, with a mini-family grouping. A crippled mother and two offspring, one four years old and the other eight years old, were alone, apart from the herd. The guide explained that the mother, about 40 years old, had been hit by a train. She was left with a bad limp, forcing her to move very slowly. She could not keep up with the herd. Her two offspring stay with her to protect her, he explained.
Elephants need about five square kilometres each to support their 200 kilograms per day appetites. Deforestation and over development in Sri Lanka have diminished their habitat. As in Africa, they encroach on farmland. As in Africa, it’s elephants vs. humans, a challenging conflict.
White birds hang around the elephants we saw. We learned that the elephants, grazing on grass, shake the stuff before eating it. Worms fall out – a tasty meal for the birds.
Sir Lanka is a paradise for birders with 400 different species, 26 of which are unique to the country. We saw many on our safaris.
On a visit to a turtle hatchery we learned about the island’s sea turtles which lay their eggs along the coast. Eggs not collected by poachers (turtle egg omelettes are popular) hatch after several weeks and hundreds of baby turtles make their perilous way to the sea. Few survive. Many are devoured by fish and birds. At turtle hatcheries, eggs are collected and hatched in an incubator. After just one day, they are released into the sea at night. Even with this method, only one in 100 survive, about the same as in nature.
The conservation benefits of the hatcheries are limited, but the tiny turtles are adorable. Adult turtles of varying sizes also swim in hatchery tanks. Many have been injured and would not survive in the sea.
The hatchery we visited had been started by the owner’s father in 2000. He died shortly thereafter and his sister took over. She, another sister, their children and his mother all perished in the devastating tsunami which ravaged Sri Lanka in 2004, killing roughly 40,000 of its citizens. The owner and his surviving brother refurbished and reopened the hatchery.
No doubt more popular than its animals and safari parks are Sri Lanka’s beaches. They are grand, but the mountainous interior was my favorite. We spent two nights in the hills above Ella, a picturesque area of tea plantations with splendid views, hiking trails and cooler temperatures…a paradise.
For more on Sri Lanka, see previous post: Wonders of Sri Lanka.
Nimal De Silva, (firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com) chauffeured us around his country, made hotel arrangements, arranged local guides at many places — and taught us much about this fabulous country. He is a delight, very patient and accommodating. We were happy with all.
More photos of Sri Lanka follow.
At last, a new recipe and just in time for those summer blackberries. Click on photo of berries, upper right, for recipe, and scroll down for more recipes.
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The Big Five – almost. The leopard, the most secretive and elusive of cats, escaped us, however we were hot on a leopard trail more than once. Sightings of lions, elephants and Cape buffalo were plentiful. We even saw one rhino. Impala, giraffes, zebra, various antelopes, crocodiles, warthogs, hyenas and lots of birds were also captured on our cameras.
(A previous post was devoted to gorillas in Rwanda, “Gorillas in our Midst,” truly the most outstanding animal experience during our African adventures.) Subsequent visits to Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe were nonetheless rich, rewarding, often exciting, and always educational. Following are highlights of our animal encounters.
ELEPHANTS: These massive creatures are a source of wonder. We spotted them in all three countries, and learned much about them. Botswana, specifically Chobe National Park, is home to 65,000 elephants. They eat 18 hours per day, as much as 150 kilos of food per day. In Chobe, most all the trees are bare, stripped clean by hungry elephants. During a Learning and Discovery session, we were told that one elephant requires about one square kilometer of space.
Chobe encompasses 11,000 square kilometers – clearly not enough for such a large elephant population. It is a dilemma. Sterilization or translocation is too expensive for the country. Furthermore, translocation does not usually work as elephants, no matter how far from their original home, will head back. Culling has been considered but would generate negative publicity that would surely cut down on tourism. “What can we do?” our lecturer asked. Anyone have any ideas?
Super large elephants with gigantic tusks are rare. Most have been taken out by poachers and/or hunters. In Botswana, guards “shoot to kill” poachers. The country has fewer poaching problems than many other countries, and has banned safari hunting.We marveled at solitary elephants munching on trees, large groups marching to rivers and mothers with babies in tow. Elephants can communicate for great distances with a rumbling sound, and other sounds not audible to humans. They can run at speeds up to 25 mph. If you happen to be charged by an elephant, do not run. “Stop and clap and shout.”
LIONS: None of our safari group was charged by an elephant , but one angry lion did charge an open safari vehicle. The driver saved the day and raced away at great speed. We had numerous lion sightings – magnificent, astonishing, brutal, gruesome. More than once we witnessed lion sex . No wonder. They are champion copulators, we learned, — up to 100 times in 24 hours. A male and female can be at it more or less nonstop for three to five days – without Viagra.
“This is National Geographic stuff,” our guide Abiot commented after we had watched a mating couple. Later that day, more National Geographic – too much for some. The Kill. Along the side of a road, a group of eight female lions was in the process of attacking and eating a live Cape Buffalo. It was bloody. It was fascinating. It was agonizing.
The poor beast struggled to stand up, only to fall down and groan in pain. The killer team took turns. A few would lunge and bite, while others rested and observed. We watched and photographed for at least 20 minutes, but had to move on to our next camp. We later learned from the bus driver who passed the scene many times that the buffalo’s suffering went on for three hours before he succumbed.“This is a training session,” Abiot said. “These lionesses are young. They are not skilled at killing.”
I had naively assumed that when killing lions went for the jugular to put the prey out of its misery. That is far too dangerous with Cape Buffalo due to the horns. For this reason, Cape Buffalo, considered the most dangerous of African animals, are rarely attacked by lions.
Elephants are also not normally targets for lions. “Most lions are afraid of elephants,” a guide said. Even lions have enemies. Honey badgers – small but fierce – can kill a mighty lion. “They are very clever. They go for the private parts. If you ever encounter one, back off,” we were warned. We did see one along a safari track. The driver floored for a close-up view. The petite creature stopped and bared his teeth at us, as if daring us to get any closer.A group of baboons can also kill a lion. They have very sharp teeth. They are also mischievous. Several broke into the tent of a couple in our group. No real damage was done, but all their belongings were helter skelter.
HIPPOS: It is rare to see more than the heads of these giants which spend most of their days submerged. They do emerge from the water at night in search of food, eating up to 45 kilos per night. During the day they must stay under water because the sun cracks their skin, and they have no sweat glands. They are fast and can run at speeds up to 34 mph. Because of the weight of the male, hippos mate under water. Babies are born in shallow water and stay with their mother for up to eight years. A canoe guide in Zambia where we spotted hippos on a game viewing boat excursion complained that business was down due to an erroneous report on Facebook that hippos are the most dangerous animal in Africa. Not true — the Cape Buffalo as mentioned above.
RHINOS: It was at a private game reserve in Zimbabwe where we saw one rhino. Three rhinos were introduced to the reserve in 2000 and six more have been born since. The reserve has an anti-poaching team who live on the grounds. Rhinos are dehorned every two to three years to discourage poachers, but they are often killed nonetheless. Poachers don’t want to waste time tracking a rhino only to learn it has no horns, so they eliminate all. Horns do grow back.
Horns are sold to powerful criminal syndicates who ship them to Asian countries, including Vietnam and China where their weight is valued at more than gold due to the erroneous belief that Rhino horn can cure everything from cancer to hangovers.
It’s a thrill viewing these creatures up close and leaning so much about them. As fascinating and wonderful as the animals are the people. Coming soon: Adventure Africa: The People. If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up (upper right) so you will not miss future posts. Your address is kept private and never shared.
Our 16-day safari was organized by Overseas Adventure Travel, www.oattravel.com We paid $4,495 each for the all-inclusive package (lodging, all meals, most tips, land and air transport within Africa).Like my blog? Tell your friends. Please leave a comment – if you can’t see the Recent Comments list below, use the link on the right-hand menu (below “Recipes”). Feedback is welcome. I love to know what my readers think about my posts.
Three countries. Lots of animals. Fantastic people. Delicious food. “Ultimate Africa,” our 16-day safari to Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, surpassed our expectations. We shared this fun and enriching adventure with 12 other travelers from the US.
After the sensational gorilla experience in Rwanda (see previous posts: Gorillas in our Midst and Remarkable Rwanda) we flew to Johannesburg to begin this journey which proved to be much more than African animals. Of course, they were the focus and we were lucky enough to witness some incredible happenings, including a grisly lion kill in action, lions mating, giraffes courting, elephants on the march and more. My next post will be devoted to animals.
During our travels we stayed in comfortable safari camps, most located in vast national parks. Each couple or single traveler had a tented room with shower and toilet. Days began with a 5 a.m. wake up call. In Botswana, it was the sounds of a drum beating outside our door. Animals are best sighted early in the morning or late in the day. They and we need to escape the blazing afternoon sun and intense temperatures.
After breakfast (usually fruit, toast and/or homemade muffins, porridge and sometimes eggs) we climbed into two safari vehicles, seven passengers, a guide and a driver each. Off we’d go into the bush, bouncing over rutted dirt tracks. Often we’d be deep in the wilderness in the midst of jungle growth. “Branches” called out the driver, so each passenger behind could lean in and escape bodily harm. Lee, a retired diplomat from Colorado, was named trip “Branch Manger.” He had a very distinct and aristocratic manner, like a Brit educated at Oxford, to warn those behind of “branches.”
“It’s time to read my morning paper,” a guide announced as we rolled out of one camp. He carefully surveyed the ground, his “newspaper,” looking for tracks to determine which beasts may be in the area. Our camps were not in fenced-in enclosures, but in the open where animals, big and small, were free to roam. At night when it was time to go back to our individual tents, we were accompanied by a guide with flash light and usually a gun. At our tent home in the Lufupa Camp in Zambia’s Kafue National Park, monkeys chased one another on the roof, Bushbuck munched on grass in the back yard and hippos splashed and snorted in the river which flowed right outside our front door. Fortunately we never saw lions lurking nearby.
During the morning game drive, we’d stop for a coffee break at a place deemed safe by the guides. They’d clap and scout out an area for those in need “to mark their territory.”
Brunch, back at camp at about 11 a.m. served buffet style, was an array of tasty casseroles, salads and fruit – a copious feast. Then rest time. November, when we traveled, was supposedly the beginning of the rainy season. Instead of rain, we encountered scorching heat, often temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Our tents had ceiling fans, but lying down for an afternoon nap was like lying on a heating pad. Several camps had plunge pools for a welcome relief.
The British influence in food and lifestyle was evident in all our camps. Before gaining independence in the 1960s, Botswana and Zambia were British protectorates. Zimbabwe was formerly a British colony known as Southern Rhodesia. Thus, high tea was de rigueur, and almost yet another meal with something sweet, often cake, and something savory, such as mini pizzas or wraps. Learning and Discovery, lectures and discussions by locals, followed tea. The session on polygamy (widely practiced in Africa) was the overall favorite and mind boggling. It deserves its own post, or at least a good part of one. Stay tuned.
At about 5 p.m. we headed out for the afternoon game drive. A regular and delightful part of these excursions was the “sundowner” when we stopped to watch the sunset and enjoy liquid refreshment and snacks. “I’ve been on many safaris, but I have never had a day like this,” commented Lee, who had served at posts in many different African countries during his career, as we marveled at a parade of elephants coming to drink at the banks of a river with the setting sun in the background. Heads of hippos popped up from the water to complete this National Geographic scene. That morning we had seen lions mating, a group of hyenas, and a pride of lionesses attacking and eating a live Cape Buffalo
This was indeed our lucky day. There are no guarantees of animal sightings on a safari. There were several days when we did not find any exciting wildlife, but the game drives were nonetheless fascinating. Guides shared their wealth of
knowledge on the terrain, climate, vegetation and more. We learned about safari survival. Many plants are edible. Certain branches if cut yield a liquid to quench thirst. Others can be fashioned into rope. Tree roots can be used to brush teeth. The leaves of one tree act as mosquito repellent. Those of another act as a laxative for elephants.
The most exciting discovery one afternoon for guide Victor was elephant excrement, obviously from an elephant in desperate need of those leaves. “I’ve never seen elephant poop like this,” he said. He asked the driver to stop at a tall brown mound for a closer look. “He must have been constipated for a very long time,” he said. It was such a sensation, Victor insisted on returning to measure the “poop.”
Between countries and camps, we flew on small aircraft (a max of about eight passengers each). For half of those flights, a woman was the pilot.
The majority of our travel companions were older and retired – like us. Three exceptions: Darcie, a nurse traveling with her aunt Raedeen, a Red Cross worker who had lived all over the world; Maia, a psychologist traveling with her dad, Charles, a retired veterinarian who celebrated his 79th birthday during the trip,
and TJ, an IT specialist also traveling with his father, Ted, a retired professor. Two Southern belles, Tootsie, 84 and Marlene, 82, were an inspiration. Lois, a retired teacher, was on her 9th trip with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT), our tour operator. Retired US Post Office employees Helen and Bob were close behind – their 8th OAT trip. Like us, Lee was on his first trip with this tour operator. The repeat business is no surprise. Every aspect of the trip rated A+.
Abiot, our leader from Zimbabwe who accompanied us throughout the journey, deserves A+++. He was thoughtful, caring, knowledgeable, and many times went beyond the call of duty. Abiot comes from a large family in the hinterlands of his country. Between assignments, he drives 20 hours to reach his village which has no electricity. Yet, all have cell phones, he said. While at home he works the land, farming corn. Education in Zimbabwe is no longer free – about $20 per semester. He pays for four of his young cousins to attend school — and feeds 15 family members.
Prior to working for OAT, Abiot told us he worked for a luxury safari company which charged about $1,000 per day per person. He quit. “That was not Africa,” he said. “It was too much like America.” He much prefers OAT which he feels offers a genuine African experience.
We, and all in our group, felt we had indeed experienced — and leaned so much — about “ultimate Africa.”
For more on Overseas Adventure Travel: www.oattravel.com We paid $4,495 each for our all-inclusive 16-day safari (lodging, all meals, most tips, land and air transport within Africa)
Much More Adventure Africa to come in future posts: Animals, People, Learning and Discovery… If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up (upper right) so you will not miss future posts. Your address is kept private and never shared.
Recipes — no new recipe this time but check out the column at right for many tasty concoctions. I recently had an African dinner party and served Spicy Peanut Dip with raw veggies for an “apero” snack. It was a hit. Christine asked for the recipe. It’s up there, under Appetizers.
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