June 30, 2015

Day 5: An Evening with the Elephants

By our third game drive at Motswari, we had already seen more wildlife than our southern California minds could just.about.handle. and we were starting to feel confident in our animal-spotting skills. But there were still two main things at the top of my wish list: 
giraffes and elephants. 

We said goodbye to the Brazilian couple that afternoon and learned that there would only be four of us on the evening drive so I knew I could make a "request" for our trackers. Happily, the other two passengers, a French-speaking Swiss couple currently living in South Africa, were also excited about seeing the "hee-raffs" so we were on a mission. 

As we climbed into the truck, our driver, Marka, simply gave a knowing smile, as if we had just asked David Copperfield if he knew any "good card tricks". In the Timbavati Reserve, there is a complex network of dirt "roads" that zigzag across 135,000 acres of dense, bushy wilderness, that eventually lead to a few well-known hangouts, like watering holes, riverbeds, and grassy fields. While on our way to find a few elephants and giraffes, Marka took us on about an hour-long scenic drive through the reserve, for a chance to see a lounging crocodile, a family of hippos, and a rather unimpressed hornbill (aka "Zazu, from the Lion King). 

It must have been around 4:30pm when we turned off the road and headed down an embankment towards a dried riverbed where the trackers had a good idea we might see a few elephants enjoying their dinner. We spot a small herd in the distance and could see a few large grey shapes moving amongst the grass. Elephants are very curious and if you approach them from the front (so they aren't startled) they will often help themselves to a closer look. 

When the herd turned toward our general direction, Marka shut off the engine, and we watched with Christmas-morning excitment as they slowly started making their way closer, taking mouthfuls of food with their trunks as they went. Within a few minutes (they take pretty big steps), the matriarch of the group came swaying through the tall grass and stepped out right in front of us, leading the way for a line of babies and toddlers trailing behind her. 

Just remembering the feeling of that moment, tears in my eyes, my hands shakily gripping my camera, still gives me goosebumps. I couldn't believe what we were witnessing, in Africa, in the wild. Tragically, elephants and humans do not have a happy history- between circuses, zoos, and poaching, we've certainly earned a horrible reputation- so to be able to sit there, in the open air, just a few feet from these magnificent, gentle giants was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. The mamas were patient and trusting with our presence, and our truck, and after giving their "all-clear" to their babies, a few of the braver ones even shook their ears and trumpeted at us as they ran by. (there's a short iphone video at the bottom of this post)

Elephants are one of the most intelligent mammals on earth, with an average memory-span of 40 years, and even in the wild, they demonstrate complex behaviors like grief, humor, use of tools, compassion, self-awareness, and mimicry. They live in multi-generational herds, care for each other's babies, and mourn their loved ones in annual rituals. Although they are now heavily protected in private reserves, elephant poaching in national parks is at a record high. Forgive my soapbox for a second, but it is absolutely beyond comprehension that in 2015, humans are still hunting hundreds of elephants per day for their ivory tusks (most of which is exported, illegally of course, to Asia for "medicinal" and novelty use). And since I was shocked by this while researching our own trip, I think it is worth mentioning: there are still an overwhelming amount of hunting lodges that allow tourists to pay to hunt their own personal Big-5 trophies throughout South Africa, and beyond. It's also nearly impossible to simply Google images of these animals without a devastating photo of a "hunter" in camo posing with a massive rifle and their victims appearing on the first results page. Come on, humans, let's be better. 

For more conversation info visit www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org or www.rhinodisharmony.com

We were watching the elephants continue to make their way down the riverbed when,
off in the distance (can you see her, right above the grass in the middle?), we spotted (sorry, safari pun) the other animal we had hoped to find that evening. We headed over for a closer look just as she was making her way across the riverbed and up the slope. 

While watching a giraffe in its natural habitat I was struck by two things: how graceful they are, silently gliding across the sand, and how tall they really are! Fully grown, giraffes stand between 16-20 feet, so even in the second row of the Land Rover, we were only eye-level with her shoulders. Since giraffes rarely travel alone, Marka had a hunch that we would find a few more nearby. After a few false-alarms (hint, giraffes look a lot like trees), we turned down a different road just as a mama and baby were walking across up ahead. 


We pulled over to watch them for a while and noticed that they were chewing on something hard and white. In our own personal Animal-Planet moment, we learned that giraffes will sometimes chew on bones (in this case, giraffe bones!) for calcium. They reminded us of our own dogs chewing on their favorite toys, which leads me to believe that a giraffe would make a wonderful addition to our family- if we move to a giant African wildlife reserve someday. Dan, thoughts?

After visiting with the giraffes, as the sun was starting to set on the horizon, Marka got a call from another tracker that they were with the pack of wild dogs we had seen that morning. Wild dogs hunt at night, so we were hoping to reach them in time to witness their pack-skills in action. There was a full moon that night, so we had a little bit of light and were able to stay fairly close to the pack as they split up to try and hunt. This particular pack was mostly made up of adolescent pups, who's enthusiasm was no match for their lack of experience, and they eventually went back to their den, and hungry mama, empty-pawed. 

Us, on the other hand, had the admittedly unfair advantage of riding comfortably back to camp where dinner was about to be served. Although we still had another full day of adventures ahead, somehow I already knew that this evening would be one of my favorite memories from our entire trip. 

Elephants on Parade:



June 29, 2015

Our One-Hour Bedroom Makeover


After sleeping in over a dozen different hotel beds so far this year and noticing how each room's design affected my quality of sleep, I started giving our own bedroom decor a bit more thought. With summer on it's way, it was time to stow our heavy comforter, but I also wanted to bring in some more color to brighten up the space. 

one, two, three

Despite my mostly-neutral wardrobe, I am consistently drawn to pretty spaces that layer lots of bright colors and bold patterns. But since I have not yet figured out a way to permanently live inside Anthropologie, or convince my husband that there's no such thing as too many throw pillows, our space needs to be as practical as it is pleasing to look at. 

I had purchased a small floral pillowcase in India, because I loved the colors for a baby's nursery someday, but since it clashed with our current comforter, it was quickly tucked away on a shelf. When I stumbled across this quilt and shams during Anthropologie's annual summer sale a few weeks ago, I immediately wondered if they would work with the little floral pillow. 

The quilt is made from seriously the softest cotton I have ever felt. According to their website, each one takes over 72 hours, 60 hands, and 13 different processes to make. After personally failing miserably during both our block-printing and tie-dye demonstrations in India, I have a deep appreciation for the the skills required to create something so beautiful. And, as my husband can confirm, 9 times out of 10 that I drag him to go into Anthropologie, I leave empty handed because I cannot justify spending my life savings on a shirt or bowl that would spend most of it's life in a closet or cabinet. This quilt, though, felt like buying a massive piece of art that would be on display, front and center, for many years to come, and could instantly transform our entire room. 

After bringing home the goods and taking my time to make up our bed, I pulled out the little pillow from India and was thrilled that it was a perfect fit! I love how our whole space feels brighter and more energized simply by mixing up our bedding. 

bed/nightstand: westelm, quilt/shams: anthropologie, floral pillowcase (India!), mirror(similar): homegoods (old), lamp(similar): target, rug: target, on sale now!

Now that our bedroom is summer-ready, it just got a whole lot harder to actually leave it in the morning... but more fun to crawl back into every night. 

Sweet dreams, indeed!

June 25, 2015

Day 4: Spots, Stripes, & Other Defenses


About an hour after we check-in at Motswari we head out on the first game drive of our stay. We climbed into the back row of the Land Rover that we shared with two other couples and our awesome team of trackers, Marka and Petros. Based on our drive to the lodge earlier that day, I was half-expecting to see hoards of animals as soon as we turned out of the driveway. We quickly learned that tracking wild animals across 135,000 acres with little more than a set of sandy paw/hoof prints, broken tree limbs, and piles of you-know-what, is often equal parts luck and skill. With the "Big 5" (Elephant, Rhino, Lion, Leopard, and Cape Buffalo) at the top of everyone's must-see list, we were eagerly keeping our inexperienced eyes out for any sign of life in the surrounding bush.  

Just as I was worrying about whether the sound of our incoming truck would scare off any nearby creatures, we pull up next to a magnificent grazing kudu (look at those horns!) and a nearby herd of shy impala, who only hopped away from us after a few moments of mutually curious observation.

Before we set out on the drive we were given only two rules: to watch our heads for low-hanging branches and to not stand up in the car. The animals in the reserve are completely wild which means they have had no direct contact with humans and therefor do not associate the Land Rovers or private cars  with predators or prey. Despite being completely exposed and easy targets, as long as we stay seated and do not "break shape", animals supposedly see the car and its passengers as one, large, lumbering gentle beast. Obviously, the trackers use their instincts and experience to avoid any potential risk in the first place, obeying some basic rules: always approach elephants from the front, rhino from downwind, and a happily satiated leopard from...below?

We quickly pull off the main road (a sure sign that the trackers have spotted something) and come to a stop beneath a big tree, completely oblivious to the beast perched above our heads until Marka told us to look up. About 15 feet above us, was a spectacular leopard, sprawled out and panting contently after polishing off a feast of fresh impala, the leftovers of which hung a few branches below. 

Look at that belly! The poor guy was so full he could barely find a comfortable position to wait out his food coma. We've all been there, buddy. I couldn't get over how big he was, from his paws to his tail that had to have been 4" thick. At one point he snapped a small branch as we was repositioning himself and everyone's shoulders may have twitched just a bit. 

Unfortunately, the leopard wasn't going anywhere anytime soon, as a hungry hyena was hanging out at the base of the tree, patiently waiting for the remaining pieces of the kill. Hyenas are known for being scavengers but they are also super scrappy fighters and would probably try to take on the leopard too, if he were to come down from the tree. So the rest of the evening probably looked a lot like this. We pulled away just as the sun was starting to set, getting a final glimpse of the big guy up in his tree. 

At 5:15am the next day there is a soft knock on our door. "Good morning", we call back from within our mosquito net-tented bed and start to get dressed for the morning game drive. At 6am on the dot, we settle into our seats in the open-air Land Rover, and roll away from the lodge into the heavy early morning mist. Marka and Petros are on a mission to find a male rhino that they had heard wasn't too far from an area we were exploring the evening before. 

A short drive takes us back to the area of brush that the rhino was most likely in and Marka hops out of the truck, loads a rifle (which he's thankfully never used in the wild), and asks us all to get out- if we wanted to get close, we would have to go on foot. We follow behind Marka in a silent, single-file line, looking left and right, for almost an hour, stopping to examine traced of foot prints and potentially fresh droppings that dominant male rhinos take pride in spreading around to mark their territory. 

We are marching along when Marka holds up his hand, a silent command for us to stop. He simply states "the rhino is here". Rhinos have terrible eyesight so they usually keep their faces close to the ground but have sharp noses (see what I did there) and excellent hearing, so we had to approach downwind and stay completely silent even as the rhino raised his head towards us. When we were about 30 feet from where the rhino was grazing we were able to snap a few pictures of this shy, prehistoric-looking statue before he disappeared back into the bush. 

While making our way back from our rhino expedition, were able to stop to see a small pack of rare African wild dogs sleeping in the shade. Despite their camouflaged coats and super efficient pack-hunting skills (which we were able to witness later) these dogs are rapidly declining due to disease, habitat loss, and human predation. We could tell that seeing them was a huge deal just by how excited the trackers and staff at Motswari were that there was a pack nearby and were grateful to see them on a few occasions during our stay.

Another unexpected treat on our morning drive, was a herd of very photogenic zebra grazing in an open clearing not far from the road. Though designed to help them hide in dense trees, their stylish stripes are a stunning contrast against the otherwise neutral-colored fall landscape. Since this could be an advantage for predators if they were alone, zebra stay in packs, that are particularly confusing for predators trying to guess where one animal ends and another begins. Their other defense mechanism? Zebras inflate themselves with gas that is used to "distract" predators during a chase, giving them more time to get away. Spirit animal, anyone?

They were some of the only animals who seemed genuinely just as interested in us as we were in them, and a few mamas were proud to show off their pretty babies. 

I mean, how pretty are they?! I could have snapped photos of them for hours, but I had to conserve  my camera battery (don't ask*) and we needed to start making our way back to camp for breakfast. 

It wasn't too long before we made another turn towards a small cluster of trees where two elephants were happily helping themselves. While I am a lover of the entire animal kingdom, African elephants have always held a huge place in my heart. They are the only animals I had researched and read about before our trip but to see them up close in the wild was nothing short of awesome. 

We watched these guys for a good 15-20 minutes, since we were already late for breakfast and the  Brazilian couple with us had already changed their flights that day so they could track the Rhino. That's what safari does to people, you've already come so far, you don't want to miss a single second.

 I absolutely loved seeing so many amazing animals up close in the wild, but as we were sitting just a few yards from these gigantic, gentle creatures, I felt that I would have been just as content to simply watch and talk about elephants all day. In fact, I think I will in the next safari post where I'll share my favorite memory from our time at Motswari. Hint: babies. Stay tuned.

* In an exciting turn of events, upon arriving at the lodge, Dan realized he had left all of our camera chargers locked safely in our room at our last hotel. Despite coming close to losing his life in the African wilderness, everything was fine, I took more than enough photos, and we all lived happily ever after.