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Writing Your Dreams into Realities

They say those who write down their goals and dreams have a higher success rate of turning them into realities.

I recently found a very artistic goal book I had made in 2001, sixteen years ago, during my 11th grade English class. Thank you to Mrs. E for giving us time in class to create these visions! Flipping through the pages, I realized that a lot of the goals I had written down, I have now accomplished. You can also tell which song was popular at that time…

“Watch a sunset in Africa.” In 2014, I traveled to South Africa co-leading a group of undergraduate students on a Big Cat Research trip.  I made sure to watch every sunrise and every sunset, imprinting the experience in my mind. I was able to travel back to Africa at the end of 2016, this time watching sunsets in Botswana and Zimbabwe (look for future posts to come).

“Swing on a vine in the rainforest.” I have this strange obsession with the rainforest. I’m not sure if it comes from gazing at all the National Geographic magazine spreads of the Amazon canopy, the film documentaries I watched as a kid, or from my visits to the Rainforest Exhibit in the Woodland Park Zoo. I remember the day I arrived in the Amazon and reached the summit of a hike I did near Aguas Calientes in Peru. My heart fluttered as I looked out over the canopy. I’m here! I’m seeing this in real life.  I can’t believe it. I’ve been to the Peruvian rainforest a number of times now as a tourist and as a volunteer biologist with Earthwatch and the Tambopata Macaw Project. On a regular basis, I daydream of the soonest time I will be able to return. I find it interesting I’m on the path to becoming a polar oceanographer, because I’ve always had a vision of myself as a rainforest biologist.

“Jump off a tall cliff into water.” Why did I want to jump off a tall cliff?! I have no idea. After college I traveled Europe with my best buddy Kristina Ciari (she hosts an awesome blog called An Adventurous Life and works for The Mountaineers). We did one of those canyoning adventures out of Bern, Switzerland and at one point had to jump off a cliff into a narrow section of the river. Terrifying to say the least. I hesitated before my jump and got reprimanded by the guide. “YOU JUST HAVE TO JUMP!” he said, “Do NOT overthink this. Now, GO!” It really is a life metaphor if you think about it.  Years later, she and I visited Smith Rock near Bend, Oregon for a climbing trip and found this beautifully tall cliff. The guide’s words still rang in my ears, “Now, GO!” We all jumped 30 feet down into a wide calm river. Some of us came up with nose bleeds. I luckily did not.  But I think I cured my desire for jumping off tall things.

“Scuba dive in exotic waters.” I grew up in Washington’s Puget Sound. A beautiful location for diving. However, scuba is an incredibly expensive hobby and I never found the means to get in to the activity until 2013 when I finally had saved enough cash to get my Open Water Certificate. I spent the next two years working to get certified in Advanced Open Water, then Dry Suit, and Rescue Diver. My progress stalled when it came time to buy my own equipment. I couldn’t pass that next financial hurdle. One day, I was talking to a science colleague while working in the lab, and he said that he got funded to dive during his graduate program. I vowed to myself that if I ever went to graduate school I would find a way to dive for science. When I found out I was going to be attending Scripps Institution of Oceanography for my Master of Advanced Studies degree, I immediately signed up for the Scientific Diving course. I then spent my loan money on nearly $3000 worth (probably more) of gear so that I could be independent of a rental shop whenever I wanted to dive. I have yet to dive in exotic tropical waters, but I did manage to snorkel in the frigid 2°C Silfra fissure of Iceland.  Some day I do plan to dive in the polar oceans, namely Antarctica. Because I’ve already written it down, I know it will happen!

“Stay in an igloo at the poles and watch the Aurora Borealis.” Ok, so the igloo part hasn’t happened yet but I have made it near to both poles and seen the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) and Aurora Australis (Southern Lights). In 2013, I was sent to Antarctica aboard an icebreaker for a two month research expedition. During one of the nights, we all went on deck to gaze at the Southern Lights. Dazzling ribbons of green, electrifying the sky.  The only time I have seen the Northern Lights occurred while I was in Seattle, funnily enough, about 14 years ago. One evening I was driving home from college around midnight and I saw funny clouds moving high in the sky. As I got closer to my house I realized those funny clouds were the Aurora Borealis and I raced inside to wake my parents. They ran out, mom in a nightgown, dad in his flannel pajama set. We all gazed up as the green lights danced above us, flickering, sizzling, then moved out of sight. It was magical. Seeing the full curtain of  blues, greens, purples, and pinks — from an igloo — is still on my To-Do List.

“Walk the wall of China.” This still needs to be accomplished!  Asia has been a region of the world I haven’t devoted much time. Malaysia was the first international country I visited back at the ripe age of 15. We traveled to Kuala Lumpur and to the small island of Penang. Growing up, our family hosted over 25 Japanese exchange students, so I have every reason to plan a trip to this side of the world.

I knew at a young age I was an adventurer. I have that Wanderlust. That Travel Gene. I have visited 35 countries and all 7 continents. I had no idea at the time of my 11th grade English class assignment, that I would actually end up traveling the world, for curiosity and for science, fulfilling the goals I had written down in that little book.

I’ve been writing goals ever since, many more of which have come true. I have dozens of notebooks and journals scattered about my room.

Apparently, if you just *think* about your goals and dreams, its not enough to make them real. Dreaming and imagination occur in the right hemisphere of the brain. Writing taps into the power of your left hemisphere, or logic-based side of the brain. When you operate the two together, you send your consciousness a signal that says,  “I want this, and I mean it!” Throughout time, its as if your subconscious mind then orchestrates those visions into realities.

Seeing this book, and reflecting on the accomplishments I’ve made over the past 16 years, I’m convinced I need to keep writing down those dreams and goals so that some day they become reality!

What are the dreams and goals you have written down wondering if they would ever be achieved? I’d love to hear in the comments below!

Thank you for reading and following Woman Scientist! As always, feel free to share with a friend or young scientist!

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Exploring the Okavango Delta – Part 3

Last year I went to Africa in June. Their dry season. When all the green fades away and only shades of beige and golden hues remain. I was co-leading groups of undergraduate students who were eager to learn wildlife tracking and skills in collecting observational data on the Big Cats of Kruger National Park. Over the course of a month, we saw 101 lion, 33 leopard, and 7 cheetah, among a plethora of other fantastic african wildlife. I felt I had nearly seen it all.

This year, visiting Africa during the December wet season, proved to be equally spectacular but in a different way. The bush had become thick with green Mopani leaves and grasses extending all lengths. This cover allowed animals to better hide but despite the density of green, I was still impressed with the amount of wildlife we saw. Lions, leopards, elephants, and hippo. We did not go home feeling any sort of lack.

Early one morning, we sat with two female lionesses.  “Lions are lazy,” the guide said to us. “They lie around all day sleeping and only hunt when they have to.”

It sure seemed that way to us. Female lions are a pride’s primary hunters. They often work together to take down prey such as zebra, antelopes, and wildebeest. These lazy lionesses sure didn’t seem to be planning for any such activities that day.

Most of the time we saw lions, we either saw two brothers, two sisters, or a male and a female mating. The average size of a lion pride consists of five or six females, their cubs, and one or two males living in a family unit.  Extremely large prides are not typical, although last year, we did count a group of 29 individuals living together in Kruger National Park.

Lions are the only cats to live in social groups, and all of a pride’s lionesses are related. Female cubs typically stay with the group as they age, but young males eventually leave and establish their own prides by taking over a group headed by another male.

The story of one particular male roaming the area near Savuti had a sad beginning. Mr. Lion and his brother were a team. But one day, Mr. Lion met a Ms. Lion and the two went off to enjoy each other’s company. As a typical mating cycle lasts about three days, with the mating ritual taking place almost every 20 minutes, up to 40 times daily, the two would be busy for quite some time. Brother lion was left to wander by himself.Alone and unguarded, Brother lion ended up getting into some trouble. A band of  three other brother lions roaming the area challenged him to a fight. Without the help of his brother, he was no match for the three males and unfortunately did not survive the attack.

Mr. Lion had no idea this was happening. However, once the days had passed, and Ms. Lion’s interest wained, Mr. Lion went looking for him.

Nowhere to be found.

He called, and called. Through the night and day.

The guides suspect he eventually figured out his brother wasn’t going to come back. Without him, Mr. Lion wasn’t able to effectively hunt. They watched him slowly lose weight as time went on, and renamed him Mr. Skinny.

Each time we saw him, he barely moved. In the heat of the sun, you’d suspect he had died. Every now and then, though, he would stir, roll around, and clean himself off.  Then one evening, just before dusk, we saw Mr. Skinny in a rather peppy mood. We weren’t sure what was going on at first, but then we saw. Ms. Lion had returned. At first, she seemed rather annoyed he had started to follow her. She ran ahead, and he continued to slowly trot behind.

It became clear he was too weak to catch up with her. Exhaustion took over, and he lay down to catch a break. Surely Ms. Lion would be on her way?

Nope! She came back to him, rubbed her face against his, encouraging him to stand up and continue after her.  We watched as she played a flirtatious game of catch-me-if-you-can far into the sunset, past the hour of visibility to capture any of it on camera.

The guides were optimistic that Mr. Skinny could recover. Although, with the band of three brothers still roaming around and a flirtatious female visiting them all, his chances would be slim unless he stayed well hidden from the other males.

Each day our schedule was full of adventure, food, and relaxation.

Morning started with the 5:00 a.m. wake up call. At 5:30 a.m. we piled into the car for our first game drive of the day. At 9:30 a.m. we would find a nice place in the field to stop and have coffee and biscuits before continuing our drive.

By 11:00 a.m., we returned back to camp for breakfast with the staff and a lively recap of the morning’s sightings.

“The bar is open if anyone wants something to drink,” the host Sally announced!

“Join me in some champagne,” Eva, the German/South African would chime. Why the heck not?! We were on vacation, after all, and we had the best seats in the house!

After breakfast, we had a break in the day. Siesta time until 4:00 p.m. A perfect span of time to relax, journal, and nap. I don’t know if it was the heat of the day, or the fact we woke at 5:00 a.m., but a nap always happened.

Temperatures during December never got too cold, hovering between 60-80*F throughout the day. In June, nights would drop to 46*F and rise to 97*F by midday, so packing layers was crucial, however this time around, I never used my gloves nor hat.

At 4:00 p.m., we sauntered out to the main lodge where we sipped tea and nibbled on delicious snacks. All of the food prepared at Wilderness Safari camps was incredible.

At 4:30 p.m., we again piled into the car to begin our afternoon game drive. Every day we stopped at sunset to enjoy “Sundowners”, really just an excuse to drink and enjoy the colors of light playing off the landscape.

Tops offers Sarita a glass of Africa wine.

Eva holds a dung beetle to the light.

Unless an epic sighting kept us out late, we returned to the camp by 7:30 p.m. each night. A full course dinner and wine pairings began at 8:00 p.m. and we sat with the whole group, guests and staff.  Wine and conversation flowed as we recounted the day’s events and stories of our lives back home.  It truly felt like we were eating with family.

 

***

This story ends here! If you’d like to keep reading, be sure to subscribe to the newsletter and get immediate updates delivered to your inbox. For stories earlier in the trip, read part 1 and part 2.

As always, please share Woman Scientist with anyone you think may feel inspired!

Thanks for reading.

***

All photos taken by Allison Lee and Cynthia Cusick. Information obtained through personal conversation with Wilderness Safari guides.

 

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Exploring the Okavango Delta Botswana – Savuti Part 2

“Knock, knock, knock…”

“Helloooo…”

“Good morniiiiing….”

…It’s dark…

I sleepily open my eyes to the 5a.m. wake up call.

“Good morning!”

“We are awake. Thank you!”

In thirty minutes the sun would rise, which gave us just enough time to roll out of bed, throw on clothes, grab our bags, and slug back a cup of coffee and light breakfast before heading into the vehicle for our morning game drive.

In the wilderness, if you want to have the best opportunity for animal sightings, you wake up when the animals wake up .  And sunrise is actually one of my favorite times of the day.  It always feels like you are in on a secret the rest of the world doesn’t yet know about.

Elephant and a saddle-billed stork

Four of us piled into the rover eager to start exploring: Our guide and driver, Tops, a lovely German/South African woman named Eva, and my mom and I.

There is never a real agenda when you are on safari. You go where the animal signs lead you.

Tops began the morning meandering along the main roads, keeping an opportunistic eye out for fresh animal tracks.

Even when we didn’t see big game, there were plenty of other animals and birds to keep us occupied. Botswana has 75 larger mammal species and 593 bird species have been recorded. Because of the Delta’s dynamic watery woodlands, amphibians are also abundant.

Helmeted Guinea fowl

Coppery tailed coucal

Lilac breasted roller. My favorite.

White faced whistling ducks

Marabou stork

leopard tortoise

african bullfrog carcass

Southern carmine bee eater

Another lilac breasted roller

Sable antelope

Kudu

They joke that warthogs are part of Africa’s “Ugly Five”.  A play on the sought after “Big Five” game animals: African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros. I found the warthogs to be endearing and my favorite site was them trotting off into the bush with their tails held high. A signal to other hogs to say, “Follow me if you want to live!”

Warthogs typically live in family groups of a female and her young. Female warthogs only have four teats, so litter sizes are usually confined to four young. Each piglet has its own teat and suckles exclusively from it.  After about 4 months, the young switch to receiving most of their nourishment from grazing.

Mama warthog and piglets

Baby impala

side striped jackal

Blue Wildebeest

Pair of jackals

A playful zebra

   Giraffes are probably one of my favorite animals. They’re so tall and slow. If you’ve ever seen a giraffe running, you know what I mean. They’re operating on a different timeline and for good reason. They have some of the longest nerves around. The sciatic nerve, which runs down each of its legs, is several yards long, so responding to a stimuli actually takes longer. 

Wilderness Safari’s Savuti Camp is located in the Linyanti concession. This 125,000 hectare area is rich with mopane woodland, floodplains, and riparian forests. The year round water source from the Savute Channel attracts wildlife including herds of elephant that can reach very high densities in the drier winter months (July/August).

“Never trust a hippo,” they say.

Here, you really get to appreciate the full circle of life. From the living, to the dead, as well as the breakdown process of decay. Everyone is hard at work surviving.

Tops holds up a Cape Buffalo skull. This was a female which you can tell by looking at the helmeted cap on the head. Males have larger more fused plates which help them in combat.

Tops explains to us the importance of elephant dung in the ecosystem.

Dung beetles ready for action.

Skin of an elephant. This one probably died naturally. Signs of poaching involve removal of the tusks and Botswana has a shoot-to-kill policy against anyone suspected of doing so.

One sign that decay is close by, is that of the Scavenger of Death. The Vulture.

Vultures are not known to kill their own prey. Instead, they wait near the scene of the crime for their chance to gorge. If you’re out driving and spot vultures circling on the horizon, there is a sure chance you’ll find something exciting if you get close.

Perhaps a lion has just made a kill? Or a pair of cheetahs has finished feasting on a zebra?

One day, we saw vultures circling around a tree, so we decided to investigate.

As we got closer to the tree, we noticed many of the vultures were sitting in its branches staring at the pond below.

Then, we saw it.

A dead hippo in the water!

Trying to get a better view, we decided to circle around the pond. Attempting to cross a water way in the rainy season is always a risk.  Depending on the soil type, the ground can turn into sticky mud within minutes. 

Our effort to get closer immediately failed. The mud pulled us in. 

Tops revved the engine trying to force the Land Rover free. We didn’t budge. The mud was too slippery and grabbed us, pulling us in further.

There was no escape.

That’s when we knew we were really seriously stuck. At first, I tried to play calm. Stuck? Its part of the Safari experience! … right?! 

Then my mind started working. Vultures. Dead hippo just lying there. Nowhere to go.

I couldn’t help think the lions would be there soon.  We were goners.

Tops radioed for help but we were more than an hour outside of camp.

As we waited, he cheerily offered us all coffee and biscuits. Coffee? Biscuits?? How can we eat right now?! WE MIGHT DIE!

“But Allison, if this is your last meal, you might as well enjoy it!” Eva said as she crawled to the back of the rover and lit up a cigarette.

“Mom? Are you scared?” I asked.

“No! We are fine,” she smiled. Calm. Too calm, I thought. A sure sign of denial regarding the imminent doom we were facing.

 I felt a mix of high anxiety and thrilling adventure while my mind played thoughts of lion attack. I also knew I could trust our guide, Tops. He grew up here. Surely getting stuck has happened before.  Right!?

Tops distracted us with jokes and stories while we waited. 

And waited.

The team, enjoying our last meal.

Finally, after an hour, our help arrived!

Pahlana and ST showed up with another vehicle and long tow straps.

After several attempts, a shovel, and lots of wood jammed under the tires, they eventually pulled us out and my nerves subsided.

We circled around to get a better look at said hippo.  That’s when we discovered it’s face had been chewed off, the entire body was bloated ready to explode, and we had luckily gotten stuck upwind from the wretched stench.

An adventure to remember for sure! 

I definitely slept well that night.

This post ends here. To keep reading, click here for part 3.

***

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Stay tuned for more stories of my adventures in Botswana and Zimbabwe….

If you missed the beginning of this journey, click here to start from the beginning.

*****

All information obtained through personal conversation with Wilderness Safari guides.

Photos by Allison Lee and Cynthia Cusick.

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Exploring the Okavango Delta in Botswana – Savuti Part 1

I still could not believe I was about to spend the next seven days soaking in the beauty of the Okavango Delta, enjoying the wildlife and hospitality of the people at Wilderness Safaris in Botswana. If you missed the post about how I came to book this trip, click here.

The Okavango Delta is the world’s largest inland river delta and the last remaining intact wetland.  In June 2014, it became the 1000th site to be officially listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The source begins in the Angolan highlands where myriad streams and smaller rivers combine to bring summer rains (falling between October and April) through Namibia before finally reaching the delta basin in Botswana (around March through August).

Simplified catchment flow progression. From Wilderness Safaris pamphlet

At this point in the season, the delta swells to three times its permanent size. Animals from miles around come to Botswana for this influx of water, thus creating one of Africa’s greatest concentrations of wildlife.

 

So how long does it take to travel to Africa from the west coast of the US?

FOR.EH.VER.

We spent nearly 26 hours in flight, totaling 38 hours of travel, including layovers. I left San Diego bright and early to fly to Washington DC,  where I met my mom and caught my overseas flight to Johannesburg. That distance took 18 hours to fly and the plane made a pit stop in Ghana to refuel.  Once we got to Johannesburg the flight to Maun, Botswana, was less than two hours. From Maun, we caught a small puddle jumper flight to our first camp at Savuti, which is in the Linyanti concession.

I was able to sit as co-pilot in the tiny plane and gaze at a spectacular bird’s eye view of the region.

Copilot with Trent in charge. (Trent also has hopes of flying with Kenmore Air for any of you Seattle folk! Although I’d say flying bush planes in Africa is WAY cooler.)

Can you see the elephant at the waterhole below?

Our pilot, Trent, warned us about slight turbulence and made sure we knew where to find the doggie bags. Down below we spotted elephants drinking at a watering hole, so to gain a better view he made a large circle around.  It was during that time my mom discovered airsickness. Luckily, the doggie bags were within reach.

We landed at the small dirt airstrip where ST greeted us with a big smile. It had been raining off and on so everyone was wearing dark green ponchos. ST drove us down a mud road to the Savuti camp where a group welcomed us with singing.

Greeting committee: Quest, Julia, Sally, Kelly,  Nkuma? (If you’re from Wilderness Safaris, help me fill in the missing names!)

We had no idea what to expect but were blown away immediately. The Savuti lodge is built rustic and beautiful with an open air plan, just the way I like my living! In the elements where you can feel close to nature, hear the sounds, and see the sites directly from your bedroom. Nothing like the boxed in cages of posh hotel rooms in the city.

Elephants could literally come through your front yard, and have in the past.

After our briefing with tea and cookies, we had the option to go out on a game drive or relax. Relax?! I dont think my family knows the meaning of relax. Even though it was raining, we emphatically said YES to the game drive! My mom and I were born and raised in the rainy city of Seattle, afterall.

Sally, me, ST, mom and Phalana wait in the rain for our guide to come.

The rain didn’t seem to bother the impala nor the elephants as they feasted away on the mopane trees…

Last year I had visited Kruger National Park in South Africa during the dry season of June, so I was not expecting there to be so much green. I suppose, when you think about it, that is the whole point of the rainy season in December! It was spectacular and made the bush lush and thick. A perfect place for animals to hide.

We left the thickets and opened into a large meadow. I raised my binoculars and started scanning the edge of the meadow. Thats when I saw it.

A lion!

Two lions!

It was amazing to be so close to the king of the jungle. Awe struck and slightly terrified.

The two males, brothers, were beautiful and relaxed. Sleepily watching a heard of elephants grazing in the distance. Every time the elephants moved away, the lions took a stand, stretched, yawned, and lazily sauntered closer to them.

Their amber eyes were stunning and had the magical effect of drawing you in while seemingly reading your mind. “Please don’t eat me!” mine pleaded.

As the sun set, the two started to roar in what sounded like a duet harmonizing. Deep, guttural groans that echoed through the meadow.

We stayed with them for a while as the sun set a brilliant hot pink, casting fluorescent green on the grass.  An excellent way to begin our journey in the Okavango Delta.

Botswana is approximately 224,610m2  (581,730km2) home to just over 2 million people consisting of many ethnic groups (Bayei, Bakalanga, Babugakwe, Hamkubushu, Bakgalagadi, Batswana, Baherero, Basarwa (San), European), each with its own ethnic identity and language. I was amazed that an entire country of that size held less than the population of my home region! To put that in perspective, Seattle and Washington’s Puget Sound alone contain more than 3.8 million people all crammed into just over 1,000m2 (2,642 km2)!

Retreating into wilderness treasures, like the one in Botswana, was a welcomed relief from the rush of city life.

Many of the indigenous communities are represented within Wilderness Safaris, employed as knowledgeable guides sharing stories of the dynamic ecosystem and their culture and life living in the Delta.  To travel through this pristine region, learning from the experts, was honestly the highlight of the experience.

I will end this post here but be sure to sign up for the newsletter to get alerts the day posts go live!

To continue reading more, click here for the next post in the adventure.

Thanks for reading.

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***

All information obtained through personal conversation with Wilderness Safari guides.

All photos taken by Allison Lee and Cynthia Cusick.

 

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Bidding High for the Okavango Delta

The dream started when I attended a National Geographic Live! event at Benaroya Hall in Seattle, WA on November 2, 2015.  South African conservationist, Steve Boyes, and Multi-disciplinary artist, Jer Thorp, led a “live-data” expedition across Botswana’s Okavango Delta in 2014 and presented the results with Seattle.

The team of baYei River Bushmen, scientists, artists, writers, photographers, bloggers, naturalists and engineers traveled from the Okavango Delta river source waters in Angola all the way through to Botswana documenting the numerous biodiversity they encountered, sharing it in real-time with thousands of followers. They recounted tales of discovery and danger, captivating the audience and stirring my wanderlust.

Photo Credit: National Geographic team

Fast forward a couple of months: January 7, 2016. A friend, Kirsten Gardner, tipped me off to a fundraising event  to help raise money for Dr. Gregory Rasmussen’s Painted Dog Research Trust in Zimbabwe. “It could be a good networking opportunity,” she said. Boy, was that a foreshadow for what was to come.

I had never been to a true auction before, much less bid on anything. And with the entry price being $50, and me being a non-profit scientist, I told myself I would bid on nothing, I was only there to network.

As nervous as I was, knowing no one in the room personally, I encouraged myself to sit down at the table in the front where sat the Woodland Park Zoo’s Vice President of Field Conservation, Fred KoontzDr. Lisa Dabek, a National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants Program grantee and founder and director of Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program, and wire artist Colleen with Colleen R. Cotey Studios.

The auction got started. I listened, intrigued as small items racked up high bids.  Then, the bigger items came. Weekend get-away adventures, wine packages, large wire sculptures.

I held fast. Nothing really interested me enough to actually make a bid. Then, the auctioneer said it.  The magic words: All-inclusive 7-day trip to the Okavango Delta.

Whaaaaaaat?! The Okavango Delta? Holy crap. Seriously?? I had dreamed about going there the day I heard the Nat Geo explorers talk about it in November!

Ultimate Africa has donated an all-inclusive 6 night / 7 day Botswana and Victoria Falls safari for 2 people valued at US $20,000. Two nights at their Savuti camp, followed by three nights at Vumbura Plains all ending at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. Puddle jumper flights and ground transportation needs from Maun to Victoria Falls were included.

Photo credit: wilderness-safaris-vumbura

Photo credit: Allison Lee wilderness-safaris-savuti

Typically I don’t travel in luxury. I’m more of the camping/getting dirty/on-the-cheap/roughing it type of gal. But this. This, I had to bid on.

The bid started low: “Going for $1250, we have $1250, anyone for $1250, next at $2000, $2000, anyone for $2500? We have $2500, anyone for $3000, $3500?….

The bid crawled up to $5500. I quickly did the math for two: wait a minute, that’s only $2750 per person! I had to act fast.

I held my card in the air: ME!

$6000?”…

Another guy took the bid. Dammit!

The price climbed… $7000?  … $7500?

Trip for two. Six nights. Okavango Delta. All inclusive. High end (glamping) luxury safari. Got it. I knew that last year I had spent a month in Africa for $4000 so I set my price point and told myself I wouldn’t go over that per person.

$8000, do I hear $8000?” Prices were climbing fast.

Fuck it.

ME! I held my card high again.

$8000, anyone for $8500? $8500? Going once? Going twice? $8000 to the young lady!

Oh. My. God. What have a I just done?? I felt slight shock.

Everyone congratulated me and I held a smile on my face. Luckily, I had just paid off my credit card 10 days earlier, so there was room to go right back up to my credit limit. (Despite this story, I’m actually very good with money and have an above 820  top credit score. What’s money good for if you don’t spend it, right?!) Plus, it was going to a good cause. I already know adventure and conservation are my weaknesses financially.

Dr. Rasmussen approached me to thank me and I quickly told him I was also a scientist if he wanted help in the field. “Could I stay on after my trip and come visit you in Zimbabwe?!” I begged.

Absolutely!” he exclaimed. “But only if you like picking up poop.” (A comment only true wildlife biologists would get giddy over).

Phew. OK. My $8000 7-day trip for two would now become a month long trip for me. I would spend the safari in Botswana with someone (didn’t know who yet), then we would pop over to Zimbabwe to hang out with Dr. Rasmussen. I could handle that.

I sped home and furiously began to text anyone I knew if they wanted to join me on this adventure. I spent all night in a panic hearing “no” after “no” after “I would love to but can’t afford it”.

Then, I found her.

The lucky Partner in Adventure: my mom.

It was during the next couple of month’s that I found out I would be leaving my job at the Institute for Systems Biology to attend graduate school in June at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. I debated selling the trip since I would no longer have a salary, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I HAD to go. Africa was waiting.

We booked our trip for December 10, 2016 (during my school’s winter break), and planned for it to have three parts:

  1. Cape Town Road Trip in South Africa
  2. Okavango Delta Safari in Botswana
  3. Visit with Dr. Rasmussen and Painted Dog Research Trust in Zimbabwe

My mom would spend 15 days total in Africa, and I would stay for 24. Then, we waited patiently for the day to arrive.

Ultimately, the trip ended up being pretty costly after purchasing flights from US to Africa, and flights within the countries of Africa ($3100+ in flights and travel insurance). But it was all worth it in the end.

I’ll end the story here in this blog post as its getting very long.

Stay tuned for continuing stories of Okavango Delta, Botswana and Zimbabwe Adventures…coming soon!

To see the next post on Part 1 of the Okavango Delta, click here.

For those interested in what my packing list looked like, here is the run down with comments on what I used and wished I had packed.

  • sandals (luna)
  • flat walking shoes (Toms)
  • Running shoes (didn’t really wear)
  • warm socks (only wore one pair once)
  • bra (2 sports)/undies (10)
  • water bottle (used a lot)
  • cards (didn’t use)
  • book (read 2: Half-Earth by EO Wilson and Citizen Scientist by Mary Ellen Hannibal)
  • ziplocks
  • bug spray
  • small first aid kit
  • toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, dry shampoo, floss, glasses, contacts, moist wipes, kleenex, chapstick, sunscreen)
  • sunglasses
  • good binoculars
  • pretty scarf (dresses up any boring outfit)
  • gloves/hat (didn’t use, but if I traveled in their winter, might have needed)
  • allergy meds/ibuprofen/malaria pills (used! Don’t forget the malaria pills)
  • headlamp/batteries
  • down jacket (only used on frigid airplane)
  • zip up hoodie sweater (used to ward off mosquitos but was too heavy for heat in general)
  • african print sweatshirt (great! light weight but gave good coverage and comfort)
  • two light weight hiking pants
  • one pair of shorts with pockets
  • three light t-shirts (blue, black, and blue)
  • two tank tops (black and white)
  • Safari button down long sleeve shirt (loose fitting clothes are excellent)
  • poncho (used once in a downpour)
  • GoPro / cords
  • iphone / cords
  • 6-charge battery pack (VERY handy)
  • small foldable backpack (day bag also used as additional carry on item for books and airplane needs under my seat)
  • small coin/card purse (could fit passport and phone)
  • small notebook/paper/pen
  • quick dry towel (never used)
  • 26 Clif Bars, just in case food situation wasn’t good (only ate 4, gave the rest away)
  • one 44 liter/2650 cubic inch carry on backpack to fit it all in (mine is the very old version of Kelty Redwing 2650)

 

*Featured Image photo credit: Allison Lee

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Big Cat Research in Africa

How do I even begin to tell all of the stories from 4.5 weeks observing Big Cats in Kruger National Park, South Africa?! I  came back with over 68 GB of photos, videos and a mind full of memories.

Do I first tell you about the time we watched a young male leopard attempt to kill  a ground hornbill and fail?

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Watch the video of that surprise attack here.

Do I tell you about the white lion cub we saw fighting its brothers in the pride for a piece of freshly killed zebra?

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Do I tell you about the day we followed a wild dog pack and got caught in the middle of their napping session, or about the evening we sat on the top of a hyena den watching baby hyenas explore close to their sleeping parents?


What about the morning a lioness disappeared behind a rock outcrop only to reappear with a tiny cub in her mouth.

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Do I tell you about how funny long-necked giraffes look when they bend down to get a sip of water or about the absurdity of a leopard attempting to kill three porcupines stuck in a drainage tube?

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How about the five bull elephants we sat ten meters from, or the bush walk we took with park rangers that brought us twenty-five meters from white rhinoceros?

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I could go on! Do you see my predicament in recounting everything? I wish I could go back there and take you with me.

100% of the time that my eyes were open during that month, I reflected on how amazing it was to be able to wake up with every morning sunrise,  see all of these wild animals up close and personal, camp under the starry skies, and come away with so much knowledge of African wildlife.

Every animal encounter triggered a rapid fire photo shoot followed by awe-filled observations and furious journal entry writing.  This could last for hours and you never wanted to be caught on a lion kill with a full bladder!

So who were we and what were we doing down there? 

We spent a full month in Kruger National Park observing the behavior of the three big cats: lion, leopard, and cheetah. Students gained hands-on experience in observational field work, animal behavior research, and conservation photography/videography.

As far as amazing educational african wildlife adventures go, the price of this trip was extremely reasonable. For a 2-week trip, participants paid $3,995 which included airfare from JFK, food, lodging, tents, and transport. There was an additional Kruger Park conservation fee of $290 and additional guided night drives or bush walks were $45 and $65, respectively. Every penny was worth this access to Nature’s african gems.

During the month of June, two groups experienced camping in the park:

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Trip 1 – Four students: Marilyn, Emily, Ren, Priscilla

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Trip 2 -Five students: Gabby, Burlyn, Christie, Paris, Kellen

Kruger National Park is one of the largest game reserves on the entire african continent and was established in 1926. Comparable to the size of Israel at 7,523 mi², it looks dwarfed compared to the entire country of South Africa.

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For each 10-day trip, we only managed to cover the lower portion of the reserve. Every two to three nights, we would relocate camps beginning the trip at camp Berg-en-Dal, moving on to Lower Sabie, then Skukuza, Satara and finally, Pretorioskop.

Our days were spent from 6:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. sitting in an awesome Volkswagon Synchro van driving around the dusty bumpy dirt roads scanning the tall grasses, thorn-veld, or savannah for any clues of big cats.

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Cars have been coming to the park for 100 years and because humans have never hunted the animals from vehicles, the animals have become habituated to the engine noise and vehicle presence. This allows tourists to get remarkably close and the animals who don’t seem to mind (until the humans start talking too loudly). Some predators have even learned to use the cars as shields in their hunting schemes.

A couple of times during the month we took morning bush walks.  I was expecting every animal to be out to get us and was very surprised to witness that once we got on foot we became the top predators and every species that caught our scent fled: elephants, giraffes, rhinos, even a pack of lions! Because humans have been hunting these animals for over 2 million years, they are all very aware of the danger our recognizable human form poses.

The Nature of the Park

When I arrived, the first thing I did was gobble up all the knowledge I could about the park: the geological history, the vegetation and landscapes, the animals. Acting as co-leader for the month, I personally took on a set of responsibilities and had a lot to learn before the students showed up! I used old guide books from the park to give myself a crash course of the area.

One of the most important aspects of the park is actually it’s diverse geological makeup. The park’s main living attractions are dictated by the entire geology hidden under the vegetation.

It started long long ago, when the super continent Gondwanaland still existed, before Antarctica split off from Africa. Layers and layers of rock types were laid down through earth’s dynamic tectonic activities. As Gondwanaland broke apart, ancient rock was exposed and slowly eroded over time leaving the area as we know it today:

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Due to the various type of rock and soil exposed at the surface, there is an incredible diversity of flora in this tiny slice of land.  This creates unique eco-zones which dictate where you’ll most likely find certain species of animal.

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Meet the Herbivores

Just like you have your favorite food preferences, so do the herbivores. Different grasses and bushes attract different types of herbivores. Impala are the chicken nugget of the park, abundant every where you turn. Others such as Kudu, Waterbuck, Cape buffalo and Wildebeest roam about following their flora of choice. I expected these prey animals to be more timid than they were but the zebra were the only species on a whole that were the most skittish.

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Cape Buffalo. One of the Big Five and most dangerous to hunt.

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Male Kudu. Each twist of its horn takes about 7 years to form. This Kudu is about 15 years old.

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Waterbuck have distinct bulls-eye rings on their behinds. When they get stressed they release a nasty tasting hormone which deters predators from attacking.

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A Typical Day

We woke at 4:45 a.m. every morning to be first to the gates.  At 5:15 a.m. my alarm clock would go off and I would debate hitting snooze for two more minutes before finally getting out of the tent and making the wake-up call to the others.

With sleepy eyes, we brushed our teeth and put on our warm layers–hats and gloves–as some mornings were a chilly 47F.  At 6:00 a.m. sharp, the ranger would open the doors and we’d be on our way spotlighting the road-side looking for lingering nocturnal animals.

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My favorite time of day was sunrise.  It always felt like you had a secret the rest of the world wasn’t yet in on.

There was never a day we went without and animal sighting. When we did find the animals, it became a photographers dream.  Click click click. We’d shoot and swap lenses and duck under and above each other to get the best look at the animals. Slide11giraffs

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Some days we had permits to get out of the van and investigate old bleached bones on the ground. One day we found this elephant skull and it became an excellent education opportunity to learn how one can build a story of a particular elephant’s life by looking at distinct features on the skull. Slide15

We also paid attention to how to read tracks. Through close observation one could tell the mood and direction the animal was traveling. He talked about identifying the age of the track based on erosion patterns.  Below you can see the footprints of hyena, jackal and a large bird (perhaps a korhaan). Slide23

Through patient observations, we gained vast knowledge of animal behavior.

One day we spent at least three hours watching a family of hippos eat, sleep, procreate, and play in an algae covered pond. This baby hippo (pictured below) crawled out of the lagoon and actually fell asleep near this crocodile! Hippos seem to have a great understanding of respectful cohabitation, but  eventually this hippo’s mom came and chased the croc back into the water.

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Two types of rhino exist in the park: the white rhino (or wide-lipped) and the critically endangered black rhino (or hook-lipped). White rhinos are grazers and use their square lip to graze the grasslands. Black rhino,  are browsers and use their hooked lip to browse each leaf off of thorny bushes.

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This black rhino has ulcers on his skin.

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White rhino gets a friend to clean out his eyelashes.

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Our bush-walk ranger, Matwell, explains the size and impact of the bullets used in his protection gun.

Sadly, we saw three poached rhino bodies. Poaching is still a huge problem in the park, as I suppose there is much corruption around the issue.

We got rumor that in April alone, 28 rhinos had been poached. Kruger National Park is the most prominent target for poachers and if you want to know more about the ivory trade National Geographic did an excellent article you have to read.

Between January 2014 and 6 August 2014, the Department of Environmental Affairs announced that out of the 631 rhinos that had been killed by poachers, a shocking 408 were killed in Kruger.   Slide21

Unexpected delights 

I did not realize how adorable hyenas would be. Mainstream movies make them out to be vicious scavengers but it turns out they hunt 90% of what they eat and lions are more scavenger than hyenas!

We found two drainage ditches in the road that had denning families which allowed us to literally be on top of their home.  Their big eyes, big ears and curious faces made them seem like they could be cuddly stuffed toys.

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Baby hyenas. Only a couple weeks old babySight seeing sometimes got pretty tiring. This is how most of the students spent their day:

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Blackmail! Just kidding, this was actually the day we picked them up from the airport so they were jet – lagged and sleeping on the five hour drive from Johannesburg to Kruger.

Even if some days held sparse animal sightings, we always managed to behold other goodies like this giant millipede. Slide27

Bird watching was also plentiful: Lilac-breasted roller, Cape starling, Goliath king fisher, Crested barbet, Walberg’s eagle (white morph), Saddle-billed stork, Ostrich, Lappet-faced vulture, Helmeted guinea fowl, Southern yellow bill hornbill.Slide28

My all time favorite: the critically endangered, cross between what looks like a turkey and a toucan, the largest of the hornbills: Ground hornbill. Check out those eyelashes!!

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And of course, there were the Big Cats

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In the one-minute clip below, you will see three lion brothers and a collared mistress. The female of this group is collared with a GPS tracker for research purposes. Keep watching until the end of the clip as that’s when you’ll see really nice shots of the female! Best when viewed in HD. Pardon the blurriness of auto-focus around second 30.

What Happens When We See the Big Cats?

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We pull out maps to locate our position.

We record all pertinent observations on data sheets.

We record all pertinent observations on data sheets.

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And we keep our eyes locked on the target animal!

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Cheetah looks up from its kill.

In total for the month of June we had 101 lion sightings, 33 leopard sightings and 7 cheetah sightings.

The Day Comes to a Close:

Inevitably, the sunset would come earlier than we wanted and we’d catch ourselves racing back to the camp in time for the electric gates to close for the night.

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We would promptly begin dinner prep!

We would promptly begin dinner prep.

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Chat about the day’s high lights.

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Photo Identify the big cats we saw and either match them up with the catalogue or enter in new individuals!

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We also each took turns blogging every night. Writing a narrative gave the day’s data sheets context and flavor!

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Each day was full but they all seemed to end too early. Everyone was in bed around 8:30 p.m. and rarely did we stay up past 11 p.m. We were rocked to sleep by the chirp of cicadas, the roars of lions in the distance, of hippos grunting their disputes, and of bush babies screaming their all too human-like cries.

This was a grounding and unforgettable experience.  Each group bonded in their own unique ways. Colin did a great job passing on his vast knowledge, mentoring us in the ways of the wild, and I am grateful to also have had the opportunity to  play a mentoring role to the young adults as well.

We were all definitely spoiled with the gems of African wildlife.

I would go back in a heartbeat. 

If you would like to see more photos from the trip, visit the photo album here.

 

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