Archive for August, 2018

Walvis Bay, Namibia

     Before sunrise on April 7 we docked in Walvis Bay, Namibia.   A colony of Germany from 1885, what is now Namibia was incorporated into the British Union of South Africa after World War I.  Namibia gained independence in 1990 but did not gain dominion over Walvis Bay until 1994.  This was because Walvis Bay is the only deep water harbor in this part of Africa; it was once a haven for the whaling industry.  Thus its name, which means Whale Bay.

     Eastern Namibia is a very dry place, home to the Namib Desert which is one of the driest in the world.  We set out today on a 4X4 expedition that would take us through some of this desert area.  We met our driver on the pier; ours was one of a number of individual cars apparently recruited from among the locals that would travel together for this expedition.  We were lucky in that our driver spoke very good English.  It was a very cloudy & gray morning, although the weather greatly improved throughout the day.

     Our first stop was at the Walvis Bay Lagoon, home to a large number of flamingos as well as other birds that migrate here on a regular basis.  Flamingos are naturally gray & get their pink color from a dye in the tiny shrimp & algae they eat.  You may notice that some of these flamingos seem to be off the standard diet.  They submerge their heads in the water to eat because their bills are built upside down: the scooping section is on the top.  They are quite something to see en masse, but you can better appreciate their graceful lines individually or in small groups.

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     We drove north along the coast to Swakopmund, a town founded by Germans in the 19th century.  It is supposed to be interesting but we just drove through it on our way to the desert.

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     The area we visited next is called the Valley of the Moon because of its stark and craggy landscape.  We stopped on a promontory and walked around.

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     On this hill were a large number of Singing Rocks.  They look like ordinary boulders, but if you strike some of them with a metal object they emit a musical note like a bell.  Each rock has its own tone, probably reflecting its size and the amount of iron it contains.  Some of our fellow passengers had a hard time tearing themselves away from playing the rocks to look at the rest of the area.

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    We descended into the dry bed of the Swakopmund river and drove through the valley for a while.  The bumpy drive made photography pretty dicey.  There were quite a few impressive rock formations we passed on the way.  The weird looking lights in the sky are reflections on the car’s window.

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     We stopped at a spot known as the Lichen Koppie, a little hill with various colored lichens growing on rocks.  They were very flat and drab looking but when one of the guides poured a little water on them from a cup they suddenly unfurled into leafy plants. It was quite startling in the suddenness of the transformation.  Apparently this is their lifestyle, shrunken and dry most of the time waiting for just a little moisture to really come alive.  Below are some before and after pictures.

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     Nearby were some desert plants, one looking dead (but not we think) and one with tiny flowers on long stalks.

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     Next they took us to see a most unusual and interesting plant called Welwitschia.  It only grows in this part of West Africa and is known to live upwards of 2000 years, even though it looks like its already almost dead.  On the way we passed some more interesting rock formations.

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       The plant is named after a guy named Welwitsch (how else would it get a name like that), its first European discoverer.  It has a deep taproot, maybe 10 – 15 feet depending on age, and only two leaves, which get divided into multiple strands by weather.  There are male and female plants, each with distinctive reproductive parts growing up from the middle.  A small bug (looks like a beetle but isn’t) called the Welwitshia Bug is often found in the plants and some think it is instrumental in fertilization.  We were told the plants we visited were more than 500 years old.

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    As mentioned above in one of the photo captions, many of the mountain ridges are topped by black rocks that we were told were a mineral, perhaps basalt.

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     We stopped for lunch at a place in the desert called Goanikontes Oasis.  Native people inhabited this oasis in the 18th century (Goanikontes is a Nama word meaning “the place where you can remove your fur coat,” although its hard to imagine why anyone would even have a fur coat in this hot environment).  In 1848 Europeans first established a farm here.  It is still a farm but also a restaurant and a lodging.  We ate at picnic tables under the trees, the most memorable item being Kudu lasagna.  You may recall that we ate kudu at the safari lodge, but it was better in this form because the ground kudu isn’t as tough. A peacock walked among the tables while we ate.

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     Pens of animals were near the picnic tables, notably goats and llamas, and the palm trees in the desert landscape were also interesting.

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     On the way back to town we stopped at a desert viewpoint.  Quite a vista with a mountain in the background.

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     Our last stop was at “Dune 7,” reputedly the largest sand dune in Namibia and one of the tallest in the world.  It is also a recreation area with a parking lot and people cooking on grills.  Some folks climbed up the more than 1200 feet to the top, then sat down and slid down to the bottom.

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     You probably will not be surprised to hear that we did not climb up there.  But Rick did climb a smaller portion on the side of the dune that some folks were using as a less steep path to the top.  Although smaller it was still a challenging climb through sand.

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     On the ship that night there was a song and dance performance by a group of young Namibians.  It was interesting and the performers put a lot into it; it would probably have seemed much better if we had not just seen the South African group (at least in the opinion of Rick, who liked the South African group better than Mary did). 

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     This was a taxing, though very interesting, day out in the heat of the desert, and as we went to bed we were grateful to have two sea days before our next West African port.

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Cape Town, South Africa (Days 2 & 3)

     Since we had missed most of the first day in Cape Town April 4 was our day to explore the town.  But first we had to explore the ship.  You may recall that the HAL bigwigs boarded at Reunion Island to sail as far as Cape Town.  It seems that while we were away they threw a big party throughout the ship, complete with plentiful singing, dancing & drinking.  The ship’s public areas were decorated with groups of long glass tubes lighted with different colors that were intended, we were told, to emulate South African kraals, enclosures for domestic animals surrounded by thorn tree trunks and branches (the word “corral” apparently has the same root).  Whether they looked like kraals we don’t know, but they were very colorful.  We were told that the ship’s personnel had been busy constructing these for most of the cruise, with several humorous difficulties along the way.  They were later dismantled and given to local folks somewhere in West Africa.  Because we had missed the party Hal left in our room a bottle of South African wine decorated with shorter versions of the colored pipes (the wine bottle is shown in two parts because they wouldn’t stitch together correctly into a single picture).

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     People have lived in what is now South Africa for well over 10,000 years.  The first Europeans to colonize it were the Dutch in 1652.  Their purpose was to establish a re-provisioning station for their ships headed to the Dutch East Indies.  It was taken over by the British in 1806.   In 1834 Britain abolished slavery throughout its empire, including in South Africa.  Resisting this, the Boers (mostly descendants of the early Dutch settlers) then moved north into the frontier and established two new states: Transvaal and the Orange Free State.

     At the end of the 19th century the Boer War was fought between the British and the Boers.  The British were badly outfought at first but eventually overpowered the Boers.  However many Boer fighters continued in a guerilla campaign.  The British then established concentration camps in which they placed the families of the Boer guerillas, many of whose homesteads they also burned down.  Conditions were dire in the concentration camps and the death rate, including mostly women & children, was quite high.

     After World War II the country instituted the apartheid system, which brutally repressed nonwhite residents.  This lasted until 1994, when Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were released and the first democratic elections, in which adults of every ethnicity could vote, were held.  Nelson Mandela was elected the first president of democratic South Africa.

     A day and a half is not nearly enough time to explore Cape Town.  We decided to take the Hop On Hop Off bus and go to the top of Table Mountain, a huge flat mountain in the center of town that can be seen for many miles out to sea.  To catch the bus we had to walk to Victoria and Alfred waterfront (not a typo, Prince Alfred was one of Victoria’s sons), Cape Town’s original harbor but much too small for modern ships.  This took about 20 minutes, walking past the old red clocktower (built in 1882) and over a swinging bridge.  There are a lot of interesting stores at the waterfront, in particular one that had almost life size sculptures of African animals made of various media.  Mary was taken with a large elephant made entirely of strings of tiny beads. 

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     We sat on the open top level of the bus as it drove through the city from the waterfront.  We passed the dry dock, where a Chinese ship was being refurbished.  Then we drove through the downtown area, passing many interesting old buildings that we can’t identify.  Much of the city near the harbor was built on reclaimed land.

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     Leaving the downtown area, the bus drove up the foothills toward the lower cable car terminal for Table Mountain.  Even at this level we began to see impressive vistas over the city to the water.

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     Many people live on the lower levels of Table Mountain in order to obtain a view similar to this.  But to preserve the mountain’s beauty a line was established beyond which it is illegal to build.  One developer found a way to violate the purpose of this law without contravening its wording, building a complex of three residential towers in the 1960’s that sit below the line but rise 17 stories to a height well above it.  There is always someone!  Predictably, the Disa Park towers are unpopular with the locals (other than the folks who live in them), who call the buildings the “toilet rolls” or the “tampons.”

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     From the lower cable car terminal the one on top of the mountain looks very tiny and the cable car is suspended very high in the air.  The floor of the cable car rotates so everyone has a chance to see the view in all directions.  In particular, you get a very good view of the complex rock formations on the side of the mountain as you rise past them.  We were the first in line at the door to the cable car but people pushed & shoved past in all directions.  Unnecessary since the floor rotates, but we did get a place by the window.  We were very lucky that it was such a clear day as the cable car stops running when it is cloudy (frequent).

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     Upon reaching the top the first thing to do is walk along the edge of the mountain overlooking the city & gape at the stunning views.

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     Despite its rocky appearance, Table Mountain is rich in flora & fauna.  The mountain hosts close to 1500 varieties of plants . . . more than in the entire United Kingdom.

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      As for fauna, we saw lizards & birds & Dassies (an animal that looks like a rodent but actually is the closest related species to the elephant).  Sadly, the only Dassie we were able to photograph (they are quick & pretty much wanted no part of us) refused to look in our direction.

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     The top of the mountain has many hiking trails & a lot of people were using them while we were there.

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     We walked around the mountain top as well, greatly enjoying the views.  From the back you could see out along the cape & from one side you could see the beach communities.

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     We went back to the cable car terminal, which now had about a half hour line to go down the mountain.  Eventually we made it down and re-boarded the HOHO bus which then continued its route through the beach communities we had seen from above.

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     The side of the mountain facing the beach is called the “twelve apostles” because of the row of massive buttresses.  You don’t have to count . . . there aren’t 12 buttresses, although there were twelve apostles.

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     As the bus took us back to the city we passed the Green Point Lighthouse which has been operating in this spot since 1824.  We also passed the football (soccer) stadium.  We stayed on the bus back into town for some shopping.  We looked through the Pan African Market, which had a plethora of vendors selling every kind of African art.  Unfortunately, we were the only shoppers there, no prices were marked (it’s all about haggling) and the vendors were pretty aggressive marketers.  We left there and walked to the open-air Greenmarket Square.  This was also filled with vendors selling all kinds of African items from kiosks, but there were quite a few shoppers here and the atmosphere was more relaxed.  So we did make some purchases here.

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     We walked all the way back to Victoria and Alfred Wharf.  At the wharf is Nobel Square, an open space with statues of South Africa’s four Nobel Peace Prize winners (l-r): Albert Luthuli, Desmond Tutu, F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela.  All were involved in the elimination of apartheid and the construction of a democratic political system.

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     We understand that this square is often used as an open performance space.  On this afternoon we saw a delightful singing and dancing performance by a group of young people wearing colorful clothes and some with painted faces.  They were quite energetic and very entertaining.

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     We stopped for a very late lunch at an outdoor café right by the water in front of the Victoria and Alfred mall.  It was, thankfully, a beautiful day and we had a wonderful view of the harbor and of Table Mountain from our table.  At one point a seagull flew in and sat on a post by our table, just as if he were one of the party.  After a while he became disgusted with our failure to drop any crumbs and flew away.

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     We walked back to the ship, passing a sculpture of a sort of robot version of the Incredible Hulk and an artists’  foundry topped by a family of bronze warthogs.  It seems there is always something interesting to see in this city.

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     We went to the upper deck of the ship to catch the view of the mountains in the setting sun.  We were not disappointed.  Table Mountain is big enough to have its own weather system.  It is often covered with a low cloud creeping over the edge, which is known as the table cloth.  We were lucky it wasn’t there when we were on the mountain (some other HAL passengers weren’t so lucky).  A cloud was there this evening, but it was mostly over Devil’s Peak, and barely covering the top edge of Table Mountain.  This was pretty dramatic in the setting sun.

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     After dinner there was a local group singing and dancing in the Queen’s Lounge.  Their show was a review of South African song and dance through its history. One of their songs would be familiar to most Americans.  It dates back to the 1930’s and is called “Mbube,” the Zulu word for lion.  It was first recorded in the United States by the Weavers, with Pete Seeger, as “Wimoweh” and then in 1961 it was a number one hit for a teen group called The Tokens (with an English chorus added) under the name “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”  It was also later included in the soundtrack of “The Lion King.”  We heard this a number of times in South Africa, even on the HOHO bus soundtrack.  As an aside, when Rick was in high school at Fairview High in Dayton, Ohio, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was played over the loudspeaker every morning for a week before the football game against the rival Meadowdale Lions.

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     Anyway, getting back on track, the show was extremely energetic and upbeat with a group of musicians who all could play most of the instruments, which included a number of marimbas.

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     You may be wondering why our two days in Cape Town are combined in one post.  The third day, April 5, was a little short since sail away was at 5:00, and we decided to spend most of it at Victoria & Alfred waterfront exploring all the shops.  Therefore, little to tell and very few additional pictures.

     We walked to the waterfront over the swinging bridge, just like yesterday.  In the parking lot outside the cruise terminal we encountered an interesting small bird with a grand name: Greater Crested Tern.

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     At the waterfront we saw a building we had noticed from the bus the day before that had a tower with a long pole on top with a red ball around it.  Built in 1894 this was used to signal the exact time to ships in the old harbor.  Sort of like the ball dropping in New York on New Year’s Eve, this ball would slide down the pole at exactly noon every day.  While we visited a lot of shops with really interesting artifacts in all price ranges, from cheap tacky souvenirs to expensive works of art, we did most of our shopping in a large mall of shops called The Watershed.  It was actually a lot of fun.

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     We returned to the ship for the sail away.  True to form, Cape Town bade us farewell with a memorable image as we headed out to sea.

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Kruger National Park (Day 4) & Cape Town, South Africa

     It was still quite dark out when we were awakened on April 3, our departure day from Camp Shawu.  We had originally been scheduled for a morning game drive before leaving for the airport, but the night before there were several calls from the main lodge giving mixed signals.  When we went to bed we were told there would be a truncated one hour game drive before departure, but 3 of our group decided not to go.  Now we were told that our game drive would take us to the main lodge and the other 3 would be brought in a second car with all of our luggage.  But in the end we were told that there would be no game drive at all and all seven of us would be driven directly to the main lodge.  Such confusion (not to mention irritation).

     We had, of course, gotten up well before dawn each morning at the camp but this was the first morning in which we were still there to see the sun rise over the lake.  It was really worth seeing.

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     As the sun rose above the mountains we went out on the veranda for some final pictures before departure.  We noticed that the trees at the end of the lake were filled with egrets at first light, probably from fear of crocodiles (or maybe just fear of the dark).

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     After all the mixed signals about the morning’s activities it was finally decided by the folks at the main lodge that we would have to skip even the truncated game drive and come there right away.  This was a disappointment to those of us planning to go on the game drive, but we all climbed into the safari vehicle and Safiso headed out to the road to the main lodge.  But we hadn’t gone more than 5 or 10 minutes before we were stopped by a group of four male lions stretched out across the road.

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     We had heard them howling during the night & Safiso said they were probably feeling lazy because they had enjoyed a good meal.  They looked quite beautiful, sometimes almost glowing in the early morning sun.

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     These guys were seriously relaxed & couldn’t have cared less about our being there.  It must be good to be at the very top of the food chain and not have to be afraid of anyone else.  After we had been there a little while most of them lay down & went to sleep.

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     Safiso had sent out a call to other safari vehicles about the lion spotting.  We couldn’t do anything to rouse the lions before the others had a chance to get there and it was a much longer drive if we turned around and went a different way.  Eventually a number of other vehicles showed up, most on the other side of the lions.  None of this disturbed them however.

     Before we left the ship Rick had been claiming that he would take a picture of Robert with a lion on the safari.  So while we waited he did so!  Not what we might have hoped, since the lion wasn’t close and wouldn’t look in our direction.  But a picture of Robert and the lion it is, just as promised.

     By the way, take a look at the zoomed shot of the lion in the fourth picture below.  He appears to have one dark blue and one yellow eye.  Just like Washington Nats’ ace Max Scherzer!  I wonder if he can pitch?  This condition is called Heterochromia Iridum.

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     Just when Safiso was about to turn around and take the long road to the main lodge for fear of missing our flight the lions grudgingly stood up and walked into the grass to the left of the road.  They lay there in the tall grass, some watching us and some not, while we finally were finally able to continue our journey.

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     We made it back without further incident to the main lodge where we were given a sumptuous buffet breakfast.  Then we headed out to the airport in buses that were not quite as uncomfortable as the ones that brought us from Maputo.  It was a pretty long drive & we did see a number of animals but the bus was too bouncy and the windows too small to get decent pictures for the most part.  When we crossed the river there was a Cape Buffalo lounging on the shore, the only one we had seen with its face turned toward us.  It was on the other side of the bus so we couldn’t get a picture, but our friend Mike shared one with us.

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     One more thing before we leave Kruger National Park.  Here are some of the flowers we saw during our stay, some in the wild and some at the lodges.  Actually, there were surprisingly few actual blooms considering all the bush area we passed through.

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     The flight to Cape Town was uneventful.  Unfortunately we were seated on the aisle next to a wing, so we were unable to see anything of the South African countryside during the flight.  Not a typo . . . we were both on the aisle, one in front of the other, and we were not the only couple separated like that.  We have never experienced anything like that on an airline before.  There was a meal served, but it was cold (like just out of the refrigerator).  This wouldn’t have been so bad if it had been a sandwich, but Rick’s meal was meat and noodles, cold and clammy.  If you know Rick you will not be surprised that he ate it anyway.

     We made it back to the ship in late afternoon, but we were pretty tired so we didn’t go anywhere.  It turned out that when the ship arrived in Cape Town that morning a cargo ship that had been there a few days was docked overlapping Amsterdam’s docking location by a few feet.  So Amsterdam had to sail around in circles for a few hours before its berth was cleared for docking.  The Captain was beside himself & declared that he had never seen anything like it in his long career at sea.

     After dinner we went up to deck 6 to see Cape Town at night.  It was well lit and made for some nice pictures. Tomorrow we would venture out and see what is there.

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Kruger National Park, South Africa (Day 3)

     We were awoken early again on April 2 for our predawn game ride.  Our first big game spotting was . . . a large snail crossing the road, leaving a wet trail behind him.  We also saw a bird that is probably a buzzard or a vulture, a greater blue eared starling, and a giant termite mound built against the trunk of a big tree.

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     We saw a herd of zebras, one of wildebeest & one of warthogs.  We also spotted a couple of black-backed jackals walking up the road toward us, but they were gone before we could stop and get a good picture.  I have included a picture of a jackal we didn’t see, taken by someone who was at a different camp, just so you can see better what they look like. There was also another female lion hiding in the tall grass.

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     Then there were more birds, some new some old.  We saw a European Roller, a Red-billed Hornbill, a Steppe Buzzard and a little gray bird that might be an African Dusky Flycatcher.  There was also a Red-backed Shrike sitting on a thorny acacia tree.  We were told that giraffes like to eat these trees, but it’s hard to imagine having all these long thorns in your mouth.

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     We found another family of cheetahs, the supposedly elusive species we have now seen for the second time in two days.  This time it was a mother with four or five cubs, but the cubs were a bit older & bigger than the ones we saw yesterday.  Cheetahs are an endangered species with only about 7,000 left, a majority in South Africa.  Lions and other big cats prey on their young so that only about 5% live to 2 years, which is about when they can go out on their own.  Cheetahs are also the fastest land animals in the world, capable of 60 to 70 mph in short bursts.  It is hard to tell the adult from the cubs unless they are in a picture together, so we will make our best guesses about that.

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     We stopped for our mid-morning snack.  While we were out on the ground we saw a huge striped centipede trying to hide under a rock & a large dragonfly with transparent wings, each with a large spot.

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     By this time we had seen four of the “big five.” which include Lion, Elephant, Rhinoceros, Cape Buffalo & Leopard.  Seeing these five species is the general standard for a successful safari and often advertised by safari companies.  But the “big five” was originally compiled as the ultimate goal for hunters because these were the hardest to bring down on foot with a rifle.  This would seem to have little relevance for a modern photo safari, but it is still considered a test for a successful safari. Since this was our last full day on the safari we were beginning to wonder if we would see a leopard, which Safiso had told us was often impossible to find.

     Then Safiso received a call on the radio from another safari driver who told him they had found a leopard in a tree.  Safiso told us it was a long way from us & that it could well be gone by the time we got there, but we all agreed we should try.  Determined to get us to the leopard on time Safiso gunned the engine (as much as you can in an open vehicle on a dirt road).  We called it a Ferrari Safari and it was bumpy and fast.  Still, it took about half an hour to get there & by the time we arrived the other vehicle was gone and the leopard was nowhere to be seen.  Safiso thought there was a good chance the leopard was still hiding in the area so he took our vehicle off the road and explored through the bushes.  Sure enough, eventually he spotted the leopard hiding in a bush.  It’s hard to understand how he saw it since we had trouble seeing it there even after we were told where to look.  It was disappointing to think that we were this close and still unable to really see it, but then the leopard got tired of playing hide and seek.  It stood up and walked to a nearby tree, then climbed the tree and spread out on a large branch to watch us with legs hanging down on either side for balance.

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     Not satisfied with this view from behind, Safiso pulled the vehicle around to the other side of the tree where there was a beautiful view of the leopard from the front.  She didn’t seem to mind, maybe because she felt more secure up a tree.

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     While she was settled on the tree branch we were able to get a number of close portrait shots.

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     We spent a long time with the leopard (we took more than 50 pictures altogether) before returning to camp for breakfast.  Safiso said this was the longest game drive he had ever done, & he’s been doing this for many years.  On our way back to the camp we encountered a mixed group of herbivores on the road: giraffes, zebras and warthogs.  There was a mongoose running down the road ahead of us, too far & fast for a good picture, and a large bird that may have been a bustard.

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     After breakfast & a shower we went back to the veranda of the main lodge to relax for the rest of the day until time for our sunset game drive.  Our old friends the hippos, egrets, Blacksmith lapwing and Egyptian geese were still there. We also saw some black-headed herons and some impalas across the lake.  And a bold little bird was standing on our our shower head, possibly a crimson-breasted shrike.303. Kruger Nat Park, South Africa395. Kruger Nat Park, South Africa369. Kruger Nat Park, South AfricaBlacksmith lapwing576. Kruger Nat Park, South Africa580. Kruger Nat Park, South Africa581. Kruger Nat Park, South Africa459. Kruger Nat Park, South Africa380. Kruger Nat Park, South Africa381. Kruger Nat Park, South Africa

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     Across the lake we saw a family of elephants hurrying off to our right after drinking their fill. 

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     A rhino came down to drink on the other side of the lake.  He was accompanied by four egrets who were jockeying for about three seats on the rhino’s back.  No picture of it, but at one point an ejected egret perched on the ground behind the rhino was covered by a huge rear-aimed spray of urine from the rhino. Yuck. I guess this is just one of the hazards of earning a living.

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     There was another black-headed heron in the marsh on the other side of the lake.  A wildebeest put in an appearance.  And we spotted a skull from a Cape Buffalo on the other side as well.  Daniel told us its story.  One night a large herd of buffalo wandered up the shore of the lake on the side where the camp is located, a pretty narrow area.  As they walked past the camp a pride of lions appeared at the other end.  They tried to go back the way they had come but another group of lions was stationed there.  With nowhere to go the buffalo spent the night by the shore in front of the camp’s cabins. In the morning they left, but about half a dozen of them didn’t make it past the lions.  This skull belonged to one of them.

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     Another highlight this afternoon, an old elephant with very long tusks came walking up the shore right in front of our verandas.  Daniel said he is a regular visitor.

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     We all ran up to the veranda of the last cabin to keep him close and coming toward us as long as possible.  Rick got there about the same time as the elephant, who turned to see what the commotion was.  Don’t worry, there is an electrified fence between the elephant and the veranda. The elephant then stepped into the water again for a few steps.

     At that point we noticed there was another large elephant just across the lake.  They looked at each other for a while & we thought there might be trouble, but the elephant near us eventually looked away and walked on.

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     The elephant across the lake was actively drinking and bathing.  After a while he turned around and lumbered away past a resting wildebeest & the buffalo skull.  Meanwhile the elephant on our side of the lake continued his walk away from Camp Shawu.

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     During the afternoon we took some pictures of our group hanging out on the main veranda.  As game drive time approached Safiso showed up so we were able to include him in some pictures.

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      We set out on our last evening game drive.  We saw several birds, including a Black-shouldered Kite, a Wooly Necked Stork, and a Pearl Spotted Owl.

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     We came across a family of elephants as the sunlight began to dim.  This is really the day for elephants!  They walked by us, then away past a tree.

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     We ran into a female waterbuck. Safiso thought it was a kudu, a species of antelope we had eaten for dinner the night before, but further research indicates he was mistaken.  They look very similar but female kudu have a white strip across their noses, while waterbucks have a distinctive white circle around their behinds, which you can barely see part of in the second photo.  A pretty easy mistake to make when the animal is far away and behind some bushes!

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     We had a very beautiful sunset this evening.

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     We stopped for our usual sundowner with the other camp vehicles.

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     On the way back to the camp we came upon a Marsh Owl standing in the road.  We also saw some trees filled with bird nests.  Safiso told us that one very large nest was home to a large number of birds at a time. We also saw a Secretary Bird, a huge bird with a goofy looking head.  But as soon as he was caught in the spotlight he took off, much too fast to get a picture.

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     When we got back to the camp the moon was shining brightly over the lake.  Thembisile came out as she always did before a meal to announce the menu, & told us that unfortunately there would be nothing for dinner.  Funny, but hardly credible at this place!  In fact we had a particularly fine going-away dinner, highlighted by delicious grilled lamb chops & a passion fruit cheesecake that was truly memorable.

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     After dinner we were about to go back to our cabins when we were told to stay put.  Then we heard a rhythmic beat in the kitchen and out came Daniel, Thembisile & Pretty dancing and singing.  The rhythm was beaten out with a wooden cooking spoon on a plastic food container.  It was quite a show & something we certainly weren’t expecting.  A few of these pictures were taken by Rick (you can see him doing it in pictures 9 & 10 below), but most of them were extracted from a phone video taken by Robert.  Despite efforts to improve focus and contrast in the extracted photos they are rather below standards.  Don’t get me wrong, Robert’s video was great; it is just the photos made from the extracted frames that aren’t so hot.  But they do give you a pretty good idea of what was going on.

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    After a while they induced a few of the guests to join in the dancing, following Thembisile’s lead.

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They danced out the door into the kitchen, with Daniel still beating the rhythm on a plastic food container.

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      So a great time was had by all, a perfect end to an extraordinary day. 


Kruger National Park, South Africa – Day 2

     We were awoken shortly after 5:00 AM by a knock on the door (no telephone for a wake-up call).  It was still very dark out.  We dressed and headed for the main lounge where coffee & rolls were waiting.  Soon Safiso showed up & we all piled into the safari vehicle & headed out to the bush in the dark.

     We (meaning Safiso) spotted several birds, including what may be a Burchell’s Coucal (looking like he hadn’t really woken up for the day) and some Helmeted Guineafowl running down the road in front of us.  There was also another Lilac-breasted Roller and a European Roller, both of which stand out from their surroundings with brilliant coloring.  And what is probably a Temminck’s Courser was standing in the road.

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     We passed some warthogs, a hyena, a wildebeest & a hippo skull.  Safiso spotted a male lion sitting on a fairly distant hill perusing the area and we passed an elephant making tracks away from us.  Then Safiso got a call from another driver that they had seen a leopard.  He told us that leopards & cheetahs are the big animals most likely to be missed since they often see them only once or twice a month, so we sped to the spot some distance away.  The other trucks were gone & so was the leopard, but we saw what was left of the impala the leopard had for lunch hanging from a tree.  We were told that leopards are the only cats that drag their prey up into trees to dine.

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     One of the ways Safiso could tell what animals had been nearby was by looking at tracks in the mud on the side of the dirt roads we travelled.  Another was by identifying what kind of animal had left piles of poop!  We don’t really remember which animals Safiso said these belonged to, but will make a guess.

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     We saw a grazing rhino accompanied by his egrets & a group of female lions looking sleepy, perhaps after a meal.

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  Safiso spotted a tawny eagle & a grey shrike for us.  Then in the distance we saw a large and diverse gathering of non-carnivorous animals, looking like something out of The Lion King.

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     We stopped for a morning snack of coffee & rolls (they wouldn’t want us to go more than a couple of hours without eating).  It was in an open area that must be considered safe since we were allowed to exit the vehicle.

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     We continued after our snack, spotting what is probably a tern, a yellow hornbill, yet another European roller & some Southern Ground Hornbills with bright red faces out in the tall grass.  We have read that this last is an endangered species

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     We came upon a herd of zebras & a group of giraffes.

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     We saw a groups of impala and of warthogs.

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     On our way back to the camp we saw more birds.  Probably another coucal perched in a distant tree, a couple of what are probably Pin-tailed Whydahs with very long tails and a yellow-billed stork perched at the very top of a tree.

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     Back at the camp it was time for breakfast.  The table was set with good sized bowls of yoghurt, fruit & cheese.  There were also baskets of rolls & toast.  We began to eat all this, then the Thembisile, the chef, walked out to take orders for eggs.  After that was done she brought out a huge platter of pancakes.  Nobody goes hungry at Camp Shawu!

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     After breakfast we went back to our cabin to shower.  The electricity is off for most of the middle of the day so we wanted to use the shower before the hot water went off.  The shower is outside with a view of the lake.  The cabins are covered with screen & canvas on three sides, have a thatched roof & the solid walls are made of buffalo dung.  How’s that for authentic?  Inside they are roomy, with a large bed inside mosquito netting, a bathtub, a woodstove and an overstuffed leather chair.  Outside by the lake is a private veranda.

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     We spent most of the rest of the day before leaving for our sundown game drive sitting on the veranda of the main lodge watching the animals.  The hippos were a never-ending source of entertainment.

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      There is a well known children’s book called “Everybody Poops.”  That includes hippos.  When the urge came upon one of them he or she would stand up just out of the water, start its tail spinning rapidly like a propeller & let fly.  The result is just what you would expect when “the sh*t hits the fan!”  All accompanied by a loud wail.  The urge seemed to be catching as several more of them did this after the first one.  Sadly, we didn’t have a camera handy and it was over way too quickly to fetch one.  We hoped they would do this again before we left for Cape Town, but no luck.  Its sad that there are no pictures because it was quite a show.

    The banks of the lake were lined with many varieties of birds, most of which you have seen before, including white-faced ducks, Egyptian geese & egrets.

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     A crocodile came by.  The hippos don’t seem to mind the crocodile, probably because (we were told) they only eat fish & leave the hippos alone (which seems like a good strategy).  But at one point a Fish Eagle flew down & landed on a rock near one of the hippo families. The hippos were outraged, milling about & raising quite a din; some of them even moved away.  The eagle seemed to be wondering what their problem was.

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   And, to top it all off, yet more hippos, opening their big mouths in play (we think).

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     After our afternoon snack we set out on our evening game drive, which began with a herd of Impala.

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     We came across some giraffes & some wildebeest.

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      Then came one of the day’s highlights, a cheetah with her two cubs only a month or so old.  You may recall that we had been told that cheetahs are often hard to find so we were glad to see them.  And the cubs, who were unbelievably cute, made it really special.  After we first saw them Safiso pulled the vehicle around to a spot where the cubs would be walking toward us, giving us a great view.  The mother had a very big belly, looking like she was pregnant, but Safiso told us that she had actually just had a big meal.

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     After passing our vehicles the cubs rejoined their mother and they all continued walking down the road ahead, turning once for a last look at us before heading on to the left.

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     As the sun dropped toward the horizon the landscape began to glow.  We saw some monkeys climbing a tree.  Then Safiso noticed that the bright orange sun was in a perfect spot behind the tree and pulled up to enable Rick’s favorite picture of the entire cruise!

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     After this inspiring sunset we met the other vehicles at a dam for a sundowner.  This may be the dam that created the lake outside our camp, but we aren’t sure about that.  A Goliath Heron was standing on the dam looking downriver & we saw some hippos emerging from the water on the other side of the water for a nighttime foraging excursion.  These pictures were taken after sundown, so aren’t as clear as one would hope.

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     It was night by the time we headed back to the camp from the sundowner, so we were mostly searching for animals with the spotlight.  We saw a tawny eagle & a porcupine.  The porcupine panicked when the light hit it & took off so fast it was impossible to get a decent picture, but here is what we have. It looked a good bit larger than we would have expected.

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     We also passed a group of Cape Buffalo (not sure of the timing; this might have been before the sundowner).  Unfortunately they were all so intent on eating that they never turned in our direction or lifted their heads.  No pictures of their faces, therefore, just a couple that show their distinctive horns from the back.  Not very cooperative of them!

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     Finally, we encountered a pair of Spotted Hyenas who appeared to be out hunting in the dark (until our spotlight found them).  They walked down the road ahead of us, then one went off into the bush on our right while the other waited in the road.  After a while they went off to the left & split up, apparently trying to surround a small Springbok that leaped over the bushes & ran away to the right of the road too quickly to photograph.  As Safiso said, the Springbok would easily outrun the hyenas, so they would have to look for a different meal.

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     When we got back to camp we had dinner.  We had Kudu for dinner; OK, but a little tough.  It had been a long day & there would be an early wake-up call again the next day so we went to bed right after dinner.


Maputo, Mozambique (Kruger National Park, South Africa–Day 1)

     We docked in Maputo early in the morning on March 31.  Maputo is the capital and biggest city in Mozambique, with a population in excess of 1 million.  Until after independence was achieved in 1975 Maputo was called Lourenço Marques, after the first Portuguese visitor to this spot in 1544.  Mozambique is still struggling to rebuild its economy and infrastructure after a lengthy civil war that ended in 1992.

     We were signed up with our travel agency for a 4 day/3 night safari in South Africa’s Kruger National Park so we had no opportunity to explore Maputo.  Our group met in the Ocean Bar for an expected early departure, but we didn’t leave until the local officials cleared the ship after 8:00.  We would be driving to the safari camp in what turned out to be an incredibly cramped little bus.  It had no room for luggage above or below the seats, which were themselves way too narrow.  So we had to keep our carry on luggage (a backpack with our electronics, primarily) on our laps the whole way.  This crowding, along with very small windows, made photographing from the moving bus difficult.  That’s why some of these pictures aren’t very sharp.

     We drove through Maputo, past the iconic 100 year old railway station and through some rather run down neighborhoods.  We don’t know whether there are better areas of Maputo than we passed through but what we saw looked pretty basic.

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     Outside Maputo we continued driving toward the border.  We passed markets, a mosque & many local folks.

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     We had to leave the bus twice at the South African border.  First we had to pass through Mozambique customs, then board the bus again for about 100 yards, then go through South African customs.  Near the customs buildings were some interesting flora and some buildings.  South African customs went very slowly at first because they were photographing each entrant & scanning their fingerprints, but the machines were not working properly.  This was frustrating because there was another line on the other side of the desk that was moving briskly with no photographs or fingerprints.  Finally, they dispensed with the photos & fingerprints on our side as well and we moved through customs much more quickly.

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     After clearing customs we drove to a parking lot where we were given box lunches.  We drove on a highway, which had an interesting sign at the entry gate.  We listened carefully, but never heard the “boom.”  We crossed the Crocodile River & entered Kruger National Park by the Crocodile Bridge Gate.  Then we drove to the main lodge of our safari camp.

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     On the way to the main lodge we got our first taste of wild animals.  Some wildebeest were lounging near a group of Impala.  A warthog was bathing (hopefully not dead; we didn’t see him move).  In a creek we crossed, a giraffe looked out at us from behind a tree and some rough looking birds were perched in a dead tree.  Note: We have a book about Kruger animals & will do our best to label them all in the pop-up captions, but this is not easy & they may not all be correct (if you don’t know how to access pop-up captions, see “About This Blog” button at the top),

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     Our lodge, Camp Shawu, is one of three that are run by a single company in an area a little north of the Crocodile Bridge Gate.  Our bus took us first to the main lodge, called Shishangeni, where many of the group would be staying.  It is in a wooded area & monkeys felt free to enter the lodge, although the kitchen & dining room workers used squirt guns to chase them away.  It was very nice, but beyond the monkeys there was little in the way of wildlife.  After the long ride on the cramped bus, it felt good to get out & stretch our legs here.

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     Originally, Robert, Mary & Rick were to be the only Amsterdam passengers at Camp Shawu.  The reservations for this safari, less than half the cost of HAL’s similar Kruger safari, filled up well before the deadline so we were too late to book it.  Then they obtained additional rooms at the other two camps run by this company.  Most of the overflow passengers ended up at Camp Shonga but we didn’t make that cut either.  We thought we had been shut out, but then our travel agent obtained two rooms at Camp Shawu & we grabbed them.  This turned out to be a great development for us because Camp Shawu was (at least in our opinion) the best of the three lodges.

      Apparently some other folks backed out of reservations at Camp Shawu because while we were at the lodge our group leader, Tom, announced that two more couples were to be assigned there.  The two couples, Terry & Marsha and Rob & Marlene, completed what turned out to be a very compatible group.  Occupying 4 of the 5 huts at Camp Shawu, the seven of us turned out to be the only guests there.  We all climbed into one of the game drive vehicles for the trip to Camp Shawu where the manager, Daniel, greeted us with refreshing drinks on the central lodge’s veranda.

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      Our drive to Camp Shawu was through the Park, so of course we encountered more animals.  In particular, our first zebras & another giraffe, with tiny crazed-looking Oxpecker birds riding onboard.  We also encountered two male lions hiding behind a bush.  We had actually gone by them when Mary called out “Lions!”, then our driver backed up so we could see them.  One of them never bothered to look in our direction but his brother watched us apprehensively the whole time we were there.  We were told that the animals see the vehicles as other animal, which they know are harmless from ample experience with them.  We were told not to stand up because that might destroy the illusion and lead to trouble.

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     Camp Shawu was named after an elephant who lived in this area for some 60 years and had the longest tusks ever measured in South Africa.  It included a central building with a lounge area, a dining area and a veranda, and 5 individual sleeping huts, four of which were occupied by visitors when we were there.  Raised wooden walkways connected all the buildings & an electrified fence surrounded the compound, so it was safe to walk between buildings even at night.  The small size & excellent and friendly staff were great, but what really made Shawu special was its location on the edge of a lake created by a downstream dam.

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     Game drives are scheduled in the morning, leaving before sunrise, and in late afternoon, returning after dark.  The late morning and early afternoon represent free time (at least when you aren’t eating, which occurs frequently).  Mostly we sat on the veranda of the main building watching the wildlife in and near the lake.  The primary occupants of the lake were hippos, which were there pretty much all the time.  They are nocturnal eaters, leaving the lake after dark to seek vegetation, and spend their days lolling around, sleeping or playing or fighting (its hard to tell what is playing and what is fighting).  The hippos were quite loud; they sound a little like Jabba the Hut.

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     During the day the lake shore was lined with many kinds of birds.  On our first afternoon we noticed White-faced Ducks, Egyptian Geese, Yellow-billed Storks, and a Spotted Thick-Knee wading in the water.

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     The lake also serves as a watering hole for a variety of animals.  On our first afternoon we spotted impala, rhinos and an African Fish-Eagle on the other side of the lake.

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     After yet another snack, in late afternoon we boarded the game drive vehicle and set out on our first actual game drive.  On some safaris I have read that each vehicle has a driver/guide and a tracker sitting at the front to spot game.  Our driver, Safiso, was also our guide & tracker.  He has extraordinary vision, time and again picking out animals and birds so hidden or distant that the rest of us had difficulty finding them even with binoculars.  Our game drive vehicles were open on the sides with a roof, providing plenty of visible space along with protection from sun and rain.  It seems that having a tracker sitting in front would often have cut into the view of the animals and landscapes we were there to see.  The seats are tiered so that everyone sits higher than the person in front of them, giving everyone a good view.  We rotated seats throughout the visit and, since there were only seven of us plus Safiso, everyone always had a window seat.

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     A case in point was Safiso’s spotting of some baboons with a herd of impala very far away early in our evening game drive.  They were so far away that none of us would have seen them at all without Safiso’s sharp eyes & experience.

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     We saw some unusual birds: a striking Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill, a Swanson’s Spurfowl and a Lilac-breasted Roller (of which we would see many later).

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     We had a long & close look at some White Rhinos.  White birds called Cattle Egrets hang out with them & on their backs, eating insects.  You will notice the long white lines on the rhinos’ face and back, which result from the birds on their backs doing what birds often do after eating!  The rhinos don’t seem to mind (little fashion sense, I guess).

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     We encountered a herd of wildebeest and one of impala.  The impala are called “McDonald’s” by the folks in this area.  This is partly because they are very numerous & often make a delicious snack for the carnivores.  More specifically, though, when their tails are down their backsides look just like a McDonald’s golden arches sign!

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     As dusk turned everything darker, Safiso spotted buzzards in a distant tree & a Red-backed Shrike. Darkness and distance made the pictures pretty blurry though.

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     As the sun set each night we met the other safari vehicles carrying Amsterdam folks for a “sundowner,” which includes drinks & snacks. Always have to have something to eat!

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     As we drove back toward Shawu in the dark Safiso used a hand-held spotlight to search for game.  We didn’t see any game this time but we almost ran into a small owl standing in the middle of the road, possibly a Marsh Owl though it is hard to tell in the dark.  Another bird in the road may have been a Dusky Lark.  Above, the moon & clouds made for a dramatic sky.

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       When we returned to the camp it was time for . . . guess what?  Dinner!  We were read the menu, could choose from two entrees, then ate too much.  The food here was very good in addition to being plentiful.

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     After dinner we retired to our room/ hut.  From inside the hut the hippos sounded like they were right on our veranda.  We actually looked to be sure & they were nowhere near us.  Others had the same feeling in their rooms.  Despite the loud hippos we had no trouble getting to sleep since it had been a long and eventful day.  Good thing because our wake-up call was scheduled for 5:00 AM!


La Possession, Reunion Island (France)

     The morning of March 27 found us docked at La Possession, a commercial port on Reunion Island.  This was not on our original itinerary but when the Madagascar stop was cancelled because of an outbreak of plague(!) this island, about 300 miles to the east, was added.  Discovered in the early 16th century by the Portuguese, it has been French since the 1630’s.  It has a diverse ethnic mix, most of the non-Europeans having come as slaves or, after slavery was abolished in 1848, as indentured servants. Today it has a population of about 850,000 and is a department of France, with seven deputies & three Senators in the French legislature.

     We spent the day on an excursion that circled the entire island.  Reunion has several large volcanoes at its center, but there were fairly low clouds all day so we couldn’t see them.  We started out to the north toward Saint-Denis, the capital & largest city of Reunion.  The highway runs between the sea and large cliffs that are held up by wire mesh because in the rainy season they are unstable.  A new highway is being built on risers over the water, which will presumably protect it from mudslides and storm surges.  We did not stop in Saint-Denis, driving by it on the highway, so all we have is a few pictures from the bus window.

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     Our first stop was at an unusual church, Eglise de St Anne, which has a very elaborately decorated exterior.  We were told that it was built by Hindu craftsmen, from whom it got this decorative style.  The church also had a nice garden in front.

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     Reunion is a volcanic island and Piton de la Fournaise is still very active.  It last erupted in July, 2017.  We visited a large field of cooled lava from this volcano called Grand Brule.  It was not clear to us when this lava formed, but we think it was in 2007.  The lava goes all the way down to the ocean.  Unfortunately the low clouds prevented us from seeing up to the mountain itself.

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     In Saint-Philippe we visited the Garden of Perfume & Spices, a botanical garden containing some 1500 types of flora, many of which produce perfume products & spices as the name suggests. We started out at a hut with a veranda (and a gift shop), then proceeded with a guide provided by the garden.  He speaks only French so our overall tour guide translated for us.

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     So fasten your seatbelts; we saw a lot of unusual flowers & plants.

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     But we thought the most exotic flower was the one we were told was a called a Black Widow flower.  Google tells us, however, that it is a Black Bat Orchid.  Whatever its called (it looks more like a spider), it is quite spectacular.

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     We had lunch in a restaurant at Cap Mechant (naughty cape).  The restaurant was just OK, but out back were some lava cliffs being pounded by surf from large ocean swells.

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     We headed for home up the western side of the island, but first stopped at a large beach.  Swimming is not allowed here, or in many of the other beaches on this side of the island, because of a rash of shark attacks over the last decade or so.  But we weren’t planning to swim anyway & this beach was a nice area to relax, with large palm trees lining it.

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     Every year the CEO’s of Holland America & its parent, Carnival Corporation, come aboard the ship during the grand world voyage for about a week.  This year they boarded in Reunion Island & so there was a big sail away party by the Lido pool, complete with band & free flowing alcohol.  Of course the Lido pool is inside (with a roof that opens) so you couldn’t actually watch the sail away (and it was a beautiful evening), but not many passengers seemed to be sober enough to enjoy it anyway.  We would have to say, however, that the party was a success.

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     After the party & dinner in the main dining room (which had been largely empty at the early seating because of the party) we went to bed.  Next stop, the continent of Africa.

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Victoria, Mahe, Seychelles Islands

     On March 24 we docked at Victoria, on the beautiful island of Mahe, the largest of the 115 islands that make up the Seychelles.  About 90% of the Seychelles’ population of around 90,000 live on Mahe and Victoria is the nation’s capital.  It has a French & British background, gaining independence from the UK in 1976.  As we left the ship we were greeted by dancers and musicians on a small stage on the dock.

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    We had signed up for a private excursion to tour the island.  Our first stop was in the town of Victoria.  In the center of town is a small clock tower that is a copy of the “Little Ben” Vauxhall clock in London.

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     We walked over to the Sir Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke Market, an open air market surrounded by walls that dates back to 1840.  An egret was perched near the entrance, perusing all who entered.

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     The first floor was mostly a food market, with a lot of fish (this is an island, after all).

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     From the ground floor we could see the sculptured roof of a Hindu temple.  From the top floor, where there were mostly clothes & handicrafts for sale, we looked down on the umbrellas covering the market’s courtyard.

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     We climbed back into the van & headed for a beach.  Mahe is rich in beautiful beaches, not to mention green mountains & breathtaking views.  Really a beautiful place.  Sadly, we don’t know the names of these beaches but they are worth looking at anyway.  We think this one might be called Grand Anse, but are not sure.

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     The Seychelles are famous as the home of many giant tortoises, and Mahe has its share.  We went to a hotel where about half a dozen of them live.  They are huge and looked worn out by the heat.  But some friends saw some of these guys mating in another spot & told us they were surprisingly quick when they wanted to be.

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     These giant tortoises seem to be pretty popular around here as we saw a number of artistic renderings in shop windows.

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We drove up into the mountains and stopped at an overlook with some gorgeous views.

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    We drove higher up to the Mission Lodge.  Now just some ruined walls, this was a school for freed slaves near the end of the 19th century.  On the path to the overlook are several interesting varieties of trees, some of them labeled.

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     Quite a lot of colorful flora are to be found on this tropical island and a good percentage are in this area.  So this is a good place to post some of them.

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     From the mountain we went, where else, to another beach.  This was a very large beach with an island off shore and some large boulders on the beach.  It was very nice, with a good surf, & we spent some time there walking on the sand.

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     The Seychelles are known for the Coco de Mer, an unusual type of coconut native to this island.  It is a double nut in a large and very heavy shell.  It also floats & we were told that sailors found these floating in the ocean before discovering this archipelago.  The trees are male & female and you can’t tell which yours is until it reaches fruit bearing age.  After planting it takes something like 7 years to sprout, then 25 years to mature.  If it turns out you have only female or only make trees, you are out of luck!  The female trees (obviously) grow the large nuts & the male trees don’t.  You should never stand under a female tree bearing nuts because one of these falling on your head will be the end of you.  Other food plants we saw here included vanilla, papaya and breadfruit.

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     We visited one more beach with incredibly clear water & an offshore island where some people were swimming & kayaking.

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     Our last stop was at a craft village.  It is a former plantation with 12 separate studios.  But most of them were closed & the ones that were open were selling souvenirs that didn’t look much like real crafts.  So, really, it looked to us more like a tourist souvenir village than a craft village. Then, on the way back to the harbor, we passed a very upscale condo development on reclaimed land just off shore.  There was a yacht harbor filled with impressive boats. We stopped to walk through a mall to the yacht harbor, a pointless effort when we were ready to be back at the ship after a fairly tiring day.

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     So, after a successful day exploring most of the island of Mahe, we found ourselves back at the ship shortly before sunset.  As the sun began to set there was one more look at the harbor.  The harbor had a number of windmills producing electricity set up on both sides of the entrance.  High on a nearby mountain was a villa owned by the Sheik of Abu Dabi who vacations here often.  He apparently travels from his yacht to his villa via helicopter.  From the size of the villa he must bring quite an entourage with him.

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     Since we were setting sail late at night we had a local dance show after dinner.  It wasn’t one of the most interesting we have seen but it was entertaining.  The people here have basically two kinds of dances: sega & moutia.  The most interesting involved dancing with feet on either side of a pole.

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    And so to bed, with one more island before we reach to African continent.

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Colombo, Sri Lanka

     March 20 found us in Sri Lanka.  When we visited here in 2016 we walked some 13 miles round this town, quite exhausting in the heat & humidity.  We saw a lot, which you can see here:

https://baderjournal.wordpress.com/2016/05/07/colombo-sri-lanka/

This is the last episode with a reference back to 2016; all the ports from here on out are new to us (except San Juan, Puerto Rico, which we visited many years ago).

     So this time we decided to sign up for an all day HAL excursion that said it would take us to see Galle, a city on the southwest corner of Sri Lanka with a very long history as a major stop on the east-west trade routes.  This turned out to be a somewhat dishonest description, but more about that later.

     Galle has been important to sea trade since at least Biblical times, when it is thought to have been Solomon’s source for gold, ivory and other exotic things, referred to as Tarshish in the Bible.  It was important enough to be included in Ptolemy’s world map of 125-150 AD. The Portuguese came in 1589 and it was captured in 1640 by the Dutch, who fortified the entire town.  The British gained control in 1796 and held it, along with the rest of what they called Ceylon, until independence after World War II.      

     As we left the ship there was a very polished Sri Lankan dance company performing.

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    We headed out of town through some rather impoverished areas, then south on a highway.  Our first stop was at the Handunugoda tea plantation.  Sri Lanka, of course, was called Ceylon when it was a British colony & Ceylon tea has been famous for quite a long time.  Among other things, this is the only plantation in the world that makes what is called “White Tea,” which is never touched by humans before it is consumed.  The owner of the plantation told us that this originated as a drink only for the Chinese Emperor & the story goes that it was tended & picked by virgins & the first human flesh it touched was the Emperor’s lips.  Today it is quite expensive and the plantation sells the white tea exclusively to a restaurant in France.  The plantation’s tea factory uses equipment that is more than 140 years old.

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     After spending time in the tea tasting room, where many kinds of tea grown here were for sale, we were taken upstairs to a kind of dining room where we were served tea and cakes.  We saw some interesting flora & fauna at the plantation, but were not taken to see the tea fields or the owner’s house as promised in the tour description.

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     Our second stop was to see stilt fishermen.  This was once a serious way to make a living, unique (as far as we know) to Sri Lanka.  Today fish are caught by more modern methods & these guys are strictly employees, paid by the hour to sit out for tourists to photograph.

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     We drove on to the south, passing Galle, then stopped about half an hour later at a hotel where we had an excellent Sri Lankan lunch.  The hotel had a very dramatic staircase, lined with metal sculptures.

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     There was plenty of leisure time after the meal to walk around and take pictures.  We took a few pictures of Galle in the distance across the water.  But the unnecessarylength of the lunch stop would add to the problem with this excursion, as you will see.

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    We got back on the bus and finally headed for the headline destination for this excursion,  the only reason we decided to purchase it (it wasn’t cheap).  After driving half an hour back we entered the Galle Fort, which is what the old city is called.  We parked in front of the library (yay!) & were told we all had to go into the Maritime Museum across the street, where we would have 10 minutes (!) to walk through it.  If we didn’t go into the museum, they said, we might not be able to find the bus.  And this 10 minutes was our ENTIRE stay in Galle!  No going up to the walls, exploring the famous old Dutch Church or “the narrow streets, old churches, cloistered courtyards and shuttered mansions,” as HAL’s excursion description promised.

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     We hurried over and took some pictures of the library while others were exiting the bus, then we followed the group into the Maritime Museum.  The museum is housed in the Great Warehouse, built by the Dutch in 1669 to store spices.  It was moved to this location after the original museum was destroyed by the 2004 tsunami. As you can imagine, there could be no lingering to actually learn about the museum artifacts during a 10 minute run-through.

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     As we left the building to board the bus we saw a couple apparently having wedding pictures taken near the museum and also the Archaeological Regional Office of Sri Lanka across the street.

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     That was it.  The bus drove around the main street to the gate & we left the fort & headed back north to Colombo.  On the way we passed a Buddhist temple and a funeral, among other things, but our stay in Galle . . . the title and supposed central destination of this excursion . . . was a total of 10 minutes in a maritime museum.  That’s not what we came for and we never would have signed up for this long and expensive trip if we had known that only 10 minutes of a 7.5 hour excursion would be spent there. It certainly took a lot of gall to title this excursion a trip to Galle!  After complaining (we weren’t the only ones) we were given a 15% refund, but in our opinion that was pretty lame compensation for not only failing to provide what was promised but also using up our only day in Sri Lanka in the bargain.

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     Perhaps the best part of the visit was the sail away.  Its always good when you sail away from a large port at sun down and Colombo’s port is situated where you can see a number of landmarks from the ship as you go.  We saw the candy striped red and white mosque, the brand new lotus blossom tower that was scheduled to open the week after our visit & the huge stupa on stilts over one of the entrances to the port.  Then the sun set as we sailed past the last lighthouse & out to sea.

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      So after dinner we went to bed, having left our last repeat port until San Juan, Puerto Rico.  From here on in it’s all new to us, which certainly increases the sense of adventure.

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Phuket, Thailand

     We docked in Phuket on the morning of March 17.  Last time we were here we had a great time riding elephants & visiting temples.  See it here:

https://baderjournal.wordpress.com/2016/05/02/phuket-thailand

So this time we decided to go in an entirely different direction.  If you have seen the movies “Man With The Golden Gun” or “The Beach” you have seen the craggy limestone islands that lie a ways off the coast near Phuket.  We joined a private tour by speedboat to see these islands & maybe do some snorkeling there & have lunch.

     We got off to a good start, driving to the nearby boat dock & boarding the speed boat.  There were about 15 of us, more or less, and the boat was open on the sides & back for a good view while also protecting us from the sun with a roof.  It wasn’t too long, however, before we began to encounter some very high waves & swells.  Not only did this slow us down substantially as the boat was constantly rising on the waves then crashing down after, but a couple of people began to get seasick (one a member of our family).  So the sea conditions (and the condition of the passengers) prevented us from going to the islands we had hoped to see.  Instead we headed for some closer islands.

     We landed at Khai Nok, a tiny island with a hill and a beach.  It was crowded with visitors, who were taking pictures on the beaches, sitting in the many beach chairs under umbrellas and shopping at the many food stands.  We were told that a large percentage of the visitors were Chinese, who do not swim but just take pictures of each other standing in the water.  This was not what we had hoped for at all, but at least we were able to relax for a while on dry land.

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     In the ocean near the island were a number of fishing boats & there were some rocky islands visible in the distance.

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     A few people went in the boat to a nearby island to snorkel, but they were snorkeling right off the boat so most of us stayed behind and relaxed on the beach.  When they returned we all boarded the boat and headed for another island where our guide hoped we could be accommodated for lunch.  Since our itinerary had changed the place where we had lunch reservations was too far away.  The guide went up to the restaurant on the first island but they didn’t have room for our party.  So we headed off to another island where she was confident we would be served.

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     On the next island we hit pay dirt.  Not only would they host us all for a delicious Thai lunch with fresh caught fish, but no other tourists were there to spoil the beauty of the long beach.  We went ashore & headed down the beach to the open air restaurant.

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     An old wooden dock extended out into the water and a number of fishing boats were in the area.

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      We had a delicious & very plentiful lunch at tables set up on a platform open on three sides with the kitchen at the back.  The dog who lives here was sacked out for the duration & next to the platform we found a pair of fish lying on the sand . . . no, wait, those are actually sandals.

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     After a last look at the still deserted beach we headed off to the new floating dock to board our boat for the trip back to Phuket.  We got a close look at some fishing boats that were tied up to the dock.

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     We sped away from our lunch island and headed back to Phuket.  As we neared the port we passed some navy ships at anchor.

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     After some shopping in the market set up on the pier we sailed away shortly before sunset.  We could see in the distance Thailand’s Big Buddha sitting on top of a mountain.  It had not been finished when we saw it in 2016, but now it is, we were told, the largest sitting Buddha in the world, surpassing the Big Buddha we visited on Lantau Island in Hong Kong.

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     After dinner we hit the sack after a day that turned out much better than it started.

 115 Phuket, Thailand4. Colombo, Sri Lanka


Singapore (Day 2)

On March 15 we set out on foot after breakfast to see the Gardens By The Bay, a huge horticultural installation built about a decade ago containing some 250,000 plants.  You won’t see pictures of all of them here but by the time you get through this long episode you might feel like you had.

There is a very long covered walkway leading from the port along the waterfront to near the Gardens By The Bay entrance.  We stopped to talk to our daughter on the way there.

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We reached the nearest entrance to the Gardens, which appeared from there to be a large park with lots of trees & flowers.  So here are the flowers we passed as we walked down the path from the entrance.

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After meandering along a nice stream among all these flowers for quite a while we suddenly came to the main event: two huge domed greenhouse buildings.  The Flower Dome, the first we entered, is the largest greenhouse in the world.

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The flora, gathered from all over the world, is divided into separate gardens.  We started in the cactus/succulent garden.

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There was a Palo Borracho tree, with a fat bottom, & a Baobab tree, with Desert Rose flowers in front of it.  We saw some Queensland Bottle trees & some Monkey Puzzle trees. There was also a grove of Olive trees, some said to be 500 years old.

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Some whimsical sculptures were scattered throughout the gardens.  For example, in the succulent garden were figures from Alice in Wonderland (called “Aloes in Wonderland”).  Some wood sculptures appeared to have been carved from bundles of wood, most strikingly a spectacular dragon overlooking the cacti.

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To make a long story a little shorter, here is a grab bag of other flowers on display in the Flower Dome.

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We left the Flower Pavilion and walked next door to the Cloud Forest Pavilion.  In this giant greenhouse was a mountain of flowers with an artificial waterfall more than 100 feet tall.  A group of school children entered at the same time we did & each one exclaimed “Oh my God!” as he or she walked in.  They were very cute.

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This pavilion is designed to show plants native to higher and higher altitudes as you climb the mountain.  As we walked the path up the mountain we passed incredible numbers of very colorful flowers hanging out from the mountain, along with ferns & other leafy plants.  Quite lush.  We came out at one point on a platform behind the waterfall, from which you could see Singapore & the Ferris wheel on the other side of the river.

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We continued up the spiraling path around the mountain, seeing ever more flowers.  As we gained altitude we got a different perspective on the mountain & waterfall.

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The paths near the top veer far out from the mountain, giving you a good view of all the flowers hanging there.

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After leaving the second pavilion we walked over to the grove of Supertrees.  On the way we saw some more exotic flowers & a floral clock. The clock is about 25 feet in diameter & is operated by GPS technology.

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The giant Supertrees are made of metal and have vines & flowers growing on them to make them green.  It looks like maintaining these takes quite a lot of work.  At the top is a pathway where you can walk among the treetops; the view is probably good but we didn’t spend the time & money to go up there.

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At night a light show illuminates these supertrees  with various changing colors.  It made quite a show from the Amsterdam’s aft deck.

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We left the Gardens by the Bay & headed across the bridge to the city.  We passed the ArtScience museum, looking like a giant lotus blossom, and what looked like an inflated playground.

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We walked on over the double helix bridge, called “The Helix,” which is lighted at night & looks like a strand of DNA.

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At the other end of the Helix Bridge we came to the Merlion fountain.  What is a Merlion, you ask?  Well, it is a mythical animal worshipped by the ancients in this area . . . not!  Actually, it was created by the local tourist board several decades ago to be an advertising emblem of the city (although Singapore does mean “Lion City,” so its not entirely made up).  Passing the fountain we walked up the waterfront to find a place for lunch.  We ended up in a tiny restaurant where we had excellent fish & chips & local beer.

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We walked back to the shuttle bus stop for the return trip to the ship.  On the way we walked by the Theaters on the Bay.  A very controversial building that many consider to be ugly with its spike covered domes. It is known locally as “The Durian,” after the notoriously foul smelling fruit that is endemic in this area of the world.

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Today was Mary’s birthday.  In the main dining room on the Amsterdam the waiters gather around and sing an Indonesian birthday song when there is a birthday, and a birthday cake is also provided.  The waiters seem to enjoy this ritual & you hear the song once or twice just about every night.  Mary’s birthday was no exception & she held up to it well even though she really doesn’t like this kind of thing. We divided the cake into 9 pieces so our waiters & wine steward could have some, in addition to the three couples at the table.

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If you thought we were finally done with this long episode, you were wrong.  That evening we attended a performance by a Singapore cultural group, presenting song and dance of various ethnic groups in this diverse city.  In particular, there were Malay dancers (Singapore was once part of Malaya), Chinese dancers, Indian dancers and a lion dance.  There were two guys inside the lion, and when the lion stood up the front guy jumped onto the other guy’s arms.

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So that’s more than enough for today.  After a very full & taxing two days in Singapore we went to bed as the ship headed for Thailand.

293. Singapore (Day 2)5. Saigon, Vietnam