Archive for the ‘lizards’ Tag

Learning to Love Reptiles   4 comments

An alligator lizard basks in the warm spring sunshine of the eastern Columbia River Gorge in Oregon.

An alligator lizard basks in the warm spring sunshine of the eastern Columbia River Gorge in Oregon.

 

I used to be a bit of a sissy when it came to snakes, and by extension nearly all reptiles.  A few of my childhood friends had pet snakes of course, but I never even got into going to the reptile house at the zoo truth be told.  The only reptiles I liked were turtles, and they are so different as to be considered by most of us as a separate group, incorrect as that notion is.  So turtles were the only reptiles we kept as kids.  We even dug a nice little pond in the backyard and filled it with water for those box turtles who were “lucky” enough to be saved from predators in the nearby woods.

Boomslangs are highly venomous snakes native to southern Africa, here emerging from a tree in Kruger National park.

Boomslangs are highly venomous snakes native to southern Africa, here emerging from a tree in Kruger National park.

 

I taught science some years ago in an outdoor setting, a semi-desert chock-full of snakes and lizards.  I simply had to overcome my distaste at touching snakes at that point, since the school-kids who I taught there would have never taken me seriously if they knew I was afraid of reptiles.  I learned that handling a large gopher snake was not at all as unpleasant as I had believed.  Like anything you just need to go slow and get used to it.  It did not take me as long as I expected it would to get over my aversion to the slimy-muscular feel of their skin.

A deadly fer de lance (mapanale in the local language) hangs out near Angel Falls, Venezuela.

A deadly fer de lance (mapanale in the local language) hangs out near Angel Falls, Venezuela.

 

I encountered plenty of rattle snakes on this job as well, and there were a couple close calls.  One dark evening I was approached by a young girl, just as I was packing up a telescope after an observing session.  She said there was a rattle-snake in their cabin.  I was skeptical but went up the hill to find all of them standing outside in their jammies, beyond excited (imagine a group of school girls on a camping trip and you have the picture).  I scoured the cabin but found nothing.  On the way out, smirking at yet another city-kid over-reaction to being in the outdoors, I heard the tell-tale rattle.  I shone the flashlight around and heard it again, coming from underneath the eaves of the A-frame cabin.  I crouched down and there he was, a big rattler coiled and glaring at me.

A close-up of an alligator lizard.

A close-up of an alligator lizard.

 

I moved the girls further away, getting their slightly less-panicky chaperone to keep watch on them while I fetched a snake stick.  This is a pole with a sort of grabber on the end.  It allows you to grasp a snake behind its head and capture it without getting too close.  I then crouched down and while shining the flashlight with one hand reached under and slowly approached the snake with the snake stick.  Just when I thought he was mine, he decided to make his move.  He slithered right for me.  Since I was laying on the ground, I couldn’t move out of the way quickly enough and had to make a capture attempt before I was ready.  Luckily my coordination was with me that night and I got him.  I don’t like to think about the alternative, with that big ugly snake wanting out of there with nothing in his way but my big ugly face.

A gopher snake shows off the tip of his tongue in eastern Oregon.

A gopher snake shows off the tip of his tongue in eastern Oregon.

 

Since then, I have gotten close to some fairly impressive snakes and reptiles.  There was one in southern Nepal, a rock python who had recently consumed a deer.  This was the biggest snake I’ve ever seen.  And my guide, who grew up around there, had never seen a bigger one.  He estimated it was at least 7 meters long!  I’ve been to the San Diego Zoo and this one was bigger than any they have.

My that's a long tongue you have: a komodo dragon sniffs out a lunch option, the one holding the camera.

My that’s a long tongue you have: a komodo dragon sniffs out a lunch option, the one holding the camera.

 

In Venezuela, I got pretty close to a fer de lance, the deadliest snake in the Americas (see image).  I saw a black mamba crossing the road in South Africa, and got much closer to a boomslang (see image).  And in Indonesia I visited the islands of the Komodo dragon, the world’s largest lizard.  It is very disquieting watching these monsters watch you.  The look they give you is unmistakable: they are waiting for you to make a mistake, just calmly waiting for you to become their dinner.

A small lizard perches on the back of the largest lizard in the world, the Komodo dragon in Indonesia .

A small lizard perches on the back of the largest lizard in the world, the Komodo dragon in Indonesia .

 

On a hike recently in the eastern Columbia River Gorge near home in Oregon, I saw a couple snakes and an alligator lizard (see images above).  It’s been a long winter and a long time since I’ve seen a reptile.  I suppose I am completely over any lingering fear of snakes and lizards.  Now all they do is make me smile, as I know they are harbingers of warm sunny afternoons ahead.  In addition, they are fascinating creatures, real holdovers from Earth’s bygone days.  All they want is a slow-paced lifestyle with plenty of sunbathing.  What’s not to love?

Close-up view of a geometric tortoise's shell, in the western Cape, South Africa.

Close-up view of a geometric tortoise’s shell, in the western Cape, South Africa.

 

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Might not want to leave your room just yet:  a large komodo dragon prowls the grounds of my guest house on Rinca Island, Indonesia.

Might not want to leave your room just yet: a large komodo dragon prowls the grounds of my guest house on Rinca Island, Indonesia.

The Namib   2 comments

Namibia is a desert country in southern Africa.  That does not mean all of it is dunes & sand with no vegetation.  Most is in fact semi-arid country of the Kalahari “Desert”, and in the north it even starts to resemble standard African bush with a pronounced rainy season.  But the heart of Namibia is its desert, the spectacular Namib, with the largest and oldest sand dunes in the world.

The Namib Desert near Sossusvlei, Namibia.

 

Culturally the country is similar to South Africa in that it retains significant white influence.  This cultural flavor takes German form; it was occupied by them during colonial times, and there are many German natives of the country.  This means that the architecture, food and customs will often make you think you took a left turn on the way to Africa and landed in Frankfurt.  The country gained independence from South Africa after a prolonged war in 1989.  But Namibia is different than its southern neighbor in that there is not the same sort of acrimony between the races that still exists in today’s South Africa.  The country is so young that most people seem to have family members who fought in the war of independence.

This country is clean and safe, and perhaps in that lies its major drawback.  It’s terrain is not the only thing that makes it stand out from most African countries.  As in South Africa, Namibia does not create the feeling of being in “true Africa”.  The tribal towns in the north might be an exception to this.  So if you visit Namibia and have time for one other country, do not make it South Africa – too similar.  Choose a country like Zambia instead.

A rare rainbow appears over the dry grasslands of southern Namibia.

I’d been dreaming of coming to Namibia for years.  I knew as a geologist and lover of big empty landscapes that I would feel right at home.  I was not disappointed.  I saved Namibia for last on my recent 3-month trip to Africa, and (predictably) ran out of time before I was finished exploring.  Flying from Cape Town to Windhoek, Namibia’s ultra-clean, compact little capital city, I watched hundreds of miles of empty plains, canyons and lonely coast glide by underneath the wings.  The plane was full of Namibian roller-hockey players returning from their championship run in Singapore.

The weather was actually a bit rainy when we hit the ground, which is unusual for this part of the world.  But I was firmly into the rainy season, so it wasn’t too surprising.  After a night in Windhoek (the cleanest, most walkable city I’ve been to in a long long time), I headed south toward the Namib in my rental car.  One can easily get around Namibia in a regular sedan.  There are many gravel roads but they are well maintained.  If you want to go deep into northern Namibia, however, or off the beaten track anywhere, a 4×4 is necessary.

It was still drizzling, and I was hoping for great light in the desert because of the clouds.  Although it is only a 4-5 hour drive SW from Windhoek to the heart of Namib-Naukluft National Park at Sesriem, I left late and took the long way, swinging south and approaching from the south.  The landscape was some of the emptiest I had seen in Africa.  It reminded me of the empty areas in Nevada and a few other areas of the interior western U.S.  I experienced some dazzlingly beautiful light at sunset (image left), then spent the night at a funky little place run by a talkative Frenchwoman.  The town, called Maltahohe, was no more than a wide spot in the road, and the surrounding   countryside was as unpopulated as places get in this world.

The Namib’s dunes began to appear in the intense sunshine of the next morning (the storm had abruptly broken the previous evening).  At first I thought I was looking at mountains.  Then as I drew closer I noticed their smooth, reddish color.  Can that really be sand dunes?  Wow, I was amazed (and, sadly, I’m not easily amazed anymore).  At the little village of Sesriem, there is an excellent campsite that sits right at the gateway to the National Park.  The onsite restaurant is fine, and the views even better.  From there, I drove the paved road down the long valley to Sossusvlei, towering dunes on either side.

The animals of the Namib are one of its unique characteristics.  Stopping at one of the bigger dunes on the way to Sossusvlei, I hiked around and spotted a cute little lizard with a shovel on top of his head (image left), obviously for burrowing into the sand.From beetles to birds, reptiles to mammals, the creatures have fascinating adaptations to the extreme aridity.  This desert gets most of its moisture not from infrequent downpours as in other deserts, but from a moist fog that rolls in from the cold South Atlantic only a few miles away.  A decade or more can pass between rains, but when they do come, it can pour buckets.  Then small ponds and even lakes can appear in the ‘vleis’.

 

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A shovelnosed lizard prowls his sandy home in the Namib Desert of Namibia.

There are numerous dried lake beds throughout the area, and these are called vleis.  Sossusvlei is one, and nearby Dead Vlei, with its stunning dead camelthorn trees, is another.  You may have seen pictures of Dead Vlei; it is the target of serious photographers from around the world.  I visited both.  Note you cannot drive there without a 4×4.  There are jeeps that will take you from the car park, but they don’t run all day.  So needing to stretch my legs anyway, I hiked in toward sunset.  This is Namibia’s most popular tourist attraction, but I saw only two other visitors there.

The light was not perfect for pictures, but I did get an expansive view of the dunes (image at top).  The dunes in the background are over 3000 feet high.  I rushed back to camp but it was still well after dark when I arrived.  Fortunately it was a simple matter of contacting the guard at his nearby house, and the gate was opened for me without any hassle.

Next morning I was out early.  A thin fog had swept inland overnight, and was laying over the dunes.  As the sun rose, so did the fog, and I grabbed a shot I doubted would turn out well.  The contrast was high, with washed out color.  But I was surprised when I looked at the picture later.  It makes, I think, for a starkly beautiful black and white image (below).  The dead camelthorn trees in the picture follow a now-abandoned water-course.

 

A thin fog lifts over the huge dunes of the Namib Desert as the sun rises.

 

I hiked up a moderately high dune, but after reaching the first peak, I realized that I didn’t have enough water to push on to the far summits.  It was tougher than I thought, humbling for an outdoors hiker guy like me.  But after stowing my shoes, I ran and skied/skipped down the dune yipping and yahooing all the way.  I rolled to a stop at the bottom laughing like a kid.  Exploring further, I loved how the dune grasses contrasted with the deep reds of the sand (image bottom).

I very much hope I can make it back here to this heart of the Namib, and with more time.  Perhaps it will be as a pro photographer, or even running a tour/workshop.  One thing I missed is doing some serious night sky observing.  I was simply too worn out to stay up late.  But there is at least one lodge near Sossusvlei with its own telescope.  So next time, I’ll make stargazing and night sky photography a priority.  I left Sossusvlei too soon, but I wanted to check out the Naukluft Mountains nearby.  So next post up: the spectacular Naukluft!

In the Namib Desert, a clump of dune grass takes root in a slightly more stable part of a red dune.

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