data Bisbocci Abroad
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Monday, July 21, 2014

Christmas Misadventures and Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park

              For most Americans, the holiday season often conjures images of tree decorating, gift-giving and wintry weather. It is difficult for many of us to imagine Christmas without also thinking of snowflakes, sleigh bells and a yearly visitor from the North Pole. And, though I remember very few years in which we actually had a white Christmas in Oregon growing up, the cold winter weather did not make it difficult to imagine a snowy wonderland outside. 
                It rarely occurred to me that, for those, living South of the equator, Christmas and snowflakes do not necessarily go hand in hand. I hardly ever thought about the fact that, for people who experience the holidays in the heat of summer, the word Christmas is unlikely to conjure images of sleigh bells, snowmen and hot chocolate by the fireside. I found it nearly impossible to imagine a Christmas with sunshine and long summer days. 
              Until 2014, when Dan and I spent the holiday season in South Africa and our notion of Christmas was flipped upside down. 

                 Once we learned that we would be spending the 2014 holiday season in South Africa, Dan and I figured we might as well spend it in the sun at a beach--since finding a winter wonderland nearby seemed an unlikely possibility. Besides, I was excited to fully immerse myself in the Christmas experience of those hailing from the lands down below. 
                 So, on Christmas day, Dan and I ventured toward a beach near the St Lucia estuary and prepared for a day of soaking up Vitamin D in the warmth of the African sun. 
                  But Christmas decided to throw a curveball our way. 
                 Shortly after we arrived at the beach, I went to change into my swimsuit and came back  to our rental car only to find Dan looking helpless and perplexed. He told me he had accidentally locked the keys inside the car and could not access them since we had just rolled the windows up. Thus, our Christmas on the beach turned into a daylong process of looking for the one locksmith in the area that would actually be open on Christmas Day. 
                  We searched the internet, asked around and twiddled our thumbs to no avail. After a while, we found a police station that was open and discussed our waning list of options with the man standing behind the desk. He flipped through the phone book and called around. Finally, the police officer was able to put us in contact with a locksmith in Richards Bay--a city more than 150km away. Since we had no other options, we spent much of  the rest of our day sitting outside the police station and waiting for the locksmith to arrive.
                Despite the lack of cold weather and holiday cheer, it was hardly the Christmas we'd imagined. 
                                                               
                                                                              ***

                 Perhaps our South African Christmas didn't go exactly as planned, but spending December 26th at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park more than made up for our misadventures the previous day. Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is a wildlife reserve known for its remarkable contributions to the preservation of rhinos in southern Africa. It is the oldest nature reserve in Africa and spreads for nearly 1,000 square kilometers over the hilly, lush terrain of Kwazulu-Natal.  
                 If we had come to South Africa and only visited Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, it would have probably been difficult for us to understand the country's dire rhino poaching problems. The park is chock-full  of these beautiful animals. 
          In the early 1900s, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi spearheaded a preservation campaign that is largely responsible for bringing the white rhinos back from the brink of extinction. Yet, rhino poaching is still a major problem in South Africa. Every year, poaching claims the lives of hundreds of animals whose horns are sold in Asia for medicinal purposes. Though rhino poaching is illegal, the demand for rhino horns is so great that selling them in the black market remains a lucrative business. 
              The park has not entirely escaped the poaching problems that plague the rest of the country, but Hluhluwe-Imfolozi still boasts the highest concentration of rhinos in the world. Throughout the day we would encounter these majestic horned animals on numerous occasions.

Rhinos at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi
                   Although the park is known for its rhino population, many other animals find a home in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi as well. The game reserve houses Africa's Big 5 as well as a diverse array of small predators, herbivores and birds. Throughout our self-guided game drive, we had many wonderful wildlife encounters, despite the thick foliage and tall grasses of the rainy season. 

Beautiful Bird in Tall Grass
Family of Warthogs Crossing the Road
Herd of Buffalo at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi
               Our most prized animal sighting came toward the end of our drive, while Dan and I were finishing our loop of the park. We were meandering along one of the park's smaller roads when, all of a sudden, we encountered a line of cars stopped near a dry riverbed. 
                  Dan and I rolled down our windows and craned our necks to see what was going on, but found nothing except for grasses and shrubs. We asked the passengers in the stopped car in front of us, but the driver merely shrugged and pointed at the other cars, suggesting they knew something he did not. When the cars lined up in front finally continued on their way, we pulled up into their places and scanned our surroundings.
                 And then we saw the prize. Sitting under a tree in the distance was a pack of rare wild dogs, whose patchy brown and black fur camouflaged perfectly into the surrounding area. 
                    The dogs were far away and I had to sit on the car's window ledge to see them. I took out my camera and screwed on the 300mm zoom lens to try to capture an image of the animals. 


            Though the quality of the image is compromised due to the extended zoom and significant cropping, I am happy that we were able to at least capture memento of the wonderful sighting. Seeing the dogs was a wonderful belated Christmas gift that nearly made us forget our misadventures the previous day. It rounded out an incredible week of wildlife sightings and close encounters with the continent's most dangerous predators and was a great finale to our whirlwind three-week tour of Africa's southern tip. 
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Friday, July 11, 2014

Hlane Royal Wildlife Park

             Given that Dan and I planned our trip to Southern Africa during the rainy season when animal sightings are more difficult to come by, we didn't expect much from our visit to Swaziland's Hlane Royal Wildlife Park--a relatively obscure little conservation area located in Swaziland's northeastern corner. 
                But just because its small stature pales in comparison to that of the mightier Kruger to the North, doesn't mean that visiting Hlane is any less worthwhile. From the moment we entered the gates of the park--just minutes prior to the camp's closure for the night--Hlane set us up for one big adventure. 
                 Though Hlane and Kruger are not far apart, the two parks couldn't be any more different from one another. Kruger has always been a well-established and highly publicized romantic getaway for those wishing to catch a glimpse of Africa's majestic wildlife. The park houses a network of paved roads, eateries and accommodation options that cater to every traveler's needs. It is large enough to get lost in for days, spans a variety of different habitats and houses some of the highest concentrations of wild animals on the planet. 
                Hlane, on the other hand, sits off the tourist trail and only makes its way onto the itineraries of the intrepid travelers who are drawn to Africa's tiny kingdom by curiosity. Some would say Hlane sits off the beaten path, though such a description seems far from fitting. In fact, Hlane sits on a path so beaten (by weather and lack of infrastructure) and trodden (by animals), that attempting to drive around on our own in our rented Fiat 500 would have no doubt resulted in disaster.
               After taking one look at the roads--with their meter-deep wheel ruts and water-filled potholes--it became apparent that we would have to book a tour in a safari truck if we wanted to have any chance whatsoever of making inroads into the park's interior. 
               So, the next morning, Dan and I woke up at the crack of dawn in time for an early morning safari. First, however, we decided to stop by the campsite's water hole to catch a glimpse of animal activity. 
                  What we saw was incredible. 

Rhinos Sleeping in Hlane National Park
                   As the sun rose, the area around us began to take form and come to life. At the waterhole, we saw a cluster of brown lumps sitting around the water.  Twelve rhinos were sleeping in a clearing near the camp, merely a stone's throw from where we were standing. Unlike camps at some of the other wildlife refuges that I had visited, Hlane had very little protecting our tents from the wild animals. 

Waking Rhinos in Hlane
                  A small fence with two strands of wire was all that separated us from the massive mammals. We tried not to think of the fact that a thin metal wire stood very little chance of protecting us from a charging rhino.

              Due to widespread rhino poaching throughout southern Africa, the rangers at Hlane have attempted to maintain a close eye on the animals by enclosing them in an area away from predators and by monitoring them consistently in the relatively small area of park. 
              Hlane is divided into three sections--the rhino section, the lion section and the section housing only game. 
              Following our incredible luck with the rhinos, we decided to begin our safari-truck adventure with a foray into the lion area of the park. Our guide warned us right away that lion sightings in the park was not a guarantee--especially in the rainy season when the tall grasses would hinder us from being able to see at a distance. 
              Yet, thanks to our guide's keen ability to spot camouflaged animals, it was only minutes before we found ourselves zooming down the park's potholed roads in the direction of four tan bumps in the grass. 
              For the second time in the day, we couldn't believe our luck. Sitting in front of us--merely a few arms lengths away from our open-air vehicle--sat a black-maned lion with three lionesses. It was arguably the best animal sighting I had had during my year in Africa and certainly one of the most thrilling moments of our South African trip. 
              I felt totally and completely vulnerable and unprotected in the truck as we inched closer and closer for a better view. 
             
Sleeping Lioness

My Best Lion Sighting Yet
             It turns out that the elephants (not the lions or rhinos) were probably the animals we should have been concerned about all along, however. 
          Merely moments after we reached a safe distance from the lions, I heard the car engine sputtering. I could see a wave of panic wash over the face of our guide as we drove by a herd of African elephants. 
              The animals were majestic and beautiful. I took out my camera to snap a few photos of them, but I could see that the guide had no interest in absorbing the view or admiring the animals. 
                With good reason, I soon learned. Only a few days prior, a massive elephant had knocked over a safari truck. From the incident, our guide had developed a palpable fear of the world's largest mammals. As I sat snapping photos of the animals, our guide's sole concern seemed to be getting us out of the elephant area of the park before our car engine failed us completely. 

Elephants with Babies, Hlane
                  And we barely made it. The car engine sputtered one last time and died completely just seconds after we exited the gates of the park. It was a thrilling and exhilarating finish to yet another successful wildlife adventure.
               Though we had shed our expectations of seeing animals in the park, Hlane just kept delivering. With every bend in the road, a new and unforgettable sighting appeared before our eyes. It was the quintessential African wildlife experience--never dull, often uncomfortable, a bit terrifying and, as always, full of surprises.
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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Kingdom of Swaziland

             The landlocked Kingdom of Swaziland rarely receives much international attention and often sits forgotten in the shadow of its much larger neighbors. And in the few instances that it does pop up in conversation or make its way to the news outlets, it often draws inquisitive looks or comments from people who are quick to confuse it with Switzerland.
            But Switzerland and Swaziland share very little in common, save for their similar names and beautiful scenery. While the former is an organized, wealthy European bastion of stability, neutrality and punctuality, the latter more often conjures images of poverty, disease and corruption. When Swaziland garners international attention, it is usually for something negative, like the country's exorbitantly high AIDS rate or low life expectancy. 
           Swaziland is probably plagued by more problems per square mile than just about anywhere else, but it is saddening to think that these issues are what the country is usually associated with. The few who happen to make it to the tiny kingdom will be quick to tell you that Swaziland is a friendly, welcoming dot on a map that has much more to offer than one would often assume based on its miniscule size. 
             During our quick foray into the kingdom, Dan and I experienced the country's rich heritage, its stunning scenery, its incredible wildlife and its genuine hospitality. 

Swazi Countryside
              Swaziland is a small kingdom sandwiched between South Africa and Mozambique. Though it was originally established in the eighteenth century by Ngwane III, it was later settled by many Europeans from Britain who sought to make a home amid the country's rolling hills. During the Scramble for Africa in the late 1800s, the British decided to annex the kingdom of Swaziland and, following the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa, incorporated the area as a British protectorate.
                 Swaziland remained under British control for over half a century, while slowly giving the Swazis more self-governing power. In 1968, the country was granted complete independence.

                 Despite being subject to European control for many years, the Swazis never lost their sense of identity and culture. To this day, they remain a proud people with a vibrant culture and centuries-old traditions. Their tiny country is home to some of Africa's greatest festivals and handicrafts. A ride through the beautiful Ezulwini Valley in the center of the country is an art-lover's dream and a wonderful way to catch a glimpse of the country's rich heritage.

Ngwenya Glass Center, Swaziland
Basket Weaver at Work 
                Swaziland's Ezulwini Valley is dotted with well-established craft centers that draw tourists looking for high-quality, handmade artifacts at reasonable prices. One such establishment is House on Fire, a concert venue and craft center with quirky, artistic decor and beautiful shops selling artifacts that range from baskets to batik and from candles to clothing. 
               House on Fire is a fantastic place to shop--not only because the stores are full of quality handmade products rather than kitschy, mass-produced souvenirs, but also because many of the proceeds trickle directly back to the artists and weavers. 

House on Fire Premises, Swaziland
House on Fire, Swaziland 
           Supporting these craft centers in Swaziland is a wonderful way to give back to a country plagued by some of the worst health issues and poverty rates in the world. Many of the shops we visited donate a percentage of their proceeds to women's cooperatives and to victims of HIV, while buying and selling products at a fair price.
               As these craft centers in Swaziland become more renowned, I believe larger numbers of tourists will inevitably follow. My hope is that Swaziland can benefit by reaping the positive effects of tourism and investing in its citizens and grassroots organizations in a sustainable way.
            The Swazis have a lot to be proud of and a visit to the country is like walking through an open air museum of the country's history and tradition. I hope that, as more people discover the beauty of this tiny country, Swaziland's image will shift from that of a nation decimated by HIV, to one that is celebrated for its rich contributions to African arts and culture. 
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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Blogger Awards Part 1--Versatile Blogger Award

                 Ever since I left Africa and started working for the airlines, I've felt as though my blogging has hit a bit of a rut. With the chaos of coming home from overseas, adjusting to my new life stateside and working a new job, I've put my little blog on a backburner and largely forgotten about it.
              Finding time to post during the chaotic monthlong window between Africa and my job training was difficult. Finding time during my two month training was nearly impossible. And once I started the job, things did not get any easier. Between flying, trying to maximize time on my layovers and catching up on sleep during my days off, I've found that the idea of writing is often burdensome.            
                 As a result, I have often found myself sitting on my couch with a backlog of information to jot down, more new experiences piling up by the day and little motivating me to take out my laptop and write.
                Until now.

Versatile Blogger Award

            I woke up this morning to a notification on twitter that a fellow travel blogger--author of the Travelling Penster--had nominated me for the Versatile Blogger Award. The award is given out by bloggers who recognize fellow blogs for the quality of their writing, content and photography. Needless to say, I felt honored to be recognized, especially by the author of such a well-established blog.  
            The premise of the award is to recognize other blogs and create networks among writers.  Upon receiving a nomination, Versatile Blogger Award nominees are asked to nominate fifteen of their own favorite blogs. There are so many wonderful blogs out there with a wealth of information and engaging stories, that narrowing the list down to fifteen can be a challenge. In the end, I tried to chose a diverse range of travel blogs--from the blogger newbies that have just recently discovered their love of travel, to seasoned veterans who have found a way to make travel blogging their livelihood. Here is my list of fifteen travel-related blogs, in no particular order. 

Great Travel Blogs











In addition to listing fifteen of my favorite blogs, the second component of the award requires me to reveal seven things about myself to my readers. To those of you who know me in person, the following list probably comes with no surprises. To those of you who only know me through my blog, the list may give you a tiny glimpse into my life and interests. 

A Bit about Myself

1. I speak two languages fluently (English and Italian) and have studied six for various lengths of time and at different periods of my life (Spanish, French, Portuguese, Japanese, Arabic and German). I am still convinced that I will somehow, someday learn them all. 

2. When it came time for my classmates and I to do country report projects in fifth grade, most of my friends chose places like Ireland, Australia and Germany. I chose to research Papua New Guinea. I guess I was always destined to explore and study the world's lesser-known and forgotten places.

3. I was never allowed to watch TV growing up. As a result, I know very little about popular culture and, to this day, have very little interest in learning about it. 

4. I love sports. 

5. I could listen to Simon and Garfunkel's songs on repeat every day and never grow tired of them. 

6. The more I travel, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I want to to travel. It's a vicious cycle that has totally sucked me in. Traveling has become an addiction, to say the least. 

7. As much as I love traveling the world and hopping from place to place, Eugene, Oregon will always be my home. 
                                                              -------------------------------

           I would like to thank the Travelling Penster for nominating me for the Versatile Blogger Award, for getting me out of my writing funk and for reminding me that this blog is something I should not neglect any longer.
         It always feels good to get a little recognition, especially from those who are the best at what they do. The nomination was just the remedy I needed to dig myself out of my rut and to keep writing. I'm now more motivated than ever to catch up on the backlog of posts from my December travels and have made it a goal to catch up on my posts by the end of July.
             Let's hope that, this time, I hold myself to it! 
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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Crown Jewel of South Africa

               While safari-going may rank toward the top of things to do on a trip to Africa, I admit that prior to setting foot on the continent, animal viewing fell somewhere near the bottom of my travel list. After all, I'd been to plenty of zoos in my life and seen many of Africa's prized animals up close in captivity. How different could it be to see these animals in the wild, I wondered?  

              My first encounter with Africa's animals in the wild came during a month-long adventure through Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi with some of my WorldTeach friends. I vividly remember the exhilaration I felt during our outing in the Okavango Delta, when we found ourselves face-to-face with dozens of elephants, giraffes and wildebeest. It didn't take long for me to realize that my trips to zoos growing up were in no way comparable to visiting a wildlife reserve. 
               I visited numerous parks throughout my time in Africa and soon discovered that, just as seeing animals in zoos cannot be compared to witnessing their interactions in the wild, so too was it difficult to equate my experience in one park with my experience in another. Each has its own unique species and ecosystems. Each brings its own set of adventures.
                   With this in mind, I decided to include three game parks into my South Africa itinerary with Dan. I wanted him to experience the thrill of seeing animals in their natural habitat, as well as the diversity of wildlife that can be seen in the different parks throughout the continent. We kicked off our safari circuit with a self-guided visit to Kruger National Park.
               South Africa's Kruger National Park consistently ranks atop the list of Africa's most impressive game parks. It is one of the world's biggest wildlife reserves and houses more species of big game than any other park in Africa. Due to the sheer magnitude of species in the reserve, Kruger has often been deemed the jewel on South Africa's crown. For a country with rugged natural scenery, plentiful wildlife parks, ecological diversity and world-class cities, such a distinction certainly means a lot.

              Unfortunately, Dan and I visited Kruger at the height of the rainy season, when trees were in full bloom and the dense vegetation made it difficult to spot animals. Aside from the thousands of impala that we spotted throughout the park, we would sometimes drive hours before spotting a solitary elephant, a group of giraffes or a zebra herd. Driving around the park for two days with such sparse sightings could be frustrating at times, but I soon realized that the beauty of our experience lay in the quality of our sightings rather than the quantity.

Mother and Baby Impala

Charismatic Giraffe
                                        
                 Sometimes, our lack of big game sightings would cause us to become complacent in the car. I would get tired of pointing out lions and giraffes, only to realize a few minutes later that the shapes I was seeing were merely branches or tree stumps. 
               It was just at those moments that we would have some of our most impressive and exciting wildlife encouters.
                 
                  One of our most memorable experiences in Kruger happened toward the end of our first day in the park, when we were experiencing a significant drought in animal sightings. We had followed the roads through dense thickets of vegetation for a while and crossed countless rivers and swamps without spotting much more than the occasional impala or zebra.
                 Eventually, Dan and I grew distracted and took our eyes largely off the road when, all of a sudden, we hit a large pothole, slammed on the brakes and found ourselves being sized up by a furious rhino that had been enjoying a solitary mud bath until we invaded its privacy.
                 For a moment, we panicked. I felt completely vulnerable in our little rented Fiat 500 and knew very well that our tiny vehicle stood a poor chance of escaping the wrath of a charging rhino. I looked at Dan and his eyes told me that he had felt the same momentary jolt of panic.
                 We turned off the car engine and sat in silence, trying our best to remain motionless and calm. To our relief, the rhino grew disinterested in us and eventually waddled away from the waterhole, disappearing through the thicket of trees.

The Angry Rhino

               That evening, Dan and I decided to sign up for a guided night drive in order to try our luck at spotting some nocturnal animals. Considering the sparse sightings we had seen earlier in the day and the fact that we were prohibited from driving ourselves around the park at night, we figured a ride around the reserve with the well-trained eyes of a guide might boost our chances of finding the elusive animals.
                During the night drive, our guide pointed out many nocturnal animals. At one point, just as he was in the middle of explaining the diet of scrub hares, he received a page on his walkie-talkie and began talking loudly and at length with a co-worker. The passengers in our vehicle began growing restless and glancing at their watches when, all of a sudden, our driver zoomed off down an empty road and called out "leopard!"
              And there we saw it. The prize of nearly all African safaris, slinking along the road in search of prey. We followed the beautiful cat down the road for a few minutes until it slunk behind a bush and disappeared from sight. 
                  I fumbled with my camera settings in order to capture the leopard in the darkness, but had very little luck due to the lack of light and the fact that I didn't bring a tripod. In the end, I put my camera away and decided to admire the majestic animal without the obstruction of a lens.
                  Spotting the leopard was a perfect way to cap our first day in Kruger and refueled our excitement for another day of wildlife viewing.

                   The next morning, Dan and I woke up at the crack of dawn in order to maximize our day inside the park. We expected another day in which we would have to drive long distances before spotting animals but, to our surprise, luck struck immediately. As soon as we turned the bend away from Skukuza camp, we spotted a family of six hyenas (including four cubs) along the side of the road. The hyenas were so close that I could have practically reached my hand out and touched them.

Hyena
     
             Despite the bad rap that hyenas often receive, they really can be quite charming. The playful babies were so adorable that I would have been tempted to hug them, had I not known any better.

The Adorable Hyena Cubs

         For the rest of the afternoon, until the park closure at six, Dan and I wandered along the park's roads, pointing out animals here and there. We rounded out our sightings of the Big 5 with a glimpse of two lionesses that were well camouflaged in the tall golden grasses and saw a variety of other animals along the way, including baboons, birds species and dozens of antelope.


Babboons--Mother and Baby

              We may have visited at the wrong time of year, but Dan and I had a wonderful experience  in Kruger nonetheless. Whenever I became complacent or discouraged due to our lack of animal sightings, the park would surprise me with some of my best wildlife encounters to date. Over the course of our sojourn in the park, we saw not only the Big 5, but also a wide array of plains species and predators indigenous to the park. 
         As we said our final goodbyes to Kruger, we headed down the highway toward the tiny landlocked Kingdom of Swaziland. Visiting Kruger fueled my excitement for our upcoming visit to Hlane Royal National Park in Swaziland and confirmed what I had come to learn all along--that going to zoos simply isn't a substitute for a safari and that, no matter how many days I spend adventuring through the continent's game reserves, spotting animals in their natural habitats never gets old. 
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