Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Penguins For Breakfast

Be honest now, how often have you had the pleasure of being able to gaze out of your hotel window upon a colony of penguins basking in the soft evening light of a Southern Hemisphere spring? Not often I bet. As we watch it seems surreal; hard to believe that here on Sea Lion Island, the most southerly of the Falklands Islands, we are actually witnessing such scenes. For there they are, a colony of Gentoo penguins less than 100 metres from our window. We can hear them braying, and I dare say if we opened the window we could surely smell them. Wonderful.

Monday 28th November, 6am, up and out stumbling into a strong, chill nor' westerly. It's been light here for the best part of 2 hours, the strong sun shining brightly from a clear spring sky. Perfect light for photography and there's so much to point the camera at. But we have a bit of quest this morning for just over the ridge there is an elephant seal colony that proves to be an irresistible lure to a pod of orcas that cruise into the shallows to pick off the pups. If you watched Planet Earth you will have seen the footage of the female orca wriggling its way into the pools to get its teeth into the back end of one of the poor unfortunates. There's a film crew here at the moment trying to capture the action, American chaps that have worked with Attenborough, but they have drawn a blank. At least with the black and white ace predators; they are happy with all the other wildlife they have been able to capture. So there we are wrapped up against the wind, but it's turning out to be quite pleasant as the sun gains strength. We follow the penguins. The gentoos and the Megallanic beat a path to and from their colonies to the sea and we waddle behind a party of four that speed up when they see us behind them. After a little while the grasslands, nesting grounds for Falklands skuas that thankfully have not quite set up home yet, give way to a shallow slope of flat rocks beyond which the South Atlantic waves crash against the shore. Scattered here and there are elephant seal pups, the colony now past its prime, so we trudge west a little way towards an area which must be the hunting grounds. On the way we encounter small colonies of gentoos placed on raised mounds, most are incubating eggs but there are some small chicks visible. The skuas, gulls, caracaras loiter awaiting their chance to pounce. On the edge of one colony a lone king penguin stands preening. We will see more of these later in the week. Hopefully.

As we near the remnants of the elephant seal colony we are taken aback by the presence of a few huge Bulls, and I mean huge. These beasts are massively impressive especially when, as now, they start squaring up to each other and engage in mock fighting. It was half hearted stuff from animals that have already lost 30% of their body weight, but still quite a jaw dropping experience. No orcas appeared for us though.

We instead had to be content with watching southern giant petrels gliding past within touching distance, their tubular heavy white beaks reflecting the strengthening light, Megallanic oystercatchers running after each other through the dunes, their yellow eyes staring wildly as they scurried past no more concerned by our presence than they were of the grass or the rocks or the waves. And then the penguins, comical, quirky, inquisitive. They have the odds stacked against them. It seems they are the fodder upon which everything else depends. Yet they are the most resilient and hardy of creatures; waddling half a mile to the sea, weathering the pounding surf, spending the day hunting, waddling back hoping to find their partner and nest intact. The skuas we walk past so close, I nearly tripped over one earlier, are setting up territories a few metres from the colonies. They time their breeding cycle so that in a few weeks, when they have their own chicks to feed, they can walk over to the nearby colonies and have penguin for breakfast. Nature is so fascinating and here in the Falklands it is all around and unfettered. No fences here, just the wild.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Coffee With Legs

We have a day in Satiago de Chile, a very busy but well ordered city surrounded by Andes mountains. The views on a clear winters day must be simply stunning with the snow capped peaks providing a dramatic backdrop to any city scene, but today they were but a thin outline seen through a shimmer of smog. The city is built in a gap between the mountains and forms a bowl from which the exhausts from millions of cars and buses cannot escape. Only after rains or when winds blow the area clean can its situation be fully appreciated. But it is a very pleasant place for a stroll, especially on a fine spring day with temperatures pegged more in line with what we would expect in summer back home. Believe me, after the swelter of the last couple of weeks it is a refreshing change.

As with all our stays in these South American cities we have taken advantage of having a private guide take us around. It saves a lot of time and allows us to see most of the main sights in a logistically efficient fashion. Today was a little different in that our most excellent, friendly and funny guide Felipe took us on a leisurely walking tour of the city centre taking in the presidential palace, fish market, cathedral and much to our surprise and the male members of our family group's delight, a visit to a
Cafe con Piernas - Coffee with Legs. Somewhat intrigued as to what this was all about, we soon discovered that essentially it is a coffee bar where young females of a particular curvaceous creed serve gentlemen (my wife and daughter-in-law were the only female customers) with the beverage of their choice. Apparently this is an ancient tradition whereby the gents spent most of their time watching the girls legs drift to and fro and consequently spend the housekeeping on as much caffeine as they could handle. The ladies in this particular establishment were, how shall I put it, hand picked for ripeness, bursting out of their skimpy attire to a decidedly pleasurable degree. The lad and I agreed that we could have stayed to consume a bucket or two more of coffee; pondering also whether there was a gap in the market for something of this nature in Norwich. For some unfathomable reason the ladies of our small party were less impressed with the whole thing, surely the whole point of travel is to experience local customs and culture? Honestly women!

Anyway back to Earth. Or maybe not, for as we were walking back to our hotel through the park, we were approached by a young lady asking us whether we would be prepared to take part in a TV shoot. Realising we were English (me: white legs, grey hair, stupid hat) she thought us prime material to star in the piece she was presenting on encouraging Chileans to take up the language. She wanted someone over 40 - me, bless her - and someone in their twenties, my lad fitted the bill perfectly. All we had to do was stand a couple of feet apart while she walked from behind us towards the camera speaking her lines. The clip ended with her passing between us and concluding her monologue. Simple enough you would think, but it took half a dozen takes. For variance we posed with hands in pockets, folded gangsta style, draped nonchalantly by our sides, giving an excellent performance. All without make up or proper rehearsals. As I write we have just watched it broadcast on Channel 13. I videoed the clipI and will send it to my agent to ensure an appropriate amount of coinage is deposited in my bank account.

I've decided I like Satiago.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Iguazu - The Rainbow Falls

Spectacular, magnificent, breathtaking! Iguazu Falls is all of this and more. No words can really sum up the experience of being so close to a 3 kilometre horseshoe of cascading water crashing in over 270 huge plumes of smoky vapour onto rocks 80 metres below. You can only stand in awe and stare at the  wonderful natural spectacle all around you.

We arrived here in the melt of a Brazilian spring afternoon two days ago, the temperature in the mid 30s encouraging swarms of yellow butterflies to flitter around the roadsides and woodland trails. Our hotel, being within the National Park boundary, provides exclusive access to the walkways before 9am and after 6pm ; between times the paths and lookout points are thronged with hordes of fellow tourists that arrive in a never ending stream of shuttle buses. We have just come back from a saunter along the trail to the Devil's Throat, just us two and half a dozen others, where we felt the cool refreshing spray from the falls wash over us in the early morning calm. From the vantage point above this site which puts you at the heart of the screaming torrents, we watched a rainbow form as the sun slowly rose through the protected rain forest, illuminating the whole gorge with soft dawn light. It cost a lot of money to come on this trip, but sights like that are surely priceless?

Yesterday, during a day of draining heat beating from a flawless sky of blue, we had a trip to the Argentinian side of the falls where a metal walkway takes you to the very lip of the major drops. About 75% of the falls belongs to Argentina where a Disneyland type infrastructure has developed to cope with the 2million visitors careering around this place every year. Happily the shops and restaurants are sited so as not to spoil the natural splendour. The walkways extend over several kilometres affording some truly awe inspiring vistas that in places allow the spray to soak you. And always the thundering roar of unimaginable volumes of water. But you know, as good for me was watching clusters of gorgeous butterflies; yellow, blue, red and gold, some tiny and intricately patterned, others large floating insects of an unimaginable iridescence, flit around the margins of puddles to partake of minerals exposed by evaporation. Young girls were moved to having friends take images of them dancing with the milling throng; most just watched and drank in the spectacle.

Wildlife is all pervasive here. The grounds of the hotel, an extremely good one, play host to hummingbirds, paint-by-numbers tanagers and flycatchers. The tiles roofing the buildings house many pairs of grey-chested martins that dive with speed and impressive accuracy between bathers to drink from the swimming pool. Actually the swimming pool is a good place to birdwatch with several species using the edges as drinking areas. While lounging around with a piƱa colada and trying not to look too obviously at bikini clad ladies, I watched cowbirds, ground doves, kingbirds, kiskadees and even lapwings come to slake their thirst. And over all, the vulture amass on thermal to chase one another, spar and look for food.

The waterfalls themselves screen nesting great dusky swifts that wheel around in impressive flocks before diving through then towering water to their nests placed on a ledge behind the curtain of foam. We watched a ferruginous Pygmy owl catch a lizard bigger than itself from a few feet in front of us, carry it to a tree and proceed to slowly dismember it with an all too inadequate beak. The kitchen block of the restaurant attracts many moths, crickets and other such insect life. Early in the morning just before sunrise the walls of the building are covered with multi-hued insects of all shapes and sizes; twenty minutes later the mockingbirds and plush-crested jays have mopped them up. A free breakfast if ever there was one.

As we were packing our cases this morning, there reached our ears the frenzied squawking of a group of red-rumpled caciques - a weaver bird - that nest in palms just outside the window. There clinging on to the shiny palm leaves attempting to dismantle one of the long, pendulous, intricately woven nests was a magnificent toco toucan. A real drama being played out at eye level. The toucan probed here and there, hopped around from tree to tree, croaked to itself in frustration but could not reach into the nest cups to predate eggs or chicks. It persisted for several minutes before eventually giving up and looping away, its gaudy beak leading the way.

So now we fly via Buenos Aires to Santiago in Chile en route to the Falklands. In fact I am typing this blog from 30,000 feet as we cruise south on the first leg of that episode. I hope you are enjoying reading the blog as much as I enjoy writing it. Sometimes it can be difficult to know quite how to convey in mere words the scenes we witness, but I trust you get a sense of things on offer in this most fascinating of continents. Thanks for staying with me.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Let Me Take You down To Rio

And here we Are in Rio De Janiero, the River of January, so called apparently because when the Portuguese explorers 'discovered' Guanabara Bay on 1st January 1502, they thought it was the outlet from a river system. At least that's the popular explanation, another is that 16th century Portuguese  differed from the modern day lingo and 'Rio' then applied to any body of water; sounds much more plausible.

Whatever the origins, the city now sprawls for miles, snaking along valleys between granite hills thrust from the earth like so many giant shark teeth. Some 11 million people call the city home and that number is growing all the time. Inflation is rampant, corruption amongst officials a kind of recreational pastime, housing cramped and squalid, architecture crumbling. It would also be wise not to fall into the sea and take a mouthful of the water because water is not the only substance that will enter your fragile system. Over 50% of the sewage created by the multi-hued population is pumped into the ocean untreated. Yes folks there is an awful lot of crap in Rio. You may recall that before the 2016 Olympics the authorities tried to clean up the areas where triathletes had to perform their swimming element. I guess some progress was made, but it is estimated that it would take 20 years of effort to clean the environment and get the sea back to health again. And that isn't going to happen.

For all that, the natural surroundings of the area are quite spectacular and Copacabana Beach a delightful place to chill. Brazilians are a very easy going, laid back bunch who are very friendly and accommodating. There are hawkers on the beach trying to sell their wares, hats and cool drinks mostly, but if you shake your head they smile and move away. No unnecessary hassle or pestering. As I look out of my hotel window I can see sugar loaf mountain to the left, the highest peak in a chain of hills curving round and reaching into the Atlantic Ocean. To the right is a promontory, home to a fortress complete with big guns that would defend the bay from any attack. Inbetween all of this is a curve of whitish sand several kilometres long, dotted with bars and lifeguard lookout stations, volleyball nets, football posts and mini gyms. The bronzed bodies of sun worshippers laze around or parade along the shoreline seeking admiring glances. But it is a place for all kinds of people of all shapes and sizes; a place for relaxation. However we have been warned several times of the potential for muggings in the beach area. Because of this we take nothing with us when we leave the hotel to stroll along the prom, accept a few bank notes and a small compact camera that fits handily into a breast pocket. Nothing much to interest any local lads who take delight in plundering the wealth of tourists.

Yesterday we spent in true tourist mode being safely escorted by our excellent guide for the day to the major sights of the city. First up the iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer that we've all seen many times on TV or in movies, perched as it is atop a hill overlooking the city at an elevation of 710 metres. The view from the top is indeed spectacular if a little difficult to appreciate with hundreds of other tourists jostling for space. Gotta be done though. Next was a cable car ride to the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain, not so tall as Christ at only 395 metres, but giving a beautiful panoramic view of the curving beaches all along the coast. 

Today we spent the morning ambling along the beach, getting splattered by waves that somehow crept up unobserved and soaked our lower portions. The afternoon we spent at the Botanical Gardens. 

So here is where we move away from the more traditional and normal activities associated with a seaside holiday and enter the realms of Madden World where as most people ooh and ahh at a huge granite statue of our saviour, the numpty that produces this blog spends his time trying to photograph black vultures, wondering what those swifts are or oohing and ahhing at a king vulture soaring over the valley below. Each to his own. The wildlife watching opportunities here are not obvious to the majority of folk, but they do exist and in fact are quite spectacular in their own way. For example while we were sitting at the rooftop bar yesterday evening we noticed quite a few magnificent frigatebirds circling over nearby peaks. Numbers of this large angular seabird slowly increased untilI I reckon about 500 birds came in from a days pirating at sea to gain a bit of height over land and then drift away in small groups to their roosting site. At least I imagine that was what was going on. And then the black vultures come quite close when you're 16 floors into the sky affording great views as they soar back and forth looking for something to scavenge. From our room we get a commanding view of the ocean and I've noticed brown boobies (not on the beach) moving offshore, cruising low over the waves in effortless style. Amongst them occasionally are large shearwaters which may be Cory's or may be something else - too distant to see clearly. We've even seen a house sparrow.

At the Botanical Gardens today, an oasis of green and calm amongst the traffic noise and mayhem of the city, we saw several rather wonderful things. I say we because in all honesty I didn't find a thing myself. My son and daughter-in-law found a magnificent pair of channel-billed toucans that we were able to observe feeding at close quarters. These rather spectacular birds have become quite used to people and as long as you are quiet and move slowly will go about their business unperturbed. Beautiful birds. Then my wife noticed a small hawk perched on a low branch, a roadside hawk I believe. This gorgeous creature simply sat there as we watched it from a few metres away scanning the ground for any movement. Then the kids again with a much larger hawk sitting some distance away which I haven't as yet identified. To cap it all the waiter at the cafe, noticing my binoculars and camera, called me over to a small tree to point out a walnut sized hummingbird's nest within which a nearly fully grown chick resided. What a wonderful thing to see, so tiny, so dainty. It's good to have a little help now and again.

After that excitement it is time to return to the hotel, sit by the rooftop swimming pool sipping a beer or a cocktail, watching the frigatebirds cruise by as the sunset stains the clouds over Copacabana salmon pink. As the hot of the day gives way to a sultry evening, all around the bay a sweeping arc of floodlights illuminate the sands leading the eye to the misty outline of the hills beyond where light of houses twinkle like so many stars. A gentle breeze springs up and I have to pinch myself to realise where I am. The only thing to do is allow your senses to be intoxicated, drink it all in and smile.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

A Great Spectacle

It was undoubtedly the wine, too much wine (not for the first time), that had me dancing. A little number with Valquiria who had looked after us all so well at this farewell BBQ. A fitting, if somewhat stumbling end to this leg of our South American voyage.

Tomorrow morning will see us leave Caiman Lodge for the 4 hour drive back to Campo Grande. Goodbye to the burrowing owls that perch, as always, on fence posts close to the buildings. Farewell to the caracaras and their two young that sit beside the road waiting for some dainty morsel, a frog or lizard perhaps, to foolishly venture too close. Cheerio to the caiman that lounge motionless with open mouths by the numerous pools that line the way. Tchau to the Pantanal that has provided us with wonderful wildlife every minute of every day, at least when it wasn't pouring with rain. Although even then the antics of the toads and frogs gave cause for a smile.

Our last day was spent walking through the forest that covers higher ground between flooded meadows. Our native guide told us the medicinal, culinary and practical value of certain trees and plants, explaining how native tribesmen found uses for just about everything that grows hereabouts. Fruits and nuts that are nutritious or can be boiled to use as a poultice, husks of small coconuts that can be sliced and used for making buttons, the clear juice from one plant that when dry turns black and stains your skin for a week, ideal for tattooing the body. I've done something similar at Ranworth when leading groups of people along the boardwalk trail there; hazel for fencing, bruised meadowsweet for fragrance, willow bark for aspirin, guelder rose for treating pain and arthritis, sedge as matting. Different continents, contrasting cultures, human needs satisfied by nature.

The trails through the sandy soil are utilised by several species of ant as a highway to a food source. Thousands of tiny leaf cutters, each with a small sprig of greenery, marched purposefully to their nest where they will feed on the fungus which grows on the store of composting vegetation. Other ants some bigger and powerful looking, others black and tiny, scurried hither and thither. Best not to stay still too long here lest some of these small insects decide to crawl over your shoes and explore what lies up your trouser leg: their stings can be quite painful believe me. 

The dense undergrowth masks most wildlife from view but we did see a coati foraging around a small clearing and a capuchin monkey adeptly moving around in a tall fig tree. We also stumbled upon the dried husk of a dead caiman that had been killed by a jaguar, one of the fifty that roam around this immense site. The fate of the reptile as cat food was in no doubt, we could see very clearly the puncture wounds on the skull caused by the jaguar's powerful bite. 

But the best sighting we had was that of a young spectacled owl that had been found by the park ranger who radioed to our guide so he could bring us to see. There perched against a tree trunk some 40 metres or so into the wood was the most beautiful bird. Very difficult to see against the dappled striping of light and shade was an owlet with the most amazing panda like facial colouration. A white face contrasting with a mask of deepest black from which two yellow eyes gazed at us with a distinct measure of distrust. It flew off deeper into the wood after a while having had enough of this troop of primates trying to get close. Despite our attempts at relocation it wasn't prepared to show itself again. A wonderful sighting though and one we simply could never have managed on our own.

So, we move on to new ground where we will no doubt experience much of interest. I'll try to do it all justice in these blog posts. Thanks for tuning in so far, you are most welcome to stay with me and come along for the ride.

The Mad, Mad Moonlight

News came half way through our evening safari of a jaguar kill. We drove directly to the site where biologists from the local conservation team were staking out the half devoured carcass of a cow; they were hoping to identify which particular cat was responsible. In the gathering dusk, the sky streaked with vibrant pink and gold, we sat quietly hoping that the creature would return to have its fill. There were a couple of other small parties doing the same thing but before long they gave up and drove off, leaving just our jeep and that of the scientists to sit and wait. We sat, we waited. An hour passed, maybe more. Biting insects homed in for blood, a cacophony of frog song rent the still night air; we expectantly lingered. Nothing. Periodically the scene would be illuminated as one of the science team scanned the field with a powerful beam, but no jaguar appeared. We eventually had little option but to give up and return to the lodge, a drive of 30 minutes or so. Over dinner our lovely guide Valquiria suggested we return to the kill site and see if our luck would change. Some of our small party thought this a mad idea, we on the other hand readily agreed......

At the other end of the day, after a sunrise diffused through a curtain of mist over the lake, I jokingly challenged our daytime guide, Rafael, to find us a photographable toco toucan. A few minutes later as I was about my ablutions in the bathroom there was a knock on the door to inform us a toucan was, at that very moment, raiding nests in a palm just outside the lodge. Dispensing with scrubbing various parts clean, I cautiously poked my head outside to find myself almost eyeball to eyeball with the bird of Guinness fame, the clownish freak of ad campaigns and travel brochures. A wonderful, ridiculously brightly coloured, yet cruelly efficient predator that is a toco toucan. This individual, mobbed by kiskadees and other smaller birds, was intent on poking its enormous bill into the detritus gathered between the fronds of the Palm in search of nests to raid. It despatched two broods of eggs and chicks as we watched before blithely flying off to plunder elsewhere, trailing a loose stream of distressed birds in its wake. 7am and the target bird safely captured digitally, not a bad start at all.

The remainder of our penultimate day visiting this huge estate in the southern Pantanal was spent traversing new paths and seeing new things; always new things to delight and engage. In the middle of the day, oppressive heat and humidity means most guests seek the cool sanctuary of their rooms or maybe the pool. This mad Englishman however chooses to spend his time rummaging by the lakeside looking for butterflies, or sitting under the shade of the gazebo to sip a cool beer and to struggle with the words with which to write these blogs. And all around the martins chirrup and go about their business, the cicadas buzz and the capybara immerse themselves in the shallow water. Too many distractions. There is such a wealth of life here that it would take more time than I have to even begin to do it justice. All I can do is try to give a flavour with words and pictures.

........Back to the jaguar stakeout. Our second visit took place in complete darkness with a sky so clear and full of stars I felt like weeping. Orion, initially clearly recognisable, all but faded away into the millions of other bright points reaching our eyes from countless light years across time and space. Sitting there under an umbrella of starlight we once again waited for a powerful and majestic cat to appear. Sadly, in this hope we were to be disappointed; no such animal graced the scene before us this night. Instead we had to be content with watching fireflies flashing phosphorescence as they danced flirtatiously across the clearing and listening again to the crescendo of frog song all around. Toward 11pm I fancied my eyes were becoming quite accustomed to the dark but realised that the moon was slowly rising from behind some trees. A moon the colour of golden honey, illuminating the thin wisps of cloud with its radiance. I don't think I've ever sat and watched a moonrise in its entirety and it was a truly magical experience. A jaguar would have been better, but as a second prize, watching the lunar orb slowly arc across the velvet blue of a Brazilian sky was good enough for me.

........And a honey coloured moon he was bouncing around, he was laughing saying 'Dear, this is mad'..... Steve Harley (from the song Sling It)