Ten Other Animals We Saw at Leopard Hills (Including…Leopards, Natch.)

So many photos. Heads up: I’m no photographer, as you will see from many of these images, but especially, the very last ones. So, with that endorsing caveat, enjoy!

Leopard on safari at Leopard Hills

 

I believe this was taken on the evening drive on our first night at Leopard Hills. If so, this is Dayone, a 9-year-old male who was out and about marking his territory.

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We, of course, saw many elephants during our time at Leopard Hills (especially babies!), but one of my favorites was this young one that walked right up to the lodge deck.

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Our suite was near the kitchen and on our way back to our room each night, we walked past the kitchen where a spotted genet lived and hung out in hopes of some kitchen scraps.

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Just a typical safari traffic jam.

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When we were in Sabi Sands in 2014, we hardly saw any rhinos. Two reasons: it was late summer and everything was still very lush and green, making visibility difficult and second, sadly, poaching had caused the population to dwindle. Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of the Sabi Sands lodges and their teams–we’re talking night vision goggles, helicopters on full moon nights, even hiring private security to sleep out in the bush and keep an eye out for poachers–poaching incidences have been greatly reduced since our last visit and we saw quite a few rhinos this trip, including this fairly shy trio who we kept our distance from.

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We did not, however, see as many lions at Sabi Sands as we saw last time. Apparently, the pair of brothers we saw last time have been very aggressive in the intervening years, taking over territories and killing off rivals. Everyone at Sabi Sands is hoping the young ones, including this young male who’s mane is just starting to grow in, will be able to stick around.

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Another fairly unusual sighting: a porcupine! We saw one porcupine last time we were here, but only from behind and he was hightailing it away from us. The only photo I have of it is a blur. This one was completely different and weirdly calm. We’re not sure if this guy was hurt or sick or what his deal was, but he didn’t really run away from us at all. We sat there looking at him, looking at us for a good long while. Such an odd animal and an odd sighting.

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Definitely one of my favorites: We went on a walking safari (aka: learning all about animal poop) with Stefan one afternoon and this family of warthogs followed us the whole time we were out. We’d stop. They’d stop. We’d walk. They’d walk. They were very curious about us.

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Giraffes are my absolute favorite. I love them. I have way more photos of giraffes than any other animal. They’re so peaceful and beautiful and they have no real enemies. But, I had never seen them drinking water, which is an exercise fraught with difficulty for these guys, the tallest animals in the bush. This was at the watering hole right near the lodge.

Sad side story: the same day I took this photo, an adult female giraffe–none of these guys–ran into an utility wire that was hanging far too low after a herd of elephants had rammed the utility pole and the utility company had not yet come out to fix it. The giraffe died immediately and Duncan, GM at Leopard Hills, arranged to have the giraffe carcass dragged to the riverbed so the other animals could eat it, which, I understand, while heartbreaking to me, is actually the right thing to do. Later that night, on our night drive, we drove over to check it out and they hyenas were eating her. It was very upsetting and I couldn’t even look, but I could hear it in all its’ gruesome glory and it really bothered me. Luckily, my super-excellent, sensitive travel-partner-for-life, XFE urged our guide Hugo to call it a night and head back to the lodge.

If that carnage of my favorite animal had been my last memory of Leopard Hills, I would not be feeling very warm and fuzzy about the whole safari at Sabi Sands experience.

However…..

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WE SAW HONEY BADGERS!!!

The next morning, we got up early to drive ourselves back to Johannesburg. Along the way to Newington Gate, XFE saw TWO honey badgers standing right next to the side of the road. My side of the road! Of course, everything was packed away, including my camera.

After confirming that yes, those were honey badgers, and holy crap, they’re just standing there looking at us, and screaming, “ohmygod, honey badgers, honey badgers, honey badgers, shit, there are honey badgers, and they’re looking at us, what do I do, where’s my camera or phone, crap!!!,” I finally dug around in my backpack, yanked out my camera and took about 4-5  “Blair-Witch”-meets-Loch-Ness-Monster quality pictures through my closed car window. Honestly, I must have been delirious and panicked because some of the pictures aren’t even pointing at the termite mound they were slowly retreating into.

But in the above picture, you can sort of make them out. No? Here:

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I drew a circle around them. Now here’s the closeup:

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See that white stripe right there? And to the right, that dark spot half obscured by a tree?

OK, you’ll just have to believe me. Those were two honey badgers! You know what, it’s fine if you don’t believe me, because just like honey badgers, I don’t give a shit. It was seriously amazing and I couldn’t stop talking about it the rest of the day. The rest of the trip even.

This was a very big deal. It’s fairly unusual to see honey badgers. They’re pretty solitary (it’s really unusual to see two together) and they don’t hang around too often for pictures. They’ve got places to be and cobra ass to kick. Actually, after digging around, I can’t even tell if they’re endangered or not: this site says “nah, not doing great, but not endangered” while this one says “there are only 1,000 left,” which seems pretty damn endangered to me. All I know is that Duncan, who’s lived in Sabi Sands for more than 20 years, said he’s never seen one and our guide Stefan-WHO RIDES IN AN OPEN VEHICLE ALL DAY LOOKING FOR ANIMALS–said he’s only seen one once.

In fact, these were the second and third honey badgers we saw during our stay at Leopard Hills. I spotted one from a pretty good distance moving pretty purposefully through the bush a few days earlier when we were out on a drive with Stefan. My first thought was, “huh, I didn’t know they had skunks in Africa. Hey, that’s a pretty big skunk, let me ask….HONEY BADGER!” We all caught a glimpse of him, but nothing compared to our early morning coffee klatch with the duo on our way out of the park.

Just call us the honey badger whisperers.

 

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The Wildest Ride: A Wildebeest River Crossing in the Serengeti

“This is not at all like the shows on NatGeo,” my restless mind was thinking. “This is actually sort of….boring.”

We’re sitting in a beige, pop-top Toyota Land Cruiser in the midday African heat with four other people. All six pairs of eyes are trained on the nervously shuffling, brownish-gray mass of wildebeest on the far bank of the Mara River, a couple of hundred yards away. And I’m thinking about when we might have lunch.

We were just picked up from the Kotagende airstrip about an hour and a half, maybe 2 hours ago and now, we’ve joined about 20 (or so) other safari vehicles amongst the trees and bushes and dry grasses overlooking the Mara River’s famous Crossing Point #7. All of the nearly-identical Land Cruisers are parked far back from the river so as not to scare the notoriously skittish wildebeest.

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We are here, in the Serengeti National Park at this particular time of year specifically for this: The Great Migration. Each year, approximately 2 million wildebeest (as well as several hundreds of thousands of zebras, gazelles, impalas and elands) complete a 5,000-mile trek every year known as the Great Migration aka The World Cup of Wildlife.

The animals are doing what they’ve been doing for thousands of years: following their stomachs. Specifically, the wildebeest are following the grass as the rains move south through the short grass plains of Kenya and the Serengeti at the end of a long, dry winter.

The herds are hungry, starving even, and we’ve already seen several wildebeest carcasses on our way to this spot (we’re told that they die from starvation or exhaustion from the Migration, and sometimes, from a bacteria that lives in very young grass that they know they shouldn’t eat, but they’re so hungry, they just do).

The wildebeests will eventually settle in the Southern Serengeti and Western Ngorongoro Conservation area in January and February to give birth to their calves during a synchronized two-to-three week period before they head west at the end of the rainy season (March) and eventually north again (April), all the while following the rains and the grass.

Back on the banks of the Mara River (or, more accurately, the plains overlooking the river), the air is thick with tension from the indecisive wildebeest and excitement from the safari vehicles. As a lone, brave wildebeest moves up to the waters’ edge, you can hear a murmur ripple through the visitors peeking out of the tops and windows of the gathered cars. “There goes one.” “Looks like they’re going to go.” “Will he or won’t he?”

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As the lone wildebeest sniffs the water, shakes its’ head and backs up in retreat, you can hear a sigh from the assembled visitors and drivers. “Nope, not yet.” “Changed his mind.” “Something spooked him.”

There’s plenty for the wildebeest to be afraid of. For one thing, there are loud hippos in the river, who I prefer to think are honking their encouragement. But the hippos won’t hurt the wildebeest. The crocodiles lying in wait however, certainly will. And do.

Then there’s the swift river currents that can carry the already-weak-from-hunger wildebeest away. And do. Sometimes into the waiting jaws of those crocodiles.

Then there’s the slippery river rocks. It’s not at all uncommon for a spindly-legged wildebeest to break a leg on those rocks, limping out of the river only to be caught by a predator a couple of hours or days later. Or die as it falls further and further behind the herd and gets picked off by a lion, a leopard, a cheetah, a hyena, etc. etc.

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Oh, and then there’s the panicky herd in general. Even if a wildebeest has made it through the currents, outmaneuvered the crocodiles and traversed the slippery rocks, they’ve still got to get out of the river. There are hundreds if not thousands of wildebeests stampeding each other in a rush to make it out and on to the dry shores. It’s a mad crush that can lead to potentially life-threatening injuries and, of course, death from any of the many, many carnivorous predators lying in wait throughout the Serengeti.

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Did I mention that wildebeest crossings, aka “Tango With Near-Certain Death,” happen several times a day at various points along the Mara River? So yeah. It’s no wonder that these particular wildebeests are a wee bit hesitant to get started on this—our first—crossing.

But the waiting and the multiple false starts isn’t the stuff they show you on NatGeo. And on that particular day, while I’m getting warm and impatient in a non-moving, non-air-circulating safari vehicle, I don’t yet have a clue as to just how dangerous and powerful and exhilarating a wildebeest river crossing really is. Sure, I’ve read about it, briefly, but I don’t really know. They can’t really show you the full emotional breadth of such a breath-stopping spectacle on NatGeo.

So, we wait, as lines and lines of wildebeest come and join the hesitant herd gathering on the banks.

Finally, there on the sandy bank, a brave wildebeest throws caution to the wind. His or her survival instinct and hunger finally overrides all the numerous fears and common sense and the first wildebeest charges into the water, followed by another, then another, until the whole herd starts making its way through the river.

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We all hold our collective breaths until the first wildebeest reaches the halfway point and the CB radios cackle and the trucks start moving forward very, very fast, as if someone has shot a start gun.

(Actually, at least one of the trucks did jump the gun a bit at this particular crossing. The proper protocol is to wait till the animal gets to the halfway point. But some impatient folks start gunning a bit earlier than that, which can totally cause the animals to turn back around. That is, providing they don’t have the crush of the herd behind them. I know this because a few days later, on our fourth crossing, our truck was the premature racer and we did cause the wildebeest to turn back to safer shores. Womp, womp. Don’t worry. They did eventually cross.)

All 20 or so Land Cruisers lurch forward and what follows is the wildest 30-second ride in the Serengeti as all the lodge drivers maneuver to get their well-paying (and potentially well-tipping) clients in the very best spot to view and photograph the crossing.

I have to admit: I was really bothered by all the zooming vehicles and I was pretty concerned about the effect we were having on the poor, already-stressed wildebeest. I get the why and I understood that getting to see a wildebeest crossing is what we were all here to see and our drivers were just trying to deliver.

I started to get a bit emotional about us awful humans and our intervention into nature just for entertainment’s sake when I looked over and saw a crocodile take a small wildebeest down in the water, its dying bleats ringing in my ears. Then I saw another one get carried away by the current. And a younger wildebeest waiting on the far shore while its mother made it safely across. And another wildebeest come limping out of the water, me knowing that it probably was going to die.

Well, I thought, there’s that, then.

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I tried to focus instead on the tremendous power of the sight going on in front of me, the thunderous sound of approximately 500 animals charging through the water, intent and intense and singularly focused on just making it across. And the relief they must have felt when they did make it across, pausing to catch their breath and slow their heart down and let the African sun dry their backs.

While the river crossings were not my favorite part of our safari in the Serengeti (honestly, I could have just seen one and been done), I do have to admit, they did stir up a powerful mixture of emotions. I was in awe of the power of the herd, bemused by nature’s impulses, and dumbfounded and sad that these wildebeests chose to go through this every year. I didn’t understand it but I was definitely awestruck by it.

And there’s nothing on NatGeo that can prepare you for it.

 

 

What I Learned About Africa the First Time Around (and Why We’re Going Back)

And a very happy birthday to me (on safari in SA, 2014)

I uttered what I think might go down in history as the most bougie phrase ever known to mankind last week.

“Weeeeell, last time we were in Africa, we stayed at…..”

I said it not once, but TWICE while catching up with friends, both of whom probably immediately regretted asking me what big exciting trip we had coming up.

My manpanion/life-partner XFE and I have become known as “those people” in our own individual circles—the couple who are always planning their next big trip. Finagling airline partnerships and air miles to upgrade to first class and work in the longest possible layovers on a multi-stop ticket, cashing in hotel points and free resort nights to stay in ridiculously luxurious rooms, relentlessly researching destinations and options and meticulously planning where we’re going to spend our time and money.

Our next big trip is a bit different. It’s XFE’s 40th birthday and there was only really one place he wanted to spend it, regardless of airline miles (we were able to use plenty of those), hotel points (nope, none of those being used this trip) or cost (yikes)—on safari in Africa.

This is not our first time in Africa. We actually went to South Africa for my birthday in March 2014, which is why I was able to say something as bougie as, “Well, the last time we were in Africa, we stayed at….”

elephant bud

Of course, with our next trip to Africa only three weeks away, I’ve been thinking a lot about that last trip.

South Africa was never really on my travel bucket list. As I’ve said before, I’m pretty risk adverse, and well, Africa seemed a bit risky, a bit unstable.

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Speaking of risk, I do not recommend ingesting the priced-to-move ostrich bitong, unless you want other parts of your body to also move. (Not mine: I learned my lesson about cured meats from the Great Northern Italian Food Poisoning of 2011. XFE, however…..)

Sure, I’m a huge animal lover and intellectually, at least, I’d like to see animals in the wild, but again, being risk adverse, I always worry something bad might happen. I have a huge amount of respect for animals in the wild and would not want to do anything that might set them off. And who the hell knows what might set them off? I have a lunatic house cat who meows at walls, corners and sometimes electrical sockets. No idea why.

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He is asleep, right? Like, really asleep, yes?

Plus, a lot of those animals in the wild look pretty dang skinny. I’ve been poor. I know what hunger feels like and when you’re hungry, you might just be willing to eat anything, including some stupid tourist distracted by their camera.

But it turns out, there was a whole lot I didn’t know about South Africa (shocker, I know).

Like, how much I would love beautiful, bustling, exciting Cape Town.

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I also had no idea Cape Town had such a crazy good food scene. Like, really, really good.

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The Old Biscuit Mill where we had a couple of great meals.

Including probably my favorite meal ever at Test Kitchen. No big deal, just the best restaurant in Africa. No, seriously. Other, fancier people have said so, too. They even made broccoli super cool and delicious. BROCCOLI, people.

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I didn’t know about South Africa’s amazing wine country (we only made it to Stellenbosch, but there’s also Franschhoek, Constantia Valley and Helderberg, among others).

Stellenbosch Collage

So much amazing wine.

SA Wine Collage

And so many really gorgeous hotels, especially our villa at the Clouds Estate.

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I didn’t know I’d be allowed to pet a cheetah (check that one off the life list).

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That’s my pudgy little pale hand on an actual young cheetah. Right there. I died.

I didn’t know about Sabi Sands, a 65,000 hectare private reserve bordering Kruger National Park. It’s very unique in that it’s privately owned by individual land owners/families.

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I didn’t know South Africa had places like the 5-star Savanna Lodge, where we stayed back in 2014.

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I suspected–but didn’t know–that Africa had so many wonderful people like the staff at Savanna Lodge. We were treated like treasured family members (including a little post-game drive champagne party on the morning of my birthday).

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Or like our ranger Patrick and his nice gun-toting tracker friends who pointed out all the cool, dangerous animals and would protect you from said animals if necessary.

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The biggest revelation was the animals themselves, who aren’t really interested in eating stupid tourists at all when there are plenty of other, more tasty, less noisy food options available.

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And actually would just really appreciate it if humans would leave them to their whole Circle of Life business.

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In fact, they’d probably also appreciate it if humans would stop killing them into extinction.

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The African rhino (on the right) was our most elusive animal to find, mostly because they’ve been poached into near extinction. And we all know about elephant poaching.

So, we’re going back to South Africa. Sadly, we’re skipping Cape Town and Stellenbosch. And we weren’t able to book Savanna Lodge, despite planning this trip a year out (there is, understandably, quite the demand for their nine luxurious tent-suites).

We’re really excited to be staying five nights at Leopard Hills, another 5-star lodge in Sabi Sands.

Then we’re going on to another six nights of safari, this time in Tanzania, including stays in a glass-fronted tent suite at Lemala Kuria Hills and a bushtop tent at Serengeti Bushtops. We’ll finish up with four nights at the Manta Resort on Pemba Island, including a night in their underwater room. Yes, I said underwater room. The room is underwater.

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It’s really an once-in-a-lifetime trip. But, for the second time.

This Other Blog That Sometimes Lets Me Write for Them

Heading over to the gym for some more pain, but I wanted to shout from the interweb rooftops about a new blog that I’m contributing to. It’s part of Project: Time Off, an initiative to encourage people to take time off from work, which seems like such a no-brainer to someone who not only took ALL of her vacation days when she worked a 9-to-5, but usually ran a deficit at the beginning of each year.

Anyway, the new PTO website and blog was launched today an includes a post from your’s truly on getting your Jurassic World fix without getting eaten. Go and check it out, sign up for updates, share your own vacation Instagrams or time off experiences. And take some time off!

Dinosaurs on vacation, get it? By MP Davey, a fine artist I had never heard of until today.

Friday Links: The It’s Monday and Everybody Loves Will Ferrell Edition

Katy Perry/Will Ferrell mashup
Source: Paramount Pictures, Getty

That’s right, Friday’s links on a Monday. That’s because I went to a networking event on Thursday that morphed into a happy hour that turned into a very happy night so Poe Communications/Beverage Distributors Inc. was closed on Friday. Sometimes, happy hour gets in the way of running a multimedia communications empire.

It Wouldn’t Be Christmas Without Vegas and Sharks

Well, hello there, good lookin’.

I’m back from the non-stop holidaying extravaganza! As, I suppose, we all are, regrettably. Oh well. #TheStruggleIsReal

My main man-panion XFE took some time off during the holidays so we ate many, many great, decadent, meaty things, and drank many a delicious wine and cocktail (mostly made with gins-of-the-world, a current XFE obsession), and just generally loafed around competing with the cat on who could be more sloth-like.

You know who else loafs (loaves?) around? Sharks! Those guys are totally lazy.

Employee of the month.
Sharks may be lazy, but starfish are apparently hard workers.

You see, I spent an inordinate amount of 2012 deathly afraid of sharks. I thought they were these ferocious, teeth-grinding, people-killing machines. But through scuba diving the last couple of years, I’ve actually discovered that they’re kinda wimpy, and not really all that scary. (Ssshhh. Don’t tell them I said that?)

Just to confirm this suspicion, we went diving in the shark tank at Mandalay Bay over Christmas.

shark marketing

Because….Christmas, y’all. In Vegas. So….of course.

We had been on an aquarium dive before. In October, we went up to the National Aquarium in Baltimore and did the Atlantic Coral Reef tank dive there. It was….meh. We had to arrange and pick up our own gear (wetsuits, masks, booties, flippers), we did not actually get to see any of the aquarium (entry tickets had to be purchased separately for around $35 per adult), and the tank, while certainly nice, was a bit small. Plus, there was only one or two flesh-tearing aquatic creatures about, so it lacked a bit of pizzazz. (Actually, I don’t remember seeing any sharks, but the National Aquarium website says there are some, so I guess there were.)

But Mandalay Bay, my sweeties, is in Las Vegas and they bring a whole showmanship to their tank dives.

First, they take you and up to four guests on a tour of the Shark Reef Aquarium, which features over 2,000 animals. Our guide, Janna, showed us around the 14 exhibits, including jelly fish, piranhas, and a Komodo dragon. And of course, the shark tank, formally known as the Shipwreck Exhibit. The 1.3 million gallon tank has around 30 sharks, including sandtiger sharks, a couple of types of reef sharks, zebra sharks, and a Galapagos shark. The tank also has stingrays, sea turtles, a moray eel, and some crazy-looking sawfish.

Then they give you all the backstage tour, including and explanation of the filtration system and a stroll along the feeding platform that runs all above the shark tank. It’s very James Bond-ish.

That's Janna, our handler on the left. That's a bored shark on the lower right. You can almost see him yawning.
That’s Janna, our handler on the left. That’s a bored shark on the lower right. You can almost see him yawning.

Then Janna whisked away our loved ones (in our case, XFE’s parents) to go back inside the main shark exhibit while you (the divers) get geared up in the locker rooms. And by geared up, I mean, wedge into the wetsuit and booties they provided and then shimmy into a 14-pound suit of chain mail. Yes. Chain mail. Because they want you to think there’s an element of danger here. Pretty crafty.

Once we were suitable geared up, the incredibly patient and kind team helped us wade into the small holding pool near the exhibit and we did a buoyancy check to make sure everything was working. We also had these ear pieces that were supposed to help us hear our diving guide but really just sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher. They did help grab our attention when she (I think her name was April?) was trying to point out something to us.

Meanwhile, they have a videographer recording the whole thing: the divers gearing up (luckily, they don’t include audio so you don’t hear our grunts and cussing), getting in the water, and the view of us from inside the exhibit. In addition, the dive guide had a Go-Pro which she used to record us in the water.

(And I WOULD have posted clips from the final video except WordPress wants me to upgrade my blog plan to $100 a year in order to do that, to which I must say, “hellz no.” Sorry, kids. No MP4 videos on the scrub version of WordPress.)

And, as you can see by the bits of video I’ve posted, the sharks do not give a shit. They couldn’t have been less interested in us. I feel fairly certain there was a greater chance of one of us divers getting some sort of uncontrollable sushi craving all of a sudden and biting one of them than any of us even getting a tiny head nudge from any of the 30 sharks in that tank.

Here’s how the imaginary shark discussion goes in my mind:

Zebra Shark: “Ugh, these guys again.”

Sandtiger Shark: “I know, right?”

Zebra Shark: “I don’t know why they come down here and bother us if they’re not going to even bring us some tasty chum, like a fisherman’s hand or a small child or something. They’re really just wasting our time.”

Galapagos Shark: “And did you see that chick with the googly eyes? What’s her problem? Did you see how she was looking at me, all terrified and whatnot? As if. I can totally tell by that wetsuit that that girl has been eating way to much cheese and everybody knows I’m lactose intolerant.”

White-Tip Reef Shark: “Yeah, and did you see that one dude go right up to Larry’s face when he was trying to sleep? All he wants to do is take a little nap after swimming around in endless circles and what does that moron do? Swim right up and insist on getting his picture taken with him. Geeze.”

Sandtiger Shark: “Alright, I’m out of here. I’m going to go hide out at the top of this ship bow thing until they’re gone. By my limited edition shark Swatch watch, they’ll probably be in here about another 40 minutes, which gives me just enough time to watch an episode of Shark Tank OnDemand. Get it? See what I did there? Shark Tank? That’s comedy gold.”

End scene. 

Cheesepuff in a wetsuit
Cheesepuff in a wetsuit

All told, we were in the shark exhibit for around 45 minutes. It was pretty great. Unlike the National Aquarium where we were allowed to swim around on our own in pairs, we had to stick with our dive guide, but that was no big deal. We got to hunt in the sand for sharks’ teeth, get up close to a sleeping (resting?) reef shark, dodge sea turtles, and wave to the kids inside the exhibit.

When we got out, we unloaded our gear, hit the showers, and met our guests out by the aquarium store.

shark chompers

Even though I didn’t exactly test my mettle or stare down danger, I can’t say enough great things about the fine folks at Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay. It was first-class attentiveness from start to finish. The very thoughtful aquarium staff even had snacks and water set out for you in the locker rooms, which was a nice touch. They also gave us little glass vials of the shark teeth we’d collected (or, in my case, coral because I apparently cannot tell the difference underwater), and certificates to commemorate the day. And, about a week later, an awesome 15 minute video, which includes a very soothing-spa-music-soundtrack.

Maybe that’s why the sharks are so docile. Nonstop soothing spa music.

Friday Links: Sneaker-Wearing Spiders Like Female Bosses (and Fritos Chili Pizza)

Spiders
That’s a sneaker-wearing spider above a spider web pizza. I’m not good at the Photoshopping.
  • Now that I’m working freelance from Poe Industries Worldwide Headquarters, my style needs have changed a bit (Jeans Day EVERYDAY). Plus, I’m coming up with a packing list for Italy and I know I’ll need to take my Pumas (cobblestones — WHY???). So this slideshow I found on Pinterest on cool sneakers and the outfits that work with them is pretty helpful and timely.
  • This guy in Canada bought his girlfriend a pretty awesome round-the-world trip for Christmas. Then she broke up with him. Now he’s looking for another Elizabeth Gallagher to use the plane tickets. Hmmm, yeah. Nothing could go wrong with that.
  • If you do go on that trip, check your earbuds. British pop star Katie Melua had a spider living in her ear for a week. She suspects it got in there from a pair of old in-ear monitors she used to block out the flight noise. IRONY ALERT: Katie Melua has a song called “Spider’s Web.” You can’t make this stuff up.
  • In light of the new abomination known as Papa John’s Fritos chili pizza, I feel like a few of these fast food disasters are on the verge of a comeback. I’m looking at you Burger King pumpkin burger
  • Well, I’ve had some really good female bosses, and not-so-good female bosses. Now this new poll suggests that 39% of women prefer male bosses to female ones.
  • I’ve been dinged by Uber’s surge pricing (although, mine was on a normal, ordinary, non-rainy, non-holiday Thursday). I guess I should’ve crowdfunded it!

Three Temples We Saw in Bali (And One That Got Away)

Borrowed sarong

Bali is called the Land of A Thousand Temples. No, really, it is. I didn’t just make that up. The folks over at The Culture Trip even suggest that the number is really closer to 5,000. This guy says 20,000. Who knows? But in any case, that’s pretty crazy for a tiny island of only 2,232 square miles.

Most Bali villages have at least three temples, which you can read about in greater detail here. In addition, you’ll find lots of smaller, private temples, like a family-owned temple. And then there’s the big holy ones, like pura tirta, which are water temples, and pura segara, which are built by the sea to appease sea deities.

Then there are six Supremely Holy Temples on the island, which is just a whole other level of religious contemplation for this supremely non-religious woman. (We did visit one of the SHT’s however, Uluwatu, which I describe further down).

We did not visit 5,000 temples. We didn’t even visit 1,000. We were lucky to cram in three, frankly. So here are the three temples we saw during our visit to Bali (and one that we really, really wanted to see, but didn’t get a chance to go to).

Pura Tirta Empul – Temple of the Holy Water

This was our first temple stop after a bit of a yawn-inducing visit to a dance school. I think this temple was near Ubud, which is sort of east-central of where we were staying (we were in Nusa Dua, down south along the coastline).

We pulled up and our driver informed us that we needed to wear a sarong into the temple. That would require a donation, of course. Also, he would not be accompanying us into the temple. And, he warned us not to pay for a guide. Waste of money, he said. Nor would there be any audio guide, or really, anything.

Suitably armed with a total lack of guidance or knowledge, we walked into the temple and were met with this sign:

Temple signage

That would be the only signage throughout the temple. A sign telling breeding ladies to stay out.

So here’s my best guess at what the heck this temple was. It appeared to be some sort of water temple, with fountains of water that folks could take a dip in. I’m sure jumping around in the shared public pools are supposed to bring good fortune, or health, or love, or maybe just a nice, cold Bitang beer at the end of the day. I have no idea. I did not jump in the pools, but I did get a beer later that day so, yeah Tirta temple!

Taking a bath at a temple.

(Here’s an actual write up of what the temple was)

There were raised wooden platforms that seem like they might be stages or maybe places where ceremonies took place. Or where sleepy swimmers took naps.

There was lots and lots of gorgeous stone carvings of very scary animals. Maybe they were demons, who knows.

Scary Balinese stone carving

We did see a fenced off area where there were people being led through a worship ceremony. We just peeked in and then left them to it.

We were probably at the temple about 30 minutes, just enjoying the peacefulness of the area, but basically ignorant on what we were supposed to be seeing. The self-guided tour ended at a maze of stalls selling all sorts of tourist swag. Which you HAD to walk through to get back to the parking lot. All told, I believe the part-you-with-some-money stall maze was larger than the temple. There were certainly more people willing to explain to you what you were seeing (including penis bottle openers, interestingly).

Pura Gunung Kawi – Valley of the Kings

This was our second temple and wasn’t too far from the first.

Again, we were told to borrow a sarong in exchange for a suggested donation.

In a unique little twist, this temple featured the tourist swag stalls at the beginning of your visit. So you get a Walk of Shopping Shame right at the beginning of your experience.

This temple appeared to be some sort of royal temple overlooking a very pretty and lush river, and surrounded by rice fields. A quick Google search confirms that this temple is known as the Valley of the Kings. And, that it’s not really a temple or a tomb, but just a spot to honor Balinese royalty.

Valley of the Kings water fountain

We walked around and took pictures, enjoying the scenery, and speculating on the scaffolding and other signs of work that were scattered around. No workmen or anything, so I don’t know if it was lunch, or a luwak coffee break, or prayer time or what.

Spooky cave entrance at Valley of the Kings

We also got to experience the Walk of Shopping Shame on our way back up the steep, 200 or so stairs that took us back to the parking lot. (Oh sorry, 320 stairs according to this poor blogger who was recovering from a twisted ankle).

Stairs at the Valley of the Kings
The stairs at Valley of the Kings, including a vendor at the landing. That’s XFE on the right. He doesn’t want to be on the blog, so I covered him with heart doodles. Because I love him. 

Pura Luhur Uluwatu

Disappointed by our first round of temple experiences, we tried again with a different driver. I knew that Pura Luhur Uluwatu was fairly close to our hotel (the St. Regis in Nusa Dua), so we asked to go there. We actually had to pick between Uluwatu and Tanah Lot because apparently they both get very crowded with tourist buses around the same time, so we had to pick just one (since staying away from touristy crowds was very high on our wish lists).

Uluwatu Temple in the morning.

All I really knew about Uluwatu was that it was on an ocean cliff and it had a lot of monkeys.

Monkey gangs at Uluwatu Temple

The same routine repeated itself: driver would not be going in, but he warned us against hiring a guide. Our driver added a new warning, however: no jewelry, no sunglasses, nothing that dangles because the monkeys will rip it off of you and steal it.

IMG_2015

There was an entrance fee, and a donation to borrow a sarong. No shopping stalls though, so Uluwatu for the win!

You could, however, buy fruit to feed the monkeys. To which I say, yeah, no, that’s ok.

There’s another interesting money-making opportunity at work at Uluwatu. If a monkey does snatch your goods, they generally take those items to one of the vendors, who is happy to give your item back to you in return for the purchase of some fruit for the monkey-thief.

Monkey fountain at Uluwatu.

Luckily for us, the monkey gangs were sparse. My super-sexy travel manpanion and personal comedian speculated that the monkey gangs were at their morning meeting, saying things like “OK guys, look: we’ve got a lot of hoop earrings, but we’re low on studs. So today, I want you to focus on getting stud earrings. Also, our sunglass supply is looking a bit thin, so if we could put the young guys on that, I think we can bring our numbers up significantly. And Stan, we’ve had some complaints that you’re getting a bit too grabby with the lady tourists. Keep your paws to yourself, or else I’m putting you on garbage can duty.”

Uluwatu in the early morning.

Uluwatu is very, very beautiful and we were among the few people there early in the morning, so we had the run of the place. The location is breathtaking and there are walkways along the cliffs so you can turn around and get some great pictures of the temple and cliffs.

Uluwatu Temple

And the one that got away.

Pura Tanah Lot

We’d seen pictures of Tanah Lot, which sits on a rock just off shore. Access to the temple is limited to low tide; even so, we were told the temple is barraged by visitors, and surrounded by crowds and vendors.

Here’s a brief description:

The temple’s construction was supposedly inspired by the priest Nirartha in the 15th century; after spending the night on the rock outcrop where the temple now stands, he instructed local fishermen to build a temple on that site. Today, Tanah Lot is regarded as one of Bali’s most important directional temples. A multimillion-dollar restoration effort in the 1990s saved Tanah Lot from falling into the sea.

I wonder if that multi-million dollar restoration includes stalls selling penis bottle openers.

And now, a bad picture of your author in one of her many donation-funded sarongs.

Borrowed sarong
I call this “writer scared of monkey gangs.” 

Balinese Eats that Will (Probably) Not Result in a Spider Body Possession

Babi guling

When I came across this article about Bali, I had to click on it, even though I knew I didn’t really have the “stomach” to do so. (PUN INTENDED) Also: (Heads up: the article I’m referring to involves an Australian tourist and stomach-burrowing tropical spiders. Soooo….yeah. Nothing fun there.)

You see, we went to Bali a few months ago. Actually, we went to Bali exactly two weeks after this event and stayed in the exact same hotel. (Heads up: the article I’m now referring to involves a daughter and her boyfriend murdering her socialite mother and stuffing her in a suitcase. You’ve been warned.)

Anyway, the coincidence of that event and our trip timing was incredibly creepy and weird. Creepy because, well, there had just recently been a murder in what I would positively call the least murder-y type place ever. I mean, seriously, the St. Regis in Bali is amazing. Wonderful. Tranquil. Everything and everyone is peaceful and cheerful and willing to help you with absolutely anything. If you even mentioned, for example, that you liked a particular fruit, that fruit would then appear every damn day nestled in a beautiful wooden bowl, just especially for you.

St. Regis beach
See? Totally peaceful and gorgeous. Not at all murder-y.

Weird because we spent a good part of everyday wondering if any of the staff we were encountering had known or waited on the victim and her murderers. When we saw a sign in the lobby about the area being monitored by cameras, we wondered if those signs were new or if they had been there the whole time. We suspiciously eyed every single heavy decorative object in our bungalow as a potential bludgeoning device. It was all very at odds with a vacation mentality.

Anyway, I’ll talk about the St. Regis in Bali a bit more in another post. Well, probably a lot more, since staying there was one of the best vacation experiences we’ve ever had (We flew a kite! We released a sea turtle! These are not euphemisms! These are legitimate activities we participated in!).

But for today, let’s just explore some of Bali’s best eats in pictures and be glad that no one got invaded by tropical spiders. Also, no giardia, so nothing but unicorns and rainbows as far as I’m concerned.

drinks and sambal

Sambal – This is the first thing we ate in Bali. It was served in a small dish next to these amazing peanut crackers. Sambal is sauce typically made from a variety of chili peppers and secondary ingredients such as shrimp paste, fish sauce, garlic, ginger, shallot, scallion, sugar, lime juice, and rice vinegar or other vinegars.

Nasi Goreng at St. Regis
(Photo not mine. I was too busy eating to take pictures http://www.foodnut.com/i/St-Regis-Boneka-Sunday-Brunch-Bali/St-Regis-Boneka-Sunday-Brunch-Buffet-Bali-nasi-goreng.jpg)

Nasi Goreng – I had this for brunch one morning at the St. Regis in Nusa Dua. It’s a fried rice dish, with shrimp crackers and sliced up omelet, and a side condiment of spicy red paste.

bubur ayem
Photo not mine. I was…well, you know. Click on photo for link/credit.

Bubur ayam – This was another St. Regis brunch special. It was like congee – a non-sweet porridge, with shredded chicken, green onions, sambal and eggs, I think. It was ok, not my favorite.

Satay – The Balinese love their satay. It’s exactly what you think it is: skewers of grilled meat slathered in a peanut sauce. We even ate these on the dive boat lunch (along with a variation of nasi goring).

Babi guling

Babi guling – The Balinese national dish: roasted whole pig. I really wanted to try this, but never got to. We hired a driver to take us around the island one day and he had his own agenda. When I asked about getting babi guling, he said the place he goes to was too far out of the way. Meanwhile, we must have passed about 50 roadside places specializing in babi guling over the course of the next eight hours. I really should have been more insistent. Especially in light of our own Porktober event.

pomelo salad

Rujak jeruk bali – Pomelo salad. Actually, I’m not sure this is a Balinese dish per se. I think it’s Thai. But we fell for it hard. We had it at breakfast and it came in these little glass jars at the W Hotel in Seminyak. A pomelo is like a grapefruit on steroids, and it’s cut up and combined with cilantro, peanuts, green beans, carrots. So refreshing and not unlike green papaya salad, only more citrus-y.

snakeskin fruit

Salak – Snakeskin fruit. It is indigenous to Bali and is related to the palm tree, somehow. It had an easy to peel, flaky outerskin. The inside fruit was segmented, and had a firm flesh similar to an apple, and a small dark pit in each segment. In fact, it tasted a lot like a cross between an apple and a pear, but much neater (less juicy). We loved them and ate a ton of them. Our butler at the St. Regis made sure we were well stocked.

Rambutan - the hairy, scary Balinese fruit
Again, not my photo. Click on image for link.

Rambutan – This hairy, scary-looking fruit was in our fruit bowl, but we didn’t even attempt to eat it.

Bitang - Balinese beer
This one, totally is my picture. Amazingly.

Bitang – Balinese beer. Nuff said.

There was one other dish that I ate twice and loudly declared them to be the best I’d ever had: nachos at the St. Regis. Usually at lunch, by our pool, after drinking many Bitangs and/or glasses of wine. At first, we ordered them out of morbid curiosity, certain that there was no way they’d be any good. But they were. They were delicious. Then I had to order them a second time, just to make sure. They had shredded chicken and a cheese sauce made out of béchamel and they were actually really, really good. I guess sometimes a girl just wants a taste of home.

St. Regis nachos. The. Best.
Amazingly, I stopped shoving these into my mouth long enough to take a picture. Note glass of rose in the background.

Friday Links: Freaks in Oceans and Metros Edition

I’ve got back-to-back trips over the next two weeks and will blog when I can. In the meantime, I suppose I should brush up on my R. Kelly lyrics in case I get stuck on a tarmac, and be glad I don’t have to take public transportation in San Francisco. See you soon!

gosling cats

Heather1

  • I’m heading to my home state, aka God’s Country (Texas) for work this week, so this infographic seems timely. My favorite: “Texans are normal people.” Debatable, but I’ll take it. Also: why isn’t “food” listed as a reason? I intend to gorge myself on BBQ, Mexican food and anything battered, fried and drenched in ranch.
10 Reasons Why People are Moving to Texas