Lion tracks and a big Hippo

Saturday, 28 June 2014
On another day while we were staying at Selinda Camp (in Botswana), we had a perfect morning on the water. We left at 6am from camp and took a boat to the camp's boat launch at another site. The clouds reflected on the water and all around us the light was dim enough for the water to look like a smoky mirror, perfectly reflecting the clouds. We we made it to the jetty and loaded into the truck, our guide noticed fresh lion tracks. I photographed one to show the size perspective as compared to a human female adult's hand.

The tracks were from an adult female lion. (I'm wearing gloves in the photo because around 6:30am in Botswana in June, it is in the 40s).

Before we even left on our game drive, we had quite the excitement. Our guide collected us from our tent and then we gathered James' parents from their tent. At 6am, it is dark and Grant led the way to the breakfast fire where coffee was waiting (thank goodness). Before we made the last turn to the main lodge, Grant stopped us and said in an unconcerned voice, "Hey guys. Just stop here and slowly back up to that large tree there. There's a hippo in the path and it would be great if you could wait behind the tree." I was right behind Grant on the path. He shined his flashlight on the huge beast and I couldn't believe my eyes. Hippos are enormously round. Who knows how their seemingly small legs hold them up. Maybe that's why they spend most of the day in the water. Their skin doesn't do too well in the sun either so they usually feed at night. 

We backed up behind the tree as instructed and Grant moved ahead with his flashlight on high beam, shining it back and forth across the path while clapping and talking loudly to the hippo. She looked at him, had another bite of tasty tall grass and slowly moved away. Grant called us to come on and we moved quickly, without a word.

On the day of this encounter, in my journal, I wrote that game drives can be fairly boring. It's true. You can drive for hours while only seeing a few birds and impala. That's the joy of safari, however. Around the next corner, life is different! While driving on this particular morning we saw another hippo out of water and some wildebeest. We were almost nodding off in the vehicle when our guide suddenly noticed two male lions walking in tall grass. They were following a pride of lionesses, attempting to catch their scent and possibly even mate. 

Most of the lionesses were having none of it because there were a few cubs in the pride. Male lions often try to kill cubs to eliminate competition in the wild for food. These two moved a bit slowly because one seemed to have a sore elbow but they pursued the ladies for a couple of hours. Then, it was nap time. 

I captured some video of the beautiful boys and put together a short video using a Sony NEX-5 and iMovie.

Warthogs, Lions, Wild Dogs...

Friday, 27 June 2014
I've already droned on about it… but I may never get another chance to go to Africa on a photo safari so I'll be sharing a few more details for the next week. I understand if you are getting bored reading about it, but please check out my videos. The animals deserve it! I mean, look at these lion cubs nursing:

At Selinda Camp (in Northern Botswana), a staff member would bring us hot coffee at 5:30am with our wake-up "call." I think it is so funny but even though there is nothing to knock on (we stayed in tents), the person would say "Knock, knock" when they came to get us. At 6:00am, our guide Grant Atkinson of Atkinson Photography and Safaris would pick us up at our tents while it was still dark out.

From there, we'd have a quick breakfast by the fire and leave for our game drives at 6:30am sharp. For the first 30 minutes we wouldn't see much at all (the animals must love to sleep too) but then as the sun would start to make its presence known over the horizon, we'd invariably start to see big game.

Here's a look at the vehicles that we'd jump into early in the mornings:

On our first day we were able to see a Wild Dog pack! They are rare to see in the wild but after tracking them for an hour, we found them (barely) but noticing the black color on their coats in the grass. Their size is comparable to a medium-sized dog, about 50-60 pounds. Their ears are so funny though, shaped like big cups. 

The pack that we spent time with was made up of a few females (as well as one alpha male, I think) and they had a den nearby. Grant explained that a female can have a litter of 12 puppies at one time. The dogs make a twittering, high-pitched sound when interacting. They hunt impala and apparently have large hearts so that they can run long distances while hunting (up to 15k!). They are difficult to domesticate, however, because they nip each other when socializing. 

Also on our first day we tracked (this means that the guide watched for tracks and drives in the direction the animal seemed to be headed) lionesses to a kill. It was incredible. We found them and there were at least eight lionesses with a few cubs chowing down on a wildebeest. It was almost finished but what a sight! 

In the journal I kept during my time in Africa I wrote on the first night:

Absolutely amazing day. I'm sitting in the lodge now under one of the few sources of strong light while everyone is gathered around the fire. I can hear frogs on the water and their calls sound like delicate bells ringing slowly. We saw so many animals on our drive including jackal, lions and cubs, giraffes, warthog, wild dog, hooded vultures, and African Fish Eagles.

On this trip I got the bug back for video work and would take a few clips when the animals moved. I hope you enjoy! 

Selinda, Botswana

Wednesday, 25 June 2014
I'd hoped to provide a few more details about each camp we stayed at so that if someone is interested in trying the various properties, or doing a Google search, they might find this post and glean some useful information.

When we arrived at Selinda, we did so by boat and six staff members as well as the camp manager (Mel) were standing by the boardwalk. They all introduced themselves and gave us cool towels to wipe any dust from our eyes. We were briefed on safety and showed to our rooms within an hour and instructed to come back to the main lodge for tea (snacks) by 3:00pm in order to get out on a game drive by 3:30pm. Below is a picture of the entrance to the camp's main building.

I was highly impressed by the quality of our "tents." While the living quarters are indeed canvas tents, they are built on wooden platforms with king size beds, private bathrooms with a large bathtub (!!) and a front deck. 

The camp had several chefs (We met Chef Mhange.) and people who could mix drinks and bring you what you'd like. I couldn't get over the fact that Selinda had its own wine cellar that the guests were allowed to choose from for dinners. We opted for the sparkling wine choices (Villera Traditional Brut and then Villera Traditional Rose) as James and his mother are into trying different bubbles. The lodge even has a pool for hot summer days. It was too cold to use while we were there but we loved watching hippos and elephants feed from this deck.

African Safari Rituals

Sunday, 22 June 2014

African safari participants in Botswana (at Selinda, Xigera, and Chitabe Lideba camps) enjoy some fabulous rituals that do not seem to exist in the “regular” world. Here are a few:

1.     Sundowners – This ritual is performed during the evening game drive. We usually left the camp at 4pm and drove around spotting animals and taking photographs until about 5:55pm. If we weren’t tracking lions or taking photos of a cheetah until sunset (to enjoy the great lighting), then we would stop and the guides would set up small appetizers and beverages for the four of us. Appetizers included things such as mixed nuts, beef jerky made in Africa, or dried fruit. The guides mixed a gin and tonic for James’ father and the rest of us would have a silver goblet of red wine (no kidding) or a cold beer made in Africa. We would stand around outside the Range Rover, sip our beverages, and discuss the game drives. The sun in Africa is truly a special force. Watching it set each day, coloring the sky red, orange, yellow, and purple, was a majestic sight.

2.     Hot water bottles – It is currently winter in Botswana. In the evenings it dropped to 40F and during the day it would get to 65F. That’s not a problem except that the tents and game drive vehicles do not have heat. In order to keep guests warm, camp staff will add hot water bottles to the beds during turn-down service. The bottles usually stayed warm all night (at least until the 5:30am wake up call). At our last camp (Chitabe Lediba), our guide B.B. put hot water bottles in our seats with wool blankets so we could stay warm (sort of) until the sun came up.

3.     Wet towels after game drives – At certain camps, someone always meets the vehicle after a drive with wet towels for guests to use to wipe their faces and hands. This is such a nice ritual because the dust from the drive can sometimes get in your eyes. Plus, it is nice to have someone welcome you back and ask about what mother nature provided for viewing that day.

4.     Breakfast by the fire – Because some of the best animal viewing is early in the morning, guests are woken up at 5:30am or 6am depending on how hard-core you are. At this time (as explained above), it is freezing. So, after the guide collects guests from their room while it is still dark out, they are led to the campfire where coffee and oatmeal and other breakfast items are served around the fire. It is a lovely way to wake up and usually there are ribbons of color starting to brighten up on the horizon in the distance as dawn approaches.

5.     “Going behind a tree.” This is a safari ritual that I don’t particularly appreciate but it is a part of being in the bush. When someone needs to go to the bathroom while on a game drive, they have to go behind a tree or bush. For women, this is certainly more troublesome but one does get used to it. After watching lions hunt one day, we stopped out in the open where it was unsafe to use a bush or tree because of all of the wildlife nearby. We were instructed to go behind the truck and I almost couldn’t do it. Luckily, James’ mother went with me and made jokes while we went. Not cool - but part of it. 

African Safari, Selinda Camp, Botswana

We are still in Mozambique at Azura Resort without a fast internet connection so I’m not able to post as many pictures and details about our trip as I’d like to at this stage. However, I’ll share a few of the experiences we’ve had and then add to it when we’re back in the states. 

If you’ve never been on an African safari, it is worth the time and money (start saving now) to go. Specifically, we booked our trip with Nicky from Eyes on Africa and hired a private guide, Grant Atkinson, for the extra assistance with capturing nice pictures of the animals. Grant has his own company, Atkinson Photography and Safaris, and you can find him on Facebook or through a Google search. He made our safari successful through his knowledge of animal behavior and advanced training in photography. Even I was able to get amazing photos with his help! 

The rooms at these camps are fantastic. I'd certainly classify the experience as "glamping:" glamorous camping. They did not have heat or air conditioning and only one out of three allowed hair dryers but guests truly have the feeling of being one with nature.

In our first Botswana camp (Selinda), we watched and photographed two packs of Wild Dog (quite rare to see), a lion pride of females and cubs, Kudu, Warthogs, buffalo, hippo, elephant, and giraffe. The pride of lions was feeding on a carcass and some of the smallest cubs were nursing. 

I couldn’t believe our luck getting to see the pride and be close enough to really study their interactions. That night as we left the feeding sight, we also saw a black-backed jackal in the shadows, hoping to get a scrap of meat once the lions moved away.

Also in the Selinda camp, we slept next to a sleeping elephant! At night, a guide walks guests to their tents because elephant and hippo regularly wander through (the camps are not fenced). One night Grant was taking James and I back to our tent and we startled an elephant that was sleeping while standing next to trees beside our tent. It was dark so we didn’t see it and got quite a fright! He shook the trees and half-heartedly trumpeted his annoyance. I drifted off to sleep after listening to it snore for about an hour and letting my heart beat slow down. What an experience! 

The hippos were also pretty interesting. They stay in the water during the day because their skin is a bit too fair for the sun. At night they wander out of the water and vacuum up soft grass using square-shaped lips. They make a very deep, almost laughing call that can be pretty scary until you figure out what it is. WAA-WAA-WAA-WAA! :)

Questions for Chef

Sunday, 1 June 2014
I'm not a chef and never will be but I love watching cooking shows and reading about the latest and greatest foodie obsession online and in magazines. Recently, I read about Chef Adam White in ElleDecoration (a UK publication) and the article asked several chefs to answer the same questions. I thought it might be fun to answer them as well and if you have your own answers, please respond in a comment below.

What did you eat for lunch today? Egg whites with a tiny bit of goat cheese, green onions and cherry tomatoes. Freshly cracked pepper on top.

What's your favorite, quick, supper that comes from ingredients in the cupboard (this is a UK interview, obviously)? Skinny, wheat pasta, knob of butter, Italian pasta, sea salt, and cracked pepper. Add pitted kalamata olives if you have them.

Best meal you've ever eaten? James ordered the five course tasting menu at Mario Batali's Del Posto in New York City for us last year (Il Menu del Posto). It included our own choice of antipasto, two dishes of pasta to share, secondo (another full pasta dish), and dolce. We also sprung for the wine pairing by the sommelier. Every bite and sip was rich and memorable.

What's your guaranteed crowd-pleasing dish? I have no idea how to answer this because I've never cooked for a crowd but I like to think I can put together a tasty dish that wins people over with the presentation. I enjoy considering how food looks on a dish: color, arrangement, proportion... Also, good extra virgin olive oil, kosher salt, and fresh pepper always makes for tasty food in a fresh dish.

Describe one of your first food memories. Some of my dearest memories come from time spent with my mom, grandma Jackie, and great-grandma Fern in my grandmother's kitchen on summer afternoons. The four of us sat together and snapped green beans for canning. Even though I was very young, I was allowed to snap beans as well and we would break them into large, speckled Melamine bowls like these in the picture:

My mom's mother is an artist (oil painting) and worked in a photography studio for decades. She later became an entrepreneur, owning her own businesses with my grandfather. Full time work and parenting didn't stop her from growing her own vegetables and canning for the winter and friends and family. She was truly one of the first farm-to-table pioneers, although we didn't realize it then. I wish I would have retained more knowledge from working in the garden with her and my mom but at least I plant and tend to a variety of herbs every year. I also compost and use compost tea as fertilizer to grow mint, basil, oregano, chives, and rosemary organically.

Which condiment can't you live without? Yellow mustard. I love using it to make salad dressings, tuna salad, egg sandwiches, and horseradish sauce.

What's your favorite family recipe? My brother and I are suckers for my mother's deviled eggs. I believe she adapted the recipe from the one used by my grandmother and great-grandmother. The best part is that she serves them on Easter Sunday in a whimsical, vintage, hen dish with indentions for eggs. 

Who are your four dream dinner party guests? This is a very hard question for me and I keep waffling between choices. I think I would invite Clinton Kelly for his wit and kindness (plus he's really tall, hosts his own cooking talk show and could give me fantastic fashion advice), Frances Mayes to talk about travel writing and publishing memories (she wrote the Under the Tuscan Sun memoirs), Barbara Kingsolver because she is my favorite author and we could all discuss her farm house and the year her family spent there eating only what they could grow, and Condoleezza Rice. She is a smart, powerful woman who could give advice on finishing my dissertation and tell stories about being a diplomat/teacher/political leader/pianist/ice skater. 

Do you have any tips for a novice cook? I feel like I am a novice cook but my advice to others would be to work on mastering basic knife skills (watch cooking shows or YouTube videos) and always have olive oil, garlic and onion in the pantry. 

What's your guilty food secret? Because I worked as a television reporter and anchor for a decade, I always had bizarre sleeping and eating schedules. That means that even now, I can eat almost anything for any meal of the day. I don't have to stick to breakfast foods in the morning at all. Mashed potatoes and turkey from Thanksgiving? I'm happy to eat that without warming it up at 7:30am.

Who's the foodie you find most inspiring? I started cooking after discovering Nigella Lawson's first cooking show years ago. She made cooking look fun and easy. Plus, she's very personable and talented in front of a camera. She showed viewers how to take short cuts but still have brilliant food. I tried many of her recipes from the TV show and then continued to cook. Chef Vivian Howard from A Chef's Life on PBS (just won an Emmy) is fantastic. She uses food sourced locally from North Carolina and designs menus for her restaurant around what is in season. This is a great concept and celebrates where she is from. (Please, does anyone want to road trip to her restaurant Chef & the Farmer?!)

Essential kitchen kit? For me, a good knife set that is sharp (but not too heavy) is essential. I like a large, level, wooden cutting board. Durable wooden spoons are useful and I'd love to get a good, sturdy, long-lasting pepper mill. I use mine every day, several times a day, but it is a disposable one so it's a bit of a waste and breaks easily.

P.S. I realize that no one really cares about my answers to the above questions. Sometimes blogging is just a needed mental break from working on my dissertation - so thanks for humoring me. :)