The Serengeti: Families

Being in the Serengeti allowed us the space to observe the family units and their interactions. I never expected to find hyenas cute (especially not after the retching incident), but they won me over when I saw how tight-knit the family was. The adults always made sure that the pups were well looked after (yes they regurgitate food for the young). I especially liked how they lolled about relaxedly at the end of the day nuzzling each other, while the dark-coloured pup gambolled around. We had to wait quite a bit before the pup came back into the family circle to snap this pic.

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More famous for being in a family are the elephants, who travel in herds of females and their young. They make a stunning sight against the savannah.

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At first I wondered why there were so many males in the herd, then I realised that unlike Asian elephants, females have tusks too.

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Elephants are highly protective of their young, and won’t think twice about trampling anything that could threaten the young ones. Muba told us that no one he knows has seen an elephant give birth. Elephants would do all they can to protect the birthing mother that no one could get close, let alone witness the happy event. We had to content ourselves with looking at the cute babies run alongside the herd.

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It’s hard to describe the majesty of observing a herd of elephants walk right past. I hope the video below will help to give the tiniest impression of it.

 

Notwithstanding the majesty of the herd, we couldn’t get over how cute the little calves were. They were so young yet looked so old and wrinkled.

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And they hung out in little groups of young ‘uns, alternately playing catch and holding on to the leader’s tail.

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I was quite surprised that elephants have breasts, a pair each like humans, rather than udders like a cow. Muba taught us that that was the way to identify females rather than attempt to look at the size of their tusks. Here’s a rather grown-up baby (about 3-5 years old) still not yet weaned off mother’s milk.

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Into Africa: The Big Four and Beyond

Isn’t it the Big Five? Of course, but we didn’t see the last member of the Five, so Four it is. The most obvious member of the Dangerous Animals of the Safari Club (yes, it’s really a listing of the most likely animals to kill you while on safari) is the lion. We witnessed quite a few sightings in the Masai Mara, and so did many other tour vans too. As you can guess by now, the Mara is a much smaller and far more accessible and well-known reserve, hence the concentration of tourists.

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But we were focussed on the lions and not tourists, and were delighted to come across this young lion (look closely to spot his mane) and his harem so early on in our trip. Here, he was enjoying an evening sip of water while the women in his life frolicked while waiting for him. Francis didn’t want to wait and soon we were part of a convoy looking for more lions.

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Francis’s efforts in following the pack paid off and we soon sighted a mature male lion, most likely in search of either food or a harem to take over. He had a far more majestic mane than the younger one we saw earlier and he very calmly walked past the convoy, later choosing to pass between the cars in front of us! How lucky we were to get so close to the pride of the Mara.

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Our lion adventure wasn’t yet over. Yet again, we took off in search of more interesting sights. This time, we turned a corner and suddenly saw a litter of lion cubs lounging in the shade of some bushes. They all looked up expectantly as they saw our vehicle, making me very glad for the protection of the van. The Masai Mara is definitely not a place to explore on foot!

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Luckily for those who would dare to go on foot, they seemed to be very drowsy from the evening sun and soon lolled over to have a snooze. I’m surprised they managed this despite all the flies on their snouts.

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And as our van went in closer, they looked up again.

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But still succumbed and fell asleep, paws and ears twitching as they dreamed their leonine dreams.

The next member of the Big Five was the elephant. We only saw one family of elephants in our the Mara. Francis told us that we were lucky because it had been raining a far bit, meaning that the elephants wouldn’t bother going to the usual watering holes. They were pretty far away from the van and quite spread out. I wasn’t too impressed because at that distance, I couldn’t really appreciate the difference between them and the Asian elephants that I’m more familiar with. All I thought was that yes, they seemed big, they had tusks and they had very leathery wrinkly skin.

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The reason why they make the Big Five is that they are highly protective of their own, particularly the babies. Heaven help you if you end up between an elephant calf and its mother, or worse, the entire herd.

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So we move on rapidly to the next member of the club, the cape buffalo. Don’t laugh at what looks like a silly double combover hairstyle, that’s its horns. I like how gracefully they curve, but I’m sure the buffalo itself likes better how gracefully the horns impale a threat. Cape buffalo are supposedly very paranoid and adopt a “strike first, ask questions later” approach. A worthy member of the Big Five.

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The next member of the Big Five was also the hardest to spot on our safari, no thanks to the fact that it is critically endangered. This was the only sighting we had of the black rhinoceros, or of any rhinoceros at all. We spotted it in the evening, an auspicious time for us to spot the animals.

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It was ambling along on its way, probably thinking of what yummy twigs and leaves it ate today when a van decided to go offroad and click lots of photos of it. Poor guy.

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Francis decided to stick to the trail and avoid the US$100 fine if caught by the park marshals. We contented ourselves with taking pictures from afar, glad that the evening rays came down beautifully near our rhino.

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The last member of the Big Five is the leopard and sad to say, we weren’t able to spot one in the Mara. Francis’s tactics of following the convoy and rushing to whoever’s reported a sighting over the radio while paying off handsomely for the other animals simply didn’t work when it came to the famously shy leopards.

I decided to add the hippopotamus as a stand-in member of the five, as they are pretty dangerous too. If faced with a threat when wandering around away from its pool, a hippo would adopt a very similar strategy to the cape buffalo: chomp first, ask questions later. Here’s the only time we saw hippos, in the Mara River. Check out how they surface and blow out spray. Cute eh?

And soon it was time to leave the Masai Mara. Bigger adventures in the vast plains of the Serengeti beckoned. We travelled there by the same van on potholled roads winding round the tea plantations of south Kenya.

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It was a very green detour round as we weren’t able to choose the same path as the animals. Unlike them, we had to respect international borders and take the long, scenic route round.

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June in Thailand: The Elephant Trek

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Over lunch, one of the villagers lounged around smoking his pipe as we slurped down our noodles. We wondered why as he didn’t make any contact at all with us. No one else in the village came into the hut, not even inquisitive children.

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It was only after lunch when we set off that we realised that the mystery man was our mahout! Jare told us that there was only one elephant this time because the rest were turned out to feed. We had this handsome female to take us for a little spin round the jungle.

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But first we had to walk own our own two feet for a little while so the poor elephant wouldn’t be too tired out. The path took us through more hilly forest and yet more padi fields.

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The  Danish couple went first, spending a good hour on the elephant. When it was time to swap, they jumped down quickly and strangely, neither wanted to continue on with the ride.  Tom didn’t want to take the elephant because of his issues with animal welfare. So it was just me.
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After 15 minutes, I was ready to call it quits. Going up wasn’t too bad as the elephant plodded along the forest path. All that happened was that her ears flapped the horseflies around, occasionally slapping my mud-encrusted feet and I got frequent bashes on the face from twigs and branches. And she must have had a dribbly nose because she snorted a few times, spraying me with a fine mist of what I hope wasn’t elephant snot. However, when the path starting trailing downwards, I had to hang on for dear life to the bamboo howdah, wondering desperately why there wasn’t a seatbelt of some sort to stop me from being flung forward over her head. Branches were still slapping me on the head and horseflies were still trying to get at me. I turned back and looked imploringly at Jare who was leading the rest on foot. Thankfully, he signalled a stop after half an hour and I got off the elephant in double quick time.

It was lovely to get back on my feet again and we continued onwards to the final village where we’d spend the night, enjoying the views all the way.

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It was amazing the generousity and warmth of the Karen villagers. The area we were in was fairly remote and not many tourists came by.  The locals would never know when someone would turn up and ask for shelter. Hospitality is very much a part of them. According to Jare, they led treks to each village on average once every three to six months: the villagers had rather infrequent contact with tourists. This trek was as untouristy as they come, especially given the very basic conditions and the difficult terrain we had to pass through.

Even on the last morning, the elements didn’t let up and we walked out of the forest in the driving rain, footpaths turning into muddy rivulets.

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After finally making it to the main dirt track did we see a motorised vehicle, but only after waiting a good four hours. Here, hitchhiking is the norm and it was customary to give lifts to anyone who asks. Here’s a picture of us crammed in the back of the pickup together with other hitchhikers. We were about to leave Karen and their beloved country…

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… but not before a little grasshopper landed on my head in farewell. Just before reaching Mae Sariang, it flew back off into the forest, leaving only photos and memories as reminders of its presence.

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June in Thailand: Chiang Mai

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Chiang Mai is probably the #2 city after Bangkok to visit when you go to Thailand. The feel of the northern capital is completely different, there’s far less of the cosmopolitan bustle and it’s a lot more relaxed and chill. The temples here are also obviously of a different architectural style from the south, and seem to be made from more rustic looking materials. Despite being pretty much templed-out, I did a quick whirl of the temples in Chiang Mai, just to complete the circuit as far as possible.

The first stop was at one of the minor temples and I can’t remember the name. I liked the sweeping curve of the roof and the graceful arcs of the protective guardians sitting on top.

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The Lanna-style temples are no less sumptuous and grand than those in the south, here evidenced by gold contrasted against the green background.

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Then there was the beautiful Wat Chiang Mun, supposedly the oldest temple in Chiang Mai. The grand wooden structure was intricately carved all over and overlaid with gold leaf.

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Check out the detail on this side door.

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On the inside, some of the doors also had lovely designs, this time of gold on enamel.

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And all this grandeur was to house a whole host of Buddha images, with the biggest one some thousand years old tafrom India, and the most revered one a tiny crystal Buddha image thought to have the power to bring rain.

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On the outside of some of the temples were interesting gates made from clay. These were rather low and small, so only one person at a time could pass through stooping.

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Again, I enjoyed how Thai craftsmen could made such beautiful works of art out of rustic materials.

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One new thing I learned was how alms were collected in some of these temples. Monks of course would do their rounds  with their alms bowls in the morning to collect food from devotees. I knew that the monks were to accept whatever was given them and not to quibble or choose. Having all the food in one bowl meant that everything was mixed up and that  one bowl would hold sustenance for the day. In one of the temples I visited, the monks’ alms bowls were laid out on tables for devotees to offer whatever they wanted into whichever bowl they chose. It was somewhat like a lottery because the monks would accept whatever appeared in their own bowl. What a way to learn not to want!

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Wat Chedi Luang was probably the most compelling temple in Chiang Mai. With its massive structure still very obvious, its former grandeur is still very apparent. It must have been even more magnificent before a 16th century earthquake took away much of the top part of the pagoda.

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It had just been restored in the 1990s, although the damaged part had been retained, probably because after so many hundreds of years, they felt it should stay as it was.

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I particularly liked the restored elephants sticking out from all four sides of the pagoda. It was grand and, to me, slightly absurd at the same time. It was a nice way to end the temple tour and get ready for the kitschier side of Chiang Mai.

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June in Thailand: Elephants and Other Modes of Transport

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It was our last day in Ayutthaya and I went wandering the streets on my own while Tom recuperated from the heat. Along a shady area between wats, I found a little food stand and sat down to a simplet yet fabulous lunch of braised chicken with preserved salted vegetables, lots of herbs and incredible chilli sauce. Of course, all the ordering was done in sign language and it helped that I peeked at what other people were having before sitting down. There is nothing like street food for tasting what the locals eat and nothing like street food to have the true taste of a country.

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I wandered past the temples again, this time slowing down to take in the views.

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Outside one of the bigger temples, I spied a group of elephants from afar. The getup of the elephants was supremely touristy but somehow apt and nicely atmospheric for this city.

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The elephants looked so grand in their brocade and tassels.

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The mahouts perched on the elephants’ heads wore matching red costumes.

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And the tourists (Japanese?) posed cheerfully for my shots.

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They formed a very grand retinue, such a lovely sight all together.

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Soon, they ambled off as a group and it was time for me to go. I approached a nearby motorcycle-taxi driver, negotiated my price, and off I went back to the guest house to meet Tom and get to our next destination.

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August in China: Guilin City

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Tortoise had flown into Guilin with me. She’d have her weekend getaway after which I’d part ways with her and head northwest.

Guilin is one of those places whose name alone evokes so many romantic images of beautiful shan shui (literally: water and mountain) landscapes. Even those who’ve not been to Guilin before wax lyrical about the beauty of the place. However, the city itself is a bit of a letdown as there’s no escape from the grey monoliths of commerce. Granted, it’s prettier than the average second tier city in China, with tree-lined avenues and parks dotting the city. Aside from the few parks, there’s not much else to Guilin city.

One such park is the famous Xiang Bi Shan (literally: elephant trunk hill). One of the bizarre rock formations looks exactly like the side profile of an elephant half-immersed in the water. Tortoise and I weren’t too keen on paying the ridiculous entrance fees just to see a lump of rock. If memory serves me right, it cost ¥60 here.

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The park designers were devilishly smart in planning this place. We managed to spy the rock formation through the gate and past lush trees and shrubbery. We could just about see it with the naked eye, but it was impossible to snap a picture from the outside at all. We gave up and sat at the outside, instead snapping a picture of this tiny elephant holding up the concrete railing.

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A minor attraction in the area are the Sun and Moon Pavilions (ri yue ta). They’re prettily set in a lake and the reflection from the recent rain made it rather pretty.

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Tortoise and I sat at the park for a while just observing the numerous domestic tour groups passing through the area. There was an elevated platform in front of the pavilions on which groups like to pose for pictures. Here’s one of a group from Hainan University.

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And here’s another of a family with two very bouncy and thoroughly spoilt little girls. We were fascinated by new dynamics in family structure. The function of the adults were just to dispense money and attention. The kids seemed to run the show and had every whim met. They were also experts in acting cute. Check out the heart pose in the picture below.

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After dinner, we passed by the pavilions again. I think it’s a lot prettier in the dark. No prizes for guessing which pavilion is which!

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