Friday, February 20, 2015


Yesterday, we drove about one hour north of Orlando to see the manatees that spend time at Blue Spring State Park for the winter. Because the water is a constant 73˚ they spend a good deal of time here during the winter when the temperature of the Johns River drops. Manatees get cold shock and die if the water temperature drops below 60˚ for any length of time. Blue Spring is about 1/3 mile from the river. The lagoon and the 104 million gallons of water it discharges daily provides enough for as many as 300 manatees at any one time.
Lots of young manatee. They stay with momma for up to two years. 
The park built a boardwalk the entire length of the lagoon providing great viewing of the manatees as they slowly make their way to the springs and back. The huge mammals can swim up to 13 miles per hour, but in the lagoon they seldom move more than one or two mph propelled by their huge tail which is strong enough to break the leg of a swimmer who gets too close. The front flippers are only used for direction.

The sad story for these amazing animals is that while they have no natural predators – the only such animal in the world – they are endangered because of humans. Most are killed when they are hit by the propeller of a speeding boat in the open water. Every manatee we saw had scars. The scars are easy to identify as they heal with a white scab that never goes away. The scars are therefore unique and used to identify individuals.
Injured manatees are given a tracking device when they are returned to the water.

They are also harmed by fertilizer runoff and plastic. Plastic is a problem because they are unable to digest it and it will block their intestines. There is a bill in the Florida legislature right now that would allow local jurisdictions to ban plastic bags. Unfortunately, the retailers and bag makers are fighting this quite reasonable idea. I was somewhat ambivalent about the paper/plastic choice until a few  years ago when we spent a week in Corpus Christie, TX. I was appalled at the number of plastic bags we saw littering the landscape, something one would never say about paper bags. Paper bags do of course end up as litter also, but they don’t blow around in the wind and cause the death of many birds and animals. When I visited Texas two years ago, I saw that several of the coastal towns now do prohibit their use which has made a huge visual change to the region. I hope Florida will follow suit. I also have hopes that Vancouver and Clark County will do the same although I have doubts that our current set of county councilors will do so since they are more focused on levying a litter tax on the local newspaper. They claim this has nothing to do with the fact that the Columbian keeps pointing out their myriad foibles or as they editor says, “They keep doing stupid stuff.”
Notice the tiny mouth
Meanwhile, we had a great time walking the boardwalk watching the manatees. We probably saw 200 of them as we wandered the park for about two hours. During the summer months they allow swimming and scuba diving in the lagoon, but not during the winter when the manatees are there.

We also spent some time examining the historic Louis Thursby house built in the 1870s atop an Indian midden. A midden is really a garbage pile of mostly shells left behind over the centuries by the local Indians. For the first several decades the Thursbys was a major stop for steamboats plying the Johns River which is navigable from Jacksonville to Orlando. The advent of the railroad eventually put an end to steamboat traffic and the state purchased the land as a park to protect the area for the manatees.
The Thursby House
 The 2400 acres is also home to many other endangered species including the Florida scrub jay, gopher tortoise, and Okeechobee gourds. One may also see black bears in the area. We did not see many birds, but were lucky enough to get some good views of the Florida scrub jay which is Florida’s only endemic bird. We had tried to find them on earlier trips to the state, but came up empty. Yesterday we were more fortunate.
The elusive Florida Scrub Jay
Before heading home, we drove through the small town of Cassadaga which claims to be the home of more psychics and mediums than any other town in the US. It did seem like every third house had a sign advertising the availability of the one or the other. We saw more black cats than we have ever seen in one place. You can’t drive through the town without having at least one cross your path. I hope that doesn’t lead to bad luck. The one hotel in town includes a store selling mystical ware and its own resident medium. They even have the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp which takes up several acres with its buildings. We did not stop, but did enjoy seeing the sites. 

Saturday, December 27, 2014


Blood River

During our stay at the Spion Kop Lodge, we took advantage of our host Raymond Heron, an expert on South Africa’s wars, and asked him to take us on a tour of a couple of the battle sites. When we were here in 2012, he took us to the site of the Battle of Spion Kop which you can read about here. Spion Kop was one of the battles during the South African War which is better known as the Boer War.
This time we visited three battle sites from earlier wars between the Europeans and the Zulus which ended the Zulu threat to European efforts to take over the Zulu land. Coincidentally, these battles took place during the same period Americans were moving westward and doing the same thing to the Indians. In an even stronger coincidence perhaps, the Russians were expanding eastward to the Pacific Ocean at the same time.
The 1947 monument. This wagon is larger than life.
The Battle of Blood River was fought between 470 Voortrekkers led by Andries Pretorius, and 15,000–21,000 Zulu attackers on the bank of the Ncome River on 16 December 1838, in what is today KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The Zulu had developed a powerful attacking style emulating the horns of the cape buffalo. While the horns flanked the sides, the main body of the army attacked the front. with the enemy encircled one more portion of the army would sit with its back to the enemy until it was needed.

This and the next two photos show the 1971 monument with its 48 life-size bronze wagons.
At Blood River, the Boers negated the Zulu strategy by circling the 48 wagons where they were protected on one rear by the Ncome River and another by a dry riverbed. The front offered no cover for the attacking army. Before the battle, the Boers vowed that if God helped them win, they would build a church and honor the day forever as a holy day of God.

When the Zulus attacked, they were decimated by the Boers. As many as 3000 Zulus were killed while only three Boers suffered wounds. The Boers built their church in Pietermaritzburg and the holiday became known first as the Day of the Vow and then the Day of the Covenant. Today, December 16 is the Day of Reconciliation as the new South Africa tries to reconcile its racist, apartheid past with its non-racial future.

In 1947, the Afrikaners built a monument consisting of a larger than life granite wagon. Then in 1971, the monument was expanded to a life-size set of 48 bronze wagons staged in the laager formation including the three cannons deployed by the Boers. Then in 1998, the new government added a new monument and museum across the river. Ideally, the two monuments across the river from each other can provide symbols for reconciliation.

A Painting of the Reconciliation Ceremony
Our experience was ‘enhanced’ by a discussion by a young Afrikaner still living in the past. He made sure we understood he is not a racist, but he seemed mostly interested in making sure we understood that the Afrikaner is the superior race and was right to take the land. Change can be slow in coming. He was especially critical of the large mural in the new museum that he said misrepresented the battle. He would have been correct except for the fact that it is really showing the Reconciliation Ceremony that he should have attended. In the actual battle, the Zulus attacked from the field, not across the river and the Boers never left their kraal.


The Battle of Isandlwana on January 22, 1879, was the first major encounter in the Anglo–Zulu War that the British instigated in its effort to unite South Africa under one rule. After creating a confederation in Canada in 1867, Britain decided to implement the same plan in South Africa. This would require defeating the independent Kingdom of Zululand. The British did not see this as a major obstacle given their overwhelming firepower and superior military training. Such was not to be the case however.

Isandlwana Peak
The war began when the Zulu rejected an ultimatum that would have destroyed the kingdom anyway. Among other things, it required a disbanding of the army and allowing missionaries total freedom within the kingdom. In early January, 1879, Lord Chelmsford began moving his troops in preparation for battle.
Upon reaching Isandlwana, Chelmsford divided his troops, taking the larger group and leaving a garrison at Isandlwana. The poorly led garrison neglected to create any defensive lines leaving itself open to attack as Chelmsford chased what turned out to be a feint by the Zulu.

On January 22, the Zulu army attacked using its buffalo formation easily surrounding the British force. The result was the worst defeat ever in a colonial war for the British. They lost approximately 1300 men of their force of 1800 including 52 officers.

Two of the British monuments. Many divisions have erected their own.
The Zulu memorial. This is a replica of the Zulu necklace.

The battlefield today includes four different monuments to the British dead and dozens of rock cairns painted white to mark the burial sites of British soldiers. A small museum and Zulu memorial are located nearby.

Rorke’s Drift

Isandlwana was immediately followed by a battle at Rorke’s Drift where 150 British soldiers held off an intense assault by 3000-4000 Zulu warriors while losing only 17 dead and 15 wounded. Rorke’s Drift had been designated for munitions storage. By the end of the battle, most of the ammunition the British had for the war had been depleted. Eleven Victoria’s Crosses were awarded, the most even awarded for a single battle in British history.

The hospital
 A drift is a river crossing. This one was named for its first owner James Rorke. At the time of the attack it was both a weapons depot and a hospital for wounded and sick soldiers. The awarding of the eleven Victoria’s Crosses has been criticized as an overreaction to the defeat at Isandlwana, but it is impossible to ignore the fact that this small group of soldiers, many of whom were sick and wounded managed to hold off the much larger Zulu force for over ten hours.

The two battles secured British public opinion in favor of the war. While the British would retreat for a time because of the losses inflicted here, they would invade Zululand a second time within weeks and finally secure victory in early July.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Namibia - An Overview

The Oryx - Linda's new favorite animal
It has been so long since I posted a blog entry that this is just going to be an overview of our time in Namibia. I’ll post individual entries later along with more from South Africa and Botswana.

Namibia is a dry country of amazing contrasts. Its European colonial history began with ‘discovery’ by the Portuguese as they were searching for that elusive route around Africa to the East and its spices. But as a colony, it was founded by Germany with the exception of the port of Walfish Bay (Walvis Bay) which somehow the British commandeered as a port to furnish its inland colonies. When Germany lost World War I, the colony was given to South Africa to administer. Over the years, the United Nations tried to get South Africa to give up control, but it took fighting and was not until 1990 that Namibia gained independence. Walvis Bay was added in 1994. Meanwhile, South Africa had extended its apartheid regime into Namibia. The legacy remains, but Namibians will tell you with pride that race is not an issue today.

Our camp from the air
The coastal city of Swakopmund is the most interesting urban area in Namibia. The German heritage is easily seen in the buildings and the monument honoring the 1904 defeat of the local tribe. Moreover, even though English is the national language, you are much more likely to hear German spoken on the street and in the shops. Unlike the other southern African naitons we have visited, the overwhelming majority of visitors here are from German or Switzerland. I had to go back four months to find another American in the guest book at our hotel.

Our first stop was Sossusvlei, a national park you have certainly seen in pictures. The red sand and the dead trees are unmistakable. Animal life is minimal which only makes the oryx and springbok more dramatic when you see them silhouetted against the dry landscape. Nor are there  a lot of birds, but eleven of the 23 birds we saw were new ones. The treeless landscape also allowed us the opportunity to see jackals and bat-eared foxes.

From Sossusvlei we flew 140 miles to Swakopmund and then drove to Damaraland for a different landscape experience. With just a bit more water and occasional river flow, this area has enough trees to support a healthy population of elephants. We also saw kudu and steenbok. As in Sossusvlei, the lack of predators means the animals can live in peace and humans are able to walk the property without a guard.

Our next to last stop is the famous Etosha National Park where animals abound. Almost a quarter of the area is the Etosha Pan, a dry lakebed so salty that nothing grows on it. The rest of the park varies from dry scrubland to forested areas. Waterholes dispersed about the landscape provide enough water for a good variety of animal and bird life, incluinding lions, leopards, and cheetahs. The only missing animals are those that need lots of water like cape buffalo and hippopotamus.  Best are the thriving populations of black and white rhinoceros, one of the few places in Africa that can make that claim. The facility manager says that the best anti-poaching unit here is the lions.

Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk

Tomorrow we leave Etosha for Otjiworongo and the Waterburg Plateau. More later.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Muchenje Game Lodge at Chobe National Park, Botswana

Zebra, Waterbuck, and Impala grazing together
View from our deck
Baobab Tree
I haven’t been as regular as I’d hoped  in keeping up with this blog. We are in Johannesburg now and headed off to our next stop at SpionKop where we will spend the next five days. We had a fabulous time at Muchenje with Robert and Joy as our hosts and David as our guide. Robert and Joy had great stories to tell about knowing Jane Goodall and Dion Fossey. They are also good friends with Peter Allison who wrote the marvelous book, Walk Don’t Run, about his adventures as a game guide. Since we have all read his books, it was a real treat to learn more about him.

We ate lunch with the Elephants our first day
Then waited for them to cross the road on our way back to camp
Of course, the real treat at Chobe is the animals. The park is about 11,000 square km. It was set aside in the 1930s and became Botswana’s first national park in 1968. Botswana has the largest number of elephants of any nation; over 70,000 of them live in Chobe along with lions, leopards and thousands of different species of antelope. It may be hard to believe, but by our fourth day we would drive through a herd of 100 elephants without stopping as we were in search of other animals or birds.
She is wishing that those zebra hadn't seen them

Just resting in the middle of the day

We saw 29 lions. This was the only male.
The camp sits at the top of a slope overlooking the Chobe River so we awoke each morning to a view of the expanse of Africa and its animals. Since the river is the border Botswana and Namibia, we were also able to watch Namibian fishermen working their nets. Zebra, waterbuck and vast numbers of birds usually had made it across the river to graze enhancing the view.

Tough times for the baboons as they wait for the rain.
The short neck leads to adaptive behavior.  They are not praying.
We saw one elusive leopard - a first for Rintas and Briggs.
The Chobe bushbuck is the only one with spots. This was a very rare sighting.
Slender Mongoose
Banded Mongoose
An unusual scene of a buffalo in the water feeding.
Spotted hyena at dusk
A beautiful Waterbuck

Rather than write more, I am just going to show some of the better pictures. Enjoy.

African Fish Eagle
Tawny Eagle
African Jacana - also known as the Jesus bird as it seems to walk on water over the lily pads
Brown-headed Tchagra
Crimson-breasted Bee-eater
Blue Waxbill
Kori Bustard - Botswana's National Bird
Lilac-breasted roller - runner up for the title of national bird
Marabou stork - one of the "Ugly Five"
Yellow-billed Stork
Sunsets here are absolutely amazing.