Monday, October 14, 2013

Marengo Cave, Indiana

Next time you are in the Louisville area, it's worth taking the hour or so drive into Southern Indiana to visit the cave at Marengo. Although nowhere near as big as Kentucky's Mammoth Cave, Marengo certainly offers a fun way to spend an afternoon.

There are two basic tours of the cave, one lasting 45 minutes, the other an hour. I suggest taking both, as each explores one side of the cave, both meeting in the middle. Yes, you'll hear a lot of the same information twice, but the formations in each half are quite distinct due to different levels of humidity.

Our tour guide Sarah at the Dripstone Trail entrance. 

The cave was discovered by a young brother and sister in 1883. The Crystal Palace Tour will show the original entrance that they discovered and recreate their candlelight exploration, making you more than grateful for modern lighting.

By the turn of the 20th century, Marengo was a popular tourist destination and you will find many reminders of their visits, both in the gravity on the cave walls and through the damaged stalactites, broken off by many as souvenirs. It was even a popular site for dances in the years leading up to the Depression.

Now the site is a National Landmark, open daily for short tours and longer underground crawls.

So whether you're an experienced lover of the underground (such as I am) or if this is your first time, Marengo is worth a stop on your drive through Kentuckiana.

Reflections at Mirror Lake

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Five of My Favorite Castles

Time for a quick photo show of some of the my favorite castles that I've visited around the world. In no particular order...

Leeds Castle, England
Photo by Ron Smith
Reportedly called the loveliest castle in the world, Leeds Castle in my home county of Kent is quite spectacular. It also is home to possibly the most difficult garden maze I've ever entered. No matter how many times you get lost or find yourself back at the entrance of the maze, do persevere (or get some kind soul who has found the middle to offer directions), because your exit is via an underground grotto devoted to Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Schloss Linderhof, Germany
Photo courtesy of WikiCommons

Neuschwanstein may be the world's most photographed castle (I have yet to visit there), but tourists in Bavaria should not skip King Ludwig's other two castles. Linderhof is the smallest and was the only one to be completed during his lifetime. Originally a forester's lodge, it was developed into a magnificent palace, its rooms resplendently decorated with goldleaf. The Hall of Mirrors gives the illusion of a neverending walkway, while the magnificent gardens are home to an underground grotto (what is it with castles and grottos?) complete with lake and golden swan boat.

Chateau Villandry, France
Photo courtesy of WikiCommons

I've visited a number of chateaux in France's Loire Valley, but Villandry with its huge gardens is definitely my favorite. I like to imagine myself in period costume wandering through the manicured hedgerows - I have the same daydream when I visit the maze at Hampton Court Palace. This is no time to remind me of the impracticality of corsets and petticoats. This is my time to dream.

Matsumoto, Japan

During my three years in Japan, Matsumoto was always a popular destination for a day out, thanks in large part to its castle. Built in 1592, the castle is designated a National Treasure. Feel free to wander around by yourself or use one of the free local English-speaking guides. When my parents visited, we were shown around by a lively old man who loved to explain his theory that Star Wars was based entirely on Japanese history and culture! However you choose to explore, this is the place to relive your ninja daydreams.

Hever Castle, England
I'm English, so it would be all to easy for me to go on all day about castles and only those in the British Isles, and with good reason. We have some of the finest in the world. I'm also lucky enough to have grown up near so many of them: Leeds, Walmer, Deal with its Tudor Rose shape, Dover with its WWII headquarters buried deep beneath the white cliffs... and Hever. I'm being very restrained in only including two in this post, and Hever is my second. Whereas Leeds Castle was frequented by Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon, Hever was the childhood home of Anne Bullen (better known as Boleyn). It is here among the 100+ acres of romantic landscaped gardens that the king wooed his second wife. There are two mazes here, a traditional yew, and a water maze which will prove great fun for kids. In many ways I prefer it to Leeds Castle.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Forget Your French Lessons - It's Byoolee!

Stately homes often conjure up images of stuffy old buildings, busloads of old people, and bored kids being dragged from room to room by their parents. And there's no doubt that I've visited my share of those (although I was the odd child who enjoyed these old houses).

Something old
Fortunately, though, Lord Montagu, ancestral owner of Beaulieu in England's New Forest is a savvy man. While many stately mansions struggle to attract visitors, Lord Montagu has helped Beaulieu become the ideal family day out, thanks in large part to his hobby. The avid car buff's sizable collection is on display to the public at the site's National Motor Museum, and what a collection it is. More than 250 vehicles and bikes can be seen, ranging from 19th century penny farthings to top of the range Formula One racers. And with many of them maintained in working order, you never know what you might come across being driven around the property grounds. Other vehicles in the collection include Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, some wonderfully nostalgic British vehicles, and Sir Donald Campbell's magnificent Bluebird, the vehicle that set a new World Land Speed Record in 1964.

The record breaking Bluebird

Americans have the Oscar Meyer hot dog; we had the Outspan Orange!
Every car should have room for rockets!
Still not enough to satisfy your thirst for incredible autos? Get to Beaulieu before February 2014 to enjoy the Bond in Motion exhibition, celebrating 50 years of our favorite British spy. From Aston Martins that have suffered the worst of crashes to the motorbikes from Skyfall, you can relive some of your best Bond moments with this wonderful collection. 
Elsewhere in the grounds, The World of Top Gear takes you behind the scenes of Britain's best-loved car show with a display of their more...eclectic... creations. 

But remember, this is also a stately home so lets leave the cars and talk about the house itself. Palace House has been home to the Montagu family since the 16th century. Still a family residence, only a few rooms are open to the public, but they offer a fascinating look into the history of the Montagus. If you're lucky, you can also catch one of the daily musical performances by members of staff.  

Children's playroom
Once you're done browsing the portraits, the formal gardens and the remains of Beaulieu Abbey provide opportunities for peaceful strolls and country picnics. 

Finally, don't forget to wander down to the village of Beaulieu where tourists, locals, and New Forest ponies all mingle - I can't recommend the chocolatier enough. 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Why You Should Skip Stonehenge

To some, what I am about to say will be sacrilege. I am going to tell you why you shouldn't bother visiting that ultimate image of old Britain: Stonehenge. Yes, I've been there and yes, I had a wonderful time, but would I recommend it?


Better here than in the flesh?
In a perfect world, this would be your trip to Stonehenge, and incidentally, this is how my visit went. Arrive in Amesbury the night before and find somewhere to stay. Enjoy a pleasant meal ... ok this did NOT happen for us. We ended up at a Little Chef in the pouring rain eating sausage and mashed potato flakes that floated in a pool of greasy gravy while the woman at the next table changed her baby's diaper on the dining table and then threw the dirty diaper on the floor next to us so she could finish her meal!

But back to your ideal trip... enjoy a pleasant meal and retire for the night. The next morning you awake, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Having stayed so close to the Stonehenge site, you are the first to get there, and enjoy a peaceful half hour wandering among the stones, taking in the peace of the Salisbury Plains, before departing as the first tourist coaches arrive for the day.

We were lucky.

Here is how your day is more likely to go:

You stay in London, or perhaps the New Forest the night before. You wake, have a relaxed breakfast, and head to Salisbury. Several miles away, you suddenly stop, bogged down in traffic. Rush hour, perhaps? Nope. Stonehenge traffic. Forget looking at your map for an alternative route. If you are visiting in peak season, the roads are all backed up for several miles as tourists slow down to gawp, take pictures, and, if they're lucky, eventually reach the entrance to the parking lot. Locals must hate their daily commute with a passion.

Once you reach the site, you will be faced with a parking fee. If you pay to go into the attraction, this fee will be discounted off your ticket price. But the purpose of the fee is clearly to make sure that even those who want to stop, snap a picture, and maybe buy a souvenir without going in, still pay their share. So you decide to go in. You will pay what is really quite an exorbitant fee - £8 for adults - to see some rocks. Now don't get me wrong - Stonehenge is beautiful and historically significant, but it's much more beautiful on the postcards. Once you've paid your money, you realize that you are surrounded by hundreds of other tourists, all trying to get their pictures taken. Oh, and remember those images of it standing on an isolated plain? There are major roads running either side of the site. Peaceful reflection has been replaced by commercialism and hordes of people.

Where to go instead?


Just a couple of miles down the road (but in the opposite direction of the Stonehenge-seeking traffic) is the far less well-known Woodhenge. Obviously the original wood has long since rotted away, to be replaced by concrete markers, and it is not as impressive visually as its stoney cousin. However, it is much more complete in layout, is virtually tourist free, offers wonderful views of the surrounding countryside, and is free.

Old Sarum
From there, head another couple of miles toward Salisbury for another English Heritage-owned site - Old Sarum. Entry is less than half the price of Stonehenge but I find the ruins of the fort much more interesting. The site once housed an Iron Age fort, which over the years, was rebuilt by Romans, Saxons, and Normans. In addition to viewing the remains of the castle which once stood here, you can also see the foundations of the area's original cathedral (while looking down at the more modern 12th century Salisbury Cathedral).

Foundations of the original cathedral
There are plenty of walking trails in and around the fort, offering stunning views on all sides.

Looking down across Salisbury and the Cathedral (home of the Magna Carta)

So ultimately, you could have a stressful time reaching an overcrowded and overpriced tourist attraction, or you could spend a few hours in a more relaxed, but just as interesting setting.

I know which one I'd choose.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Leiper's Fork, Tennessee

Continuing our non-country music visit to Nashville, just a short drive away is the historical town of Leiper's Fork. I have a liking for those little settlements that have now become havens for art galleries, antique shops, and weekend visitors, so this fit the bill perfectly.

Leiper's Creek Gallery
Not that I'll be spending much in any of the quaint galleries; the number of Lexuses and BMWs parked outside were an instant indicator that much of what I would find would be well beyond my price range.

Nevertheless, it's a charming little spot to browse, while away an hour or two, and enjoy a cold drink, not to mention engage in one of my favorite pastimes: people watching.

Spend an hour or two rocking on the porch at Leiper's Fork

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Not a Country Music Fan? You Can Still Enjoy Nashville.

The last few months have seen me making multiple trips to Tennessee: with parents, with nieces, and just with hubby. This means there'll be more Tennessee posts to come but for now let's look at Nashville.

Think of Nashville and you think of country music, but what if you're not a country fan? Is there anything for you to do in town? That's what we asked ourselves when we were planning a weekend to visit a friend who happened to be in town for a week or two. I don't dislike country music but I'm not a real fan, by any means, and neither hubby nor our friend are into it. My concerns rose when I discovered that the weekend we planned to visit coincided with the CMAs. It was the biggest week of the year for the city and music fans, with concerts going on everywhere.


As it happens, we had a wonderful weekend, and with some careful avoidance of the downtown area and with the exception of a visit to Cooter's and Willie Nelson's Place (come on!), the only clue to a country music presence was the plethora of girls in what I refer to as Nashville uniform, ie. shorts and cowboy boots.

One place well worth a visit is the Lane Motor Museum. Car museums are nothing new and if you're into American muscle cars, you're better off driving up across the state line to the Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, KY. What makes the Lane Motor Museum different is that it is home to the largest collection of European cars in the US. All the classic British cars I grew up seeing at motor rallies are here, lovingly preserved and in full working condition.

A sporty little number
In addition to my beloved British MGs and, yes, a Reliant Robin (better known to most Americans as the three wheeler driven by Mr Bean), there are exhibits from Cold War Europe, France, Italy, and Germany, not to mention some Nissan retro concept vehicles, based upon early European models; electric cars (not as new as you might think); and some lesser known American vehicles, including a steam-powered monster of a car.

Each vehicle in the collection is accompanied by its individual story, which adds to the personality of the cars, while placing each one in a broader historical and economic context.

While you're at the museum, also take the time to explore the collection of motorcycles, the rather large (OK, it's enormous!) military vehicle parked out back, and the video that explains how a former bakery became a thoroughly interesting motor museum.

I am by no means a car fanatic. I can't tell you a thing about the inner workings of an engine. I did however, grow up in a family that still appreciates the look of a classic car. So whether you are, like me, someone who admires the shapes and paint job, or, like my husband, someone who works in the auto industry and so has a deeper appreciation of the entire manufacturing process, the Lane Motor Museum is a great place to spend a few hours.

The Lane Motor Museum is located  at 702 Murfreesboro Pike in Nashville. For opening hours and further details, visit their website.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

How to Have a Travel Adventure Close to Home

I've mentioned before how one helpful way to deal with the readjustment-type culture shock when you return home after overseas travel is to immerse yourself in your local community and try to see it with new eyes. You will often be surprised how many fascinating places are right under your nose - those places you either never bothered with or that you didn't even know about.

Take, for example, Shaker Village, about 25 miles from Lexington.

I have lived here in Central Kentucky for almost twelve years,and have visited Shaker Village many times. But did I know about the hiking trails?

How did I miss this?

Only when some friends mentioned that they had been hiking out there, did I do some digging and discover the 3000 acre nature preserve. All this time, we'd just been looking around the historic buildings and learning about Shaker life.

Now I learn about miles of hiking trails, through forests, across prairies, seeing ruined mills, abandoned mines, and all sorts of natural habitats.

And it was right here all this time.

We spent Memorial Day exploring the preserve's Shawnee Run Trail, six miles that took us across several creeks (tread carefully and be prepared to get wet), past hidden waterfalls, and through beautiful vistas of rural Kentucky.

My only regret, apart from that I hadn't discovered this sooner: forgetting the bug spray. Ticks were abundant and, despite having spent a month in Africa with all manner of creatures, having to remove ticks grosses me out.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Someone Finds Me Inspiring!

Over the course of a recent two week visit from family, I was delighted to find that blogger and author Marian Allen gave me a Very Inspiring Blogger Award for my recent travels to South Africa to pursue my dreams.

As I would say back in England, I'm dead chuffed!

Here's what Marian had to say about me: I "met" Fiona through a Yahoo groups, then met her in person at Fandom Fest in Louisville. She just realized a long-time dream and visited Africa to work with non-human primates. What's more inspiring than living your dream, as I do every day I write?

Aw shucks!

Now there are rules to this award. I have to display the nice little log you see above and link back to the person who nominated me. I have to state seven facts about myself and nominate seven other bloggers.

Obviously my facts will be mostly travel-related so here goes:

1. After high school, I spent three months living and working on the Brunnsteinhutte in Mittenwald, Germany.
2. The first family holiday I took was to Great Yarmouth when I was about 8. My sisters and I all got mumps.
3. Among my many remaining travel dreams: to ride the Trans-Siberian railroad.
4. I actually dislike most travel shows on TV but I absolutely adore watching and reading Michael Palin and Anthony Bourdain.
5. Among my many incredible travel memories: watching the sunrise from the top of Mt Fuji.
6. Travel tip that flies against what most people advise: try the street food.
7. Oddest museum ever visited: A 2 room sex museum behind a temple in Shimoda, Japan. One room was filled with penises, ranging from a few mm to several meters in height!

And now for seven other inspiring bloggers:

1. Lori Rice - Fake Food Free. Lori was one of the founding members of the Kentucky Food Bloggers, and, like me, she shares a passion for both food and travel. Although she has since moved to California, she continues to inspire with her love of healthy, wholesome food.
2. Rona Roberts - Savoring Kentucky. Another local foodie, Rona combines food, health, and issues of social justice on her blog. Check it out - you might be surprised what you learn.
3. Greg Rodgers - A Vagabonding Life. Have never met Greg but my husband and he used to take kung fu classes together. They met up last year and hubby told me about his blog. This guy lives my dream - backpacking from place to place and writing about it.
4. Sherry Ott - Ott's World. Another traveler living the dream, Sherry quit her cubicle bound life and has never looked back.
5. Lori Widmer - Words on the Page. I've covered food and travel; now for my other passion: writing. Veteran writer Lori has been a constant source of inspiration to me as she hares her knowledge and tips for improving your writing career.
6. Michelle Wojciechowski - Wojo's World. Need a daily dose of humor? Check out Wojo.
7. Nomadic Matt. Matt is another travel blogger I've been following for some time. If you are dreaming of busting out into the big wide world, everything you need to realise the dream can be found on his site.

Feeling inspired yet? I hope so!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

And Then I Come Home: Dealing With Reverse Culture Shock

It has been nearly four weeks since I left South Africa; I've been home almost as long as I was there, but I've had the hardest time writing about it or even talking about it since I arrived home.

One of the things you are rarely prepared for after traveling is reverse culture shock. I expected it after Japan - I'd been there for three years after all. I expect it when I go home to England where, after more than 15 years away, I feel equal parts English and foreigner. I hadn't expected to feel it after just one month in South Africa.

It was only a month!

I didn't suffer any jet lag when I came home. In fact I was so energized by the trip, I think my husband was exhausted by my constant bounciness. I wanted to tell him everything. I wanted him to understand how cute Chino was when he played with my hair; how important it was to keep obs on the macaques as they had their bizarre arguments; how the marmosets would look at you during pellet time.

The first morning I was home, I had no idea what to wear. After a month of vest, shorts, and flip-flops, clothing seemed so...unimportant. Over the next week, so many things that had previously seemed important now seemed overwhelming. What to wear, what to buy for dinner, what movie to see. I told my husband that none of it mattered. He thought I was falling into depression, but it wasn't that. I just no longer felt that it mattered. After a month of few worries other than basic needs and caring for my monkeys, anything else seemed so petty. Every morning, my first though when I awoke was whether someone had remembered the 4.30 am feed and how everyone was doing.

Equally frustrating was the realization that while I had been away for an incredible month, everyone else's lives had just ticked on. I wanted to show them pictures and tell them stories while they wanted to tell me about their problems at work or with the neighbors. I grew worried that I would be that person who drones on and on about their trip so I did the opposite. I barely mentioned it to anyone.

So how do you deal with reverse culture shock?

Here are my tips:

  • Keep in touch with friends you made during your trip. Facebook has been great because it lets me share pictures and experiences with others who were there and who understand. This is especially important when you realize that many of your home friends will soon tire of the pictures and the stories.
  • Find those few people who do want to hear everything. My husband has seen how energized the trip made me and, although he doesn't necessarily understand everything, he wants to hear about it.
  • Don't feel as if you have to throw yourself back into life as it was before you left. I know some people will say that's exactly what you should do, but bottom line is you've changed. Ease yourself in. I wore flip flops for a week and to hell with the snow. I still don't feel the need to bother with make up or earrings, and the only pieces of jewelry I now wear are a cheap wedding ring I bought for travel and an African bracelet. They're important to me because they represent my time in Africa. 
  • It's ok to not be the same person you were before you left. You found new passions while you were gone. You lived your dreams. Don't lose that hope and energy. 
  • Try to view your home as "another foreign location". You've been away for a while so take some time to explore it again. Visit that local haunt you've always been meaning to go to. View things with a set of fresh eyes.

Ultimately, travel changes you and that's ok. Keep that energy going and use it to drive you to your next trip.

As for me, I'm soon hitting the road again, but in a very different way and to a very different location. My parents and two of my nieces are arriving from England tomorrow so I will be spending next week in Gatlinburg on a family vacation, exploring a more familiar location but through multiple sets of eyes.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Final Day in South Africa: Subterranean at Sudwala and a Fishy Nibble

Maybe it's my hermit nature but I love caves. There is something so refreshing about being underground, in the darkness, constant temperatures, away from the hustle and bustle of the outside world. So when I first heard about the caves at Sudwala, I knew they would probably be on my itinerary at some point. With one day left to explore, I set out to see a little of underground South Africa.

Deciding against the all day caving expedition that is available once a month - after all, my clothes would get muddy and I had little left that was fit to wear on my flight home as it was - I settled for the regular hour long tour. As luck would have it, I arrived just as one was beginning.

Our excellent guide Owen explained the history of the caves to us. During the 19th century, they were a hide out for Samcuba, related to the king of the Swazi people. A giant flow stone near the cave entrance was used as an alarm bell to warn his people of possible attackers. One whack on the stone could be heard throughout the cave and on the land above. A variety of tools used by the Swazi people remain on display in the cave.

Later explorers suspected the cave of being the hiding place of the Kruger millions, a massive amount of gold bullion that went missing during the Boer War. Despite excavations, the gold has never been found, here or anywhere else.

In the 1960s, Philippus Rudolf Owen bought the land above the caves and decided to develop the underground caverns as a tourist attraction. He even built an underground amphitheater, taking advantage of the cool temperatures and excellent acoustics. Stars such as Miriam Makeba  have performed concerts in the amphitheater.

Of course, one habit I have once I get into a cave is taking tons of photos of random patterns and designs within the cave walls, hence:

Impressionist Art or Cave Ceiling?

Once the tour was over, I decided to skip the neighboring Dinosaur Park and make the most of the onsite fish spa. Having enjoyed a garra rufa pedicure during my last visit to England, I wasn't about the pass up the chance to let fish nibble on my feet again. And what a nibble. Apparently four weeks of flip flops and sunburn had taken their toll, and for the next hour, dozens of fish happily ate all the dead skin, much to the amusement and chagrin of everyone else in the spa. (One woman joked that all the fish were so busy feeding on me, they had none left for everyone else!)

If you've never tried one of these pedicures, I highly recommend them. It is wonderfully relaxing and my feet felt fabulous after.

Feeding all those fish did make me hungry though, so before I left, I made sure to visit the restaurant for a smoked trout salad and an opportunity to admire the view.

This was certainly a relaxing end to a memorable trip.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Kruger National Park

The watch alarm gave a timid beep. 4:30 am. I leaped out of bed and grabbed my clothes.

That alone should give pause to those of you who know me. An early bird I am not. Yet during my month-long stay in South Africa, my alarm beeped at 4:30 am four times, and each time, I hopped out of bed. Three of those times were so that I could do the early morning feed with the marmosets. This time was different. This time was Kruger.

And so at 5 am, I left the hostel and hit the road for Numbi, the nearest gate to where I was staying in Nelspruit. Funnily enough, several people had tried to explain that I should not go via Numbi but instead drive further north to the next gate, since the drive would be prettier and through fewer townships. Since I had no concerns about driving through the townships, however, and I preferred to spend as much time as possible in Kruger, I stuck with my original plan, arriving at the gate shortly after 6 o'clock. Following a quick registration process and armed with my trusty R35 Visitor's Guide, I was off again, ready for a day of whatever wildlife I might see. (The Visitor's Guide is well worth the miniscule price - full of maps, approximate driving times, and info about the animals you may see). With only one day to spend at the park, I knew that I would cover just a fraction of the park's 20 000 sq km so I wanted to make the most of my time.

I quickly left the main road, taking one of the gravel roads which would lead me from Numbi up to the Dolspane Road. I drove slowly in the early morning light, carefully taking in as much as I could. I paused at several watering holes, hoping that the early hour might let me see signs of life, but nothing. Undeterred, I kept going.

My first glimpse of Kruger's animal life came just as I turned onto the Dolspane Road. Standing in the road ahead of me were three zebra, their tails swinging in perfect synchronization. My camera was at the ready so I slowed and started clicking. Satisfied that the day was off to a good start, I kept going. Only twenty minutes later or so, my path was blocked again, this time by an elephant.

This would be the first of many elephants that would cross my path during the day, and each time I marveled at the silence. I'm not sure what I expected, perhaps a crashing of undergrowth as these magnificent beasts tromped their way through the bush. Instead, each one caught me completely by surprise, appearing as if from nowhere to cross the road in search of more tasty greenery. They were a photographer's dream.

So there you have a description of how I spent most of the next eleven hours - driving through parts of the park, stopping at the lodge areas only long enough to buy gas, some jerky, and a present for Nic.

I loved the peace and solitude of being out in the park on my own, just me and nature, and the anticipation of what I might encounter next.

I followed the road from Skukuza Camp along the Sabie River down to Lower Sabie, past Ntandanyathi towards Crocodile Bridge, then up the Burne Road to meet with Napi Road, which would lead me back to Numbi Gate.

Occasionally I would pass another car but more often than not, especially in the afternoon, I could drive for quite some time without seeing another person.

In addition to elephants and zebra, I saw wildebeest, hippos, a wide variety of deer and antelope, warthogs, monkeys, giraffes, tortoises (I feel compelled to include them since I saw so many) and birds in an array of colors.

Some tourists might have considered the day disappointing since I didn't see rhino, lions, or leopards, but for me, the day was as close to perfect as it could get.

And as I neared the gate late that afternoon, ready to make my way back to Nelspruit, it seemed wholly appropriate that the last animals I should see at Kruger were a troop of vervet monkeys, making their way down the road. It was monkeys that had brought me to South Africa; it was only fitting that they should wave me goodbye.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

I've Been to Eden

Chimp Eden that is, and it was every bit as rewarding as I expected.

And sorry to be a tease but this is the only photo you get to see; I need to do a little editing work to get rid of wires.

Since I was on a 10am tour with 35 French people and our guide Jason has to pause to allow the translator to do his thing, the tour lasted beyond the usual hour, giving me more time to observe the chimps. Obviously Nina and her baby are off limits, and the top enclosure, where the chimps have the least human contact, is also not included in the tour. But we had plenty of time to see the lower and middle enclosures. I got to finally see several chimps that I recognized from the show that used to be on Animal Planet, including the elderly Joao (60-something years old) and Cozy. Poor old Cozy. A life that has included being born in a lab and experimented on multiple times, and then being taken to Italy where he was castrated and forced to wear tight jeans, has left him with brain damage, some hip displacement, and a lack of status within chimp society. (Having been castrated, he is no threat to the males and ranks below everyone). Nevertheless, he has plenty of character as he attempts to make up for his defaults. To their credit, the other chimps sort of take him as he is, leaving him to his own devices but stepping in when he gets hard to handle.

After the tour, I was met by Executive Director David Devo Oosthuizen, who started his career as a wildlife photographer and now has a job I envy greatly. He then introduced me to Gill, in charge of planning the Sanctuary's new volunteer program. I was thrilled when she asked if she could pick my brain, since I had just come from a volunteer program, and so we chatted about her ideas (which sound great) over lunch.

As I drove down to the main road, I found the road blocked by a troop of baboons. It seemed an excellent end to the day that I had been looking forward to for months.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Pilgrim's Rest to God's Window

As I enter my final few days of a month in South Africa, I am having a few days of R&R in the Nelspruit area, which is at the lower edge of Kruger National Park.

Today I picked up my rental car, and drove north to the little town of Pilgrim's Rest. Originally a gold mining settlement, Pilgrim's Rest is now a designated historical village, where the buildings have all been preserved to reflect a way of life from days gone by. It's not all rosy and happy though. Pilgrim's Rest hit the headlines last year when several white tenants were evicted to make room for black tenants, a controversial move that is part of a nationwide plan by the ruling ANC party. But we'll skip the racial politics for now, and focus on what there is to see and do as a tourist.

Scott's Cafe
My first stop was Scott's Cafe, where I met a rather elderly couple who were on their honeymoon. After wishing them the best, I sat down to enjoy some of the cafe's apparently famous stuffed pancakes. Options ranged from peri peri chicken to ground beef and jalapenos. I settled for a vegetarian option: pancakes stuffed with spinach and feta, topped with an olive and sundried tomato tapenade, and sprinkled with poppy seeds.

I can in all honestly say that these were the best pancakes I have ever eaten. They even top the nutella ones I enjoyed in Innsbruck many years ago. I foresee a definite attempt to recreate them once I get back to Kentucky.

Stomach now satisfied, it was time to explore the town, and that meant braving the row of vendors. I hate high-pressure sales and I hate haggling, so I can't decide if I got some good bargains or if they saw me coming. At the end of the day, though, I am happy with my purchases, and despite having parted with a good many rand, I reminded myself that the amount was still relatively small for me, but relatively big for them. In retrospect, I think my hesitation and silence may have worked in my favor as the women reduced the prices further each time I said nothing.

After an hour or so of browsing, taking photos, and insisting that I could not spend any more money, I decided to escape the pressure of Pilgrim's Rest and flee to the hills. Hence, I hit the road again and drove to nearby God's Window, a gorgeous spot offering incredible views over the entire valley.

With time ticking on and 29 Celsius on the thermometer, I decided to head back to Nelspruit, but now before being stopped by a polite but stern policewoman, who informed me I had been speeding. She sent me on my way with a reminder to obey the rules of the road. And so I leave you for today with a promise that I shall observe posted speed limits and not do anything to get arrested!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Farewell IPR, Hello Nelspruit

And so, like all good things, my time at IPR came to an end. Early Saturday morning, I bid a fond farewell and boarded a bus to Nelspruit.

One thing that caught me completely by surprise was just how much I would miss IPR - the people and the monkeys. I knew I would to some degree but by Sunday, I felt completely lost without Chino and co. I found myself looking through my pictures but honestly, none of them truly capture the place for me.

But back to the trip...

After a brief stop at a motorway service station, complete with rhino in a small preserve (take that British services!), we drove through an increasingly beautiful area of gorges, tiny historic towns, and greenery on our way to Nelspruit. Apparently this area is quite full of history - steam trains, gold mines, rumored lost gold, and so on.

I checked into the Old Vic, met by a woman named Happiness, who seemed anything but at the time. To be fair, I later found out that she is due to give birth any time now and she was much friendlier the next day. Saturday was incredibly hot, as I discovered during the 40 minute (each way) walk to the supermarket. However, despite warnings of the higher temperatures, the weather has actually been much cooler here. Yesterday and today are comfortably warm but overcast, tropical perhaps.

Yesterday, I was going to walk to the nature preserve but lodge owner Dave warned me that as a single woman, it might be a little risky. Instead he suggested the Botanic Gardens so I took a taxi and spent a gorgeous day there, enjoying spectacular scenery of the waterfalls and the Crocodile River, lots of South African flora, and even a little wildlife (one mongoose and a group of vervet monkeys).

Nelspruit Cascades

Crocodile River
I'm not sure what my plans are for the next couple of days. On Wednesday, I will pick up my rental car and so will spend the latter part of the week exploring Kruger, Chimp Eden, some local caves, and whatever else strikes my fancy before I fly back on Sunday. Until then, I am limited to foot and taxi.

As a quick postscript, I should mention how much fun the taxi rides are, for the simple fact that you never know who else you'll be riding with or quite how long it will take you to get anywhere. Yesterday, when Ben came to pick me up at a prearranged time from the Botanic Gardens, he already had one other passenger. We then did a detour to a local school, where there had been some sort of picnic, to pick up a mother and child. The more the merrier!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

My Last Monkey Time

Thursday is always a fairly short day because the afternoons are put by for house cleaning and monkey time so there is not much to report from today. For my last monkey time, I chose to go in with some of the squirrel monkeys, but they were much more interested in hunting for crickets and wrestling each other than they were in me or my handful of peanuts.

The last few days have been unbearably hot, easily the hottest we’ve had since I’ve been here, so today’s slight breeze was very welcome. Sue’s mother is visiting and she says it has been much hotter (!) in Polokwane, which makes me wonder just how hot it might be up in Nelspruit next week.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A New Arrival

It’s not necessarily that amazing how much the atmosphere of a place can change as people come and go, but it is always surprising. Four short term volunteers left yesterday and the IPR seems so quiet now, with only six short termers left. Last night, instead of struggling to find somewhere to sit and then listening to the noise of people coming back from the pub, long- and short-termers alike gathered for a game night. Even today at work, things were noticeably quiet; during obs, I went for several hours without seeing anyone else. And the dorm (10 beds but only 2 occupied) carries an odd echo.  

The enclosure for Brandy is coming along very nicely. Sue hopes to eventually be able to integrate her with Anushka and Jethro, perhaps later adding Chino and Willow to the capuchin mix. For now, though, she’ll have her own space next to them.

Meanwhile, with Oma now removed to the other end of the sanctuary, efforts are being made to reunite Sussie and Spartacus. Therefore, my duties today (other than the early morning feed) consisted of keeping an eye on them as they explored each other’s shared space, while still having the ability to retreat to their own enclosures. They remind me of a couple that have nothing left to say each other: they live together but both wander around the house without so much as an acknowledgement. An occasional glance in the other’s direction, if you’re lucky. 

One other highlight of today was getting to hold Melvyn, as we have christened the 2 week-old bushbaby. He is so tiny, I was almost afraid of crushing him in one hand.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Bushfires and Bushbabies

The start of my last week at IPR and it kicked off with a bushfire and a new emergency arrival. Word of the bushfire came during lunchtime while I was doing obs on Brandy. Her new enclosure is under construction (I spent this afternoon painting the roof), but she and some of the others are quite disturbed by the noise. Suddenly Sue appeared, calling for Solomon and Sydney, the two men who work here full time. Just at the same time, Tom, Bren, and Toby all came back from the pool to let us know. Although not a large bushfire, it was rather close to the mona monkeys’ enclosure. Fortunately, eight people with beaters were able to put it out. Nevertheless, it does show how dry the ground and grass is; even with the heavy storms we’ve had on occasion, the ground is too hard and dry to absorb the moisture so it simply evaporates with the heat. 

Another interesting point was the lack of concern among the neighbors who just see the fires as “one of those things”. When you have a large number of vulnerable monkeys, the fire risk takes on a much more serious tone as even the smoke could do serious damage and evacuation would be a nightmare. Volunteers will probably be digging fire-breaks within the next few weeks as the season gets drier and the risk higher.

Two week old bushbaby, Melvyn.
We also had an emergency arrival this afternoon: a two-week-old bushbaby that is apparently quite ill. Some people brought her in after finding her and not knowing what to do. Our volunteer vet nurse, Emily, is keeping a close eye on her. If the bushbaby makes a full recovery, it will then go up to Polokwane where a friend of Sue’s has another young one (they do better in pairs).

Construction, fire, emergency patients – a busy day in all and more to come. I think a storm is blowing in and it’s been a few days since we last had a big one. This may put a dampener on the pool party currently taking place for those leaving tomorrow. On the other hand, they may just move the festivities into the bar….

P.S. One more event today that I almost forgot to mention was being able to observe Chino and Willow go rockstar in their sleeping quarters. Jax had cleaned out their room and thought we might like to see how crazy they go when they head back inside. Crazy doesn’t even begin to describe it; these two could put The Who to shame for smashing up a room. They leapt around, chasing each other, wrestling, pulling things over, smashing anything they could get their hands on. Capuchins are very cute and they thrive on destruction so this was a wonder to watch, not to mention another reminder as to why they should not be kept as pets.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Exploring and a Complicated Issue

Today, before it got too hot to enjoy my day off, I went on a very pleasant five mile walk, doing the loop around Hammanskraal. I had been hoping to see some springbok; Ethan saw them the other evening on his run. No springbok for me but plenty of emu. (I know emu are Australian but it seems they are raised here by some people too). 

It was actually an interesting walk. A very long straight dirt road the entire way, but it gave me a chance to see some of the properties. One thing that struck me is the wariness about security. Every property is surrounded by locked gates, bars, electric fences, dogs, security signs, or some combination thereof. When Jo was away for a few nights last week, she asked Stevie and Josie over to stay to keep an eye on the place. We’ve also been warned against wandering out alone at night, having heard stories of machete-wielding men who roam the veld after dark, just looking for properties or people to rob, hence the seemingly extreme security measures around many properties.

Clearly it is unusual to see a white woman out walking. I saw very few people, but the few trucks that passed slowed down to offer me a ride. 

These landowners seem to be primarily Afrikaans, the white South Africans of Dutch or British origin. Race is incredibly complicated here, with Afrikaners  Afros (black), and coloreds (mixed race). Even twenty years of so after the end of apartheid, there is still a marked separation between the groups. Sadly, I’ve had little opportunity to really mix with any locals, other than Astrid and Marni at the bar, and the occasional hello with Gracie, Solomon, and Sydney, who work on site at IPR. It’s a shame as I would love the opportunity to sit down with some South Africans and have an open conversation about race relations here, but it seems an impolite or sensitive subject to raise with anyone.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Repeat After Me: Primates Are Not Pets


Roxy, our Fennec Fox, was finally able to move into her new enclosure yesterday, making way for a new monkey arrival. If you ever needed any explanation as to why monkeys should not be kept as pets, Brandy is the perfect example. A capuchin, Brandy was bought by her owners from a pet store and treated as an infant child. She was given her own room, fed sweets, and generally denied a monkey way of life. This is all very well (or not) and everyone thinks they have an adorable monkey-child.

Then the monkey reaches sexual maturity, and you no longer have a cute little child on your hands but an angry teenager. In the case of Brandy, who started attacking her female owner, their answer was to put her on a shorter and shorter leash in her room. Not surprisingly, she became all the more vicious. Finally, not knowing what else to do, the owners called IPR and gave an ultimatum: if you can’t take her, she’ll be euthanized.

Brandy arrived a few days ago. Neither monkey nor human, she is pissed, and who can blame her. I have to say, I take a much harsher view of her owners than most of the others here. The owners were crying when they dropped her off and have been back each day to visit. They were crying when they dropped her off and so the other volunteers and staff were talking about how much they obviously loved her.
Brandy, shortly after arrival at IPR

My take is much less sympathetic toward them: they have engaged in an ongoing act of cruelty, caused by their own vanity and stupidity. I would not buy a dog without doing some research into how best to raise one: diet, behavior, etc. The most basic research into monkeys would tell you that they should not be kept as pets. The owners didn’t buy her to be a monkey; they bought her to be a child, and sadly Brandy will probably never fully recover.

The Primate Rescue Center in Nicholasville, Kentucky, has many residents who were originally pets but confiscated by state officials. Some have had teeth and claws removed in an attempt to “calm” them; others are diabetic thanks to a lifelong diet of sweets. It is incredibly sad for the monkeys, and cruel on the part of humans.

Here’s hoping that the next stage of Brandy’s life is much happier than it has been so far. 

UPDATE: Brandy was able to move into her new enclosure a few days after I left IPR. She is apparently now thriving at the sanctuary. She is allowing others to groom her and is being introduced to Chino and Willow with the goal that eventually they will all share their space.