Archive for the ‘snakes’ 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.

Rowena Plateau is Blooming   8 comments

Dawn breaks on Rowena Crest in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge.

Dawn breaks on Rowena Crest in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge.

 

Rowena is one of my favorite places to hike and photograph in springtime, not only in Oregon but anywhere.  Around Easter the showy yellow blooms of the arrowleaf balsamroot appear, and they are soon joined by lupine, paintbrush and other more subtle flowers.  It’s a show that shouldn’t be missed if you happen to be in the Pacific Northwest in spring.  It is very popular with photographers and hikers both.

Early morning dew coats arrowleaf balsamroot at Rowena Crest in the Columbia River Gorge.

Early morning dew coats arrowleaf balsamroot at Rowena Crest in the Columbia River Gorge.

To get there, take Interstate 84 east of Portland all the way out past Hood River to the town of Mosier.  Get off the freeway and turn east on the Dalles-Mosier highway.  This is an extremely scenic two-lane that winds up through the hills toward Rowena Plateau (also known as Rowena Crest).  When the road tops out and the trees thin out, look for a turnoff and parking to the right.  What a view!

Note also that there are wide spots to pull off along the road before you get to the official viewpoint.  But please don’t drive off the gravel; this is fairly delicate terrain.  After your visit, you can keep going on this road as it winds spectacularly back down to the Columbia River, where you’ll be able to access the freeway again for the return.  I’ve seen car companies shooting commercials here.  It will take about an hour and a half to drive here from Portland.

Mount Adams is visible on the hike up to Tom McCall Point at Rowena Plateau in Oregon.

Mount Adams is visible on the hike up to Tom McCall Point at Rowena Plateau in Oregon.

Trails head in both directions from the viewpoint at the crest, and you can’t go wrong with either one.  If you take the trail that heads north toward the river, you’ll pass fields of wildflowers and a small lake.  It’s less than a mile to the cliff-edge, where you can look straight down on the freeway and the river.  Use caution!

If you go the other direction, toward the south, wildlfowers will again greet you as you climb toward McCall Point.  Making the short <2-mile climb to this point will reward you with views of both Mounts Hood and Adams.  Please stay on the trail, and avoid stepping on the plants.  Some are quite rare, even endangered.

Doe and yearling mule deer are curious to see who is visiting at Rowena Plateau near the Columbia River, Oregon.

Doe and yearling mule deer are curious to see who is visiting at Rowena Plateau near the Columbia River, Oregon.

This whole area is a preserve named for Tom McCall, a former governor of Oregon known for his environmental stewardship.  He was also famous for his unofficial motto “Oregon, enjoy your visit but please don’t stay!”  He did not want his beloved state to become California, and a sign was even posted with this motto on the main highway near Oregon’s border with our southern neighbor.

The area is preserved because of its unique botanical treasures.  The showy sunflower-like balsamroot and lupine are very common of course, but there are smaller, less noticeable plants here that are rare and make botanists go giddy with pleasure.  It’s a gorgeous place, especially at sunrise.  I camp here in my van so as to be here at daybreak.  It’s one of the few places I go that I share with a good number of other photographers.  It’s just too good to miss.

Mount Hood stands beyond the spring blooms on Tom McCall Point in Oregon.

Mount Hood stands beyond the spring blooms on Tom McCall Point in Oregon.

If you come here note that it can often be very windy (see image at bottom).  When the sun shines and temperatures rise (which often happens on this drier side of the Cascades), watch for snakes.  Rattlesnakes, which are potentially dangerous, are not as common as gopher snakes but the two can be hard to distinguish.  This is not least because the non-venomous gopher snake has some tricks up its sleeve that it uses to mimick the venomous rattler.  The triangular-shaped head of the rattler, along with its well-known method of warning hikers, should be enough to tell the difference.  Various birds (including raptors), lizards, wild turkeys and deer also frequent the area.

Rowena would definitely be high on my list if I was visiting the Hood River/Columbia Gorge area.  I hope you enjoy the images.  Please be aware that they are copyrighted and not available for free download, sorry.  Click on any of the pictures to go to the main part of my website, where there are purchase options for high-resolution images.  Please contact me if you have any questions.  Thanks a lot.

A very stiff wind blows the balsamroot and lupine at sunrise on Rowena Plateau in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge.

A very stiff wind blows the balsamroot and lupine at sunrise on Rowena Plateau in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge.

 

 

Kruger National Park, South Africa   Leave a comment

A lion in Kruger National Park pauses just as the sun breaks the horizon & lights his profile.

 

My Africa series continues with South Africa.  This is the country I first flew into, landing in Johannesburg (Jo’burg) only to immediately get lost driving my rental car through the sorts of neighborhoods where the world’s highest carjacking rates are.  There I was actually stopping to ask groups of young men on the street for directions.  Since I am writing this, you know I survived.  I had planned to visit Kruger, one of the world’s most famous National Parks, straightaway.  But instead I spent two months in Zambia, Malawi, Botswana & Zimbabwe.  Now, with some experience under my belt, I returned to Jo’burg and prepared to head to Kruger.

A baboon in Kruger National Park, South Africa, has an expressive face.

I had arranged for reservations in the park, ahead of time, through the Park’s website.  At Kruger Park’s camps, one has the choice of a nice but simple room or chalet, and a campsite.  For the former, reservations are necessary.  For the latter, it is not strictly necessary during the quieter periods.   I visited during a slower period, but still found plenty of other people, especially compared to some of the parks I had already been to (Kafue, Nyika, Hwange).  With this park, it is very wise to not visit during a busy period, which includes the height of summer (their winter) in July/August, nearly all of December, and other holiday weeks besides.  Check South Africa’s school and government holiday schedule on the web.

Many tourists fly in to the airport near the Park where they are picked up for their stay at one of the private lodges in Kruger or one of its satellite reserves (Sabi Sands, etc.).  But I am firmly in the budget traveler category, so I rented a car at Jo’burg airport, piled my stuff inside (including my well-used pup tent) and headed out.  Note that Kruger’s roads are generally excellent and do not require a 4×4.  A simple sedan will do, and they are relatively cheap.  Also note that drivers in South Africa do not like to travel at less than 90 mph unless they are forced to.  Be prepared to put the pedal to the metal or get good at pulling aside to let them pass.

After spending the night at a little B&B in Malelane just outside the southern gate of the same name.  Although I was told I needed reservations before I showed up at the gate, the truth is you can get the staff at the entrance to set you up at a camp if you arrive with few plans.  Just make sure, once again, that it’s not during a holiday period.  I drove right into the park, took the first turn toward the west, a well-graded gravel road, and began right away to see animals.  I saw a baby giraffe, a white rhino with her baby (image below), elephant and more.  I was stunned at the diversity.  Another thing I didn’t expect was the beauty and diversity of Kruger’s landscapes.  The southwestern corner, around the excellent Berg en Dal Camp, is hilly and rocky, with gorgeous landscapes.

 

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

I continued to explore the southern part of Kruger over the next 6 days.  I stayed at Skukuza, Lower Sabie & Satara Camps, plus visited Oliphants.  I liked Skukuza (for animals) and Berg en Dal the best.  I wished I would have stayed at Oliphants – it is perched spectacularly on a high hill.  Satara is a nice big camp as well.  Lower Sabie really squeezes their campers in.  I rose very early every morning, and was out on a game drive by 5 a.m. at latest.  One morning, from Lower Sabie Camp, I was the first car out when they opened the gate.  Shortly a few vehicles started following me (I go slower than most), so I impulsively turned onto an empty road.  Nobody else followed, and I kept going as the dim dusk light gradually improved.

Then I saw something in the road ahead.  It looked at first like small boulders lying there, but there were no cliffs around – flat as a pancake in fact.  As I got closer I realized I was looking at a dozen or so lions just lying in the road, all females and youngsters.  I stopped a hundred meters from them, but they had heard me.  A big female was the first to rise, quite reluctantly, with a lot of stretching and yawning.  She then took a long pee, forming a lake on the pavement.  The others slowly followed, the babies very cute as they yawned.  I drew closer.  The sun was breaking the horizon, but I was unable to get the photos I really wanted, as they were rapidly melting back into the bush.  Now I turned and noticed a couple other cars had showed up.  Beyond them, I saw a big male sauntering down the road.

I waited and he passed within a few feet of me, pausing briefly as the sun cleared the horizon and cast a golden light on him.  He gazed at me briefly, then continued his slow pursuit of his pride.  He was majestic, and I a nice portrait of him (above).  Note that these photographs are available for licensing via download, or purchase as framed or matted prints.  If you click on one of the images, it will usually take you to my website, where you can make a purchase.  If you click an image that does not take you to my site, you are welcome to download that image for personal use only.  Thanks very much for your respect and interest.

 

Near Skukuza Camp, there are several kopjes, which are large rocky outcrops that stand up above the surrounding bush.  One such kopje was the site of my first leopard sighting in Africa, and it was special.  I was alone at the base of the rocks as dusk deepened.  I was really pushing it, since at Kruger it is illegal to be outside the camps after sunset.  It was the type of environment where you cannot help but think of leopards: plenty of rocky hiding places amongst the large granite monoliths.  I was just about to give up and race back before they closed the camp gate when a leopard just trotted up the dirt road.  I watched as he gracefully probed the forest near the road for prey, his long tail waving in the air above him.  He was the most gorgeous animal I had ever seen.  My picture was not the best, because of low light, but it means a lot to me.

A leopard stalks the bushveld in the early evening at Kruger National Park, South Africa.

 

A lioness stalks impala (who are unaware of her) in Kruger National Park, South Africa.

This spot became my lucky kopje.  Next morning early, I was once again alone, very near where I had spotted the leopard the previous night, when I felt a strong urge to stop and wait.  As I backed into position near an opening in the bush, a lioness abruptly rose from right beside the dirt road, only a few meters from me.  I had passed without noticing her crouching there.  Lions blend in so well with the tan grass of the bush.  She proceeded to stalk some impala who were clustered in trees just below us.  I watched for a good 40 minutes until a couple other cars showed up.  As I pulled away, I was happy that my normal routine of late-sleeping night-owl had been turned on its head in Africa.  The early bird gets the wildlife sightings.

I saw much more at Kruger, all of the Big Five several times over.  (The Big Five are Elephant, Buffalo, Lion, Rhino, and Leopard.)  But those experiences at the kopje were probably the most memorable.  I also took a night drive, which I highly recommend.  Guides working at Kruger are extremely professional and good at what they do.  You are not allowed to do night drives on your own, and lions, wild dog, and other animals are much more active at night.  They often use the roadways as trails at night.  Many other animals (such as the honey badger and civet) you will only see at night.  Later, near the southern part of the park on a dirt road, I saw the rare black rhino, two in fact.

These are MUCH less common than white rhinos, and the two species’ behavior differences are much greater than their physical ones.  If you are charged by a rhino, it will most likely be a black rhino.  One of the pair I saw, in fact, made as to approach me, trotting a few paces before just staring at me.  Later, as I lay on the road (illegally – you are not supposed to get out of your vehicle at Kruger), trying to photograph a dung beetle busily rolling his dung ball, I looked up to see my friend the rhino, this time alone.  As he walked down the road toward my vehicle, I walked (quickly, trying not to run) toward him to beat him to my car.  I made it with room to spare, but he had definitely caught my scent.

 

I crossed out of Kruger on a bridge over the Crocodile River, after a memorable week in this beautiful park.  On my way to Swaziland (the “kingdom within a country”), I stopped on the bridge and watched (what else?) a large croc  basking on some rocks below.  I recalled being told by experienced Africa travelers that Kruger was too touristy and developed a park to be worth a visit.  You will definitely see more cars and other tourists in Kruger than you will in, say, Kafue N.P. in Zambia.  But Kruger’s beautiful landscapes, its diversity of wildlife, and its sheer size (I only saw a fraction of the park in one week) make it a very worthwhile destination.  And to seal the deal, it offers all of this at a relatively cheap price.  Take the dirt roads, get up very early, nap in the afternoon, and stay out until the gates close.  You will see all of the African wildlife of your dreams, from big and mean loners (below) to cute families (bottom).

A black rhino approaches for a closer look in South Africa’s Kruger National park.

A family of vervet monkeys stick together in Kruger National Park, South Africa.

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