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Posts Tagged ‘Wildlife’

Doubtful Sound

Had we been at home this past Sunday, we surely would have spent the day with family, watching the kiddos search for easter eggs, gobble chocolate bunnies and run around like lunatics from the sugar buzz.  Since we were missing out on that bit of entertainment, we decided to take a cruise on Doubtful Sound in the Fiordlands National Park.

The Fiordlands, an area of deep bays carved thousands of years ago by retreating glaciers, has been so well-protected by the people of New Zealand that a visit to the area can feel like you’ve stepped back in time.  The area we visited gets an astounding ten to fifteen meters of rain per year, so the lush green hillsides are often covered in roaring waterfalls or completely shrouded in mist.  It has such a mysterious feel to it that we wouldn’t have been surprised at all to see a loch ness-type monster rise out of the water at any moment.  While there were no Nessie sightings, we were lucky enough to spot some other wild things.  The resident pod of bottle-nosed dolphins, which we were told only makes an appearance once a month or so, decided to put on a show for us, swimming and playing alongside our boat.   And just when I thought that I was out of luck on seeing seals up close, the boat captain pointed to some rocky outcrops in the distance and said, “See all those dark spots on those rocks?  That’s a colony of fur seals.”  As we drew closer to their colony, we could see the pups running and playing,  with a few watching our approach curiously.

The area had such a magical feel, and the light was constantly changing, so we took gobs of photos.  We did our best to choose our favorites, but this is still a pretty big gallery.  Enjoy!

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Move over, Suzanne Sommers

The thighmaster has been replaced.  Meet my horse, or as Adam and I nicknamed him, Rusty, the beefaroni pony:

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Adam and I decided to make a horseback riding excursion while visiting Bariloche. It taught me that it is a very, very good thing that I live in a city, not on a ranch. My first thought when I got on the horse was, “Ok, where is the seatbelt? And the handles? My saddle does not appear to have handles. Or guardrails, perhaps? Umm, guys, I think there’s something missing from my saddle.” Sadly, I was unable to translate those thoughts into spanish and we were off, me with only two measly little leather reins to hold on to.

It was a perfectly enjoyable little ride, that is until I saw our guide pull a small (not even as big around as my pinky) branch off a tree as we ambled down the path. As he pulled the leaves off, we passed into an open pasture. He proceeded to hand me the switch and motioned for me to use it to convince Rusty that it was time to really get moving. I, being ever obedient, but also not really keen on the idea of whacking an animal with a stick, gave him a little tap on the rump behind my saddle.

Rusty apparently did not appreciate the subtleness of the tap. He took off like that switch was electrified. My feet promptly slipped right out of the stirrups, leaving me holding on for dear, sweet life with only the strength of my inner thighs.

As I (painfully) discovered the following morning, it turns out that good old-fashioned fear is one of the best personal trainers out there.  I woke up with legs that were more sore than any number of squats or lunges has ever left them.  Have I stumbled on the next big exercise craze?  Runaway horses with ill-adjusted stirrups, coming to a gym near you!

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The final morning of our Pampas tour, I again awoke to strange sounds on the roof of our cabin. I poked my head out the door and promptly grabbed my camera. The squirrel monkeys had decided that Thanksgiving morning was playtime! There must have been twenty or thirty of them bounding around in the trees and through our camp. Lucky for me and my lack of zoom lens, some of them were braver than others. One even snuck into our cabin!

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After a little more relaxing (as I mentioned in my post on Thanksgiving), we headed out to a section of the river known to be popular with pink dolphins (and unpopular with alligators). After making sure to watch our guide go in first, we all slipped into the water to take a dip. My heart was racing at the idea of swimming in the same river that was home to those thousands of gators I mentioned earlier, but I was quickly distracted by the pinkish hued dolphins breaking the surface of the muddy water nearby. The dolphins were amazing—it was so surprising to begin with to even see dolphins in a river. Then, once you accepted that they were really there, you were surprised again by their appearance. They had huge protruding foreheads and were a very light pinkish gray color. The coolest part was listening to them. Floating on my back with my ears below the surface of the water, I could hear them calling to each other with clicks and squeals. I felt like I was getting to experience another world (you’ll notice this is a theme on our comments on Bolivia!). I had no idea what they were saying to each other, but knowing that I was hearing intelligent animals communicating was just remarkable. Unfortunately, we weren´t able to get any pictures, so you´ll just have to take my word for it, they were very cool.

After our swim, we were headed back to Rurre. We piled back into the dusty jeep and started off on our several hour drive: Adam and I, Catherine from New Zealand, Domingo and our driver. Shortly after we set out, the driver reached over and popped a jump drive into the stereo (priorities: No A/C and no seatbelts, but a USB-equipped stereo!). For the next few hours, we were entertained by a steady stream of 70’s 80s, and 90s hits. We tried to conceal our surprised looks when a disco dance mix started playing—one song right into the next—YMCA, We Are Family, etc. Once we had a good sampling of the seventies, we moved right into the eighties—Gloria (which immediately made us look at each other and say “Angie P!”), Thriller, some Madonna and few other classics. Finally we moved on to the nineties, which, although not our cup of tea musically, was the absolute highlight. For over an hour, we listened to bubble-gum pop music—Brittney Spears, Back Street Boys, some Michael Jackson ballads, etc.—and watched our guide get down with the music. We are talking about a tough guy, probably at least six feet tall, with missing front teeth, scars from gator and piranha bites covering his arms and hands, and most notably, a machete strapped to his leg that was the length of his entire thigh–seriously, it stretched nearly from hip to knee. Here was this hardened jungle guide, bouncing and grooving in his seat, drumming on the dashboard and singing along with the king and queen of pop! It was one more example of never knowing what to expect in Bolivia.

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The first morning at our lodge (so the second day of the Pampas tour), our wakeup call came in the form of roaring howler monkeys. The howling started before dawn and is a sound like no other I have ever heard before. It is a low guttural sound, almost similar to a distant motor (a big motor!), but still a very distinct sound. After the howlers did their job, we headed out on our one scheduled hike of the tour: the search for Anacondas and Cobras. Anacondas in the pampas can reach 12-15 feet and capture their prey by squeezing then swallowing it whole. (Bad news for small critters in the pampas, no worries for big old humans.) The cobra had me a little more worried as it is actually venomous. We were assured that any cobras we might encounter didn’t have enough venom to kill a human, only to make one really sick (it’s amazing what kind of comments you begin to find reassuring on a trip like this!).

Before setting out, we had been warned that the bugs, mainly ticks and mosquitoes, would be bad, and that we would be tromping our way through swampy ground and forests. In an effort to fend off as many itchy bug bites as possible, we followed our guide’s instructions for gearing up (although I’m not completely discounting the idea that he just gets a giggle out of making gringos look super dorky!):

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Lucky for us, our humiliation paid off when we heard shouts from a nearby tour guide that he had found an anaconda. Domingo beat us there and was in the process of moving the snake when we showed up on the scene.

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I was watching the anaconda (and not necessarily what was in its path) when I heard Domingo say the words that made me freeze in my tracks: “Don’t move, Adam. It won’t hurt you.” I looked up and realized that the boots that were inches away from this six-foot long snake belonged to my husband! I can say pretty confidently that I would have taken off running if the anaconda had decided to cozy up with my feet, but Adam held his ground.

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After Adam’s close encounter, we spotted were lucky enough to spot another anaconda—another group the day before had hiked for five hours without seeing any snakes. Domingo then gave us the option of continuing on the search to look for cobras or heading back to camp for lunch. Hmmm, leisurely boat ride to lunch or sweaty hunt for a venomous snake? Tough choice! After having lunch, we set out to catch our dinner—Piranha fishing!

We baited our hooks with some kind of raw meat (yes, gross) and began what I was expecting to be a fairly leisurely afternoon. The piranha had different plans though. Every time I threw my line into the water, I could immediately feel a flurry of little tugs. A quick yank on the line revealed an empty hook nearly every time. Domingo, expert that he was, showed us how it was done:

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After a few pointers, Adam started to get the hang of it:

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Finally, it was my turn for glory. A well timed yank on my line confirmed that I had in fact, hooked a Pirhana. I pulled it in to the boat and turned to Adam to take it off the hook for me. He abandoned me in my time of need encouraged me to improve my fishing skills by doing it myself. I bravely grasped the man-eating fish in one hand and the hook in the other. The fish started squirming, and I, forgetting the whole big teeth aspect of pirhana, freaked out and loosened my grip. Not smart. I promptly had a pirhana latched on to the tip of my index finger. I threw the fish down into the bottom of the boat and shouted “F***er bit me!!” Domingo rushed over to make sure that I was intact. He frantically looked around the boat to find my attacker. And he looked. And looked. Finally I pointed down below adam’s seat, where the fish was flopping around. Domingo promptly burst out laughing. In his defense, he tried to suppress the giggles, but apparently my scene was just too much for him. He picked up the fish and gently explained to me that yes, I had caught a piranha, and yes, that was good, but unfortunately, this particular man-eating beast wasn’t big enough to eat for dinner. In fact, it wasn’t even big enough to cut up and use as bait to catch other piranha. It was after hearing that pronouncement that I declared my retirement from Piranha fishing. Lucky for me, Adam and Domingo picked up the slack and caught enough fish for us to have a nice piranha dinner.

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After Piranha fishing, we made a stop at another camp to hang out. It took all of about 90 seconds for a soccer game to break out. Since I stuck to my role as photographer, I’ll let Adam fill you in on the excitement:

Adam:

When we arrived, everyone was playing volleyball, but after just a few minutes, everyone decided to play a real sport. So a futbol game started. We decided to play the Bolivianos vs. the Gringos. It was 6 v. 6, and the Gringos team wasn’t very good at first. Only two of us seemed to have any soccer experience, myself and a girl from California. There was one other guy from California who had played before, and then two Canadians, who probably would have been better served to have ice skates and hockey sticks in their hands. We played to three, and the first game was over rather quickly.

But we decided to play another game, and we seemed to get our act together the second game and actually challenged the Bolivianos. It was interesting playing barefoot on a dirt field, obviously with no lines, small goals, and one sideline that consisted of barbed wire fencing. And of course a game in South America wouldn’t have been complete without the hot-dogging, diving, and acting of one of the Bolivianos. Even though the Gringos held their own, we still fell 3-2, but we gave them a good game. It was quite the experience playing a pick-up game of soccer, which just doesn’t happen back home, even though that’s the game I grew up playing, loving, and now enjoy coaching. It’s something that I’ll always remember from this part of the trip.

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Megan: After the soccer game (in which I have to brag that Adam was definitely the best of the gringos), we spent the evening after dinner getting to know the new tour group that had showed up that afternoon. We whiled away the evening swinging in hammocks, sipping cold beer and alternating between chatting and singing along with one of the guys who was playing the guitar. Adam and I realized that the following day would be the first Thanksgiving either of us had spent away from home. I was definitely sad to not be able to share the day with my family, but having that evening and that opportunity to meet a whole new group of interesting people from around the world, to be able to discuss their views and travels, there in such an absolutely amazing setting—well, the gratitude I felt for that was just overwhelming.

It was a very good day.

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“You’re going to the jungle, aren’t you??”

We’ve heard this phrase more times than I can count. I was never really surprised to hear it—it’s one of those things that is kind of assumed to be on the itinerary when you’re spending half a year in South America. Needless to say, people were always a little surprised when we waffled on the answer. We felt like we should—we were spending half a year in South America after all—but I wasn’t convinced.

For starters, I had visions of being surrounded by bugs as big as my head. I was expecting creepy crawlies everywhere I looked. I felt like venturing into the jungle would be an adventure for sure, but honestly, I wasn’t sure I wanted to shell out for the adventure of hiding indoors, praying that I wouldn’t get eaten by some prehistoric-sized bug when I did summon the courage to venture out. We also kind of looked at the jungle trip as one that could be taken later as a discreet trip, perhaps when we weren’t travelling on a backpacker’s budget and could splurge on one of the more luxurious eco-lodges, thereby avoiding sharing a bedroom with the aforementioned creepy crawlies.

However, as with most of our plans on this trip, one change led to another. Once the political climate stabilized and we decided to come to Bolivia, we began hearing about a place called the Pampas. There are two popular tours going out of Rurrenabaque, Bolivia: one in the jungle and one in the Pampas. The jungle is exactly what you think it is. The Pampas is the name for the Amazon savannahs. As we researched the two, the Pampas immediately intrigued us. The Pampas tours were reputed to include significantly more wildlife sightings and significantly fewer prehistoric-sized bug sightings. Also, on the Pampas tours, you spend a good amount of time cruising up and down the river, whereas on the jungle tours, you spend a good amount of time hiking around the steamy jungle on foot. No contest, as far as I was concerned.

After a bone-jarring fourteen hour bus ride to Rurrenabaque, we departed on our Pampas tour two days before Thanksgiving. The drive out to the Santa Rosa wildlife reserve was dusty and bumpy, but our ride was sturdy and our driver seemed to know the road like the back of his hand.

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After driving for half a day, we arrived at the River Yacuma. Our guide predicted rain as he loaded up our dugout canoe for the three hour ride down the river to our camp.

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As promised, the rain began shortly after we set out on the boat. Once again, though, we lucked out and never really got soaked. In fact, the light rain really only served to cool things off a bit. It was only sprinkling when we saw our first alligator. Our guide, Domingo, promptly pulled our boat right up on the shore, no more than five feet away from this guy:

***OK, I´m having some wordpress issues, so the remaining pictures for this post will be on Flickr, and you can find them here.  I know this is a completely hoopty way of posting stories and pictures, but for some reason I just cannot get the remaining pictures to show up here on the blog.  Gah.  Anyway, here´s the link to all the pictures for this post:

Day 1 - Boat Ride - Birds (13)

Happily for us, he didn’t mind too much—when he got tired of us, he just dove into the water (rather than going ahead and having us for a snack, which was my initial fear!) The rest of the afternoon’s trip to our camp was amazing. We saw more wildlife than I ever imagined possible.

In the span of a few hours, we saw thousands of gators (yes, thousands. At one point, we counted the number of gators we saw in a five minute period. Fifty-one. Everywhere you turned, there were gators: some by themselves, some in large groups, some swimming, some just lounging on the shore. And some, the most ominous, were only visible because you could see their eyes hovering just above the water).  There was also one that didn’t seem quite as ominous. In fact, he was so docile that another guide looked downright bored when our guide walked up to the gator and was petting him on the head!!

While the gators were exciting and a bit scary, it had been the possibility of seeing a real-live R.O.U.S.* that had really sold me on the trip in the first place, so our first Capybara sighting was too exciting for a dork like me. Despite being the world’s largest rodent, the Capybaras were quite cute. Most of them were having a riverside snack or cooling off in the water. Amazingly, they seemed to be quite comfortable being surrounded by gators, despite the fact that the Capybaras are natural prey of the gators.

In addition to the gators and capybara, we saw rows of turtles sunning themselves on logs and countless birds—egrets, herons, cormorants, eagles, hawks, vultures, cardinals and birds of paradise, just to name a few!

As if that wasn’t enough for the day, we wrapped things up with this sunset:

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*They may not have been living in a fire swamp, but these were definitely rodents of unusual size. Name that movie!

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