Bless the Rains

When I arrived at the Balule Nature Reserve in South Africa, the staff said it was the worst drought since the park was founded more than twenty years ago. It was the driest place I’d seen in a long time, and it seemed as if the strike of a single match could set the entire savannah on fire. Dry trees, dry earth, dry bones stretched as far as the eye could see. 

“We really need the rain,” they said.

That afternoon we piled into the open air truck for the game drive, the first of a few drives into the bush (or bushveld, if you want to get fancy). The goal was to experience the savannah and hopefully see some of South Africa's most famous animals, but it was unusually windy. This faceless force of nature slashed through the savannah that afternoon and into the evening, pushing the animals to take shelter. Our guide, a talented and dedicated man named Given, explained that strong winds make it difficult for the animals to smell, and with that sense reduced they often hide. But the drive wasn’t without its rewards. Given spotted a mother giraffe and her calf, and we quietly exited the truck to get a closer look. Our guide took care not to invade the space of the giraffes (or any animals we approached), always maintaining a distance comfortable for all. I don’t remember the first time I saw a giraffe in a zoo, but I will always recall the moment I saw this calf half hidden by the trees. Even at just a few months the giraffe was enormous, and undeniably graceful. Given pointed out the differences in the coloring and the spotting patterns, as well as the size of the horns to indicate sex. It was the first lesson of a thousand he gave during my stay in the savannah. 

A successful game drive is a combination of wildlife and environment knowledge, keen observation and luck.

There are no guarantees in the business. So often we saw signs of the animals’ presence but didn’t actually see the animal. For example, I asked our guide Given about was a tree whose bark had been erratically stripped and scored, exposing a reddish trunk smattered with mud. The culprit? Elephants. He said elephants not only eat the bark, but often knock over trees for the sheer enjoyment of it. The mud on this one had already hardened, and we didn’t see any elephants that day but just the idea of these majestic creatures roaming around knocking over trees was enough to make the journey worthwhile. Given also showed us the other, less playful side of nature — the remains of an elephant. A single bone nearly the length of my body brought me back to those dinosaur displays I saw in museums as a kid. Only this time it wasn’t a prehistoric piece strung up along with the rest of the skeleton. This set of bones was strewn about in a similar fashion to the way my nephews toss their toys throughout the living room. A femur bone by this tree, a few vertebrae by the bush over there, and a hip bone in the center of the destruction. Way off to the side, a portion of twisted elephant hide, so stiff you could use it for a chair. Welcome to the savannah’s living room.

Other surprises awaited once the light faded.

Even with the windy night, Given found four lions thanks to his sharp eyes and apt juggling of driving and spotlight duties. I found the beasts to be surprisingly relaxed as we watched them amble about, then finally pick a place to rest. They took no notice of the incessant camera clicks. In fact, our presence didn’t interest them at all, which was kind of a relief. 

The ride back to the lodge was invariably windy, and after a quiet meal we retired to our cabins after what turned out to be a tiring day. An early morning six-hour drive from Johannesburg just to get to the border of the preserve, another hour or so from the park gate to the cabins, and then several more hours in the truck for the game drive really shouldn’t have been so exhausting. After all, I was just sitting there. But something in the wind pulled me into a weariness that made me expect sleep would come easy. I settled in for the night just as the long-awaited rain made its debut. Perhaps rain is an understatement. The storm came in furious as the wind was earlier and raged well into the night. I am no stranger to thunderstorms, but this one howled so intensely even I couldn’t sleep through it.

Bless the rains, indeed.

"Better not to watch"

Sleep or no sleep, every day at 5:30am the staff at Greenfire Game Lodge beat an enormous drum that hangs just outside the dining area for the wakeup call. After a quick coffee or tea, it’s into the trucks for the morning game drive. Not long into the bumpy, jerky, motion-sickness inducing ride, I knew I had a problem. Something hadn’t settled well with me the day before, and the moment Given stopped the truck along the way I asked if it was safe that I exit the vehicle. Six sets of eyes followed me as I hopped quickly down and walked behind the truck to revisit last night’s dinner. I could only think to offer this advice to my fellow safari-goers: “Better not to watch” and pointed to the front of the truck as if I could distract them from what was about to happen just a few steps behind their seats. Moments later Jonathan came to check on me, and managed to step in one of the three deposits I had made. Instead of thanking him for the paper towel he offered me, I only managed to quip “Watch where you’re stepping!” I knew that he was also having some stomach trouble but my symphony for him got lost in the shame I felt for subjecting the rest of our the group to the ever-disgusting experience of hearing someone else toss their cookies.

An Unlikely Pair

After that embarrassing episode had passed, we saw far more interesting sights, such as the unlikely pair of a zebra and giraffe. Given told us that these two species often graze together because the giraffe’s height allows it to see approaching predators, whereas the zebra can sense danger on the ground and below the tree level. At the first sign of danger, either the zebra or the giraffe will move out, which signals to the other that it’s time to go. 

Zebras are of course a well-known staple of the African savannah, but what I didn’t know is that you can replace the word “herd” with “dazzle.” And doesn’t a dazzle of zebras sound more fitting? No two stripe patterns are equal, and even more adorable, they often rest as a pair with their head placed on the other’s back to watch for danger in different directions. 

References to the Lion King are inevitable on a safari, but the diversity Disney presented only scratches the surface of the true glory of the animal kingdom. The birdlife alone is enough to fill a book. Our successful sightings included a black-backed jackal, an animal that mates for life and will share food with their partner if they’re not foraging together. I’ve found that sharing food is a basic concept of love (especially when it is chocolate), so I think this counts as romantic, even by Disney standards. We also saw genets, which look like a snub-nosed cat with rounded ears, and opt to carry their young on their back instead of by the mouth as other cat species do. The genet’s raccoon-like relative, the African civet, are also rarely seen, and tend to diet on things that kill most other animals, like toxic insects, toads and poisonous snakes. 

Our guide spotted this giant African land snail shell--another surprise along the safari. And apparently they make great pets.

Our most intimate encounter was with the short-tempered African buffalo as a herd of them grazed quietly and peacefully on either side of our safari vehicle. Both males and females have horns for defensive purposes, and evidently they’re not afraid to use them at the first inkling of a threat. 

A more common sight on the savannah is the greater kudu, a majestic antelope with corkscrew horns and an ability to jump eight-foot fences. Surprisingly, their twisted horns don’t pose a tangling hazard, as they simply tilt their chin up to avoid catching them in the brush. 

A smaller but more common antelope, the impala, is definitely the animal we saw the most of during the safari, to the point where we didn’t even touch our cameras when they were spotted. But seeing them so frequently had its benefits over the rarer sightings. We could observe the herds better without constantly worrying how the pictures turned out. 

The variety of antelope in South Africa alone is extensive, ranging from the greater kudu to the smaller varieties, each with their own coloring and graceful gait. Unfortunately, my photography skills weren’t good enough to capture them all. 

Earth’s largest land animal, the African savannah elephant, is surprisingly good at camouflaging itself, and I’m still in awe that such an enormous creature keeps a strict vegetarian diet. We were lucky enough to spot one older male which our guide guessed was close to 50 years old. The elephant easily ripped off a large branch whose thickness was enough for a small tree, partly to eat the bark, partly just to be destructive. We didn't get very close, but to be honest, we didn't need a closer view to realize this animal's power.

Though some measures exist to keep the animals safely on the reserve, it's good to be reminded of the wildness of the savannah and its creatures. On our way to the airport we saw a warthog on the side of the road. That’s right…a regular Pumba just looking for some grub. Instant delight filled our car. Even on our last leg nature provided us with a glimpse of something new. I couldn’t help but blurt out, “I want to see a baby warthog.” Because we can all agree that smaller, younger versions of animals are obviously cuter. Just then on the right side of the road we saw another clan of warthogs, this time with the smaller, younger and cuter version in their midst. Our safari was complete. The best part about the experience was feeling like I might never need to go to a zoo again. In fact, it makes you think twice about ever putting any animal in a cage.

Name one living thing on earth that wasn’t meant to be free. I dare you.

PS - If you're thinking, "Well, G, how about murderers and such? Should they be free? What about deadly viruses? Should they be free to wreak havoc on society?" You can take my challenge with a grain of salt and use your judgement. 

The Price of Secrets

I know a man who can identify a bird by the shape of its wings. In an instant of flight he analyzes its shape and size and coloring, then quickly flips through a thick field guide to show me a drawing of the bird I was too slow to catch on camera.

It’s easy to miss sighting a bird or a monkey or a caiman or a cobra in the jungle, despite their near omnipresence. They move seamlessly in and out of the shadows of this vast habitat. But catching a glimpse of wildlife, to see this intense array of biodiversity is what brings me and thousands of other voyagers to the Amazon every year. 

The intensity of the natural diversity is enough to make you feel like a stranger on this earth. And why wouldn’t it? The Amazon, or as Amazonas, as it is in Portuguese, is a wild, storied land. It would be foolish of me to try and capture its grandeur here, but to prepare for this trip I did read two accounts of men risking life and limb and sanity to experience this place. The first was The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon's Last Uncontacted Tribes by Scott Wallace, a writer for National Geographic. He opts for a Amazonian voyage at what is perhaps the worst possible time—in the middle of a divorce, a new relationship, a stressful transition for his kids and his lack of physical preparedness. But then again, is there ever a good time to venture into one of the world’s harshest environments? I think not. His book details a trip with Sydney Possuelo, the once-leader of Brazil’s government agency to protect the indigenous people. Possuelo’s lifework was to implement a no-contact strategy for the agency, meaning they wouldn’t attempt to intentionally modernize any uncontacted indigenous community. Instead of trying to bring the tribes to a modernized way of life, he worked tirelessly to survey the outskirts of their communities and advocate for their independence. Basically, the idea was to leave them to continue living the way they have been for hundreds of years. Wallace’s book follows one of Posseulo’s trips to search for and survey what was believed to be one of the last uncontacted tribes in the Amazon, the Arrow People, or, the Flecheiros, who were given this name by outsiders for their habit of launching poison-tipped arrows at any intruder. This adventure weaves together the challenges of modern Brazil’s interaction with native populations and the classic jungle trek (with a few surprises, of course). The Unconquered is a fantastic look into the madness of the jungle and Brazil's culture, and it is one of the best pieces of journalism I've read to date. 

The other book I read was The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, by David Grann, which retraces the the tale of Royal Geographic Explorer Percy H. Fawcett and his 1926 disappearance in the Amazon. Fawcett, a well known and experienced explorer went on a mission with his son Jack, and his son’s friend Riley to search for the fabled El Dorado, or the Lost City of Z, which Fawcett believed was a highly sophisticated society deep in the jungle. He wasn’t alone in this theory, and after Fawcett and his party vanished, others went in to search for him and Z. Not all lived to tell their tales. Fawcett’s other exploration feats are as legendary as his disappearance, and this book was a great introduction in the old world days of exploration and how alluring the Amazon can be, despite its dangers. It was also a fascinating look at a talented and perhaps troubled man possessed by passion. You should read it before the movie comes out in October. Trust me, it's worth it to experience this adventure first in words, then in film.

But it should be remembered that the difficulties are great and the tale of disasters a long one, for the few remaining unknown corners of the world exact a price for their secrets.
— Percy H. Fawcett, lost in the jungle

My own voyage did not remotely resemble any of the treks I read about but it was no less thrilling. The density and diversity of the Amazon Basin is simply astonishing. I saw a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the jungle, but it was enough to feel like it was a world within itself. The starting point of our journey was in Tefé, a small city in the state of Amazonas that is about a hour long flight west of Manaus. From there we took a small boat for 40 minutes or so to the Uakari Floating Lodge in the Mamirauá Reserve. There are many outfitters that advertise Amazon jungle experiences, particularly outside of Manaus, but most of the ones I researched felt more like a gimmick instead of an actual look at nature. The Uaucari Lodge, however, not only employs its own biologists, but it is a model of sustainability. I was impressed by their organization and service, and most especially by the quality of their guides. Speaking Portuguese made our experience more enjoyable, of course, but the guides were all helpful, enthusiastic and knowledgeable. During one canoe trip I foolishly asked our guide, who grew up nearby, if he had to study the field guide much in order to work this job. “Of course not,” he said. “This is my backyard.” The brightly colored parrots were as familiar to him as pigeon was to me growing up. 

Every day in the reserve he proved it. He pointed out two sloths which otherwise would have gone unnoticed to my untrained eye. He also showed me that a coiled lump in a tree just above our heads was in fact a snake sleeping. It was in that moment I finally saw for myself a little of what I had read about the Amazon and its hidden dangers and its undeniably deadly qualities.

But deadly can be beautiful.

It was as if we were clawing our way through a huge, vaporous terrarium, an enormous laboratory where the process of evolution continued to unfold by the minute, spawning a mind-boggling array of deadly creatures and toxic plants, all locked in a terrifying contest of survival.
— Scott Wallace, The Unconquered

Piranha fishing is surprisingly easy. Here, the guide tells me not to let my arm so close to the fish's mouth...

You know, I had a lot of romantic notions about the jungle and this kind of finished that.
— James Lynch, Jr. as quoted in Lost City of Z discussing his capture by an Amazonian tribe
Have you ever heard the sound of a jungle? It’s not what you imagine. It’s not really loud or anything like that. But it’s always talking.
— James Lynch, as quoted in Lost City of Z
Civilization has a relatively precarious hold upon us and there is an undoubted attraction in a life of absolute freedom once it has been tasted. The ‘call o’ the wild’ is in the blood of many of us and finds its safety valve in adventure.
— Percy H. Fawcett

Waterfalls: A Prelude

It's hard to believe our summer season is over and autumn has been in swing for a month here. The weather has been uncommonly warm, which gives us plenty of reasons to stick to our island and our favorite beaches. But despite this southern hemisphere Indian summer, we've been wanting to get out into our state's countryside, or serra, as it's called in Portuguese.

Jonathan makes himself at home at a roadside apple orchard in the Serra Catarinese (mountain region of Santa Catarina)

One place on our list was Urubiçi (pronounced oo-roo-BE-see) which is home to a smattering of waterfalls, a national park and a giant rock with a hole in it (which looks cooler than it sounds). About a three hour drive from Floripa, this was an easy weekend trip. We stayed in a home-turned-hostel in town run by a sweet young couple and their cat named Gandalf. Although we enjoyed meeting this couple and their hospitality was great, the town of Urubiçi itself wasn't much to see. Thankfully we planned to spend most of our time out in the mountains and trails. There's tons of farmland, woodland and mountains surrounding the town, and our first drive was up to Morro da Igreja, or Church Hill, the highest point in southern Brazil (at just under 6,000 feet, it's not that high, but we'll take it!) From this vantage point you can see Pedra Furada, that giant rock with a hole in it that I mentioned earlier. It was a winding and sometimes unpaved road to get to the top, but it was so worth the view. The valley was covered in a gorgeous blanket of clouds that stretched as far as I could see. 

After this stunning view we headed back down the mountain to see our first cachoeira (kah-sho-AIY-rah), or waterfall, of the trip called the Bride's Veil (Véu de Noiva). This waterfall, like many of them nearby, was located on private property, so we paid a small fee to use the trail to access it. Often these private properties also have cabins or a cafe, which make them pleasant stops. This particular waterfall was just a short walk down a path filled with hydrangeas and moss-covered tress. 

Our next stop was probably my favorite of the trip. We went for lunch at Il Rifugio, a tiny mountaintop restaurant with incredible views and even better food. The Refuge, as it's called in English, is a self-described "slow food" restaurant. I kind of thought all Brazilian restaurants were "slow food" (or at least slow service) since they move at a rather relaxed pace.

SMILE, you are always welcome here!
CONTEMPLATE, nature at 1,420 meters is unique!
BREATHE, the healing mountain air!
SAVOR, our food is made with much love!

But Il Rifugio was clearly labeled slow food for a good reason. We took refuge in the charming environment, gorgeous views, and of course their delicious food and wine. My favorite part of the meal was the typical Brazilian cheese bread, or pão de queijo, which I've read is a bit similar to French gougères. This treat can be divine when it's hot and fresh, and Il Rifugio had the best I've tasted since arriving in Brazil. I was also pleasantly surprised with the local wine by Villagio Bassetti, a high altitude winery nearby. You may have noticed that both the restaurant and the winery have Italian names, and much to my delight many areas of southern Brazil were settled by Italian immigrants. In the late 1800s, the Brazilian government promised cheap, farm-ready land for these immigrants in attempt to provide a new labor force after the slave trade to Brazil ended in 1850. "Farm-ready" was an exaggeration, though, as the land was still thick, uncleared forest. To the credit of the Italian immigrants, they developed some amazing wineries and agriculture in the area, and there are plenty of places in the southern states here with Italian names and traditions, and there are even some who learned Italian as their first language. 

Our next stop was to another private farm with a dramatic waterfall that dropped 100 meters into the valley. The only thing better than seeing a waterfall is seeing it with a bird's eye view, which is exactly what we did. The farm (which was really more like an adventure outfitter) had a zip line that ran just over the canyon and the waterfall, so I put on a helmet and harness and walked off the tree-house-like platform into the air. It was a slow, easy glide through the edge of the forest, over the canyon and above that powerful cascade of water. My only regret was not doing it twice (or three times!). 

The Avencal waterfall

The Avencal waterfall

The next morning we headed to another private property with...more waterfalls! This was a theme for the trip, I suppose. This farm, called Sitio Sete Quedas (Seven Breaks Site), has a trail that leads through seven waterfalls. I would say "trail" is an exaggeration on their part, since much of the time you're actually walking through the riverbed and rock hopping. We only made it to three of the falls before we had to get on the road home, but I'd say five waterfalls in 48 hours is a pretty good prelude to one of the "new" seven wonders of nature: Iguazu Falls, which I'll write about next!