Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Don't Forget the Animals

     For the most part, I am primarily interested in the people and the cultures in the Third World areas where I travel, but animal life is extremely varied in such places and can bring thrills and joy to the visitor as well. Some of my most vivid memories have to do with encounters with strange beasts that one can usually only view in a local zoo and thus never come to appreciate the nature of their life in the wild. Meetings on the animal's territory may be fraught with danger but the traveler is typically in a relatively safe transport and, most often, with a knowledgeable guide at such times. The most common kind of encounter occurs on a planned safari with park rangers tracking the animals of a particular area, especially the larger ones which lend themselves to desirable photography. What one happens upon, even with the best of itineraries, is largely a function of luck. I had been on several safaris (Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, South Africa) when we took our family on a trip to a site next to Kruger Park. Nothing compared to that experience. We found ourselves about 30 feet from a formidable rhino who was peacefully grazing along and marking his territory. He paid no attention to our presence at all, fortunately, so we were able to spend a good bit of time observing his behavior. We then went in search of lions which my wife and I had seen on former trips we but we never expected to find the scene that unfolded almost directly over our heads. There in a tree, as if arranged for our entertainment, were a group of three or four young lions, playing like kittens on a large branch, pushing each other around and trying out various poses for balance.We could have spent the whole day watching them. I will not go into the rest of that trip but it continued for two days of absolute delight. At the end of our stay while we were packing our van, an enormous elephant sauntered right up to the van. That encounter was closer than I would have desired. The clearly alarmed ranger told us to stand still and not take any photos. He clapped his hands and the animal turned and left. If he hadn't, I surely would have.

     Of course, all animal encounters are not so peaceful or simple. On an earlier safari, I remember waking at night to noise outside our tent. I dismissed it as inconsequential but learned from fellow campers the next morning that a large African buffalo was walking around the tent for quite a while. He had destroyed a large bush just outside the entrance to our tent and was apparently thinking about spending the evening with us. We pretty much missed the whole event and stayed cosy in bed. On another safari, our jeep stopped to view a few elephants from not too great a distance. One of the herd did not want to be observed apparently and came rushing toward us, ears flapping and hell-bent on destruction. We got out of there fast and stopped about a hundred yards down the road- to no avail. That elephant came barreling after us again in a short time and almost reached the jeep before we could leave the area. Not peaceful at all. Usually one can get quite close to these giants without concern but that was the exception to the rule.

     The most exciting animal visit I ever made was to the Island of Komodo where the famous dragons live. As I stepped onto the shore from our small boat, I noticed lines in the sandy coastline and asked our guide what they were. "Oh, those are from the dragons walking the beach that morning. Those lines are markings from their tails dragging in the sand," he replied. That was my first palpable realization that this was the dragon's island and we were visitors to their home. No zoos there. It was calming to be with a group of about 15 other travelers- safety in numbers, I guess- as we hiked to a spot on the island where the guides were to feed the giant lizards we had come to see. They yanked a bleating goat along as a convenient sacrifice. Convenient for us, that is, not for the goat. He would serve as the lunch that brought the dragons out of their shady, wooded hideaways. Just before we arrived at the designated spot, I glanced to my right and, less than 20 feet away, stared straight into the face of one of the dragons. He was about ten feet long, dripping with poisonous saliva from a gaping mouth and he had a tail powerful enough to disable a person. We were both on the way to the special ceremony so the unnerving incident passed uneventfully.

         We watched the powerful lizards hustle out of their forest hideouts to dissemble the goat and compete for every measure of meat possible. On the way back, we encountered the largest dragon I saw that day just sitting on the far side of the path eyeing our tourist line. The guide said just to continue walking straight ahead which I thought was an excellent idea. His only protection for us consisted of a small stick which I am sure would have tickled the monster into submission should he have attacked any of us. "Do they eat humans?" we inquired. "Not often" was the reply "but it does happen." I have felt safer a few feet from a sleeping crocodile or in a small boat floating along in hippo infested waters than I did during our return passage to the shore. Fortunately, I think the dragon was one of those who had just satiated themselves on the goat. He just sat there. At least in the Third World, one can interact with the animals one meets and really appreciate their behavior. Cages are not always a bad idea however.

       Of course, the ultimate animal viewing destination is on the other side of the world. The Galapagos Islands are in the Pacific off the coast of Ecuador and can easily be combined with cultural visits to Peru or Ecuador with their fascinating Indian settlements and ancient ruins The amazing thing about the Galapagos is the incredible variety of animals that dwell in the surrounding sea, on the volcanic islands and in the air wherever one goes. If you want to see the courting rituals of Blue Footed Boobies or the lovely Winged Albatross, admire the immensity of the Galapagos Turtles or step over sea lions sitting along the path before you, swim with seals or have fearless Mockingbirds land on your arm and stare up at you, this is the place to go. It is not easy to get to but more than worth it when you arrive.
Young Lions Playing in a Tree, S. Africa

1 comment:

Lorraine said...

So happy you did not forget the animals! Your lion photo and your stories were wonderful. My most vivid and exciting memory is that of a mother bear walking with two playful cubs in Denali Park in Alaska. The mother laid down and the the two cubs snuggled in to nurse. How exciting that was!