My time in Armila, an indigenous Guna Yala village, was made possible by the La Wayaka Current artist residency.
In this photo above, continuing straight (right) down the path, you will end up at Nacho's house, our host in the village, the cultural liaison for Armila. That is where we ate all our meals graciously prepared by his family. Turning left, just past the edge of the first hut is the "internet cafe" and the only convenience store in town with a cooler, run by a generator. I never used the internet, it apparently only worked with a phone and was apparently so slow if more than 2 or 3 people were using it at the same time that it might take half an hour for one text to go through. I didn't come to Armila to be in touch with Colorado, so I never used the service.
But I did go to the store nearly every day to buy a cool (not quite cold) coke for one dollar. The store was run by the oldest man in town. Even though he knew I was there to buy a coke, he never got up out of his chair outside the door until I had gotten it from the cooler and showed him I was ready to pay. Then I had to wait inside the unbearably hot and stuffy hut which had no windows, no air movement at all, because the door faced into the corridor where there was no breeze. I had to wait for him to shuffle ever so slowly around the end of the long counter to his cash drawer. I tried very hard to have exact change, because if I didn't, then I had to wait for him to make change, which often involved shuffling into a back room and shuffling back out. I felt like I was in that Carol Burnett Show sketch with Tim Conway, "The Oldest Man." I could feel the cool coke warming by the second as I waited for change, sweat pouring down my temples. Clearly he was not at all bothered by the heat. I tried to shortcut the process by showing him I had exactly one dollar and handing it to him while he was in his chair, but he preferred to conduct the transaction behind the long counter. If his grandson (I'm presuming, a younger guy) was there, he thankfully would take my coin on the spot.
There were a number of houses throughout the village that sold individual items, perhaps coke or juice or eggs.
This convenience store did not have a cooler, just sold dry goods, candy and cleaning products.
Each Guna village creates their own rules and regulations regarding alcohol. In Armila, the town decided that only beer could be sold and only on the weekend. Although foreign guests were not expected to follow the rule, it would be rude to drink in public during the week. The oldest man wouldn't sell us beer outside of the weekend, we tried. But we found another place that was kind of like a restaurant, with a cooler of very cold beer. Heaven! It was right next to the beach, so it could service tourists camping on the beach. They happily sold us beer, however on the weekdays we had to put it in a backpack to carry "secretly" back to our hut to drink. No, we're not desperate alcoholics, but most of us are used to a cold beer or cocktail at the end of the day, and it was nice to keep up one familiar tradition in the middle of this very foreign village and culture.
We learned so much and there were so many note-worthy scenes that I witnessed in the village, it's hard to select which ones to share ... for to share it all would be a novelette. But perhaps it's worth starting with the story of Armila village itself. First, let me explain briefly the Guna Yala territory. It's not something the Panamanian government gave to the Guna people or that the Guna negotiated for. After years of fighting against Panama after it declared its borders, which included within the traditional Guna homeland, the government ceased fighting them but cut them off from all aid and communication, isolating them for about 10 years as a form of sanctions. But the Guna could survive just fine without the government because they still had all their traditional knowledge and skills. Panama eventually said there couldn’t be one country (Guna) inside another, so the Guna agreed to join Panama on the condition they have their own land, written into the constitution, and nobody could tell them what to do with or on that land.
The Guna decided among themselves that they needed to know three things in order to work with the government and not be tricked or taken advantage of by them: learn the Spanish language, know the Spanish religion, acquire a general education. So they started to send kids to school in Panama City and build schools in their own villages. They learned Catholicism so they could know what is was about and not be told lies. Know thine enemy. Now they're lobbying to become an autonomous economy, as they already have their own land, culture and religion, now they want their own economy. In the village schools they continue to teach Kuna language so it doesn’t get eradicated. They are stepping further and further into the global community, allowing more and more tourism, but unlike a lot of traditional cultures in their twilight, they still understand the value in their unique culture, language and belief system.
The name "Armila" is a combo of the Kuna names for iguana and a type of fish that used to be common in the river. Seven families in 1890 started the community. They used to live several hours by boat down the coast, but they were always coming here to fish and get food, so finally they decided to move here. So seven families came together. The village was originally a few kilometers away until 1943, when a tsunami came and wiped out that village site, so they moved and set up here. Then other people started to come from other places to this little Edenic location. So for 50 years it was just the seven families, and now about 600 people live here, and another 300 or so who call Armila home are living in Panama City. Both Nacho and Gladys’s families were of the original seven. The oldest man, who runs convenience shop, is the last person in the village to have lived in the pre-1943 village.
Well, how about a little tour through the village past some of my favorite huts. I loved the smoke seeping out of the thatched roofs, from cooking inside of huts, the heat and smoke of the cooking fires. (This is the left building in the above pic.)
If you have followed me for awhile, you may have figured out that I love kitty cats, so it's a special delight whenever I come across them traveling. I might travel more often (assuming I could afford to) if I didn't miss my own kitties so much when I'm away. Erik and I both have been guilty of luring kitty cats into our hotel and hostel rooms while traveling in order to play and cuddle with them. So I'm a giant hypocrite when I ask guests renting my own guest studio to please not let my kitties inside, haha. I try to keep pet hair out of it. (Want to stay with me in Colorado? Rent my studio!)
There weren't many kitties to be found in Armila. But there were a few ... allow me to share. We were surprised to look up and find this creative cat nestled in the rafters of the other residency hut (not the one I lived one).
I chased down this kitty for awhile through the forest before it stopped long enough for me to snap a picture. A random plastic elephant in the bottom corner.
This sweet little thing appeared to live in the house behind us, or at least it enjoyed stretching out on the concrete slab that made for their front porch.
But the only cats I ever really got to pet were Manuel's. Manuel is the sahila who gave us the hardwood protective "charms" in a special ceremony in his hut. Our guide Eduardo made a habit of visiting him nearly every day at his hut. He had a nice outdoor space, kind of analogous to a gazebo -- some benches and hammocks arranged in the shade under a large tent top. Manuel was one of the first people to really open up to the residency idea and participants. So one day I asked Eduardo if I could go with him when he visited Manuel. I had a very interesting time there, but the best thing was that I got to sit on a bench next to three very friendly and cuddly kitty cats.
I petted them nearly the whole time, so it was clear I liked them, and when Eduardo and I got up to leave, Manuel told me I could come by and pet the kitties any day. So I did. His house was on the way to the jungle creek that I often visited. They were always there in the shade, and I did take the opportunity to gather some kitty love. But let me tell you about some of the conversation with Manuel that involved local cures of illness, as I thought it was interesting. As a spiritual leader and healer, he collects traditional remedies from the forest. Although now, he is getting too old to tromp through the forest as he used to, and has a young apprentice.
For stomach pains and diarrhea, he said one cure is simply river clay, like we’d been collecting for Gloria and Judith to sculpt with, mixed with water. He showed us a pot that he had sitting nearby, it looked like it was just filled with mud. He lifted the pot to his mouth and took a swig of it to show us. I thought surely had hadn't just drunk mud, it must be more than that. But nope, just clay and water, he said.
Then he told about mixtures they make with the milk of trees. When you cut them with a machete, certain trees, including plantain trees, leak milk (like a milkweed does), and they collect this milk in bottles and keep some at home whenever they need it. For stomach and digestion issues, they add a bunch of fire ants, crushed up, to the milk and boil it. I guess maybe it’s a similar thing to how in India they use cayenne pepper as a heat element, but here they use fire ants! Manuel said pregnant women can’t drink this ant mixture, though, it’s bad for them. But they have something they can give to a woman giving birth to help the baby come out, which is the fruit of the cacao tree sliced and soaked in water. The slices look like little florets. We touched one in a pot of water and it was super slimy. Like, really slimy. Coat a baby in this stuff and it would definitely lubricate it for delivery!
Villagers also let fire ants bite them as a cure for a serious illness, even for cancer, and to make them stronger. They stick their hand or foot into a hole filled with the ants and let the ants bite them. Manuel told us that he had done it himself for something he had been diagnosed with by a doctor of Western practice. But instead of using Western medicine or treatment, he came home and communed several times with the biting fire ants. As an indication of how painful it is, this is also sometimes used as a punishment -- to put fire ants on someone.
The other place that I saw Manuel was when we were allowed to attend a spiritual congress in the big congress house. We were asked to wear the traditional outfits while inside the congress that we had all borrowed for the turtle festival. There are different types of congresses, so that ultimately there is one nearly every night. One kind is for making decisions and policies about the village by vote, another is kind of analogous to going to church. There are no preachers, sermons, books, hymns, dances, no mandate to sit still or be silent.
The congress house is a large one-room hut full of wooden pews, low and slanted backward so that it would be easy to lean back and fall asleep, which a number of women had done. Some women were working on sewing molas with a torch flashlight on their head. Some were holding children, some sleeping or dozing. Men sat around the edges of the house. Men, women, children come and go casually, one doesn't have to be present from the beginning till the end.
The sahilas and “interpreters” sit in the middle of the hut, the sahilas in hammocks. Manuel sang stories, like how he sang for the heartwood “ceremony” for us. And after every so many “bars” of singing, a second sahila (Carlos) would sing a 4-note sliding descent, which was saying basically, “right” or “that’s the truth” kind of thing. At one point another sahila yelled, or more like shrieked, out loud, and apparently he usually adds more things like that throughout the songs, but he only did it once.
So in the spiritual congresses, the sahilas sing what are basically parables -- stories that tell a moral to the audience, or counsel a way of behaving. The interpreters sort of summarize what the sahilas are singing to the audience. Later that night, Nacho explained to us what that night's song was about, as he is one of the interpreters. I won't give you the whole tale, but basically: be hospitable to strangers and kind to your neighbors.
There were also a couple little puppies that hung around Manuel's place, but I'm not sure if they were his family's.
Dogs were generally well taken care of, except they did not seem to have a cure for the fleas. But just like it's often said you can judge a person by the way they treat animals, I think this is basically true of cultures, as well -- how they treat domestic animals. I often saw people washing their dogs with soap in the river. They were sometimes at the helm of canoes as people paddled them up and down the river. Although there were quite a few running around the village, there did not seem to be an overpopulation of dogs like I've seen in other rural areas of the world. The ones in Armila seemed to all belong to someone as their pet. I remember places in Africa, Brazil, and other countries, where I've seen children beating dogs with sticks, and adults yelling and shooing them as if they were vermin. Never saw that here.
The children might not have been monsters to the canines and felines of the village, but I started to call it The Monster Hour at about 5:00 p.m., when the kids started going nuts around us. It was this palpable frenetic energy from kids who came around. Once Jeffry started working on his shoe design on our fence, and Yoon and Chung were working on their bottle cap flag, the kids often clung to them, charting their progress, poking their creations, begging for photos. Other times they would just run around our courtyard doing cartwheels or pushing each other around like wheelbarrows, crab walking, just all kinds of silly antics. One evening, several of them sang a bunch of songs for me and recited their pledge of allegiance (I tried my best to member ours to say in return).
Another time two girls went completely manic over the touch screen on my laptop, as I was sitting outside, just about to make some journal entries when, as always, they came out of nowhere. I specifically looked around to make sure I was alone, and within probably a minute, no more than two, these girls showed up. I was showing them photos I had taken around the village. They loved the butterflies and leaves on water, but laughed themselves into hysterics over some of the pictures that included people. They kept zooming in and out by moving their fingers in and out on the touch screen. They so much loved zooming in on the butt of a man fishing from his canoe that they called over a couple of other passing kids to look. They scrolled through the photos at warp speed, practically paddling across the touch screen with their hands, and pushing the keyboard buttons that I said they could (mostly just the arrow buttons) so crazily that I thought they might break them. I finally had to insist that I had to go eat my dinner (though it was still a couple hours away), as I was beginning to fear for the welfare of my laptop. So I came back inside and had to use soap and water to clean the screen that was just a giant smudge of dirty fingerprints.
One evening, these lovely girls came up to me as I sat in a chair in our courtyard. I was scrolling through some photos I'd taken on my phone camera and they asked if I would take their picture. I decided to get my real camera instead, which pleased them. It was almost dusk, the light was tough, but I got a few of these extremely well-composed and serious girls. They never wanted to smile. Even after they reviewed the first few pics I took, they wanted more but they wanted to maintain their serious expressions and poses. It was a welcome refreshment from the other children who usually stretched the skin on their faces trying to smile big enough, haha. Don't get me wrong, I love the smiles. But it was also fun to capture some more serious poses.
This boy had been climbing the hibiscus tree beside our courtyard. I mainly took his picture to distract him from pulling off all the pretty flowers and breaking the branches that were bowing under his weight!
The hibiscus the boy was climbing was much, much smaller than this one, but this is a typical hibiscus tree around the village. Absolutely gigantic ... I can barely manage to keep one in a small pot at home. I think they have such cheerful flowers.
I have learned to greatly enjoy young children of another language. When you talk with kids who speak your own, even if they are just toddlers, even if they are pre-speaking themselves, you still feel compelled to make some sort of sense with your words, right? I do, anyway. Even if they're silly, inane sentences or questions, and I say them over and over, I still feel they must be vaguely sensical, and so I have to put a little thought into saying something. With kids who don't speak English, I can say literally whatever comes into my head, it need not make one wit of sense. It's all about the tone of voice, smiling, and gestures. I can say to them in a playful, friendly tone, with the universal "toddler lilt," down on my knees with a smile, "Whose pickles are in the train station? Are those your pickles? Blue dots smell lovely, don't you think? My, what a purple ball!" It's all good, we're total friends. I don't have to think about anything, we just enjoy each others' company and good will. I find it fabulously refreshing.
I think the sweetest thing I saw in the entirety of my stay I did not get a photo of. But it took place on the path through this ocean-side coconut grove, as pictured below. It was at sunset, and the sky and the light filtering through the trees was a magical golden color. Then a father and daughter passed by me. The father was holding the little girl's hand, it was the only time I saw a girl child completely naked (usually just the boys). As they walked on, she kept turning around to look at me, padding through the dirt with her little bare feet, as I waved and smiled each time. The sun had turned the western air into a soft golden mist. The daughter and dad holding hands, walking through the gold. It was like a fairy tale scene, beautiful and precious.
Yoon sent me this pic she took of me and this little boy. The morning we left Armila, our speed boat was all packed up with our stuff and I was just hanging about near shore waiting to launch, when an older woman who lived in one of the huts next to us came up to me and started talking and gesturing. I had never spoken with her, but I waved at her grandkids about ten times a day with "hola!" They were often sitting in a tub of water outside their hut. That family seemed to be perpetually doing laundry and washing their children -- a spigot nearly always turned on, water often running from the house in a little trough (made naturally by the water) down the path. This little boy in particular never ever tired of waving and yelling "hola" when I walked by; I was always sure to make a very enthusiastic wave back.
So this last day, I could not understand what this woman was telling me rather urgently (I think she must have been speaking Kuna, because I think I could have made out a few words in Spanish), but she kept pointing back toward her hut. I got a feeling she was referring to something there and maybe I should even follow her, except she turned around and did not walk to the hut, she went another direction.
I didn't know what to do, so I did nothing. A short while later, this little boy, my waving friend, came running down the path from his hut, ran right up and threw his arms around my leg, giving it a giant bear hug. I knelt down and gave him a real hug, but now I'm sure that his grandmother had been telling me something about him ... either asking if I would go say goodbye to him or telling me he was going to come out. A pretty darling little moment. He was clearly sad at the prospect of not having people to wave at every day. He hugged Yoon as well, and stayed in the shade with us till we left.
Early in the morning, there is only evidence of children in the village, as they are in school before 7:00 a.m. A soccer ball has spent the night in the "street" alone.
There were several schools in the small village, but they consisted of pretty much empty rooms with chairs and desks. Most of the rooms were cement blocks, I thought this one was much more pleasant. One morning I walked past a classroom of young kids to hear some of their English lesson. The teacher would say the word and the children repeat it. They were apparently studying exotic animals that day, I imagine he was pointing at a picture of each animal on a wall poster or something. Teacher: "Tiger." Kids: "Tiger!" Teacher: "Elephant." Kids: "Elephant!" That was about the last word I expected kids in a traditional indigenous village in Panama to be learning.
There are a surprising number of Kuna words that sound very similar to English words but have wildly different meanings. The first time our guides introduced us to a sahila, we ran across him sitting outside his hut in a shaded space much the same as Manuel has. He was sitting there with some women swinging in hammocks in the same space. As we approached, and it had been explained to us that there were five sahilas in Armila, Eduardo said, "And here is one sahila." All of the villagers in the shade busted out laughing. It took Eduardo a minute to realize what he had said while the women kept giggling and giggling. The word "one" in English sounds like the word for "penis" in Kuna. So he had introduced us to "the penis sahila."
We were then informed the English word for "that" sounds like the Kuna word for "grandfather." So we were advised to try to remember when we were in a store not to point to something and ask for "that one." As we likely did not actually want a grandfather penis. Strangely, another number, "six," in English sounds like the Kuna word for "vagina." I discovered another similarity when I told Nacho I was leaving Panama City to go back home on a Wednesday. He made a short reply in Kuna to his family around him, and everyone started laughing. I’d basically said I was going home to pee, as the word for "Wednesday" means to relieve one's self in Kuna.
Well, my readers, there is much more to my time and learning experiences in Armila, but this is getting pretty long, so I think it's time to wrap it up. But hopefully you've gotten a tasty tidbit of life in a Guna Yala village. Here are some photos to expand your feel for the physical village. Parts of the town, like where my hut was, are more open, but leading toward the outer edges are long corridors like this one, with different family "compounds" on the other side of the bamboo fencing.
Eventually opening up into wide spaces like these. In another culture, the colorful items might be presumed prayer flags, or something. But it's just laundry.
I thought this was so cute -- chickens heading out for a stroll beyond the village. They look so purposeful, not like they're going to go peck around aimlessly, but like they're taking a pleasure walk to do some sightseeing.
This is the view from my window in my bedroom in our hut that the villagers built for residency participants.
The shore where the river meets the ocean, just a short barefooted walk from my hut:
Below: a red chair, empty in the early morning. The significance: in Armila, these were our neighbors on the north side ... the only huts between ours and the river. That chair always had somebody in it, and usually there were several chairs occupied outside. The woman of the house was often hand-sewing molas in that chair. Kids playing, men talking, women laughing the loud cackle laugh that all Guna women seem to have. There were always plastic chairs full of people there in that space between the two bamboo huts. So one early morning when I walked by and that chair was empty, just sitting there facing the river, it stood out to me, and in context of my own experience there, it was somehow poetic. In a strange way, to me it represented the family's continual motion and vivacity through this singular moment of emptiness.
Some gorgeous sunsets, standing on the river bank.
Goodnight, village. Sweet dreams, Armila. Please try to stay the way you are for as long as possible.
Well, actually we'll be looking at a lot of little cats of the savanna ... baby lions!! Although a baby cheetah was my #1 wish for this safari, baby lions were #2. I've seen young lions before, such as at Kwai Concessions in Botswana, but not teensy babies. But oh boy did we see some cuties in the savanna areas of Ndutu in Tanzania, and the Masai Mara in Kenya.
In Ndutu, our guides, who keep tabs on all of the area prides and usually know who might have cubs, thought that this was probably the first day that this lioness had brought these tiny cubs out of the tall marsh reeds onto the open savanna. This was not far from where we saw the baby cheetah. The tall marsh grass makes good cover for all the babies.
What I love about the picture above is the one cub's arm sticking up in the air, his paw looks so tiny. When cubs are standing and walking, their paws look huge, all splayed out. Two cubs are cashed out in the front. The cubs alternated between playing and sleeping all cozied up to one another. Some were more into playing than others. Just watching their dynamic, interacting with one another, was precious beyond words. We had the cubs all to ourselves for quite awhile. Finally one other vehicle joined us, but mostly these priceless moments were our own.
The most hilarious thing about them was when they were nursing. The little grunty noises they made, I don't know how to describe them, crawling over mom and pushing each other over for the best spot at the buffet.
This mother was so sweet, always trying to lick her cubs and carry them around. It's remarkable to see how gently she scoops them into her powerful jaws and sharp teeth and carries them so delicately.
Just look at her scooping up her cub with her giant paw into her mouth! Such a loving mother. (Though I must say, I'm glad my mom didn't have to carry me around in her mouth.)
The little cubs ... honestly. Are you dead yet? My mom and I just about died. Between the baby cheetah and these kids, it's a miracle we made it back to Kenya alive. They're perfect, like little stuffed animals.
There was another lioness there, probably a sister to the mother. She looks vicious, but she's really just finishing a yawn. But I like the look on her face and the nice showing of teeth!
Little cub showing us his baby teeth. My goodness, so vicious! Rawr.
But the magic had to come to an end as the sun got lower in the sky. The lionesses led the cubs back into the safety of the tall reeds from which they came.
Although time spent with the babies is extraordinarily special, time spent with any lion is special! One afternoon we spent a couple hours with some lions that our guides thought also had cubs and might bring them out into the open. In the end, we did not see the cubs. And the lions weren't doing much. But hanging out near them ... I mean, how often does one get to do this? They slept a lot. If they twitched a paw or rolled over on their back, it was still exciting. "Oh look, he moved his paw!" This is why animals are so remarkable -- even the tiniest movement can stir our hearts. I think it's funny how huge lions can still sleep like kittens in funny positions.
The fella above is standing in the rain, you can just make out the drops in the air. Below, this male lion played hide-and-seek in the bushes for a short while before walking toward us shaking flies out of his mane.
And a couple black-and-white portraits of this young lion sitting beside a tree. I think his mane is still growing in, he's just got a couple nubs of fur on the top of his head.
So, thrilled with our Ndutu sightings,we moved on to the Masai Mara in Kenya, where we stayed at our guide's lovely bush camp. I hope you're not sick of lions and lion cubs yet, because I have a whole new spread from the Mara! Although I didn't manage to get these first pics in good focus, I still think they are super fun, illustrating the strength of bonds and play between siblings. These adolescents were having quite a time romping and rolling with each other. Their affection for each other is palpable.
And this lion was practicing his Shakespearean acting. I believe he has just been dramatically poisoned and is lying tragically dead, Juliette bent over him in sorrow. Who knew lions were such accomplished thespians?
One of the most magical moments was one afternoon fading into evening with a dark blue storm sky and these lions crossing the hill in the misty air. I didn't take a picture of the most dramatic scene, a lone lioness cresting the hill with a darker, brooding sky behind her.
We thought we were going to get to witness a lioness taking down a warthog. She and her pride mates had been intently watching a warthog. Elly, our guide, mentioned that lions like to catch warthogs. Then foom! all of sudden she was up and sprinting down the hillside.
But she broke off and did not catch it.
If you happen to watch many nature shows on TV, you might know that some animals and groups of animals are pretty famous. The Marsh Pride of the Mara is one of them, which I've seen followed and filmed on numerous shows, particularly Big Cat Diaries. (which was the inspiration for my cats' Twitter page, "Small Cat Diaries" ... in case you want to follow the lives of my kitty cats. :-) ) So when Elly led us to a group of lionesses lounging on a fallen tree and told us they were the Marsh Pride, I got (once again) a little beside myself. Just like if I were to see a famous human I admired on the street. So we stopped to watch them for awhile. Nobody else (humans) anywhere in sight.
We watched them for awhile as they woke up one by one and descended the tree onto the ground. Elly didn't say a word although he suspected they were there ... so when we saw this little face peek out and surprise us, mom and I of course were squealing.
Pretty soon a whole little crew of wee ones came spilling out of the hollowed tree.
This was an interesting situation in that there were two lactating lionesses but one of them was not at all in the mood to nurse the cubs. So I guess that's one advantage of a pride -- mothers can nurse each others' cubs. The cheetah moms and leopard moms don't have this luxury. If they don't feel like feeding the kids, too bad, it's all up to them.
So the cubs mostly got the hint (though it took some of them awhile) and piled on to the willing lioness. And once again made the indescribably cute noises as they jockeyed for prime position and suckled.
We were inside several rain storms on the savanna. It was no big deal to us, of course, in our vehicle where we could easily pull down the pop-up roof. The animals endured with an admirable stoicism. Like this lion hunkered down.
This juvenile lion particularly stole my heart, as he reminds me very much of my kitty, Jasper. So much so that after I got home, I nicknamed Jasper "my little lion." He also endured a brief rain storm.
But we weren't done with baby cubs yet! We found this lioness and her two tiny cubs a couple times. Our guide explained that they were so young that the lioness had not yet introduced them to the rest of the pride. Mothers usually spend some time alone with their newborns before bringing them into the pride. She was protecting them, putting them between herself and a big bush.
Sleepy little lion! Just waking up all groggy.
So I hope you've enjoyed this photo fest of lions. They are certainly one of the most iconic animals of the savanna ... the epitome of beauty, power and family. And crazy cuteness. Easy to see why many have given it the moniker, "King of Beasts." Queen of the beasts, too!
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My time in Armila was made possible through the La Wayaka Current artist residency.
Even though it was the most oppressive place to be in Armila, I really loved tromping into the jungle. One of our first days there, our guides showed us the path out of the village on the east side that led into the jungle, following a nice creek. This is where I got my nature fix, and I'll share some of the nature with you now.
First, the path out of the village passed by these "tourist" huts. Run-of-the-mill tourists cannot stay inside the village ... the village leaders will grant permits for people to camp on the beach. Although near the end of our stay, they permitted a large group to spend the night inside one of the community ceremonial huts. But these cute little huts here are for visiting researchers or journalists, people working in the community.
The path begins with low growth. So there's actually a little bit of a barrier between the village houses and the true, deep jungle. A lot of villagers follow this main path into the jungle to reach their fincas. Baby pineapples growing along the path.
And of course, my canine pal, Buddy! Accompanying me into the jungle, always waiting for me if I stopped to take pictures. Not only man's best friend, but a girl's, too.
After following a small creek that babbles through a rocky bed choked with dead leaves, you soon come to a delightful spot where rocks have been placed to make a small dam holding the water into a pool. It usually made for a nice, stil mirror reflecting the mass of trees surrounding it.
If you sit in it with bare feet, little fish come and nibble on your toes. I didn't find this particularly pleasant and wore shoes in the pool instead. But whoa Nelly, did it feel deliciously cool and refreshing in the muggy heat of the jungle. One of the banks is made of a red clay that some of the artists collected, took back to their hut and dried some of it to powder to use as a color for drawing, and used some to fashion sculptures. It ended up being too brittle to fire in the "kiln" they built into the dirt under a fire, and broke apart.
The first day we visited this place, a whole bunch of tiny yellow flowers had fallen into the creek and among the rocks. It was dazzling, like the creek was covered by a sheet of gold. When I looked closer, leaf-cutter ants were carrying the tiny blossoms away. I wanted to try to capture them with my camera, but it was the first day and I was with the whole group and needed to head back to the village with them.
So I determined to come back soon and spend more time with the ants. I've tromped through rainforests in various places around the world, but I had never just hung out or sat down and absorbed one. When I was in Costa Rica, one of the most exciting things I saw, second only to the sloths, was the leaf-cutter ants. I'd only seen them on TV nature shows, and running into them in person thilled me to an unexpected degree. So ... I basically couldn't wait to come back to this spot. I believe it was two days later that I first came back.
But well before I reached the little pool of paradise, I started running into butterflies. Well. I can't resist a butterfly. But here's the crazy thing, I did not have a camera with a macro lens. My options were (1) my wide angle lens, for which I'd have to be practically on top of a butterfly to adequately get it in the frame, (2) my phone camera which simply wasn't fast enough most of the time, and I wanted better quality pics, (3) my favorite lens, but it's a 70-200 mm, and its *minimum* focus distance is about four feet. So that means I have to be four feet away from any object I want to focus on. Although option (3) is completely ridiculous to try to use in a suffocatingly dense forest, it was really my best option.
So there's me, in the equatorial rainforest, where you can't walk one foot off the path without being choked by leaves and vines and branches, chasing butterflies. But to get a photo of one, I must first chase it until it stops on a leaf or flower. Then I must figure out how to back away four feet through the strangling jungle while keeping it in my sights and hope it doesn't fly away while I'm backing up crashing through branches and leaves. So try to appreciate the effort I went through for each butterfly shot that came out. Nine times out of ten, it flew away before I got backed up four feet, and so the chase continued.
But I thought of them as my jungle muses because in chasing them around like a very silly person, they led me to places and sights I probably wouldn't have seen otherwise, so I did not mind their elusiveness. I'll share with you now some of the shots I got over several different trips into the jungle ... so imagine that I'm standing four feet away from each of these butterflies, completely enveloped in jungle material, pointing my big lens at them. I just tried not to think about the spiderwebs I was probably running into and all the bugs that might be jumping onto me. Also, by being so far away, the subjects are a pretty small portion of the frame, so these are all heavily cropped.
In between chasing the butterflies, I spent time noticing the delicate flowers of the jungle.
As if they weren't freaky enough roaming all over the village and infiltrating our hut the first week we were there, I also had to watch out for crabs while crashing through the jungle! Always scuttling about, in and out of their holes. I just never think about crabs being on land, I did not expect them to be all over the jungle! Ants, butterflies, spiders, grasshoppers, snakes, birds ... yes. Crabs? No.
Lots of interesting fungus everywhere, too.
I thought about a fascinating Radiolab episode, "Plant Parade," about how trees in a forest are all connected to each other underground through a crazy fungal freeway system. Tiny fungi connect tens of trees together, and they're not even the same species. In the forest these researchers were studying, they found one tree could be connected to as many as 47 others around it through this underground network. (This was a forest somewhere in the USA.) Apparently, according to the researchers, tree roots are not actually all that good at absorbing minerals which are crucial to their growth from the soil. So the way they get them is from the underground fungi in a trade ... the tree, which converts carbon to sugar, gives the fungi sugar it needs in exchange for the fungi's minerals they have collected. The fungi have a variety of methods for acquiring minerals from the soil and from a tiny insect called the springtail, the latter of which is rather gruesome. They found that when a tree is dying, it dumps its carbon into the fungal network for other trees around it to absorb and grow stronger. According to the researchers, this underground fungal structure looks physically like a brain. I don't know how they arrive at that, so I retain some skepticism, but what is clear is that the forest itself acts like a superorganism, like a bee or ant colony. It's not just alive with individual plants, but as a whole organism.
The Guna tribe's mythology is all about going underground, that's where the magic worlds are. If they thought about life, where it comes from, maybe their observations of the jungle, of seeds sprouting up and roots growing down gave them their mythologies. Why did the Maya who lived in similar jungle look up to the stars like so many other cultures? It's interesting how, it seems to me, the sky dictates the majority of ancient folklore around the world and forms the territory of the gods who give life and destiny, even though life, the sacred, really does come from underneath the ground like the Guna seem to perceive.
So when I looked at the jungle floor, the chaos of death and life on the surface, and then thought about the magnitude of what is going on underneath the surface ... I felt completely overwhelmed at times, like almost dizzy trying to sense and feel and acknowledge everything going on around me.
I stopped to take a wee nap one day. I laid down here with my camera, with the tree in the second pic across from me. I did not see any bugs swarming on the ground or on the log, so I thought it looked like a pretty good napping spot. I laid down pretty unconcerned.
As I lay there, looking up for awhile before my eyelids fell down, I sort of communed with the movement of the jungle. Because it's so hot and humid and oppressive, at first it seems like the air is too heavy to move, as if all is still except for the butterflies and ants and the babbling brook. But once I myself stopped moving, I realized there was movement on every plane around me -- visual, audio, horizontal, vertical. Leaves are perpetually falling, some floating effortlessly and some having to force their way through the interlaced branches of the jungle, always a downward current from the sky to the ground. Ants are perpetually moving across the ground, leaf-cutter ants like rivers crossing the forest floor -- a sideways current along the plane of the earth. Dappled light is always moving and shifting, chaotic -- it's impossible to take the same photo twice because the light is always different, so many leaves in the jungle canopy are filtering the sun and always subtly moving. The light moves in eddies and swirls in the space in between the lateral movement of the insects and the vertical movement of the leaves. The air feels stiff and still, but it’s clearly always moving, shifting the trees ever so slightly, encouraging, promoting, beckoning them to shed their leaves. Always rustling noises from the leaves falling through other layers of leaves, from lizards always scampering through the floor of death the piled up leaves create, which then becomes a floor of regrowth, really. Plus the occasional crab scuttling through the dead leaves. Sound comes in waves from the insects, swelling like waves on the ocean, sometimes so loud as to be distracting, sometimes so soft as to be a background noise, like white noise.
I'm pretty sure I drifted off for a bit before I opened my eyes again and sat up. I took a long cold drink from my water bottle. Set it down. And then noticed an ant crawling on my leg. I flicked it off. Oh, another ant! Flick. Ack, another ant! Geeze. Flick. Finally my eyes focused properly and I saw to my horror that I was actually covered in ants. They weren't biting me, so I didn't really notice at first. I spazzed out and starting flailing around like mad, suddenly feeling my whole body crawling with ants. I wasn't exactly screaming, but was definitely making some noises of distress, and frantically trying to brush off the ants. Thank goodness, they did not actually get under my clothes, they were just on top of my pants and shirt. Still I was mega wigged out. Then I looked at my camera and saw that it was covered in ants, too! Aaaaack! I tried to blow them off and flick them off. It was quite a little ordeal before I felt that I was finally rid of all the ants. Fortunately they did not decide to infiltrate my daypack.
However, I now could feel a giant welt on my face. Oh lord! Why on earth did I think it was a good idea to lie down for a nap on the floor of the jungle? Cursing myself now, I tried to assess the welt situation. I had a benadryl in my daypack so I popped that. This is not a selfie for the sake of documenting myself in the jungle. This is me taking a picture of myself so that I can look at it to see if the welt is visible and how bad it looks. OK, this is actually the second picture I took. The first one my expression was pretty bizarre, haha. So I decided if I'm gonna take a pic, even for medical purposes, why not make it possibly worth saving. Amazingly, I couldn't see anything that looked as bad as what I felt, even when I zoomed in. So hooray. I decided to keep the photo because I just find it a humorous reminder now of my brief appearance in a little horror movie. (The handkerchief ... just standard issue accessory in an environment that wrenches sweat out of every pore.)
Well. So, I didn't necessarily want to get that intimate with the ants, but I was very pleased with the rest of the time I spent with them. If anything is more ridiculous than trying to photograph butterflies with a lens with a 4-foot minimum focus distance, it's trying to photograph ants from four feet away. But I tried it anyway. In the process of watching and photographing them, although few photos turned out very well, I really got to admire the discipline of these critters, their order, the breadth of their territory. Here are a couple videos showing them en masse, just taken with my phone camera.
Some details I noticed about them are that it seemed only some of them have the mandibles to cut through the leaves. I could be wrong about this, but I looked through a lot of pics, and this seemed to be the case. Now, these ant pics are crazy zoomed and cropped in! I'm pretty impressed that the lens got anything so tiny in reasonable focus. So now imagine me sitting on the ground four feet away from a line of ants trying to get one in focus.
It was also amusing that some ants hitched a ride on top of leaf bits that other ants were carrying. Slackers!
Compared to the typical swarms and traffic jams of ants, I thought this guy looked kind of dramatic, alone on the tree carrying his leaf.
OK, now we have finally made it to my favorite part of hanging out in this area: the creek. I couldn't decide whether to put it first or last, but I decided to present this post in basically chronological order of my discoveries and activities. So insects and plants came first, then I really got into photographing things on or through the water. So allow me to present to you a gallery of water photos. The first thing that captivated me was the most obvious: the reflections.
It was by paying attention to and photographing the reflections that I then noticed all the other details and then actively started looking for interesting shots. Or at least by my idea of interesting. The first one below just kind of shows the general chaos of the jungle floor (which includes the creek bed). In the first pic, it's a jumble of leaves in the water, leaves on top of the water, and light and trees reflected on the water. Almost all the photos revolve in one way or another around leaves.
I spent a lot of time playing with different shutter speeds on running water to see the different effects. Slow speeds often helped the water look like a kaleidoscope.
I had a lot of fun trying to capture these bubbles frothing up in a little nook of the creek. These kind of places are perfect for people with very long attention spans, like me. You: "What have you been doing for the last hour?" Me: "Oh, watching bubbles in the creek." I like how in the large bubbles you can pick out pretty well the reflection of patches of sky and trees.
Various other movements and patterns of water.
Fast shutter speeds produced the white streaks, which looks to me as if someone drew on the photo in photoshop or something, the white lines look almost synthetic rather than organic, which I think is kind of interesting, but it's just the water at high speed.
And finally, a bug lurking beneath the water. I tried to capture fish and tadpoles, too, but none of those really came out.
So there is a summary of my time in the jungle, and I think my best attempt at being actually "artistic," as opposed to documentary.
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The landscape of Tarangire in northern Tanzania stands in stark contrast to all the other parks we visited in East Africa, all of which were more open plains, iconic "savanna," populated mostly by acacia trees in the large flora department. Tarangire is home to a dense population of baobab trees ... amazing trees that live to be hundreds and thousands of years old. (see some 800+ year-old baobabs in Botswana) They make for a unique and dramatic landscape. And, to our delight, they make a wonderful home for elephants. I had been advised by knowledgeable Afrophiles to go to Amboseli for the elephants and to Tarangire for the landscape ... I had not realized that I was going to get elephants as the primary wildlife sighting in Tarangire, too. But even the giant of the animal kingdom, the elephant, is dwarfed by the majestic baobab.
But first I'll share with you one of the most amazing things we saw in the whole trip. Why did I not expect to see this animal here? For absolutely no good reason at all except that I didn't know what to expect in this park save the pretty landscape (and even then, I didn't know what made for the pretty landscape ... see how much I blindly trust my Afrophiles!). So in a way, this was maybe my favorite place because it was completely outside my conceptions of what East Africa is like (thinking of the savanna plains). A splendid surprise.
So our guides spotted a leopard in the bushes at the bottom of a baobab. We could barely make it out, just its head above the bushes. After a few minutes, it looked up the tree trunk and Hamisi said, "She's going to climb the tree." I didn't really believe him (though I had just asked not 30 minutes earlier if leopards climb baobabs since they don't have limbs low down). Then "vroom" like a little bullet, she launched up the tree trunk and climbed her way to the lowest branch. Fortunately, in spite of my skepticism, I had my camera pointed at the tree anyway and was able to snap some shots. No more doubting Hamisi!
So that was awesome and exciting. In contrast to the majestic elephants and the mighty leopard, another critter I really enjoyed was the tiny dik-dik, one of the smallest antelope species in Africa, standing about a foot tall and averaging 10 or 11 pounds. So it weighs the same as my cats and isn't too much taller. I think they're pretty adorable, especially with those big eyes. You can see dark spots near the tear ducts; they are scent glands. A lot of Mother Nature's ideas make total sense, but I think maybe she fell asleep when she put scent glands right next to eyeballs. Well, regardless, they're cute creatures. Even their itty bitty poops are cute. Yes, when you spend 8 to 10 hours a day in a vehicle looking at animals, you start to have some pretty silly thoughts. But I think you would agree with me. (sorry, I did not actually take a picture of the poops)
Here's another fun critter I love to see but don't see too often in Africa -- the banded mongoose.
We stayed at the Tarangire Lodge, which we really enjoyed. There is another camp in the park that is the most popular, but I heard from several sources who had been there, including our guides, that the tsetse flies were pretty maddening. And while we encountered a few while on game drive, which we swatted away with horsetail whips (or some animal's tail, anyway), there were virtually none at our lodge, so we could sit on the patio overlooking the river and the tree-dotted plains each evening in pure relaxation, drinking wine from the happy hour cart they bring out to the patio. One of my favorite evenings was when a group of gazelles was playing chase with each other down below us in the trees, just running in circles.
The river (at ground level).
And, appropriately, a lovely female water buck near the river. I believe she is saying "Hello" to us.
It was really a hoot to watch a group of elephants come down to the river one day. Always so full of personality, I don't know how a person could ever become bored watching them.
One of the biggest hoots was the super young baby, not more than a couple weeks old. We saw it several times, could still see the lump on its tummy from where the umbilical cord was. It was very difficult to get a photo of it because it was always surrounded by its family, keeping it safe.
Apparently it was more fun to dig in the sand than to walk over and drink from the river. I presume they enjoyed the feel of the cool sand under the surface on their face! The first guy looks like he's digging for treasure with his trunk. What'd ya find, Sammy?
Elephants are like cats in that they are always finding something to play with -- they are very curious creatures, wondering what things are, how they work, how they might manipulate them.
So I have shared a number of birds that I love and was excited to see again, and birds that I've been wanting to see and saw for the first time. But I don't believe I've yet shared a pic of the bird tied for first place with the grey crowned crane in my faves -- the lilac breasted roller. I think it is generally the non-birder's favorite because it's pretty ubiquitous throughout southern and east Africa and its colors are so WOW, how could anybody not feel excited every time they spot one?
And my new friend, the Eurasian roller ... not hard to guess it's a cousin to the lilac breasted with its gorgeous coloring.
The ground hornbill. Sitting in a tree. I guess he forgot what his name is. Striking red chin, especially against the blue sky. I'd never seen one in a tree before.
Starlings are a wonderful set of birds, though often kind of pesky, with iridescent feathers. The superb starling was a constant picnic companion but I liked them very much. I can't help but think of the Different Strokes line, "Whatcha talkin' 'bout, Willis?" when looking at the first pic.
And the other ubiquitously pesky critter but so darn cute and photogenic, the vervet monkey. Gnawing on a stick and in a bit of a grooming trance.
Well, now, you may be wondering, "So Shara, where are all these gobs of elephants of which you speak?" OK, here's a bunch of elephants. First one says, "How do you like my hat? Made it myself!"
Have you ever seen how remarkably long an elephant's eyelashes are?
Elephant family portrait. I imagine this as the Christmas card photo for the family, even though little Francis had his head behind mom ... it's the best they could hope for.
Always fascinating to watch how elephants interact with one another through their trunks.
Itty bitty elephants new to the world are inexpressibly precious. Look how wrinkled this newborn's head is! haha. Hasn't yet grown into his forehead skin!
Midday snack for baby. What I like most about this photo is the textures ... baby's trunk and mom's legs and sides.
Look at the little baby peeking out from behind mom's leg! I believe it is the same infant from the river bed, its umbilical cord still healing up. The rest of the baby pics are of the same elephant and family. What a special experience it was to spend time with this little one. As we stayed quietly in the vehicle, the baby became more and more confident about leaving the close circle of its family who protected it, giving us a glimpse of its utterly adorable little self.
Oh my, we could have watched them all day. But eventually the family moved on down the road. Look at how tiny the baby's foot is compared to mom's! Ah, it kills me ... too cute. You can also see here how dark pink the skin is behind the ears ... the darker the pink the younger the elephant.
This next pic has made it into the vault of one of my all-time favorites ... the darling little baby foot next its mom's, but what makes the pic is how the mom and baby are in tandem with the position of their feet and their tails.
And finally a big goodbye from the elephants of Tarangire. I think they are saying they've had enough of us! Normally a picture of a bunch of butts wouldn't be that exciting ... but somehow this one seemed worthy of a capture.
And so we say goodbye to wonderful, beautiful Tarangire National Park, beside ourselves with joy over our intimate time with elephants.
Book a safari with Endless Safaris, our safari guides
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Cheetah! My favorite of the big cats, but I'd only seen them half-a-handful of times in the wild before coming to East Africa. So I was overjoyed with the number of cheetahs we saw in Ndutu in Tanzania and the Masai Mara in Kenya. Allow me to share some with you. But should I first show you the heart-melting cuteness or the dramatic action?
I will keep you in suspense for just a wee bit while I first give a shout-out (again) to our awesome guides at Endless Safaris, Elly and Hamisi. They were so on top of it. I often felt bad for the people in other vehicles who were all poised with their mega professional cameras, phenomenally more expensive than the sum of what I own in gear, their window pads all installed to hold their huge lenses ... who again and again got mediocre side shots, butt shots, missed shots altogether, compared to me with my little 70-200 lens (only occasionally using a 100-400) always placed in the prime spot ... either alone with the animals or if there was a crowd of vehicles, in the best place. Now, I did not always give my position justice with the quality of my pics, but I'm in the photo game for fun, so if I mess up or my gear isn't up to the challenge, I'm not super upset. The point is, I was THERE seeing the animals at their finest.
I was told by knowledgeable wildlife photographer peeps that Ndutu was the place to go for big cats. They were not wrong! So now, cute or action? OK, let's go for cute.
This morning, we spotted some lions in some marsh grasses in Ndutu near a small herd of wildebeest. Our guides thought it possible by the way the lions were behaving that they might make a kill. So we stopped nearby to watch and see what might happen. We waited for probably 45 minutes, during which time a lot of other vehicles showed up. Elly and Hamisi had a brief discussion and then told me and my mom that they were now skeptical a kill was going to happen and asked if we wanted to keep waiting or go see if we might find something else going on. As always, I relied on their intuition, and we left. The other vehicles stayed for a long time and never saw a kill.
So what did we find instead? I told Elly on the first day of our safari that the one thing I most wanted to see, because I had never seen one in the wild before, was a baby cheetah. Welp, guess what .....
Squeal! We were within sight of the crowd of vehicles waiting for the lions to (not) kill, yet we had this mom and baby all to ourselves for 20 or 30 minutes! It was just the best thing ever. I had told my mom also that this was what I most wanted to see because from all the photos and TV shows I'd seen of baby cheetahs, I thought they were about the cutest critters on the planet. She apparently didn't take me seriously, because when she spotted the baby, she just about died. "I told you!" I said to her as I wiped away my own tears of happiness.
Well, I don't want you to die, either, I'm sure you're far too young, so let's take a break from the dangerous adorableness, and cut to the event bested only, with a fairly narrow margin, by the cheetah cub. We were just arriving in Ndutu when we saw a few vehicles gathered by a clump of bushes. We went to investigate and saw two cheetah brothers lying down. They got up and eyed the horizon where a lot of wildebeests and zebras were hanging out in the distance, and laid down again. Elly and Hamisi said they thought the cheetahs would be making a kill soon. How they could discern that from two lounging cheetahs with prey far in the distance, I have no idea.
So we left the other vehicles and traveled way far away from the cheetahs, nearer to the grazing animals. We waited and waited. Eventually a few vehicles drove over to where we were. But after a few minutes, Hamisi started the truck and drove further away. After awhile vehicles followed. Again, we up and drove further on. Although I was surprised at the distance we were putting between us and the cheetahs, I trusted Elly and Hamisi. They asked if we wanted to keep waiting it out and I said, "Heck, yeah!" Meanwhile, more and more vehicles were getting wind of the potential imminent action and we were eventually surrounded.
While waiting, I had time to think about what settings might be best on the cameras, I had time to carefully set both cameras (100-400 lens and 70-200 lens) up on bean bags ... I put them on the roof because the action was going to start so far away. We waited patiently. If it didn't happen, oh well. If it did, it would be well worth it. I decided I now know what a solider feels like waiting for a battle, like an archer at the top of the castle waiting for the enemy to crest the horizon, preparing weapons, just waiting anxiously for the "let loose" command.
After nearly an hour, now closing in on 5:00pm, I said, "I know what will make the chase start." And I grabbed a beer from the cooler and opened it. Because now that my hands were otherwise occupied, the cheetahs were sure to leap into action.
Guess what, I was right! After a few sips, Elly said, "They're up!" I hastily put my beer down, just about throwing it, panicked to get to the cameras, haha. Let me say here that should I ever be so lucky as to see another cheetah chase, I will not bother with a camera. But being my first one, I wanted to try my hand at capturing it.
The whole thing was almost a blur ... the one nice thing about the pics is that I can see how truly amazing the action was, frame by frame, second by second. I started with the 100-400 and soon switched to the 70-200. Our guides gave us excellent positioning, of course.
I still have a hard time believing the time stamps on the photos, except that Elly told me that most cheetah kills he'd witnessed were over in about 20 seconds. I just think this is phenomenal, so I'm going to show you a bunch of pics from the sequence with the time stamps. I was of course shooting in continuous-shooting mode, and apparently (by the time stamps) my cameras shoot 6 to 7 frames per second.
So, let's start with the first photo I took -- I started with the 100-400 lens -- of one of the cheetahs who was already in motion since Elly spoke and I put my beer down, and call it a stamp of 0:00:00 seconds.
I like this pic with the cheetah's legs outstretched and the wildebeest's legs contracted in. Still at 0:00:04.
I joked about this one, which is technically a botch but I really like the three sets of legs ... "If you look down and see a pair of legs that isn't yours, RUN!" 0:00:05
Now there is a time gap of a few seconds as the action came close enough that I needed to switch over to the 70-200 lens. I would guess this took me two to three seconds to move and get focused with the second camera. So we'll start the first pic from this lens at 0:00:08.
Now scroll back up and realize what has taken place in the span of THREE seconds. The wildebeest is just as impressive as the cheetah up to this point in terms of its agility and perseverance. It's gone from being down on the ground under the cheetah's paws to up and chasing the cheetah and ramming with its horns. Now here are five of the six frames from the next second which show the cheetah's superior high-speed agility.
I dunno, I still can hardly believe that much action took place in one second! A complete 180 by the cheetah. I'm tempted to doubt my time stamps, but Elly's words stick in my head: "20 seconds." You can use the bushes for reference to see the cheetah literally stopped and turned on a dime.
Now the cheetah and wildebeest are done dancing and it's an all-out straight-run chase for several seconds. Then the cheetah gets serious and starts taking the 'beest down.
Just look at the power in this cat! Latched on and pulling the wildebeest's head down with all of his might and weight.
Now there is a big jump in time (relatively speaking) as the cheetah was quite far away now and his brother had now joined in, taking the wildebeest down. All the vehicles around us fired up and starting zooming toward the kill site. Overwhelmed by vehicles zooming in front of us, we started up, too, and drove forward. This is the last pic I have at 0:00:31 before the cheetahs are eclipsed and encircled by other vehicles.
What happened next was disturbing. We didn't join in the fray but came slowly over to the clump of vehicles which had *completely* surrounded the cheetahs and wildebeest. If the wildebeest had managed to pull himself up again, he would have had nowhere to go, and the cheetahs couldn't drag their kill anywhere. I mean, it was a tight circle, probably less than 30 feet in diameter with two cheetahs and a dying wildebeest in the middle. I could see through the windows of a front-row vehicle, the wildebeest in his final throes. Elly and Hamisi asked if we wanted to be a part of this and we said, "No." Clearly, they didn't either, and so we drove off. Other photographers with big expensive cameras who had been left out of the front row were yelling at the other vehicles. It was crazy. I almost hate to tell you about it in case it ruins the spectacular feeling of the thrill of the chase. But it's what happened. I appreciated that our guides did not contribute to the encroachment and didn't want to be a part of it.
So we drove off disgruntled, but that lasted for all of about 30 seconds for me after I caught my breath, retrieved my beer, and reviewed what I had just witnessed. For me, it was a highlight in my life experiences, one I certainly did not expect. Even now, my heart is thumping and I almost feel weepy reliving the emotions of such pitched excitement.
Sure, I feel bad for the wildebeest, but a cheetah's gotta eat, and Mother Nature arranged the circle of life this way, so I think we have to just admire the abilities of both animals in this situation and know that the dangerously cute little cub we saw lives another day whenever its mom executes the same kind of kill.
So maybe some more cub pictures will make you feel better about the kill, remembering who the wildebeests and similar prey support. Here's little cheetah working on his stalking skills already! Going to be a predator some day!
Oh precious little one! My pics didn't end up being great quality, I've had time now to think about why, but for me personally, they are off the charts in cute quality, so that's good enough for me.
Mom left her kiddo alone for awhile, venturing out into the reeds. This is the perfect place to hide her cub in the tall reeds, and we would see lions hiding their cubs in the same zone. While male cheetahs form coalitions either with male siblings or other male loners, female cheetahs live solitary lives with only their cubs for company. While males have several of them to bring down prey, the mother brings it down all on her own. She is a remarkable creature. She will typically have many cubs because their lives are precarious, prey to lions and hyenas. Typically broods are four to seven cubs. This mother had only one left from this litter. Which made watching their bond ... in the first set of photos in this post ... all the more special.
The cheetah form is so beautiful and not like the other African big cats who are more thick and beefy. Cheetahs are sleek and lithe, and their whiskers are very short compared to lions and leopards. They are daytime hunters unlike the other two. And they are the iconic savanna cat because they need the wide open space in order to use their specialized chasing skills.
These are some other female cheetahs we ran across at Ndutu and in the Masai Mara.
On our last day of safari, in the Masai Mara in Kenya, we had a spectacular leopard sighting in the morning. As afternoon wore on, I told Elly that this was my last day to attempt the big cat trifecta. I had never seen all three big cats in one day. In fact, not even in one safari. Lions on all safaris, but then either leopards or cheetahs, not both.
So we're driving along a lonesome path, no one else around until we finally ran into another truck and that driver and Elly had a conversation in Swahili. The other car drove off and we drove on. After awhile Elly said, "OK guys, I have a surprise for you. You have to close your eyes now until I tell you to open them." Well, I love surprises so I kept my eyes closed and held on while we bumped along. Because Elly knew how excited I was over cheetahs, I suspected we were on our way to fulfill my trifecta dream. The truck stopped and Hamisi cut the engine. Then Elly said, "OK, now turn your head to the left. Now open your eyes."
It took a few seconds to realize what I was seeing. It was not a cheetah. It was FIVE cheetahs! I didn't even know they were in groups as big as five. Elly said it's a coalition, if I remember correctly, three brothers and two loners they took in. Apparently they are a rather famous gang in the area. You might know them, what they are called, I can't remember exactly ... The Amazing Five or Fabulous Five or something like that, in deference to their adeptness as predators. Never in my life did I expect to be beside an adult cheetah pile!
Well, my friends, I can scroll through my cheetah pics all night and feel warm and fuzzy every time I look at them with the memories of how fantastic it was to be watching them in person. I hope you enjoyed looking at them with me and can admire their incredible power and beauty as much as I do!
And a goodbye wave of the tongue .....
And did I get to complete the sought-after 3-cat day with a lion? You'll have to stayed tuned to find out!