Great visibility, fun snorkeling in Providenciales

Great visibility, fun snorkeling in Providenciales

Article and photos by Elena del Valle

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The beach at Little Water Cay also known as Iguana Island

Mike and Cheno were our crew

Mike and Cheno were our crew

The day after I arrived in Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos Islands of the British West Indies I received a call from Tanya at Big Blue Unlimited (Leeward Marina, Providenciales, Turks and Caicos Islands, +1 649 946 5034, fax +1 649 946 5033, info@bigblueunlimited.com), a company owned by Mark Parrish and Philip Shearer that specialized in small groups and eco-tours. I was scheduled for a morning snorkel activity the following day, but the weather was about to change and not in a good way. Tanya had kindly found a spot for me that afternoon if I could make it.

Our boat, Starfish

Our boat, Starfish

With a little help from Jessica at reception at my hotel, the Beach House Turks and Caicos in the Bight, I was able to reschedule my spa treatment. At 12:30 p.m. I climbed aboard the tour company's navy blue van with a towel and biodegradable sunblock (as suggested in my booking confirmation) for the drive to the Big Blue Unlimited office at the Leeward Marina to join eight other travelers on a four hour Caicos Cays Cruise. On our way, we picked up six travelers from Club Med. A couple from another property in the Northwest Point met us at the tour company office.

All the passengers and crew on the boat (except for me)

All the passengers and crew on the boat (except for me)

Within minutes of arriving we were ready. After signing a page long release form on an electronic tablet I joined my fellow travelers on the covered deck of the small office. Cheno and Mike, our crew members, introduced themselves and led us to the Starfish, our nine meter long boat for the afternoon. Mike, from North Caicos, had five years of water sports experience, three and a half with Big Blue Unlimited, and Cheno, a dive master from Atlanta and Grand Turks, had seven years of water sports experience, five of them with Big Blue Unlimited. They were friendly and managed the boat well.

 A sign for the Little Water Cay Nature Reserve

A sign for the Little Water Cay Nature Reserve

One of the male Turks and Caicos rock iguanas we saw

One of the male Turks and Caicos rock iguanas we saw

The Starfish had cushioned seating for three in the shady stern (back of the boat). It could accommodate the remainder of our group in the sunny bow (front of the boat). On our return to the marina everyone moved forward to avoid the water splashing the stern seat. Our first stop was at Little Water Cay, a small island managed by the Turks and Caicos National Trust, where we saw a number of Turks and Caicos rock iguanas close up. A local guide led the nine of use via a wood walkway, sharing insights about the iguanas and the island. From the small dock we looped around a short distance past palm trees, trust markers and signs, and the mostly unafraid reptiles back to our starting point, and to the boat in about 15 minutes.

The sand was powdery white

The sand was powdery white

I liked that the tour company sought to hire local islanders (a number of employees I met elsewhere on the island were foreign nationals), that its staff had received training about marine and coastal ecology, marine life identification, island geography and geology; and that Big Blue followed and promoted eco-tourism principals, as one of the owners explained by email.

The shallow beach was like a swimming pool with white sand and clear water

The shallow beach was like a swimming pool with white sand and clear water

From there we motored across turquoise waters to join other tour boats at Leeward Reef, where we remained about one hour. After we tied up to the reef buoy, Mike and Cheno helped us with snorkels and masks, put anti fogging liquid in the masks, and made sure we were comfortable once in the water. Cheno led three of us snorkeling, watching us every so often to make sure we were all right. He pointed out big fish such as an oversize parrot fish, a large grouper, a barracuda and three reef sharks at varying times. The swells were high and the water cool, but the snorkeling at Leeward Reef, about 12 feet deep, made up for the minor discomfort I felt. One of the other guests had to take over counter medication for seasickness when she returned to the boat.

For snacks there were fruit slices, potato chips, muffins and brownies

For snacks there were fruit slices, potato chips, muffins and brownies

After snorkeling, we went to Fort George Cay, where Mike and Cheno offered us rum punch or water and snacks of Lays potato chips, chocolate brownies, poppy seed muffins, and fresh fruit (cantaloupe and pineapple slices). Mike and Cheno stayed on the boat while the rest of us enjoyed some beach time. A short stroll from where we got off the boat the beach was shallow and the water crystal clear. It was also the warmest water I swam in during my stay in the Turks and Caicos Islands. We spent about an hour there before riding back to the marina. Moments later, we headed back to our respective hotels in the van. I made it back in time for a shower and an early dinner. For the rest of the evening I thought of the excellent visibility and fun snorkeling and beach. By the following morning the wind had picked up and the waves were choppy at the beach. I was thankful for Tanya's call and to have enjoyed the snorkeling activity the previous afternoon.

Why we liked Botswana, Namibia safari circuit

Why we liked Botswana, Namibia safari circuit

By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox

Leopard in a tree near Camp Moremi

A leopard in a tree near Camp Moremi

On our most recent safari trip to Southern Africa we stayed at six Desert & Delta Safari properties, five in Botswana and one in the Caprivi Strip of Namibia. Traveling to properties within the same company offered advantages. The management similarities provided us an idea of what to expect before arriving at each subsequent property. For example, they all had eco-friendly policies; offered us moist refresher towels on arrival and when we returned from game drives as well as welcome back staff greetings when we returned from our activities; with only one exception, they all served buffet meals of similar styles at shared communal tables; the camps that depended on generators for electricity had battery operated lights for times when the generators were off at night; and most were run by a four-person management team, many of whom were friendly and helpful when asked.

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Our pilot bids us farewell after our arrival at Leroo La Tau from Maun to start the adventure

Safari Air had several comfortable Caravan aircraft

Safari Air had several comfortable Caravan aircraft

Another advantage of traveling to Desert & Delta Safaris properties was their shared charter air service. Since Chobe Holdings Limited owned Desert & Delta Safaris and Safari Air (Desert & Delta Safaris, Private bag 310, Maun, Botswana, +267 6861243, http://www.desertdelta.com, info@desertdelta.com), a non scheduled charter safari airline founded in 1992 and based out of Maun, they coordinated our transfers between the Desert & Delta Safaris properties and between our international arrival and departure airports. The company owned five GA8 Airvan, three Cessna Caravan and one Quest Kodiak. We appreciated the convenience of the well organized and on time service.

The heat drove many to poolside in the afternoons

The heat drove many poolside in the afternoons

Our stay was hampered in part by a regional heat wave that stretched all the way to South Africa. Four of the six properties ran on generators. Because the rooms remained sealed most of the day they became over hot around the clock. More than once we or our fellow travelers became ill from the heat and dehydration. Thankfully, the game viewing vehicles had partial shade. In addition, wet face cloths and pool dips were helpful in reducing our body temperature.

The wildlife was centered around the river

The wildlife was centered around the Boteti River banks near Leroo LaTau

Leroo LaTau, on the edge of the Makgadikgadi National Park, was our favorite for game viewing and views of the Boteti River from our rooms and the common areas. This was in part because Slade, our guide, was one of the most passionate and engaged of the guides we spent time with on that three country multi week itinerary. We enjoyed seeing a bit of the regional zebra migration and predators such as lions and wild dogs as well as brilliant sunsets over the shallow waters of the river.

Sunset over the delta near Camp Moremi

Sunset over the Okavango Delta

Time for a drink before dinner at Xugana

Time for a drink before dinner at Xugana Island Lodge

In Camp Moremi (see Tented camp offered good game viewing, creature comforts on edge of Okavango Delta) we liked the expansive views from the elevated deck. At Xugana Island Lodge, we delighted in the birding within the island, the sense of remoteness within the famous Okavango Delta, and pretty water setting as well as many boat outings and occasional hippo sightings. Savute Safari Lodge had the prettiest rooms and some of the tastiest and most abundant meals. We especially liked the views of the man made waterholes from the dining area and our tented rooms.

Breakfast at the Chobe Game Lodge with a view of the river

Breakfast at the Chobe Game Lodge with a view of the Chobe River

At the Chobe Savanna Lodge and Chobe Game Lodge, situated on opposite sides of the Chobe River and in separate countries, we were thankful for the air conditioned rooms. Although the border crossing from Botswana to Chobe Savanna Lodge on the Namibia side of the Chobe River was time consuming, hot and tedious we enjoyed the shady leisurely river rides on the pontoon boat. We particularly liked it when our boat was one of few on the river and we were alone with our local guide. The flat river water and quiet when the motor was off were particularly appealing. At the Chobe Game Lodge, we appreciated the three daily game viewing activities, and luxury amenities such as plated meals at private tables, in-room phones, WiFi internet access, work out room, spa room and its innovative electric safari vehicle.

A hyena in the Moremi park

A hyena in the Chobe Game Reserve

Elephants sharing a waterhole at Savute

Elephants sharing a waterhole near Savute Safari Lodge in Chobe

Overall we had a fun trip and numerous bird and wildlife sightings of common species such as zebra, wildebeest, giraffe, impala, red lechwe (at Xugana), including elephant, buffalo, leopard and lion from the coveted Big Five. We saw beautiful birds, including the elusive paradise flycatchers, fish eagles multiple times, and particularly remember pairs of fish eagles relatively close to our boat at the Chobe Savanna Lodge. During the trip, we had extraordinary sightings such as wild dogs at Leroo La tau, crocodiles hunting, interactions between lions and elephants and numerous striking landscape and waterscape moments that will linger in our memories for years to come, and draw us back to Botswana and Africa in the future.

Tented camp offered good game viewing,  creature comforts on edge of Okavango Delta

Tented camp offered good game viewing, creature comforts on edge of Okavango Delta

By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox

Welcome to Moremi

Camp Moremi, a luxury tented camp in Botswana, Southern Africa

One of the Coalition

Our greeting committee was a coalition of lions.

During a recent multi-country safari itinerary we spent three nights at Camp Moremi (Desert & Delta Safaris, Private bag 310, Maun, Botswana, +267 6861243 and +267 6861418, Fax +267 6861791, http://www.desertdelta.com, camp.moremi@dds.co.bw), a luxury tented camp within Botswana's Chobe Game Reserve in Southern Africa. To reach the property we flew on a small plane from Lerro LaTau, its sister Desert & Delta Safaris property on the Boteti River adjacent to the Makgadikgadi Pans. Our first impression driving from the landing strip through a mopane forest was of the vegetation and color contrast from the dry straw colored patches and scrawny plants of the Kalahari area to the south and the bushier greener area near camp.

Wildebeast

A wildebeest watched us briefly before running off into the bush

Wattled Crane

A wattled crane

Arriving at the camp's central lawn we heard the cacophony cries of dozens of Burchell's starlings calling in the midday heat in the tree canopy above us. The game viewing property overlooked the Xakanaka Lagoon to the west and the inland mopane forest and open grasslands to the east. During our twice daily game drives in the reserve on partly open vehicles we saw three of the Big Five and many birds, as well as a number of other fauna. Our guide also identified some flora. Since visits to the park were limited to daytime hours, in the mornings, we entered the park immediately after sunrise and in the afternoons we exited right before sunset. At night, we had to be escorted by a staff member from our tents to dinner and back in case we encountered animals within the camp.

Breakfast cold buffet

Our breakfast included a cold buffet.

Camp Moremi was established in 1984 and completely renovated in 2012. It had 12 luxury tents on a five hectare generator powered camp with 32 Setswana staff. Bruce Petty was the general manager. While we were there Thuso, Frank, Lydia, and Lettie shared management duties. The property, which had Ecotourism status from the Botswana Tourism Organisation, received a TripAdvisor 2015 Certificate of Excellence.

Thuso, Frank, Lydia, and Lettie

Thuso, Frank, Lydia, and Lettie managed Camp Moremi

Our accommodations consisted of 5 meter by 5 meter tents atop wood platforms set slightly above the bush. Each of our tents had four distinct areas: a spacious entry foyer with a writing desk and mirror; a bathroom with a walk in shower with hot and cold running water, and a flush toilet; a bedroom; and a covered bush facing deck.

The entry area in the tent

The entry sitting space with mirror, desk and chair.

At a previous Desert and Delta Safaris property the staff provided a metal container for each of us to fill up with bottled water from a common area cooler. This method was designed to cut back on the number of plastic bottles discarded. Because of the high temperatures (reaching 45 Celsius while we were there) the water in that container heated up soon after filling it up. Our ice buckets were replenished once a day in the morning, but the ice melted within minutes. Refilling our bottles also required queuing up at the single water cooler when everyone was preparing for departure and time was limited. The water chilled from the cooler became warm within minutes. Also, carrying the bottles from our rooms to refill them in the main building was inconvenient, especially during the rest period between activities when it was hot and uncomfortable everywhere and we sought water to lower our body temperature and became thirsty. Although we liked the conservation minded concept behind the refillable non thermos metallic bottles, in practice the idea did not work well at all.

The beds has mosquito netting

At night, the staff spread mosquito netting around the two single beds set next to each.

The bathroom in the tent

The bathroom in the tent had a bush view.

Meals and game drives were included in the nightly rates. Tent amenities included: two cotton bathrobes, Charlotte Rhys Refillable toiletries (conditioning shampoo, shower gel and body lotion), two umbrellas, insect repellent, insect spray, flashlight, and shower caps. There was no soap (only shower gel). There was a dining area with a bar and a library corner that included a popular computer for guest use with a very slow (1 megabyte, 1-100 kilobytes per second) connection, a curio shop, an elevated viewing deck facing the lagoon, and an outdoor pool.

Our only leopard sighting in Botswana

Our best leopard sighting in Botswana

During our summer visit, the 1.5 meter deep plunge pool deck was the most comfortable place in the property in the middle hours of the day between brunch and tea time. The pool area had eight cushioned lounge chairs with rolled up towels on every chair and two large umbrellas. The pool floor was slick, requiring care to avoid slipping. There was also a cooler with bottled beverages although it had no ice so the beverages were almost at ambient temperature.

The pool was the place to get relief from the heat.

The pool was the place to find relief from the blistering heat

Our guide Osman

Our guide Osman in front of our safari vehicle

Our very bumpy game drives were aboard a canvas topped Toyota Landcruiser with three rows that could accommodate two passengers in each of the front rows and three in the rear row. Osman, our Setswana guide, had three years of experience. In his company we saw Kalahari apple-leaf, baobab, jackal-berry, leadwood, marula, sausage trees, blue water lily flowers and papyrus as well as baboon, bushbuck, elephants, giraffe, hippopotamus, brown hyena, lechwe, leopard, lion, banded mongoose, Selous mongoose, vervet monkey, reedbuck, sitatunga, South African ground squirrel, tsessebe, waterbuck warthog, wildebeest, and zebra. We also saw Nile crocodile, Nile monitor and Okavango hinged terrapin. He pointed out hippo tracks and mole rat holes.

Mother lion and cub

A mother lion and her cub

Sunset over our tent

The entrance to our tents was lit at night.

Birds we saw or heard included: arrow-marked babbler, black-collared barbet, crested barbet, bateleur, Southern carmine bee-eater, swamp boubou, reed cormorant, wattled crane, African darter, fork-tailed drongo, white-faced duck, yellow-billed duck, cattle egret, great egret, little egret, slaty egret, African fish-eagle, go-away-bird, Egyptian goose, spur-winged goose, Southern ground-hornbill, grey heron, purple heron, squacco heron, red-billed hoopoe, African hoopoe, African grey hornbill, red-billed hornbill, glossy hornbill, pied kingfisher, woodland kingfisher, yellow-billed kite, blacksmith lapwing, crowned lapwing, Meyer's parrot, Kittlitz's plover, broad-billed roller, brown snake-eagle, red-billed spurfowl, Burchell's starling, Cape glossy starling, black-winged stilt, African stonechat, saddle-billed stork, yellow-billed stork, barn swallow, water thick-knee, hammerkop, wattled crane and golden-tailed woodpecker.

Safari properties that offered exercise facilities among favorites

Safari properties that offered exercise facilities among favorites

  Leopard in a tree

A leopard in a tree during a game drive at Rattray’s on MalaMala

The pool at Ratttrays

The pool at Ratttray’s had a view of the dry river bed

When on safari the repetitive cycle of daily game drives and copious meals can leave us tired without the healthful benefits of exercise. On our most recent itinerary featuring safari properties in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa two lodges stood out for their fitness and pool features. Both lodges, within the Sabi Sand Reserve, a private reserve adjacent to South Africa’s Kruger National Park, had private plunge pools in the rooms as well as a main area swimming pool large enough to swim short laps.

Exercise room at Rattrays

The exercise room at Rattray’s

White rhino

A white rhino during a game drive at Rattray’s

In the Mala Mala Reserve, Rattray’s on MalaMala had a dedicated fitness room for guests with exercise equipment and a few weights. Next to the fitness room there was a sauna. In front of the fitness room there was a swimming pool. Both had expansive views of the lawn and dry river bed. In addition, there were private plunge pools on the river facing deck of each spacious room.

Pool at Chitwa Chitwa

 The main pool at Chitwa Chitwa Private Game Lodge faced a dam

Game was visible from the pool all day

From the pool deck we observed elephants visiting the dam

Chitwa Chitwa Private Game Lodge, in the northern end of Sabi Sand Reserve, also had a dedicated workout room with electric exercise machines. The art filled sunlit room with glass walls was adjacent to the property’s dedicated spa treatment room. Guest rooms had private decks with bush and dam views as well as plunge pools. In the main area, there was a rimless swimming pool facing the property dam.

The exercise room at Chitwa Chitwa

The exercise room at Chitwa Chitwa

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A lion seen during a game drive at Chitwa Chitwa

A book for lovers of birds in Rift Valley, Kenya

Birds of Kenya

Birds of Kenya

Photo: Princeton Press

The thousands of flamingos on Lake Nakuru may be perhaps the most famous of bird sightings in Kenya's Rift Valley. There are many bird other species in that area, which includes four national parks: Lake Nakuru, Lake Bogoria, Mount Longonot, and Hell's Gate. Birds of Kenya’s Rift Valley (Princeton University Press, $29.95), a 256-page softcover book by Adam Scott Kennedy published in 2014, features the 320 bird species he believes travelers are most likely to encounter on safari in the region, which runs from Lake Baringo in the north to Lake Magadi in the south.

In the book, there are 500 color photos, most by the author, as well as non technical information on the ecology of the area and bird behaviors by species. It is divided into seven sections: Birds of Lake and Marsh; Up In the Air; Birds of Prey, Birds of Grassland and Open Areas; Birds of Wood, Scrub and Garden; and Night Birds.

Scott Kennedy has served as principal leader on birding holidays in Africa, South America, Europe, and New Zealand. He and his wife, Vicki, operate as private safari guides, specializing in photographic and wildlife safaris in East Africa. He is the author of Birds of the Masai Mara (see New Masai Mara bird book available).


Birds of Kenya

Click to buy Birds of Kenya's Rift Valley (WILDGuides)


Why we treasured private tour at Miami wildlife sanctuary

By Elena del Valle and photos by Gary Cox

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Freya, a caracal lynx

As I stood near a lion themed water fountain in a subtropical garden at the Zoological Wildlife Foundation in the southwestern suburbs of Miami, Florida holding Freya, a relaxed caracal lynx, an African khaki colored wild cat with pointy ears, I marveled and took a mental snap shot of the special moment. Never in the many safari drives and walks I have been fortunate enough to enjoy over the years had I come close to the elusive bush animal. Freya allowed me to pet its head and back. I was surprised at how soft the fur felt and how comfortable Freya was settled in my arms.

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Vadim, a rare amur leopard

Sure, the caracal's attention span was fleeting. It turned left toward a group of visitors near the monkey cages and right as the sounds of nearby construction drew its attention. Yet it was calm, allowing me to savor the experience while my partner struggled to photograph it because while its body remained immobile its head swiveled around constantly. It was curious and distracted, making it difficult to capture even a single clear image.

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Mario Trabaue holding Onyx, a restless black jaguar

Next, we had a chance to hold Onyx, a young black jaguar. Despite the clouded midday sky we could see the muted rosettes on his black coat. They were stunning. Freya seemed downright angelic in comparison to the gorgeous jaguar who would not be still, not even in the arms of its expert handler. After a few moments of intense and futile wrangling I passed Onyx back to him. He had little more luck than I did. Eventually it was my travel partner's turn to hold the cat. When for an instant Onyx calmed down I lifted the camera to take photos until my partner yelped. The reason the cat had seemed less agitated was because it was defecating and the excrement landed on his arm. The incident did nothing to dampen our enthusiasm. He cleaned his arm as best as he could with the chilled iced tea bottle we had at hand while we watched Onyx leave in the company of its owners, Maria C. Tabraue and Mario Trabaue, who had come to greet us during our Zoological Wildlife Foundation Private Tour with a primate and feline interaction session.

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Sarabi, a playful tiger cub

Stephen Gregorio, our friendly guide and the Foundation's zookeeper, had Vadim, a rare amur leopard, on a leash a few feet away from us. They had been standing there during our interaction with Onyx. Vadim too returned to his enclosure shortly after Onyx. In the interim, we awaited the arrival of Sarabi, an adorable tiger cub. We could not get enough of him. He acted like the aloof celebrity he was, gently biting his handler's pants, pouncing on plants, and stalking invisible prey. We also spent quality time with Amorette, a capuchin monkey, and after her Chung, a gibbon. Curious and playful she arrived with a stuffed companion and was relatively calm in my arms. Chung, on the other hand, wouldn't hold still for a moment, and was desperate to flee and explore on his own.

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Stephen Gregorio, zookeeper at the Foundation, and Amorette, a capuchin monkey

Many of the non human inhabitants of the Foundation were born there (50 percent of the babies had been born and remained at the facility) or transferred from Zoological Association of America accredited facilities. Some were rescues from people who could no longer house them while others had been seized from owners without permits or wildlife violators. Still others had been abandoned, injured or brought for rehabilitation. Whenever possible the Foundation released rehabilitated animals, a spokesperson explained.

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Chung, a gibbon, wanted to explore

The five-acre facility welcomed approximately 20,000 visitors per year. While we awaited our tour guide in the check-in arrival area we heard several foreign languages. It was no surprise since slightly more than half of the visitors were from out of the state or the country. I imagined the intimate wildlife experience drew many of the tourists from near, like us, and far away. According to a 2014 article by Sharon Guynup in NationalGeographic.com only 3,000 tigers may remain in the wild.

According to WildLifeConservationSociety.com only 25 to 40 amur leopards remain in the wild. During our visit to the Foundation we saw a tiger and an amur leopard. They were clean and appeared to be well looked after by the staff. While my preference remains to see wildlife in its natural habitat, in those cases where the animals may no longer survive and thrive in the wild a captive environment may be the only alternative. The Foundation provided a home for its animal residents and an opportunity for visitors to support the upkeep of the animals and at the same time visit them. It was a memorable experience worth repeating.