Getting Dirty in South Africa

I’ve spent the last 3 days being chased by a large pot-bellied pig named Bruce, installing poles, swings, ropes and ladders into a monkey enclosure, herding sheep (Where’s my border collie when I need him?), bottle feeding a 3 month old bush pig, getting canine group hugs from four loving dogs, getting taught a lesson in billiards by the resident chef, and meeting some wonderful people. It’s basically just business as usual for a volunteer at DIY WILD.

Internet connection is spotty and costly here, so I won’t be posting very much for the next two weeks.

 

 

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Wild South Africa

Three Days ago I was sitting in my hostel in Johannesburg, South Africa wondering if I had made the right move. On a whim I purchased a one way ticket to South Africa and, like always, was prepared to just go with the flow and do my last minute style of travel. Bad idea. South Africa is not Asia. There aren’t tuk-tuks everywhere. You need a phone. It’s best to book in advance. Things are expensive. Don’t even think about going out at night due to various dangers. As I sat alone in an empty hostel, I began hatching my plan.

Safari. Volunteer. Cape Town. Overland Tour of Southern Africa (tentative plans, of course. I still need some flexibility!)

I caught a bus to Nelspruit, which is the provincial capital of Mpumalanga and found a bed at Old Vic’s Travellers Inn. This was the perfect destination for me, as it served as a jumping off point for my safari in the world famous Kruger Park, as well as being my soon to be pick up point for volunteering on an animal sanctuary.

After some wheeling and dealing, I found myself on a 2 day, 1 night safari with Loes, an incredibly lively and fun woman from Holland, and Jose, a care free and confident (not to mention sleepy) Argentinian. Our tour guide was Dave, the owner of Old Vic’s Inn and Kruger Flexi Tours, who is a charming and fun-loving man. He made sure we were happy, laughing, educated and well feed.

The tour started with a 4:30 wake up so we could be the first car at the gates as the park opened at 6 a.m.. Once through the gate, we were immediately greeted by a hippo, and Jose, Loes and I all chattered excitedly. Not even 10 minutes later a pair of hyena crossed our path. Considered one of the “Ugly 5” in Kruger, I had trouble seeing why. I found them to be beautiful creatures.

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We puttered down dirt roads, all 8 eyes anxiously searching the bush. Soon enough we came across a large male elephant munching on vegetation next to the road, pulling grass into his mouth with his trunk. Giraffes surveyed the landscape as they nibbled on trees and bushes. We stumbled across a white rhino resting in the road. As he slowly made his way back into the bush, he looked as us, seemingly frustrated that his sleep was ruined by this loud, shiny box.

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Zebras. Impalas. Kudu. Warthogs. Every animal sighting resulted in an excited “Stop!” followed by hushed voices and comments of disbelief. This was especially the case when we stopped in front of a female lioness and a mostly eaten buffalo carcass. Perhaps 5 meters away, the lioness, undisturbed by our presence, scanned the horizon and nodded off to sleep. As we moved on in search of our next sighting, everyone in the car smiled brightly and eagerly awaited what was around the corner.

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Honestly, there were so many highlights in these 2 days that I could write 10 more pages. But for the sake of brevity and avoiding carpel tunnel, here are a few:

– On day two we witnessed a failed lioness hunt. We watched 6 or 7 lioness’s stalk and give chase to a small group of impala. This resulted in mini stampede across the road, where 2 dozen or so impala and wildebeest literally ran for their lives maybe 20 meters in front of our car. No kill on that hunt, though. Seeing a kill is very rare, so we considered ourselves lucky to see even just a hunt.

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– Spending 15 minutes watching a full grown cheetah walk through the bush. There are only 250 cheetah in the park, and with Kruger being the size of Israel, we were very lucky.

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– Continuing our streak of good luck, we saw a family of 6 cheetah cross our road and walk into the bush. The sighting wasn’t as clean and as long as the first cheetah, but amazing none the less. The cheetahs were hunting something, but left because…

– …we saw a full grown male lion very close to the cheetahs. He was the one and only male lion we saw on the trip. He was maybe 25 meters out, but was impressive none the less.

–  50-60 zebra make their way to a watering hole, which was already occupied by a resting white rhino.

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– A giraffe walking down the road just a mere 3 meters from me.

– A family of mongoose playing on the road

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– 6 or 7 bull elephants drinking and cleaning at a watering hole as we ate a gigantic bbq lunch

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– Spending time with Loes, Jose, and Dave. Safaris are car rides, and car rides can be an unpleasant experience if you are with people you don’t enjoy. Thankfully, this wasn’t the case. We laughed and smiled the entire trip. It was a sad moment when we broke up our safari family after dropping Jose off at the Mozambique border.

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All in all, these past two days have been some of the best times I’ve ever had traveling. I can’t wait to see what is in store for me next.

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(Above: It’s the endangered something-something bird!)

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A Green Singapore

Unlike most travelers I have met on my trip, Singapore ranked very highly on my possible destinations. I suspect the reason behind others snubbing Singapore had to do with cost and westernization, but I wasn’t put off by either. To me, Singapore is a shining example of the creativity and ingenuity of mankind. Sleek highrises fill the horizon as throngs of people are efficiently whisked off to their destination of choice on the sizable and ever so clean subway system. Air conditioned mega malls offer shelter from frequent torrential showers or sweat inducing humidity. Much like home, a smart phone or tablet is in almost every hand. The desire to stay connected is ever present.

It’s a city on the cutting edge, and no where is that edge sharper than at Gardens By The Bay. Gardens By The Bay is a $1 Billion, 250 acre park that utilizes modern technology and planning to promote green living and sustainable architecture. From the towering Supertree Grove to the award winning Flower Dome and Cloud forest conservatories, the park is a must see for anyone visiting Singapore.

I found myself spending nearly two full days in the park. The first was spent roaming the outer gardens, slowly taking in the various aromas on the “scented path”, educating myself in the history of Singapore’s crops, and taking a trip back in time as plant life from millions of years ago were laid out before me. The evening was spent reading and dosing off under the Supertrees, then waking up just in time for a mesmorizing light and music showcase. These Supertrees really do live up to their name. Not actually trees, these tree like structures reach up to 160 feet high and are home to a variety of ferns, orchids and other plant life. They utilize solar power and play a key role in the cooling system for the conservatories. It’s a perfect blend of beauty and functionality.

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The second day was spent exploring the two conservatories. First up was the Flower Dome, home of a vast collection of flora from around the globe. Broken up by region, I learned about the succulents of the arid western United States, the Baobob trees of Madagascar and the tulips of Holland. Next up was Cloud Forest, a 35 foot mountain covered in greenery and shrouded in mist. It’s home to the world’s tallest indoor waterfalls, an impressive collection of carnivorous plants and  some amazing exhibits detailing the creation of the park.

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One of my favorite aspects of the park was learning about how eco-friendly and self sustainable it truly was. I was even able to witness it first hand during an hour long storm that dumped sheets of water over Singapore. The conservatories were built in such a manner to maximize the ability to capture rain. Using waterways at the base of each building, rain water is lead to pools that, using plants for filtration, would clean the water to be used later in water the rest of the park.

Another highlight not soon to be forgotten was meeting my new friend Melisa. We met in Penang, Malaysia and immediately hit it off, exploring the  Penang “aquarium” and discussing our lives while our feet dangled off the Georgetown docks. Being from Singapore, she agreed to meet up when I came into town. In Singapore, we spent a few days on canopy walkways, attempting to feed french fries to turtles, eating Nepalese mo-mos, exploring art exhibits and playing cards.

Singapore was everything I had hoped for, and more. If you ever find yourself traveling Asia, don’t let this unforgettable island slip off your itinerary.

Places of Worship

Old town Georgetown, in Penang, Malaysia, recently designated as a UNESCO Heritage site, is a historic and beautiful combination of cultures and religions. This small area boasts an impressive collection of places of worship. From Muslims to Christians to Buddhists to Krishnas, Georgetown is home to a variety of beliefs. Over my few days in the city, I spoke with priests over street noodles regarding training in Rome, sat down with an Imam to discuss false impressions, and watched monks collect early morning alms. Each distinct religion lives sides by side, contributing color and life to a city that would be lesser of if any of these institutions were removed.

However, these is another Penang institution that has a zealous and loyal following. While worshiping, some look towards Mecca, some to the sky, some look within. But in Penang, people look to the kitchen table. Penang is known as one of South East Asia’s culinary hubs with fresh and unique seafood dishes, fresh fruits (a farm holds 250 unique species) and mouth watering curries. Close your eyes and point at your menu. You can’t go wrong.

A favorite memory of mine was standing near a small tree grove with a stomach filled with char kway teow (think garlic, egg, chili, seafood and noodles), watching fruit bats dart in and out of the tree tops hunting for their dinner. Both the bats and I left that tree grove with full bellies that night (no, I didn’t eat the bugs…)

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(Above: An example of some of the religious buildings found in Georgetown, Penang.)

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(Above: The canons of Cornwalis, a war memorial for fallen soldiers, the historic town hall.)

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(Above: A guy with amazing hair.)

Operation Tree Fiddy

After diving in Khao Lak, I poked around town looking for a decent deal on a bus ride down to Penang, Malaysia. From what I saw, it was about a 12 hour journey, all done in one day, and should cost roughly 32 dollars. Pricey, but flights were even more. When I went to buy my ticket, the price magically increased by roughly three dollars and fifty cents . Ok, when I write it in dollars I feel kind of silly, so let’s put it in Thai Baht. The price magically increased by 100 baht. 100 BAHT? Who has a 100 of anything these days? Who am I, John Q. Rockefeller? Buoyed by my frugality and my principals, I kindly turned them down and hatched a new plan. Operation “Save about Tree Fiddy” is a go!

The operation consisted of the following:

1)      Wake up at 5am to catch a city bus. Bus came at 7am. Time well spent city at the bus stop pondering how big of an idiot I am.

2)      Take city bus for an hour to another random city bus station. Get confused and buy a ticket to the wrong destination, then realize my error at the last moment as the bus I really need is about to pull away. Grab all my stuff, run like a lunatic and talk my way onto the bus.

3)      Get to Hat Yai, meet really nice German woman named Theresa. She asks me to buy her bottled water, just make sure it’s not made by Nestle. I come back with bottled water, made by Nestle. Smooth.

4)      Get to the Malaysian border, but it’s now 8pm. It’s been a 13 hour journey, and still not even close to Penang.

5)      Theresa and I realize we missed the last bus to Penang.

6)      We try to hitchhike.

7)      It begins to rain.

8)      We meet a very nice Malaysia man who offers to let us sleep in his house.

9)      Opps. Something was lost in translation. He ends up trying to take us to a random hotel.

10)   Turns out this nice Malaysian man had an accident 8 years ago and isn’t all there. The random hotel has been shut down for years. It’s boarded up.

11)   His friend sees us in the street and picks us up (He’s the one who told us about the accident). We end up riding with him for an hour as we talk about Malaysian politics and his family. End up in some town 4 hours from Penang.

12)   Find a dodgy hotel. Fall asleep at 1am. Need to wake up early to catch the first bus.

13)   Oversleep, miss first bus to Penang.

14)   Catch bus, get to Penang at 2p.m.

 

So as you can see, the operation was a phenomenal success. Sure a 12 hour trip ended up taking 30 (including sleep so it’s not THAT bad). However, not only did I actually end up saving about $10 dollars (300 baht!) when it came down to it, I also made a new friend and crossed something off my bucket list (hitchhike in a foreign country). As ole’ George Dubya would say, Mission Accomplished!

4 days and 4 nights on the Andaman Sea

It was 10:00p.m., Friday, April 26th, and I was slowly watching the Thai coast disappear into the darkness. The long awaited day had finally arrived. I was leaving the relentless April humidity of mainland Thailand for the open waters of the Andaman Sea. As lightening lit up the night’s sky, Axl, our lead diver, gave the group an initial briefing on what to expect on the trip as well as an overall layout of the boat. After grabbing a handful of pineapple jam filled cookies, I headed down into my sleeping quarters to rest for tomorrow’s early morning dive.

I woke up at 6:00am, which has become a normal event on my travels. This time, though, I had a good excuse. Full of excitement, I listened as Axl explained our diving groups, the dive site, and what we might see. I hurriedly put on my gear, did an equipment check with my diving buddy Marcus, and did a giant step into the warm waters below. Success! I didn’t immediately sink to the bottom. Sadly, that might have been my only success on that dive. It had been 3 months since my last and only other diving experience, and my rust and inexperience showed. I battled a leaky mask and poorly controlled buoyancy all dive long. Marcus kept looking over in my direction to give me the “OK?” signal. Evidently, my struggles were obvious and with those struggles came extra oxygen usage. I burned through my air pretty quickly, so I cut my first dive short and ascended to the surface. So much for a good first dive.

Thankfully I had a second dive a mere two hours later to redeem myself. I had a clean close shave, adjusted my weight belt, and I spoke with Marcus for some quick tips. It made a world of difference.  After we descended on the second dive, I was floating near effortlessly along the bottom of the sea, taking in the sights of giant fan coral, schools of yellow snapper, colorful clownfish and moray eels.

In between dives we were treated to a variety of treats. Cookies, fresh fruits, spring rolls, sashimi, curries, full English breakfasts, it was all right at your fingertips. I took full advantage and heaped helping after helping on my plate. I’ve never been one to waste food, and I certainly wasn’t going to start.

The trip continued on in that fashion. Wake up, dive, eat, rest, repeat. This continued on for four glorious days.

The highlight of the trip was snorkeling with a green sea turtle. We were resting from an earlier dive (and meal), and heard the boat staff yell out “Tao! Tao!” We peered over the edge of the boat to see a beautiful turtle circling us. I quickly ran to the lower deck, grabbed a mask and jumped in. The turtle was as curious as we were, and came close enough for me to touch. I held back though, as it’s never good to touch the wildlife. We swam with the turtle for a good 30 minutes, and with excellent visibility we could see every detail. It was absolutely breath taking.

Below are some pictures taken from the boat, but all of the pictures of the sea life are pulled from the internet. As I don’t have an underwater camera, I have no underwater pictures. None the less, I wanted you all to understand the beauty of the Surin and Similan Islands.

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(Above: Axl performing a pre-dive briefing)

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(Above: Dive board. Someone gave me crabs)

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(Above: Marcus on the dive platform)

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(Above: Post dive/food coma)

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(Above: Paul forgets what hole the food is supposed to go in)

lionfish clownfish

(Above: Lionfish, left, and a Clownfish, right)

rockmover turtle

(Above: Juvenile Rockmover Wrasse, left, and a sea turtle, right)

seahorse batfish

(Above: Tiger tailed seahorse, left, and a school of Batfish, right)

slug moray eel

(Above : Wart Slug, left, and Moray Eel, right)

coral Barracuda

(Above: Fan coral, left, and barracuda, right)

nudibranch

(Above: Nudibranch)