Queensland : Where Reef meets the Rainforest

2nd Nov 2016 – We began the third phase of our world trip, a month of travel Down Under to parts of the island nation of Australia. Just over 24 hours (not accounting for hours gained in timezone crossover to the east) of leaving the shores of India at Chennai, we landed in the Coolangatta airport of Gold Coast. The sixth largest city of the sixth largest country, Gold Coast is a major tourist destination that got its name in the 1950s from the inflated prices of its real estate, goods and services. Its long stretches of sandy beaches and surf along with theme and amusement parks are the key attraction for most visitors. Lesser known is the biodiversity that this region has to offer in the patches of ancient sub-tropical rainforest and mangroves that have managed to survive the onslaught of urbanisation and new-age thrills and are now fortunately protected.

Having arrived a little before 7 am and about 4 hours before we could check-in, Manish decided the best use of our time would be a visit to the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary (which incidently also has the country’s biggest rainforest aviary) situated quite close to our AirBnB acco at Burleigh Waters. So we got our rental car and headed out with fingers crossed to get there in time for the morning Lorikeet feeding, a major attraction for all visitors. Which we did and then realised we were missing our beloved little Canon G7X camera! We had just spent a fortune on getting it repaired in Chennai after a fall it had suffered in the desert sand near Jaisalmer. A frantic hunt through all possible places yielded nothing. Bravely pushing aside the sinking feeling that it may have been left at the Kuala Lumpur airport near a security checkpoint, we decided to stay in the moment and marched forth. The mesmerising sight of hundreds of brightly coloured Rainbow Lorikeets flying in lifted our spirits. We were ever more grateful for our mobile phone cameras to be able to capture the beautiful moments!

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Amazingly colourful Rainbow Lorikeets, a parrot species native to Australia
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They are wild but comfortable around humans due to the daily feeding habit formed over years
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Perched on my daughter’s arm, she is thrilled!!

Next attractions quite predictably were the koalas and kangaroos, the two iconic Australian marsupials. Looking at the layout map, we saw “tree kangaroos” listed and were eager to find out about them. We had never heard of them before. First up were the koala enclosures. We learnt that koalas sleep most of the day because their diet (leaves of specific types of eucalyptus) is low in energy. Like sloths (those adorable intoxicated looking arboreals we saw in the Amazon rainforest), they spend about 20 hours in a day asleep on trees 🙂

Adorable koalas, native to coastal eastern & southern Australia, are a threatened species
Koalas, native to coastal eastern & southern Australia, are threatened in the wild

Later that morning we got to witness the care-taking of a couple of wild koalas that were under treatment in the sanctuary’s hospital before they could be released back into their natural habitat. Recent conservation efforts have helped improve the situation for koalas that were driven to the brink of extinction due to extensive hunting by European settlers in the early 20th century. Currently classified as “Vulnerable” by the IUCN, the gentle koalas face ongoing threats of habitat destruction and attacks by feral dogs.

And then came the legendary, curiosity invoking kangaroos. We learnt of the two main types of land kangaroos, red and grey, from the volunteers at the sanctuary. We were delighted to be offered an opportunity to feed some of the grey kangaroos.

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Feeding Kanga and Roo! They are like deer that hop around
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A whole bunch of grey kangaroos enjoying their morning

And then the fascinating tree kangaroos, a complete novelty for us. We got to see a couple of Goodfellow’s tree kangaroos, an endangered species. A most exotic looking animal, it is quite different from its land dwelling cousins.

Goodfellow's Tree Kangaroo, native of rainforests of New Guinea
Goodfellow’s Tree Kangaroo, a native of the rainforests of New Guinea

Next door was the “croc” enclosure where we learnt the difference between the much feared Aussie “saltie“, the powerful estuarine crocodile and the shy freshwater crocodile. And then the Australian Parrots and Cockatoo enclosure with its mind boggling variety of birds in so many different colours! It was an enriching morning, not just on account of being able to see and learn about the unique fauna of this island nation, but also conversations with the volunteers on their work and an enthusiastic discussion on cricket that Manish had with a staff member.

It was time to check-in and recheck all our bags for our camera, the former was the silver lining and the latter unfortunately the cloud :(. Groceries, SIM and lunch done, we tried to catch some shut eye and figure out our under-water camera strategy for the Great Barrier Reef, before heading out to the beach for an evening stroll. The views stretching from Surfers Paradise with its skyline in the north to the hills of the Burleigh Heads National Park in the south were pretty, though the summer evening proved a little too cold for our comfort.

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Warmly clothed in our fleece jackets, we admired the esplanade with its wide walkways and public exercise machines overlooking the beach and its being put to good use by the locals who were out walking, jogging and running in summery outfits.

After twilight we drove down to buy a new Cannon G7X, armed with the underwater casing that we had bought a couple of months earlier. Much to the surprise of the salesman and our disappointment, the camera didn’t fit into the casing by just a couple of mm!! It was the newer Mark II version while our brand new $200 casing was for the Mark I model that (we had lost) had now been discontinued. So we decided to sleep over it.

The next day was an action oriented one starting with the Skypoint Climb, one of the highlights of Gold Coast. You are zipped to the top of Q1, one of world’s tallest buildings and from there it’s is a 40-meter manual climb up the stairs with safety harness attached to everyone. Exciting yet scary stuff, specially with blustery winds threatening to push you down !

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All set for the climb up Gold Coasts’s Skypoint
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The view from the top – coastline, skyline, inland waterways, hinterland – you can see it all!

The afternoon was spent at the Movie world park which frankly was an utter waste of time and money, with hardly any teenage attractions. We could not visit Dream World park as it was closed due to a fatal accident the week before.

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Yay! See my Batman cap 🙂
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The highlight for Mihika! We wouldn’t venture on it 🙂

We left Movie World within an hour and were back to our favorite Skypoint observation deck admiring the lovely views of Surfers Paradise coastline over a coffee/beer.

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We also found time to chill and run at the beautiful Burleigh Heads national park – the vibes here are so much more relaxed than the hyped up Surfers paradise.

That concluded our whirlwind 3 day tour of the Gold Coast.

The AUD 50 excess baggage charge by Jetstar at 5 am the next morning jolted us out of our slumber and we landed in Cannes cursing the airline under our breath. We played along with the Punjabi taxi driver who sang praises of Kejriwal for the freebies and attacked Modi for being “anti-people”. Hmmm…

We are here in Cannes mainly to fulfill the life time dream of experiencing the Great Barrier Reef corals, apart from visiting the Daintree Rainforest and other natural attractions of Queensland. Both GBR and Daintree are World Heritage sites. A nice 2 bedroom AirBnB owned by a highly affable Aussie was a great start to the week. After a home made lunch and a much needed nap, we picked our rental car and headed straight to Palm Cove – supposedly the best of beaches around. After arriving, we wondered what the fuss was all about. With Goa in our backyard, we really don’t need to run around the world for beaches- was the lesson. Anyway, Mika made a nice sand castle and that concluded our first evening nicely.

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It was an early start the next morning to Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation – where the “Rainforest meets the Reef” as the locals say. The whole region is a combination of forest, rivers, reef and also the home of Kuku Yalanji aboriginal people. It’s at the lowland between DainTree and Bloomfield rivers where the rainforest meets the reef. Crossing the Daintree ferry, we pressed on to Cape Tribulation which is famous for its beaches, mountains and “reef meets forest” view. Apart from lovely views along the way, we were also lucky to meet the elusive Cassowaries. The day was nicely signed off at the famous Daintree Icecream company which grows exotic fruits in their orchard and produces natural and yummy icecream.

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The next morning we headed to Atherton Tablelands – full of greenery, giant fig trees, lakes, waterfalls and mountains. The Milla Milla waterfall circuit is the most popular with a bunch of lovely waterfalls

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The day ended with platypus viewing at one of the privately owned farms in the Tablelands. Platypus is a duck-billed semi-aquatic mammal endemic to Eastern Australia. Very cool when they come up the water ! It is an exercise in patience as you are not supposed to make any noise and also they are extremely small in size.

The next morning the big day arrived and we boarded Compass Cruises for their full day tour of the Great Barrier Reef. You need to carefully choose an operator who takes you to pristine outer reefs. The pictures speak for themselves.

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We had tasted blood and were determined to go to the outer reef again, another day.

Before returning the car the next morning, we headed off to Flecker botanical gardens, Kuranda rainforest  & Barron’s gorge.

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After a couple of days rest, the special day arrived – baby Mihika’s 13th birthday. Where have all those years flown?? To celebrate her grand transition to teenage, we had booked another Outer Reef tour with a new boat called Seastar. With corals and snorkeling at 2 locations – Michaelman’s cay & Hasting’s reef, Mika truly had an unforgettable birthday. A specially hired underwater camera was used for capturing the underwater proceesdings. Mika managed to take some “Nemo” shots too ! For dinner was her favorite pesto pasta in a pre-planned Italian joint followed by cake cutting at home. Daddy had to spend all afternoon the previous day, desperately running around in baking sun to arrange for the cake as every thing was closed, it being sunday; with good old Coles finally coming to rescue ! Well worth the effort for the ultra special day !!

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We spent the last day lounging around the esplanade and its 4800 sq m artificial swimming lagoon – a great respite after the hectic trips to the reef.

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Our Queensland odyssey thus came to an end and we were now ready to fly to Darwin (Northen Territory) to experience the Australian outback. Thanks for reading our blog and see you soon in NT.

Amboseli: Where the Elephants Amble

7th Oct 2016 heralded a pleasant Friday morning in Nairobi. We were eager to get to the third and last of the parks on our Kenyan itinerary – the Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya. But first agenda for the day was a brief visit to the Nairobi National Museum where we got a basic understanding and perspective on Kenya’s history. At 53 years, Kenya is a young nation that has gone through its struggles to see itself as one nation instead of the distinct regional tribes it had been for centuries before its colonisation.

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Let’s get a quick perspective on Kenya

After a (not so) brief stop at the Big Time Safaris office in the CBD, we left Nairobi heading out on Mombasa Road. It was a busy but comfortable highway.

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It was a four-hour journey with the last stretch seeming like an eternity of rattling bones!! And the landscape had changed completely to a dry scrubby one, it was perceptibly hotter and we could see little sand/dust “tornadoes” blowing every now & then (looking it up later, came to know they are termed “dust devils“). The name Amboseli originates from the word “Empusel” in the Maa language (of the Maasai) meaning “salty, dusty place”. One could only wonder how this environment could be the habitat of Africa’s big 5. All doubts were put to rest and the bone-rattling made worthwhile by some fascinating sights and all these still over 20 km outside the park. The first was a gerenuk, also known as giraffe gazelle, a species categorised as NT (near threatened) by IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). Not having seen any of these beautiful creatures in Maasai Mara, we were delighted to see one from so close!

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Gerenuk – a unique gazelle with a long neck, it stands on its hind legs and reaches up to get to the leaves on shrubs and trees
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The male gerenuk is a real stunner!
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The largest tower (group of giraffe) we have seen thus far!
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Appeared right next to the road!

We reached the Amboseli Sopa Lodge just after 3 pm and gratefully rested our spines on the restaurant chairs while being lavished with attention over our lunch, it was signature Sopa hospitality. We were delighted with our room, constructed with locally sourced material and in traditional style, it was spacious and pleasant. No question of an air-conditioner, no fans either, but it was perfectly comfortable indoors. We deposited our luggage in the room and headed out for a short evening safari.

As we left the lodge, our guide Richard pointed in the westerly direction and said that is where Mt. Kilimanjaro is and if we are lucky we could see it one of the days! All we could see then was a haze and clouds with the outline of a hill extending ahead. A 40-minute ride, all dusty and most of it bone-rattling, took us to the Kimana Gate of the park. The Kenya Wildlife Service has branded Amboseli National Park as “Kilimanjaro’s Royal Court”. The highest peak of Africa is more than a backdrop to the entire park, it is the secret behind the vibrant natural life in this semi-arid region that only receives an annual rainfall of 350 mm. Water from the Kilimanjaro that seeps down through porous volcanic rocks springs up in Amboseli and feeds the swamps that sustain the entire ecosystem here.

The sun was near setting as we drove in. We spotted a few elephants in the distance, herds of grazing zebra and quite a few vultures on tree tops. And then as we neared another vehicle that had stopped ahead, Richard said we should be able to see cheetahs lying on the ground to the left. And yes, there they were, three of them with just their heads visible. Looked like they were done for the day, but luckily for us they started up and strolled on for a bit giving us a great view of their athletic forms!

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The sight of these 3 cheetahs resting and strolling with the light of the setting sun on them was breathtaking!
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Admiring the sunset 🙂

We decided to head back and leave the viewing of big elephant herds for the next morning when we would all be a lot more energetic.

The next morning dawned with a clear view of Mt. Kilimanjaro, lady luck was smiling on us! We were not the only ones to be thrilled, all the staff in the lodge were too. They have had guests who have left without ever getting a view of the mighty peak.

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View of Mount Kilimanjaro from our lodge
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What a view for breakfast!
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Sharing our Kilimanjaro excitement with the colourfully adorned Maasai youth 🙂

Attributing our luck to Richard, we set out for the day in search of the herds of gentle giants that are synonymous with Amboseli. We saw so much more! Including lilac-breasted rollers and saddle-billed storks that we had expected to see but had been unable to spot in our visit to the Lake Nakuru National Park.

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A snake eagle basking in the morning sun
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The clouds are beginning to gather around Mt. Kilimanjaro
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A giraffe with the barely visible Kilimanjaro in the backdrop
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Lilac-breasted Roller, the national bird of Kenya
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There they are! The big herd we were waiting for – in all sizes, ranging from XS to XL!!
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A male ostrich marches across

Richard informed us that we were making our way towards the marsh / swamp around which all the animals gather in the morning. Soon enough the scenery changed and it was like a school with multiple playgrounds and all students out on them! Elephants, buffaloes, hippos, wildebeest, zebras, gazelles, warthogs and a stunning array of birds to feast our eyes upon. A lesser known fact about Amboseli is that it plays host to around 400 species of birds.

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Oxpeckers on an African cape buffalo – a symbiotic relationship
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An African Spoonbill and Egyptian Goose
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A Grey Heron stands still apparently reflecting!
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Elephants, zebras, gazelles – all enjoy the swamp together
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The unmistakable pink of flamingos behind the wildebeest!

As we watched the flamingos which were at some distance, there was a sudden restlessness amongst the birds nearer to us with a whole lot of egrets and ibises taking flight. The cause – an African Fish Eagle that was flying. The beautiful bird of prey perched upon a rock on the roadside presenting the perfect photo opportunity! And then it took flight again causing a flutter all around before settling on the next rock. This little “show” continued a couple of times giving us plenty of good views.

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An African Fish Eagle – a beautiful majestic bird of prey

We drove on enjoying the visual bounties the swamp had to offer, just as the residents here were doing with its edible bounties 🙂

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A Saddle-billed Stork with numerous egrets in the background
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African Red-billed Quelea, such pretty birds!
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Malachite Kingfisher, its head is a bright metallic blue!
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A massive elephant emerges from its dip onto the dry brown grass that contrasts with the green on the swamp
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The closest we could get to seeing a warthog, a very shy creature that scampers away on hearing the noise of any approaching vehicle
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A herd of elephants enjoy the swamp accompanied by egrets
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This little one stayed out of the water while the rest of the herd waded around

We watched this baby elephant that stayed on the side and the rest of its herd which were quite close to our only stop during the safari, at the base of Observation Hill. It is the only place in the park where people are permitted to step out of their safari vehicles and walk to the lookout point at the top. On the way up we saw plenty of superb starlings and weaver birds. The lookout point gave us panoramic views of the swamps and animal herds all across.

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View from Observation Hill – the swamp is an oasis !
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Another view from Observation Hill
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Numerous herds of animals can be seen all around, looking so tiny from up here!
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A superb starling glistens in the bright sun, hardly a shy bird!

Back from Observation Hill, we continued around the swamp heading back to the Kimana gate to get back for lunch.

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Mom & baby hippo enjoying the water!
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Spotted Hyenas, they are predators and not scavengers
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Two female ostriches look on as we pass by; females are grey in colour while the males are black
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We saw more Masai giraffes here than in Maasai Mara

After lunch and siesta we met up with Sammy, the resident Maasai at our lodge and learnt some interesting facts. The Maasai of the Amboseli region are way more traditional than the folks in the Mara region Sammy informed us. That was also evident to us on observing the attire and jewellery of the people we had seen in and around the area. Sammy told us about the transformation of his clan from being lion hunters to wildlife guardians, thanks to the efforts of Kenya Wildlife Service and the tourism industry. He showed us the spear he had used as a youth, now on display at the lodge and seen on the pillar behind us in the below photograph. He told us lion hunting was done both as a rite of passage into adulthood and for protection of livestock, the source of living for the Maasai people. No more killing now, he said decisively. He is happy that he now has a job and his kids go to school as do other kids in the nearby villages. They dream of becoming engineers, doctors, pilots and maybe even President!

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The towering personality of Sammy and his experiences are both impressive!

Sammy was curious to know about mountains, forests and animals in India. He told us that the Indians in Kenya are very good business folks and that the lodge we were in and most of the leading ones in the area were owned by Indians. For someone who hadn’t been to school, Sammy knew and spoke English quite clearly. We were completely in awe of his appearance and it was sealed with firm handshakes!

That night’s dinner was arranged outdoors by the staff with live folk entertainment by a group of Maasai women. It was a wonderful atmosphere with their rhythmic, lyrical renderings bringing the night alive under the stars. We could only wonder at the inborn musical talent in these folks whose only training was by the ear from generation to generation. What a rich heritage! Reminded us of the tribal and folk music and dances from back home that we have had the good fortune of experiencing, but sadly most of our kids growing up in cities have no connection with.

These Maasai women are so talented!
These Maasai women are so talented!

Refreshed and rejuvenated after a sound sleep, we woke up to a clear view of the Kilimanjaro again! Everybody agreed that we were indeed very fortunate. After breakfast set off bag and baggage for our last safari with the plan to head directly to Nairobi, making our exit out of the park through Meshanani gate. This served the double purpose of covering a different part of the park and getting us faster to Nairobi. We had great sightings of elephant herds, flamingos flying in formations and quite unbelievably a lion sitting in the open grass near a carcass. The lion sighting was indeed special because they are very few in Amboseli, the number stated at Observation Hill being a meagre 35, their population having been decimated by years of human-animal conflict in this tough terrain.

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A Lappet-faced Vulture spreads its wings in the morning sun
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The gerenuk doesn’t disappoint, making an appearance on our last safari at Amboseli
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We can’t stop admiring the beauty of nature’s creations, the Lilac-breasted Roller is so colourful!
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We wondered why they are only 3? The Amboseli herds are typically 10-12 each
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The little ones are always so cute!!

It was when we stopped to watch, wondering at this rather small family of 3 elephants that we spotted the only lion we saw in the park. In the distance a herd of elephants was emerging. So we waited and much to our delight the threesome were heading towards this large herd. Soon after we saw the leader of the herd next to the adult and they seemed to be having a little chat! The other two meanwhile mingled with the rest of the herd. So we thought it was a little family tiff, now all sorted out! This was a big herd, we counted 26 members.

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The threesome we were wondering about are part of this large family! We watched them coming back together, looked like there had been a small disagreement and took some patching up by the elder matriarch
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Much to our delight, the herd was walking towards the road we were waiting on
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And then they crossed from behind our van, what a sight to see these huge creatures from such close quarters!
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I love ellies 🙂
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A Spotted Hyena, may not be very pretty looking, but a pretty important part of the ecosystem here

Ahead we had a great aerial display awaiting us – as we watched a large group of flamingos (called flamboyance!) in a stretch of pink, they suddenly took flight. There were hundreds in the air who started flying in various formations for a long time. We identified the shape of a whale repeatedly, it was mesmerising!

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A flamboyance (group) of flamingos in flight, a truly impressive sight !
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As if putting up an aerial display for us, this flamboyance continued flying in different formations for a long time!

Thrilled and most satisfied, we bid goodbye to Amboseli and firmed up our intention to visit this part of the world again to appreciate the beauty and diversity, possibly next time across the border in Tanzania.

Next destination for us is Rajasthan with a brief stopover at the bustling Mumbai. Thanks for reading and see you in Rangeelo Rajasthan!

Lake Nakuru: A Jewel in Africa’s Rift Valley

The morning of 5th Oct dawned with us ready to bid goodbye to the beautiful Mara Sopa Lodge, the amazing Maasai Mara and its colourful people. Our next destination – the Lake Nakuru National Park located around lake Nakuru, the largest of the soda (alkaline) lakes in Kenya’s Rift Valley lake system which is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site (natural) as well as a wetland of international importance protected under the Ramsar Convention. We reminisced the large soda lake we had most recently visited, the Mono Lake in our Great American Road Trip about 3 months ago.

Richard, our guide & driver tells us it will take us 5 hours to get to our destination, which seems reasonable for the 250 km distance. But we know it will be longer given the road (non-existent) out of here until the town of Narok. We are certainly not looking forward to the bone-rattling start to our journey!

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Goodbye Maasai Mara ..

Since it had rained every single evening since we arrived, Richard decided the main “road” was best avoided and took us through some interior village tracks, which surprisingly were a lot better! Two barriers put up by the locals who expected a payment for usage of these tracks were managed skillfully by Richard by offering food to the villagers from our Sopa lodge stock :). A little over 3 hours and we reached Narok right in time for lunch.

The next part of the ride was much more comfortable and we napped while Richard negotiated the queues of trucks that seemed to appear at regular intervals. Kenya is visibly a nation under construction with a whole lot of construction material being moved around by road.

We passed two lakes Kenyan Rift Valley lake system of the enroute, the first being lake Naivasha, a freshwater lake and the second lake Elementeita, a soda lake.

As we approached Nakuru town, we learnt that our wait to get to Lake Nakuru Lodge was going to be longer than we anticipated because we could only enter the park through the main gate located at the northern end and not the eastern gate that was right next to the lodge and the first one on our way. Because entry permits to the park are only issued at the main gate!! And that meant an extra 45 minutes on the road through Nakuru town traffic for us. But all’s well that ends well; the reward for us was a short and sweet evening safari that started off with the sighting of a lion as we made our way down to the lodge!

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What a beginning to our Nakuru evening safari!

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And then came the evening rain that had marked each day of our Kenyan safaris so far.

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Heading off to find shelter from the rain, end of show!

The drizzle that didn’t last too long and we continued looking out to spot birds and animals. Lake Nakuru is most well known for the millions of flamingos that congregate in its saline waters which provide the ideal environment for growth of algae. The algae is a primary food source for the flamingos and creates a food web that sustains them and a variety of other birds including great white pelicans. In recent years, this single most important foraging site for the lesser flamingo in the world has been seeing decreasing numbers of these birds due to increase in water levels that has reduced the salinity and hence its productivity. The cause of the water level increase is not completely clear and could possibly due to a combination of human-induced factors such as deforestation, soil degradation and urbanization, as well as natural causes such as tectonic plate shifts. Whatever the cause, the result is clearly visible; we did not see any flamingos that evening. Plenty of other attractions do abound in the park and here are some we saw.

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Yellow-billed Storks
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We sighted a lot more Waterbucks here than in Maasai Mara
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An African Fish Eagle
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A pair of White Pelicans enjoy the peace and quiet at sunset
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Impalas are seen in plenty here; together with Waterbucks they are the dominant antelopes in Lake Nakuru National Park
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A curious/anxious African Buffalo looks at us while the herd grazes at dusk
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Looks like a juvenile African Grey Woodpecker
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Black-and-white Colobus Monkey high up on a tree
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A beautiful White-Eyed Slaty Flycatcher
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This young Olive Baboon clutches its mom with all its might!

We arrived at the beautifully situated Lake Nakuru Lodge just before dusk and could enjoy a few moments of the stillness and peace in the balcony.

A serene view from our balcony at the Lake Nakuru Lodge
A serene view from our balcony at the Lake Nakuru Lodge

The next morning we woke to the chirping of birds and found some beautiful ones celebrating the light of dawn. The most fascinating for us were a bunch of crested, long-tailed acrobatic birds that would sometimes hang upside down to get to some fruits on a nearby tree. We later learnt from Richard that these were Mousebirds.

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Mocking Cliff Chat
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Speckled Mousebird, quite an acrobat!
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The MMM World Trip Mastermind is all set for the morning safari!

At breakfast we watched baboons wandering the grounds adjoining the lodge. And set out on our safari with fingers crossed that we get to see rhinos, flamingos, Rothschild’s giraffes and some tree-climbing lions. We were in luck, with Manish spotting a rhino pretty soon. It was an African black rhinoceros, a critically endangered species; we could clearly see its two horns through our binoculars.

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We were ecstatic to see the Black Rhino, a critically endangered species

As we looked at the rhino to our hearts’ content, Richard pointed out that there were flamingos visible in the distance along the lake’s shoreline. So we moved forward to catch a closer look. We went as far as we could; the tracks that would have taken us closer are no longer accessible, having been submerged by the rising water in the lake.

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Flamingos! Finally we see some in the distance, can’t get any closer as the tracks that once ran around the lake are now submerged

As we watched the flamingos, Richard thought he saw a black rhino sleeping in the tall grass. We looked through the binocs and sure enough found the big guy/gal! Yet again we were all admiration for how good he was at spotting with his eyes while driving!

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Our second black rhino, we are in luck indeed !

Seeing flamingos and two rhinos, not to mention the herds of zebra, impala and buffalos that we had by now started taking for granted, was making us feel like this was going to be our day 🙂

While the flamingos may be the star attraction for most visitors, Lake Nakuru is a birder’s paradise. We spotted quite a few birds of prey on tree-tops and in flight that morning besides lapwings on the ground and bunches of the brilliantly coloured superb starlings that are common all over Kenya.

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A hawk sits atop a tree
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Steppe Eagle
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An Augur Buzzard flies high in the sky; the brown tail contrasting with its mainly white belly and under wings is eye-catching
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A Blacksmith Lapwing / Plover
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The ubiquitous Superb Starlings we think are named very aptyly, what superb colours that shine in the sun!

We are on the lookout for lions on trees because the lions here we have read are a rare tree-climbing variety. There aren’t too many of them, the number estimated being 50 or so across the park, but for a park of this size, it is a good density. Richard suddenly stopped and said “look there is a lion there”. Excitedly we peered under the shade of a short tree and sure enough saw a lioness.

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There’s the lioness, but can she climb a tree?

She seemed content just resting under the shade. We waited and watched .. and soon enough she stood up and in a flash was on the tree trunk with a little jump. Manish managed to get a few clicks of her climbing up before she completely vanished from sight, hidden by the thick foliage! And so we figured we had been looking up the wrong kind of trees, it was not the taller ones but the short stubby ones with thick stems that the lions climbed.

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So that’s the kind of tree she climbs, what a lucky timing for us!

Pinching ourselves so we knew we weren’t dreaming, we drove on past the airstrip of the park (these seem to be there in every national park and reserve for small propeller aircraft providing a rather expensive way of avoiding the rickety road journeys!). A couple of vans stopped ahead of us meant there was something interesting and peering through the grass we found a white rhinoceros there. And then we figured there was another tiny version of it right next to it, it was mom & baby! Their colour is not really white, the name owes its origin to the mistranslated Dutch word “wijd”, which means “wide” in English. The word “wide” refers to the width of the rhinoceros’ mouth. In contrast the black rhino has a narrow pointed mouth.

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White rhino mom and baby

After all these sightings, it seemed only right that the next in line were a number of Rothschild’s giraffes, also known as white socks giraffes, an endangered species introduced into the park for their protection. These giraffe with their spots not extending below their knees and more pronounced patches are different from the Masai giraffe.

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The very pretty Rothschild’s giraffe is a pleasure to watch
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A “white socks” giraffe walks ahead of us and further up you can see zebra crossing!

And resting in the shade we see this beautiful male waterbuck, followed by a pair of really small antelope that quickly darted away. Richard informed us that they are the the smallest antelope variety and called dik-dik.

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What lovely antlers! A male waterbuck
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Dil-dik, the tiniest antelope we have ever seen

We climbed uphill to Baboon Cliff, a lookout point to get a view of the entire lake. And another one called the Out of Africa lookout. Final stop before heading back to the lodge for lunch was the Makali Falls, one that looks really brown carrying the red soil from upper reaches.

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You need to go high-up to get a sense of the expanse of the Nakuru lake
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The buffalo skull is an apt warning for any over zealous visitor to not get any closer to view the Makali Falls that carries its nutrient rich waters to the lake
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With our guide Richard to whom we owe our incredible Kenyan experiences!

It was a satisfying lunch in a beautiful setting overlooking the park expanse, the only slight put-off being the stiff upper-lip “management” rule on your own water being termed as an “outside drink” that is not permitted in their restaurant!

We were all set to head on to Nairobi for an overnight stay before embarking on our next long journey to the Amboseli National Park.

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An African Hoopoe we spotted as we left our lodge

As we pulled out of the lodge, Richard pointed out an African Hoopoe that seemed to have come to bid goodbye to us!

Thanks for reading, will be back soon with our Amboseli experience.

Please do check out our daughter Mihika’s blogs on how she is viewing the world at www.iammihika.com.

The Great American Road Trip

A much awaited part of our world trip, our longest road trip (yet!), was finally around the corner – 21 days in the Southwest of US starting in California on 13th (that’s the family’s lucky number!) Jun 2016. Certainly called for a pit stop after Yellowstone and what better than friends, food and fun to get us all set! Manish’s long-time friend Chandra, a classmate from school going back some 36 years and his wife Arundhati graciously hosted us at their San Jose home. A visit to the wine district of Napa Valley and wine tasting at the Castello de Amorosa, a meet-up and dinner with Manish and Chandra’s schoolmate Sujit & his family who were visiting the US (ironically we never met in India in all these years!) at SFO, and a visit to the haloed institution Stanford University were all part of the package.

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Chandra takes us to Napa Valley, that’s one more off the bucket list!
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A view of the vineyards of Castella de Amorosa, Napa Valley
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With buddies it is always Beer – Manish, Chandra & Sujit get-together in SFO after nearly 30 years

We met and caught up with our college friend Radhika & her lovely family after 24 long years. And in the process got invaluable inputs on some beautiful additions to our itinerary.

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Meeting after 24 years! A lifetime to catch up on with our college buddy Radhika Madhavan

On the morning of 13th Jun we set out to the Yosemite National Park located in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. Yosemite has the distinction of being the first instance of land set aside by the US government to be preserved and for public use through the Yosemite Grant in 1864 and setting the precedent for the establishment of Yellowstone as the first National Park in 1872. Yosemite itself acquired National Park status in 1890 ensuring the natural beauty and wilderness of this area is preserved for us and the generations to come to enjoy, thanks to the concerted and tireless efforts of selfless people like Galen Clark, John Muir and Frederick Olmsted.

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Yosemite National Park’s Arch Rock Entrance

The granite arch entrance is an apt gateway to Yosemite’s world of granite and water. The landscape as we see it here is the result of millions of years of geological and glacial activity that sculpted the granite rock into amazing formations, gave birth to deep canyons, multiple streams, cascades, waterfalls and lush meadows.

After a stop for a picnic lunch by the Merced river under tall cedar trees, we headed to the core and most visited area of the park, the Yosemite Valley. We were not quite prepared for the traffic jam we found ourselves in, so decided to park at the nearest possible spot and walked to the Visitor Center. Great decision as it gave us the time we needed to browse the exhibits and watch the documentary on Yosemite. We came to highly value the (usually) 20 minute capsules in all the National Parks which are an excellent brief on the history and geology of the park. We then headed off to check-in to our tented cabin accommodation in the Half Dome Village, until recently known as the Curry Village.

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Our tented accommodation in Yosemite at the Half Dome Village

That night (and the next 2) turned out like being in a freezer! It was so cold despite the month of June and we sorely missed heating in the tent. Needless to say we were up early the next morning and quick to walk across to the warmth of the coffee shop! Could not but wonder why we were paying so much for non-heated tents with shared shower and restroom facilities, no coffee or breakfast and housekeeping limited to change of towels 🙁

We set out to explore the sights of the Yosemite Valley using the park’s hybrid shuttle, an eco-friendly transport option with value-added commentary by the knowledgeable drivers. First stop for us was the Yosemite Falls with a short hike to the lower falls. With spray blown in multiple directions and bright sunshine it was a wonderful sight that inspired Mihika to try and capture the beauty on paper. As we walked further we started seeing the upper and mid-sections of the waterfall that were hidden from view earlier and could appreciate how tall it is.

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The Yosemite Falls inspire the young artist in Mihika
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The Yosemite Falls consisting of three parts, the Upper Falls, Middle Cascades and Lower Falls, is considered to be the highest waterfall in North America
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A brightly coloured Western Tanager perched near the Yosemite Falls

Next stop with a change of shuttle was El Capitan, one of the two most famous granite formations in Yosemite, the other being the Half Dome located next to our place of stay. We first admired the two Sentinels that stand across from the El Capitan before walking through the grassy meadows to get a view of the gigantic El Capitan.

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The majestic Sentinels of Yosemite
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The awe-inspiring El Capitan, a 3000-foot tall monolith, a dream to scale for many rock climbers
Winged Beauties - a couple of Swallow Tailed Butterflies in the meadows near El Capitan
Winged Beauties – a couple of Swallow Tailed Butterflies in the meadows near El Capitan

The afternoon was spent on two activities. The first was a Ranger-led walk and talk on the Black Bears of Yosemite. It was quite shocking to know that 37 bears, a little over 10% of the park’s population of ~350 bears, had been hit by vehicles on the park roads in 2015. And in 2016 there had already been half-a-dozen accidents even before the peak traffic & tourist season of Jul-Aug. The second activity was an exploration of the traditional Ahwahnechee village exhibit at the Visitor Centre. In a recurring pattern across the national parks we had visited so far, we learnt that native American tribes inhabited the Yosemite Valley for thousands of years, living in harmony with and an initimate understanding of the complex ecosystem that supported them, before European settlers discovered the place and ultimately displaced them. The evening saw us watching a documentary on the life and work of John Muir besides catching up on social media with the limited internet connectivity at the village reception.

The next morning we started early to drive up to the Glacier Point that offers panoramic views of the Half Dome, canyons, waterfalls and the valley. A couple of stops along the way at the Tunnel View point for its photo opportunities of the valley.

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Amazing vista from the Glacier Point with the Half Dome in the centre, Tenaya Canyon on the left and Liberty Cap, Nevada & Vernal Falls on the right
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A Stellar’s Jay enjoys the sunshine at Glacier Point

On the way down, we stopped by the Bridal Veil Falls vista point to see this fascinating waterfall up close and could see why it was given its name.

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The Bridal Veil Fall that sends spray in different directions

In the afternoon we decided to brave the Yosemite Valley traffic to drive to the Tuolomne Grove off Tioga Road and not on the shuttle route. The attraction here were the ancient Giant Sequoia trees that are endemic to the region and found in 3 groves in Yosemite. The main and most visited Sequoia grove, Mariposa, is closed for restoration until 2017. Giant Sequoias are amongst the oldest living trees in the world, outlived only by the Bristlecone Pines, and many of them have lived through the most significant milestones in recorded human history! Here is another example of a tree that has adapted to its natural environment prone to forest fires – like the Lodgepole pines in Yellowstone, the Giant Sequoias also have cones that are opened up by fire to release seeds. The 1.6 mile walk to the grove was easy being downhill, the groans of uphill walk back were all but forgotten on sighting an Acorn Woodpecker that was tirelessly pecking away at the bark of a mammoth tree!

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The tall trees dwarf us
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The Old Red – Amongst the most mature trees in the grove
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The Dead Giant – a dead Giant Sequoia with a stagecoach passage carved through as a tourist attraction in the 1800s
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An Acorn Woodpecker catches our attention with its persistent pecking that made a distinctive noise

The third morning at Yosemite saw us departing the park (happy to escape the cold nights!) through the scenic Tioga Road, the last road to be cleared of snow for the Tioga Pass to be opened up to traffic in the summer. We stopped by the Olmsted Point to take a look at the “lunar” landscape, a peek down the deep Tenaya canyon and a glimpse of the Tenaya lake that lay further ahead. Another stop at Tenaya lake to admire the serene blue waters with its mirror-like reflection of the surrounding mountains and snow caps and we were on our way out of Yosemite and soon looking at the expansive Mono Lake as we neared the town of Lee Vining.

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Tenaya lake in the distance seen from Olmsted Point
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A Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel in the Lunar Landscape of Olmsted Point
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The serene blue waters of Tenaya Lake provide an ideal setting to reflect
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Mono Lake comes into view as we leave the Tioga Road and Yosemite

The places of interest for the day (4th of the trip) after leaving Yosemite were the Bodie State Historic Park and the Mono Lake. We drove along the Mono lake to Bodie, an abandoned mining town from the Californian gold rush era. It started as a mining camp in 1859 with the discovery of gold here by a group of prospectors including W.S. Bodey after whom the town is named. It grew and witnessed its peak between 1877 – 1880 before its decline in the late 1910s and eventual abandonment. It was fascinating to walk through the streets of this ghost town which has preserved the houses, shops and community hall in the state they were left in, including some furnishings and contents. The small museum contains family photographs of residents, tools used by the miners and payroll registers of some of the mining companies with beautifully handwritten (almost calligraphic!) lists of the names & roles of workers among other artefacts. The town witnessed a fair share of violence we learnt with brawls, shootings and murders not being uncommon!

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The short-lived ghost town of Bodie
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Walking the streets of Bodie
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Interior of a house in Bodie
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A truck of the gold rush era
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Seen inside a shop in Bodie – chocolate is an all-time favourite!
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The gas station in Bodie – note the bullet holes in the “Shell” sign

We then descended down the Bodie hills and stopped by Mono lake, a huge saline soda lake to admire the hundreds of California Gulls along its shoreline and the curious formations of limestone called tufas. The tufas started emerging when water levels in the lake reduced following diversion of water to serve the needs of Los Angeles! The fall in water levels has adversely affected the ecosystem supported by the lake, in particular the migratory birds that nest here. Fortunately the Mono Lake Committee, an environmental organisation has taken up the cause of preservation of the lake and made significant progress over the last couple of decades.

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Mono Lake with the Sierra Nevada peaks in the background
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Tufas, limestone formations, visible in Mono Lake
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California Gulls by the Mono Lake

Driving along Hwy 395, we headed to our destination for that night’s halt – June Lake village. The next morning we enjoyed the views and calm of the picturesque Gull and June lakes before heading off to the Earthquake Fault in the Inyo National Forest near Mammoth Lakes. We spotted a mule deer on the highway, the first one with antlers that we had seen. He quickly retreated into the forest.

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The Gull lake, Mono County
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Mama duck with her little ducklings enjoying the morning in Gull lake
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The beautiful June Lake
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A stroll along the “beach” at June Lake turns out to be more chilly than we thought!
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A beautiful mule deer sporting antlers in the Inyo National Forest

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The fissure believed to have resulted from a system of fractures a series of strong quakes centuries ago. The native Americans are known to have used this for food storage at times when it had ice trapped in!

Next up on the itinerary was the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, a detour from the town of Big Pine, added last minute as it was too tempting to pass by without looking at the oldest known living organisms dating over 4000 years in age.

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An old Bristlecone Pine

Bristlecone pine trees do not grow very tall, unlike what is normally expected especially after knowing about the Giant Sequoias, but they thrive in higher elevations under harsh conditions where other plants cannot grow. They have shallow and highly branched roots and extremely durable wood that is highly resistant to rot and insects. The exposed wood of Bristlecones, on living and dead trees, erodes like stone due to wind, rain, and freezing, which creates unusual forms and shapes.

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Sculpted appearance of a Bristlecone resulting from weathering action of the elements

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A squirrel peeps out from a fallen Bristlecone Pine

Leaving the windy slopes of the White Mountains where life has adapted to harsh climate, we descended down to the valley to visit a place where humans were forced to adapt to harsh climatic conditions during World War II. The Manzanar National Historic Site located between the towns of Independence and Lone Pine on Hwy 395 represents a little known part of American history. It is one of ten camps setup following the attack at Pearl Harbour where over 100,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry along the Pacific coast were incarcerated for stated reasons of suspicion but with no evidence ever found against any of them it is natural to wonder if it was just the face of racism showing itself. Acknowledging the wrongs and preserving the site with its story narrated candidly in the documentary screened every half-hour are great steps forward indeed.

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The Manzanar site located in Owens Valley, harsh sandy winds blow through most of the year in this barren land

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In 1988 President Ronald Reagan signed into law The Civil Liberties Act which acknowledged the injustice and granted reparations to the Japanese Americans interned by the US Government during World War II

After the dusty scorching winds and admiring the spirit of the Japanese community that had during its stay here altered it from barren land to little gardens and fruit orchards, we were ready to call it a day. We headed to the town of Ollancha with a tiny detour into Alabama Hills near Lone Pine to catch a glimpse of the locale that has seen the making of many an old Western movie.

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The Rustic Oasis Motel, Ollancha – a comfy rustic experience complete with rabbits hopping around the garden!

The dawn of day 6 on the road saw us witnessing one of the most beautiful sunrises at just past 5 am as we woke up to get going to the Death Valley National Park.

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Fire in the sky – what a sunrise!

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A couple of black-tailed jackrabbits (aka American desert hares) sprinted across the road as we drove in as if to prove the abundance of life in the desert. Pretty soon we were looking at such beautiful shades on the mountain sides, it got us wondering if this was painted or real!

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Is it a painting or a real mountain side?

First stop was the Mosaic Canyon with a short walk into the canyon to see the beautiful marble like polished surfaces. It was difficult to imagine water flowing through the canyon in the heat though it was just about 8 in the morning!

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Too tired to walk at 8 am!
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The Mosaic Canyon

As we drove down getting lower in elevation, the temperature reading continued to steadily inch up. We were soon at the point where we were at sea level and set to continue below sea level as we proceeded to Furnace Creek.

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The Mesquite Sand Dunes from a distance

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The mesmerising Mesquite sand dunes with a perfectly formed crescent!
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Bothered by the heat or worried about rattlesnakes?
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The temperature continues to soar quickly!
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Quite an appropriate name!

Next stop was at the Furnace Creek Visitor Centre for our intro and orientation on the park’s history and ecology. The documentary in its honest style included an emotional narration by an elderly lady of the native Timbisha Shoshone tribe saying they believed (like native Americans all across) they had been put in that particular place by the creator to look after and care for the land and how strange it was to be allocated a “reservation” to live on in their own land was theirs.

The landscape as we see it today is the result of a whole host of geological activities over millions of years, the last of which was a stretching of the Earth’s crust creating the slanted rock layers of the mountain ranges (that look very different from the fold or uplift mountains we are more familiar with) and the valley in between. The valley is starved of rainfall being in the “shadow” of three mountain ranges on the west which result in depletion of the moisture content of air as it crosses the mountains. And so we have the driest and hottest place here in the continent.

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The Golden Canyon
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Having learnt about the desert ecosystem and importance of preservation, Mika takes her oath as a Junior Ranger to do her bit to protect and preserve wilderness

The much awaited highlight for the day was the fact that we could look at the highest & lowest points in contiguous US within an hour of being at the lowest point! At Badwater Basin we stood at the lowest at 282 feet below sea level with extensive “salt flats” stretching out and water vapour visible over the shimmering white surface in the distance.

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So bright, hot and windy, cannot look up or let go of cap! At the lowest and hottest point in mainland USA, 282 feet below sea-level
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Braving the heat of 43 deg C! The Salt Flats of the Badwater Basin where water evaporates leaving behind salt cyrstals
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There still was some water flowing through in the Badwater Basin despite the burning heat

And then it was time to head up to Dante’s View after a brief colourful journey through Artist Drive and taking in the amazing vistas from Zabriskie Point both of which give one the feeling of being in a gigantic 3D canvas.

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In the Artist Drive, it is a delightful palette of colours come alive in 3D paintings!
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In black & white – the mountains sketched & shaded across the landscape!
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Mika excited at seeing “Badlands“, the namesake of a locale a favourite singer of hers grew up around!
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Stunning formations seen at Zabriskie Point
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Another view from Zabriskie Point

From Dante’s View point one can see the lowest (Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level) and highest points (Mount Whitney, 14505 feet above sea level) of US on a clear day. Relieved at the perceptibly cooler temperatures here we spent some time walking around and admiring the views from different angles, spotting lizards and some birds before departing the park.

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Panorama from Dante’s View – of the lowest point in the US!

Day 7 – time to head to Las Vegas for a relaxed couple of days, especially considering that we had just entered a heat wave gripping parts of California, Nevada and Arizona for 4 days. ‘Finding Dory’ at the legendary Brendan theatre and the cool environs of some of the famed casinos of Vegas like Bellagio were the perfect getaway from the heat outside, but we did need to steel ourselves to go and see the Hoover Dam on day 9.

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The Bellagio, Las Vegas
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Sights and sounds on the Vegas strip

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The Colorado river at Hoover Dam

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View of Hoover Dam from the Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge

Day 10 was a long day with an early start as we had a lot of ground to cover before catching the sunset at the Grand Canyon. Our first destination situated in the state of Utah was an addition to our original itinerary based on our friend Radhika’s strong recommendation.

IMG_6961The Zion National Park is an amazingly beautiful place, it looks like a series of sandstone temples chiseled by a master sculptor! We learnt that water in the form of the Virgin river, a tributary of the Colorado river, working its way through the Colorado plateau after its near vertical uplift millions of years ago is that accomplished sculptor.

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Fascinating striated sandstone formations that define Zion

A shuttle bus tour through the Zion scenic drive saw us deciding to come back here to walk through the Narrows some day. We headed out onto the Zion – Mt. Carmel Highway to enjoy the scenic drive and saw some of the most spectacular formations including the Great Arch, the East Temple and the Chequered Mesa.

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The Great Arch, Zion National Park
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The East Temple stands tall behind the beautiful red sandstone
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The Chequered Mesa is a marvel of nature with its array of colours and perfect chequers

The drive outside the park heading towards the town of Page in Arizona continued to be scenic through canyon country with landscape alternating between the colourful hill formations of Death Valley and red sandstone formations of Zion.

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Sandstone formations on the drive along Lake Powell

Crossing Lake Powell we continued past Page and as it was past 4:30 pm we knew we were too late for a tour of the mesmerising Antelope Canyon. So we drove straight to the Horseshoe Bend trailhead. We walked through the sandy stretch of 1.2 km to arrive at one of the most beautiful sights we have ever beheld, created by the meandering Colorado river.

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The Colorado river takes a 270 degree turn at the Horseshoe Bend
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Stunning colours of the Glen Canyon at the Horseshoe Bend
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Contemplating the vastness

A most satisfied lot, we were on our way to the Grand Canyon National Park with our fingers crossed to make it there in time to catch the sunset. And we made it to the South Rim of the canyon in time to watch one of the most beautiful sunsets we have ever seen while trying to fathom the width and depth of the Grand Canyon! At its widest the canyon stretches 29 km and just over 6 km at the its narrowest!! And it is 1.6 km deep.
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Sunset over the Grand Canyon, 24 Jun 2016

As darkness fell we drove into the heart of the park towards Yavapai Lodge where we were to stay and on the way were delighted to stop to let an elk cross the road with her little calf. The next morning we made our way to the Visitor Center and from there hiked the stretch along the canyon rim to the Geology Museum. We stopped at various places to admire the sheer grandeur, immense size and seemingly infinite stretch of red monuments. I must say we were disappointed at the haze hanging around which as we learnt soon enough, is not uncommon here due to air pollutants carried by the winds from the nearby urban centers and industries.

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The Grand Canyon is not a single but a multitude of gorges & canyons carved by the Colorado and its tributaries

At the Geology Museum we learnt about how the canyon is a geologist’s dream with its visible historical record of the earth’s layers of rocks, the oldest (called Vishnu Schist) of which date from nearly 2 billions years ago and the youngest 200 million years. It was fascinating and frankly quite mind boggling to try and comprehend the formation of this landscape which has been a shallow sea at some points in time and a swamp at others, the movement of the earth’s tectonic plates, earthquakes, volcanoes, ice ages and all that have resulted in what we see today. It is so much more than just erosion by the Colorado.

We used the South Rim shuttle service to visit various vista points like the Mohave, Hopi and Powell points, sometimes walking through the trails connecting them. We admired the “Battleship” formation which we learnt had caves that were a favoured nesting place for some of the California Condors in the park and caught glimpses of the Colorado river flowing deep down in the canyon. Later that afternoon we attended a ranger-led talk on the critically endangered California Condors. These huge scavenger birds had come to the brink of extinction with only 27 surviving birds in the 1980s. Fortunately their numbers are now slightly healthier at over 425 after an intensive recovery program and the Grand Canyon has around 80 of them in the wild.

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The Battleship formation on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon
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Mihika participates in a Ranger-led talk on the California Condor

After the talk we took the shuttle to get to the Abyss and Pima points to look at the canyon colours come alive in the rays of the setting sun.

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The rays at sunset reveal the rich hues of the canyon at Pima Point

Day 12 – we start out early to catch the sunrise at Yaki Point and walk down the canyon on the South Kaibab trail to see it from a little deeper. It gave us an opportunity to see the Kaibab limestone walls up close and an intermediate view of the canyon.

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Hiking down the South Kaibab trail
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On top of the world at Ooh Aah Point on the South Kaibab trail!

The hike was a good way to wrap-up our canyon experience and we headed out to Sedona, a desert town that features red sandstone formations and regarded as one of the energy vortex locations. My interest in spirituality was the reason for visiting Sedona. The town’s most unique feature, besides the sandstone formations, are its numerous roundabouts, something we associate with the UK and Europe but not the US. We visited three of the four main vortexes that evening – the Cathedral Rock, the Bell Rock and the Airport Mesa, the last being a common vantage point to watch colourful sunsets.

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Red sandstone formations at Sedona
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The Cathedral Rock group at Sedona
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The Bell Rock and Energy Vortex
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Sunset view point at the Airport Mesa

Day 13 was a relaxed start (maybe the calming effect of the energy of the place!) with a mid-morning visit to the fourth vortex at Boynton Canyon. On our way we met a gentleman who greeted us and offered each of us a heart-shaped stone to carry home the energy with us. We felt blessed!

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The Boynton Canyon at Sedona
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At the foothill of the location of the energy vortexes at Boynton Canyon

The agenda was the rest of the day was a drive through the historic Route 66, one of the oldest highways of the US, and an overnight halt at the old city of Needles before heading to our next destination the Joshua Tree National Park.

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In the town of Williams on historic Route 66

The Joshua Tree National Park would mark the culmination of Manish’s “U2 pilgrimage” starting at the ghost town of Bodie and through Death Valley in homage to their bestselling album “The Joshua Tree“. We were now going to see one of the largest congregations of the perennial Yucca that adorns the sleeve of the album in its natural habitat.

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The Joshua Tree – a fascinating member of the Yucca family that thrive in the deserts of southwest to central US

The Joshua Tree National Park is a transition zone between two different deserts – the Mojave and the Colorado and has features of both and supports a diverse ecosystem. There are two main varieties of the Yucca seen in the park, one ofcourse is the Joshua Tree and the other is the Mojave Yucca, a very beautiful looking plant.

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Mojave Yucca
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Yuccas of all kinds and sharp bends!
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I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For …
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Bright colours in this transitional area between the Mojave and Colorado deserts

We walked the Hidden Valley trail which is said to have been completely isolated for centuries and hence had distinctly evolved plant & animal species until one of the rocks concealing it was blasted through by cattle herders and the micro-habitat more or less destroyed by grazing and introduction of exotic / invasive species. It was very hot though it was still the morning and so the walk seemed longer than the one mile (1.6 km) it actually is. In the afternoon of day 14 we were en-route to San Diego on the Pacific coast and looking forward to the cooler days and nights ahead.

A major attraction for us in San Diego was the USS Midway, the longest serving aircraft carrier of the US (from 1945 to 1992) that has been converted into a museum. Docked in the Navy Pier at the San Diego harbour, this huge ship is extremely educational and carries many helicopters and aircraft used in the years of the Cold War and subsequent missions including rescue and relief. There are veterans who served on the ship at various points to explain the ship’s operations, aircraft launch and retrieval mechanisms on the seas using the extremely small airstrip, as well as the internal workings and a day in their life.

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The USS Midway Museum, San Diego
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The upper deck of the USS Midway with a huge collection of aircraft used through its life
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Trying to get a feel for the navigational controls of the huge ship
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Checking out the interiors and some controls on a helicopter
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The closest yet to being in command of a fighter jet
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Resting after a few hours of exploring and learning walking through the 3 levels and numerous passageways of the massive USS Midway

From the harbour we headed to the historic Gaslamp Quarter and onto the panoramic Coronado Bridge to cross over the San Diego bay to Coronado, the residence of many retired officers of the US Navy. Last stop for the day was at the Mission Beach before calling it a day.

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The icoinc gas lamps of the Gaslamp Quarter in downtown San Diego
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End of day 15 of our road trip – at the Mission Beach, San Diego

Day 16 was reserved for a visit to the San Diego zoo (and this possibly was our last visit to any zoo) that is celebrating its centennial this year and doing some pioneering work with various organizations across the world on saving species from extinction.

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A Giant Panda resting at the San Diego zoo
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A Pink Flamingo feeds its chick

The next evening we visited the La Jolla Cove to admire the congregation of sea lions, cormorants, sea gulls and pelicans who were basking in the warmth of the setting sun. And to watch a bunch of surfers riding / attempting to ride the waves.

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Cormorants by the scores on the cliff sides at the La Jolla Cove
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Well fed sea lions (judging by their size) snooze on the rocky shores

Day 18 was our departure from San Diego and arrival at Santa Clarita, our base for the Hollywood city Los Angeles. Thanks to inputs from an old friend of Manish, we made a very meaningful stop at the immensely peaceful Meditation Gardens of the Encinitas Retreat of the Self-Realization Fellowship established by Paramahansa Yoganada.

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View of the Pacific Ocean from the mediation garden at the Encinitas Retreat

Next stop was at the beautiful city of Laguna Beach in Orange County for a meet-up with my sister Thara and her family who had just arrived here for a road-trip vacation. Coincidentally they had planned to cover the same spots as we had done but in the reverse direction!

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Sisters meet across the globe!
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Sisters enjoying their little time together as only sisters can!

We were then on our way, negotiating the immense traffic of LA and making the most of the Carpool / HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lane reserved for use by vehicles with two or more passengers.

The reason for us staying in Santa Clarita rather than LA was the Six Flags Magic Mountain, a theme-park whose roller coasters were a must-do for Mihika.

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At the Six Flags Magic Mountain Mihika is all smiles

Day 20 was dedicated to LA starting with the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a look at the Chinese Theatre.

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Where dreams are made!
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Many a star adorns this Walk of Fame

We used public transport (buses & the metro) to get to LA and around LA. It was a Saturday and hence the frequency of the trains and buses probably was lower than weekdays but that meant a lot of waiting in between for us. Took us a while to get to Sunset Boulevard for another homage destination of Manish’s – the Rainbow Bar & Grill, the quintessential rock/metal hangout for rockstars and their groupies. It continued to fascinate by appearing in Guns N Roses classic videos including November Rain, Estranged and Don’t cry.

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A street made iconic by many a legend
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Finally here!!
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A dream to be standing here

Lemmy, the Motörhead frontman, was a daily fixture here when the band was not on tour. Rainbow, one of Manish’s favourite bands was named after this venue. Motley Crue, Alice Cooper, GNR, Poison, WASP, Ringo Starr, John Lennon – all were regulars here.

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Standing next to Lemmy!

With the celebrity salutations done, it was time for a visit to the California Science Center, with interesting and interactive exhibits that we all found very engaging and instructive. We could have gone on but closing time was upon us and so we strolled out to the rose garden admiring the blooms before heading back to the metro station. Our last place to visit for the day was the Griffith Observatory to peek through the telescopes for a glimpse of the wonders of the universe. On the shuttle to the observatory we came too know of extremely slow traffic on the way up due to a Ringo Starr concert in the Greek Theatre. As we inched along wondering when we would make it, Manish gauged that we would not be able to make it back in time for the last bus back to Santa Clarita and so took the call to leave the bus and head back. The right decision it turned out to be in hindsight an hence ended our day in LA.

And the 21st day arrived and we were finally on our way to the scenic Pacific Coast Highway or Hwy 1 as it is popularly known. We joined this state highway that runs across most of the Pacific coastline of California at the city of San Luis Obispo. It was a cloudy day and our stop at Morro Bay for breakfast wasn’t giving us too warm a feeling. But that was more than compensated by the sight of hundreds of elephant seals at a designated viewing area. They were stretched out on the beach sand, mostly asleep, but some of them making loud bellowing noises and a few frolicking in the cold waters. We learnt that these mammals had nearly disappeared from the Californian coasts following extensive hunting for their blubber and so it is heartening for environmentalists that their population has now reached a healthy level.

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Elephant Seals cover the sands on the Pacific coastline
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A younger one joins the group

We drove along the winding road as it wound its way along the unique coastline of cliffs and narrow rocky beaches. Little rock formations and isles were visible at many places not too far from the coast. We stopped at a number of vista points and admired the mystical look of fog hanging on the cliff sides with some flowers just beginning to bloom on the lower parts of the cliffs. The views especially around the area called Big Sur were simply beautiful!

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Fog hugs the cliffs as waves kiss the shores on the Pacific Coast Highway
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Cliffs & coast make this journey a memorable one
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A dramatic coastline

Eventually the road moved a little inland after the town of Monterey and we continued on it until the approach to Santa Cruz and then branched off towards Saratoga. We were happy to get back to our friends Jagdeep and Vipin and Mihika delighted to be back with Riya and Saachi. It was the evening of 3rd July. We had arrived in good time to rest and ready to enjoy the 4th of July celebrations of the Saratoga community.

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Riya, Saachi and Mihika accompanied by Vipin, get to learn some trivia from John and Abigail Adams
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Wearing the colours of the day!

A bright morning on the lawns of the Kevin Moran park with enthusiastic citizens, some dressed as eminent characters of independent USA and sharing snippets of history with the kids, a band playing and a choir singing, it was just the celebration we needed after 21 days on the road!

This has been an extra long blog post as we decided to keep this entire experience as one cohesive piece. If you have read this far, thank you for staying with us!

Yellowstone National Park: The Earth’s Giant Pressure Cooker

After a month of travel in South America it was a much needed restful stay and wonderful time with our old friends Jagdeep and Vipin at their home in Saratoga, California. Mihika found her much needed company of children and became good friends with Riya & Saachi.

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A warm, lovely welcome for us, handcrafted by little Saachi
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Old is gold when it comes to friends – Jagdeep & Vipin, our college and first-job buddies

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We were now ready for our next big destination – the Yellowstone National Park. We flew into Salt Lake City (SLC) on 2nd June 2016. SLC is not the closest airport to Yellowstone but the most reasonable one to fly into coming from California. At the car rental desk in the SLC airport we had to spend some time to get Montana included in the set of states we could drive in; the default rental agreement allowed us to drive in the states immediately neighbouring Utah and so Montana was not included. Yellowstone is spread across 3 different states – Wyoming (primarily), Montana and Idaho. While most of the park area is in the state of Wyoming, three of it’s five entrances (west, north & north-east) are in the state of Montana. We had chosen to divide our stay at Yellowstone in two, first half near the west entrance and second half near the north-east entrance, to enable us to explore the different parts of this vast park. With the car rental sorted, we were off on a long drive to West Yellowstone, our base for the first 3 of our 6 days at the Yellowstone National Park. Starting with the snow-capped peaks of the Rockies as we pulled out of the Salt Lake City airport, it was a scenic drive on the I-15 N through parts of Utah and Idaho. We passed by the town of Idaho Falls, made iconic (for us!) by our dear friends Mamatha & Sripathi for whom it was home for many years. We arrived in the quaint little town of West Yellowstone in the evening and checked into the cosy Alpine Motel located a stone’s throw from the Yellowstone park entrance.

The next morning we entered the park in anticipation of the wonders lying within the first ever National Park that was established over a century ago in 1872. In particular we wanted to see for ourselves what we had seen on videos of Yellowstone – the eruption of the Old Faithful geyser, the brilliant colours of the Grand Prismatic Spring and the terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs.

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It was a bright sunny day and we were completely swept away by the beautiful vistas as we entered the park – endless stretches of pines, shimmering streams, snow-capped peaks in the backdrop, bald eagles flying near the streams.

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Madison River flowing through the western part of Yellowstone

Here’re some things we learnt through various resources about Yellowstone that make it a very special place. The entire region of the park as we have it today has been shaped by the “supervolcano” or geological hotspot that lies beneath it. The Yellowstone volcano is not the typical cone-shaped mountain that comes to mind when one thinks of a volcano; it is a huge chamber of hot magma spread over a large area of about 3200 km² and at about 5 to 8 kms underground it is closer to the earth’s surface here than anywhere else in the world. For us it was especially interesting having recently visited the Galapagos Islands which owe their existence to a geological hotspot too. Differences in other environmental factors between the two mean they are very different from each other. The key difference is water (precipitation & ground water), abundant in Yellowstone but scarce in Galapagos. Like Galapagos, this region maybe old for us on a human timescale but on a geological timescale it is young and continuing to evolve. There have been three supervolcanic eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot resulting in the formation of the Yellowstone Caldera and it is estimated that these have occurred every 650,000 to 700,000 years with the last one pegged at around 640,000 years ago. Which means the next one is just around the corner .. but at ~10,000 years it is definitely not going to be in history / geography textbooks any time soon! The magnitude of the supervolcanic eruptions are so huge that the entire landscape and life is altered …. it seems like a continuous cycle of birth and death or renewal by Nature. The combination of heat, earthquakes and water are responsible for the geothermal features (geysers, hot springs, fumaroles and mud pots) numbering over 10,000 in the park, the largest concentration in the world. It is like a giant pressure cooker that keeps venting steam and hot water while a lot is cooking inside. You can actually hear the activity beneath the surface! This region that remained undiscovered by the world until the latter half of the 19th century is home to four of the “big 5” of the North American continent – Grizzly bears, Grey Wolf, Bison and Moose.

Before we got into more of the wonderful sights of the Yellowstone National Park, we headed to the nearest visitor center to get Mihika enrolled for the Junior Ranger program, something she had enjoyed and had been a useful learning experience at the Everglades National Park. On our way to the Madison Visitor Center we saw our first herd of bisons grazing with many little calves prancing around!

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A grazing bison herd, the first we saw in Yellowstone!

At the visitor center it was a case of perfect timing with a ranger led intro & short walk starting just when we arrived.

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The ranger started with an introduction to Lodgepole pines, the most widespread conifers in the region, named so for their use by the native American Indians as poles in the shelters they built. These are easily identifiable by their needles that grow in groups of two. The tree has two types of cones, one of which remains tightly sealed by a resin until exposed to high temperatures that can open it and disperse the seeds within. The talk made us see forest fires in an entirely new light – the natural fires caused by lightning strikes or high summer temperatures help to open up the fir cones and pave the the way for new trees to grow after the old forest is cleared by the fires and the burnt organic matter enriches the soil to promote new growth. This in turn attracts grazing animals and the entire food chain that follows creating a self-sustaining and balanced ecosystem. Based on this understanding of the adaptation of the trees to fire, the National Park Service has in the past few years changed its approach to natural forest fires and lets the fires burn except where there is a threat to buildings within the park.

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Lodgepole Pines constitute about 80% of the trees in Yellowstone

We saw pretty white flowers on the ground that the ranger explained are wild strawberry which turn out quite small in size and that the larger strawberries we see in the grocery stores are the result of years of cultivation and improvements by humans. He added that we are free to pick and eat any berries in the park as long as they are all consumed within the park. As a rule no material found on park property is permitted to be taken out and any attractive finds like deer antlers are to be reported to the park rangers.

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Wild strawberry plant

The ranger then pointed out to us a tree whose bark was shaved off in places as a result of bisons rubbing themselves against it, something they do to help get rid of itching as well as to shed off their winter coats. The tree actually had some bison fur (hair ?) on it as evidence!

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A tree bearing the marks of bison rubbing against it

As we walked past a mountain called the National Park mountain, formed by the last lava flow that occurred here about 70,000 years ago, we learnt of the historic expedition in 1870 by Henry Washburn, Nathaniel Langford & Gustavus Doane that led to a geological survey of the region by the geologist Ferdinand Hayden in 1871 whose comprehensive report paved the way for setting up of the national park in 1872.

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Mihika concludes a session with a Yellowstone National Park Ranger

We then started off on our trip to cover the Grand Loop, the ~230 km roadway that runs around the park and is divided into the upper and lower loops. We had planned to devote a day each to the loops leaving the 3rd day to drive across the Lamar Valley, sometimes called the Serengeti of North America, that is a not part of the Grand Loop to the north-east end of the park.

We started with the lower loop with the Grand Prismatic Spring as the first major attraction. On the way we stopped by Firehole Falls and Fountain Paint Pot.

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Firehole Falls

Fountain Paint Pot was an excellent introduction to the four different kinds of geothermal features in Yellowstone – geysers, hot springs, fumaroles and mud pots. The former two occur in places of abundant groundwater while the latter two occur in places of limited groundwater accumulation. Geysers are formed when there is a constriction in the rocks above the accumulated water that results in a build-up of pressure as the water gets heated and eventually steam & hot water shoot up. Hot springs occur when there is no constriction in the rocks. Fumaroles are steam & gas vents. Mud pots occur when the surface is rich in volcanic ash and clay.

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Hotspring in the Fountain Paint Pot trail
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How many shades of blue!!

The many brilliant colours seen around the hot springs come from “mats” of different thermophilic microorganisms each thriving at different temperatures and extreme pH levels in the inhospitable waters. So fascinating!

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An unexpected sight – a small snake seen in the warm acidic water at Fountain Paint Pot

Next up was the Grand Prismatic Spring, the much photographed colourful “eye” of Yellowstone. To get to it we crossed the dormant Excelsior geyser which no longer erupts but continues to pump huge volumes of hot water into the Firehole river.

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Hot water flows into the Firehole river from the dormant Excelsior geyser
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The Grand Prismatic Spring

On our way back we were surprised to see a flock of birds apparently enjoying a spa in the warm waters of another spring!

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IMG_5306The most visited geyser in Yellowstone is so called for the regularity of its eruptions at about 90 minute intervals which guarantees visitors will see it in action. It was like show-time with people sitting all around from 10-15 minutes before the forecast time of the next eruption. And after a few bursts of steam and water, it finally went up about 13 minutes after the forecast.

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Old Faithful, the most visited geyser of Yellowstone, erupts at 16:37 on 3rd Jun 2016

We continued on the lower loop and passed by some spectacular views of lakes and snow-capped peaks before reaching Yellowstone Lake.

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Yellowstone Lake is a massive lake and a serene sight with it vast expanse of blue water meeting the horizon in the distance. Amazingly there are hot water springs next to the lake whose water is pretty cold. We read about the spot which was once called “Hook & cook” where fishermen would simply put fish caught from the lake into the hot water pool next to it and the fish was cooked! Now fishing here is banned. In yet another example of invasive species destroying endemic species, Yellowstone Lake has seen a sharp decline in its population of Cutthroat Trout following the (accidental) introduction of Lake Trout. This has affected the food-chain and ecosystem in the area.

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Yellowstone Lake with a small hot spring in the foreground

We had stopped to take the above photo when a fellow visitor tapped Manish on the shoulder and told us to turn around to see a grizzly bear in the distance. Not believing our ears, we thanked him and peered to catch a glimpse of this mighty animal. Sure enough we saw a bear a little distance from the lake’s shoreline, ran to wake up Mihika who was asleep in the car and excitedly went forward to get a better view.

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Our first sighting of a Grizzly Bear in the wild!

Imagine our excitement when the bear climbed up towards the road nd went on to cross it as we watched! And we continued to watch him forage on the other side for quite a while before he headed deeper into the woods and out of sight.

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Grizzly crosses the road near Yellowstone Lake

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Extremely thrilled and feeling super-lucky to have seen a grizzly bear at such close quarters on our maiden drive, at a time & place we didn’t expect to, we continued on our drive towards Hayden Valley where we were planning to be at sunset to see some wildlife. Beautiful scenery continued to emerge as we drove along the Yellowstone Lake.

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Yellowstone Lake shore at Pumice Point

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The sun was in our eyes as we drove up an incline on the road and so nearly did not see the bull Elk that was crossing the road. We stopped in the nick of time and he backed up to return. He went back to graze and it was a visual treat to admire him at close quarters for as long as we wanted.

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A bull Elk grazes in Hayden Valley

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We saw bison grazing on either side of the road as we drove further. Just around sunset it was a beautiful golden light on the valley and meadows next to Yellowstone river. We could see deer crossing the river in the distance and thought they might be Pronghorns.

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Sunset in Hayden Valley
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Deer crossing Yellowstone River in Hayden Valley

A little further up we were mesmerized by a huge herd of bison grazing right next to the road, quite unmindful of the cars around. It was soon an “animal jam”! These majestic, powerful animals are quite a sight from close quarters. Docile as they look, we heeded all warnings of staying at a safe distance from them to avoid any surprises.

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A herd of bisons at sunset in the Hayden Valley

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A bison calf

It was nearly nine in the night by now and past our planned return time. What an action-packed day it had been!

The next morning we headed on to the upper loop with the first stop at the beautiful Gibbon falls where there were dozens of swallows constantly flying around the rocks.

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Gibbon Falls

Next up was the Norris Geyser Basin, the most active geothermal area of the park that includes the Steamboat geyser, the world’s tallest. We first took the trail for the Porcelain Basin, whose name is inspired by the milky colour of the mineral siliceous sinter deposited here. The colours around the springs here are a little less dramatic here as microbes too find it difficult to thrive in its very acidic environment.

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Porcelain Basin in the Norris Geyser Basin

We then went up to the Steamboat geyser and a number of others on the trail. Of course no luck with watching any of them erupt. The Steamboat does not erupt on a schedule and there can be long periods ranging from months to years between two eruptions. The last major one was on 3rd Sep 2014.

We then headed to the Mammoth Hot Springs stopping by the Swan Lake where we spotted a pair of Sandhill Cranes.

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Sandhill Cranes near Swan Lake

At Mammoth we admired the terrace like formations created by the calcium carbonate deposited over years by the springs. Some springs have gone dormant leaving behind hardened cones to mark their existence.

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Lower Terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs

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We then stopped at the Albright Visitor Center and learnt about the park management history which had a chequered start in which little was / could be done to preserve the flora and fauna and there was a steady decline in the population of predators due to hunting, poaching and conflicts with humans. The Grey Wolf completely disappeared from here and it took many years and debates to put in place and implement a restoration program that reintroduced this species into the park in 1995. There is evidence that wolf restoration in Yellowstone has had multiple beneficial effects on the ecosystem and has demonstrated that perhaps ecosystems work in intricately complex ways that are not fully understood by us. Thanks to our friend Shastri for sharing this informative TED talk by George Monbiot that discusses effects on landscape as well.

Amidst all the action, Mihika had completed all the activities she needed to earn the honour of being a Junior Ranger and too her oath to preserve and protect. As our visit coincided with the centennial celebrations of the US National Park Service, she got an additional token to mark the event.

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Mihika joins the Yellowstone Junior Ranger club

We went on to join a Ranger talk on the wildlife in Yellowstone, bears being of most interest. Mihika used the opportunity to enquire about grey wolf spotting opportunities and we learnt of a place near the Lamar Valley where a den and the presence of wolves was confirmed. So we duly noted that for the next leg of our stay. All ranger talks included a set of exhibits such as furs and antlers. The furs all had tags citing their origin, typically these were animals killed in road accidents or had to be put down due to preying on farm animals outside the park boundaries.

IMG_5503We then headed onward to see the Tower Falls encountering Robins, a little Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel, pine trees that looked like ready decorated Christmas trees and a warning sign about Bears.

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Chipmunk or Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel?
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A robin watches as we pass by
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A pre-decorated Christmas tree!!
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Warning signs are placed at various places, needed more to keep the bears safe

As we drove towards Mount Washburn, we came across a traffic jam with people peering down the side of the road. We pulled up and found ourselves looking at a family of Black Bears, a mother with two cubs, moving away into the treeline. It was just a glimpse of the mother but we were entertained to the play of the two cubs on a tree branch for a long time! Wow!!

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Black Bear cub plays on a branch!

We had been told that Black bears and Grizzlies can be distinguished visually not by their colour (Black Bears can be brown, tan or black in colour) but by the hump on the Grizzly’s shoulder which is absent in the black bear.

We were in real luck again that afternoon – we soon came up on a second congregation of people and it was a second Black Bear family high up on a distant tree. It was a mother and two cubs with the mother curled up and done for the day we thought while the cubs were engaged in play higher above, nearly at the tip of the tree! It was quite remarkable to see how high they had climbed and how such a large animal was sleeping comfortably on what appeared to be rather thin branches of a pine!

The last stop on our route was planned to be the “Grand Canyon of Yellowstone” but we were out of time and energy. So we headed back and on the way saw a bunch of cars pulled up near a small turn-in. With no steam to keep us going, we decided to give it a pass but luckily spotted the object of interest – a Moose! So pull over we did and walked back to see this majestic herbivore, the only land mammal that can feed under-water while holding its breath.

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A Moose grazes at sunset, no care whatsoever for the gawkers!

On the last morning at West Yellowstone, we decided to pay a visit to the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center before heading into the park, just so we could see a couple of grey wolves in case we were not fortunate to see them in the wild. The Center located near the Yellowstone park entrance houses orphaned and “nuisance” grizzlies and wolves. Nuisance bears are those that have got habituated to foraging in garbage and hence humans and keep straying into towns repeatedly. Here we got to watch two grey wolves, who were not grey at all, as we learnt about how they are encouraged to fish and behave as they would in the wild with a non-contact policy for the animal keepers. Grey wolves we learnt need not be grey in colour, they can be black or white too.

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Grey Wolf fishing at the Discovery Center in West Yellowstone

At the bear enclosure we witnessed how bears look at alternative food sources when available. Below is a demonstration with a bird-feeder being targeted by a Grizzly. The message to the public was “no bird feeders in bear country”.

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No bird feeders in bear country – they become bear feeders!

There was a “Keeper Kids” program for the children that Mihika participated in to learn about the food habits of bears and help with hiding food in the bear enclosure also called “habitat modification” to encourage the natural instinct of the bears here to forage and look for food rather than have it dished out to them.

Post-lunch we headed into the park to cross-over to Cooke City, a small town near the north-east entrance. But first a stopover to see Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon carved by the Yellowstone river and the beautiful falls as the river enters the canyon.

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The Yellowstone Falls as the river enters a deep canyon
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The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone carved by the Yellowstone river

We drove through the Lamar Valley, referred to as the Serengeti of Nrth America for the large numbers of animal congregation seen here especially towards the end of summer during the rut season. We stopped by the place from where a wolf den could be sighted across a river. There were lots of people but apparently no wolf activity, so we went on to see plenty of Bison and some Pronghorn antelope, the second fastest land mammal after the Cheetah.

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Pronghorn in Lamar Valley – the second fastest land mammal
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Bison herds graze in the Lamar Valley
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Bison crossing the Lamar River at dusk
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Drive through Lamar Valley

We passed by a little village called Silver Gate at the north-east entrance before arriving at our destination Cooke City where we were greeted by the sight of dozens of Tree Swallows flying around the trees and buildings near our motel.

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Eye-catching name at Silver Gate near the North-East entrance to Yellowstone
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Tree Swallow

The next morning we made an early start to try our luck with spotting wolves and other animals around the Lamar Valley. A Mule Deer and some birds (not to mention the Bisons who were always there) later we arrived at Slough Creek, the location of the wolf den.

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Mule Deer
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Black-billed Magpie
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Brewer’s Blackbird

We were in luck as the adult wolves and nine cubs were active around the den. People pointed out the exact location of the den which was but a dot in the distance and after a peek through the scopes setup by some guides, we could spot the wolves through our binocs. It took a lot of focus as they were quite distant and very tiny even when seen with binocs / scopes. So no photos really, but we managed to get one shot in which a black coloured adult can be seen on zooming in – the tiny black dot just in front of the little bowl-like depression between two dry tree stumps.

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A wolf in the distance appears as little black dot between the two dry tree stumps

Satisfied, we drove on to Hayden Valley and then back through Lamar Valley before calling it a day.

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A Bison rests in Lamar Valley
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Flock of Canada Geese near the Lamar River

The next day was reserved for a drive through the scenic Beartooth Highway leading away from the park towards the town of Red Lodge. It started with some views from a higher elevation and spotting a pair of Pikas scurrying around the sagebrush on a rocky hillside and then the vistas expanded with snow in huge patches and frozen lakes! It was a high point for Mika and it was play time 🙂

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American Pika

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Play time with snow!
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Rock shaped like a dinosaur head! Seen on Beartooth Highway
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Biker’s Stop to refuel on the BearTooth Highway
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Snow all around in June! View from the Beartooth Highway
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Wild strawberry flowers by the Little Bear lake on Beartooth Highway

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The Bear Tooth – the pyramid shaped spire created by glaciation that gives the mountain its name

The next morning we set off for the Grand Teton National Park located at the south of Yellowstone. On our last day at Yellowstone we were fortunate to spot Trumpeter Swans and a Grizzly bear across the Yellowstone river and help a few others to see it too!

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Trumpeter Swan
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Spot the Grizzly amongst the sage brush?

The Grand Teton is like a little sibling to Yellowstone. We stayed in the town of Jackson just outside the Grand Teton national park to look through the sights here. It offers dramatic views of the Teton range of the Rocky mountains, reflections of the mountains in the quiet waters of its many lakes and flora that is more varied than the pine dominated Yellowstone.

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A reflection of serenity, the Grand Teton National Park

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Mt. Moran at sunset

The Grand Teton is considered a better habitat for moose but we weren’t able to see any. We saw plenty of Elk, some Pronghorn and Bison, but most valuable of all was the sighting of a Grizzly quite close to the park entrance as it sauntered away in the evening.

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A Grizzly at the Grand Teton
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Elk crossing river at Grand Teton
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A Mountain Bluebird, the state bird of Idaho and Nevada. Finally managed to get a pic of this beautiful bird in the Mormon Row at Grand Teton

We learnt of the “dude” ranches that had started up here before the National Park was established – dudes beings the well-heeled folks from the Eastern parts who wanted to experience the countryside and rural life. The visit would not be complete without a drive through the gravel track of Mormon Row featuring barns and homesteads established in the 1890s.

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A private ranch in Grand Teton, a few of these co-exist with the National PArk
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The Mormon Row with homesteads setup by Mormons primarily from Idaho

After a week completely immersed in the wonders of nature, it was time to return to SLC and head back to San Jose for a short pit stop before the next big undertaking – a 21-day road trip starting with Yosemite National Park and covering a whole lot of sights, all subjects of the upcoming posts!

Las Islas Encantadas: The Bewitched Islands a.k.a Galapagos

“Getting to Galapagos is so difficult” – a sentiment echoed by many fellow-travelers we met on our much awaited visit to this archipelago 1000 kms west of the mainland of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean. Logistically and economically it is a challenging destination which perhaps helps with the ecological preservation of this unique natural World Heritage Site.

Our journey to this dream destination began with having to change plans – our originally booked flight out of Quito was cancelled and we were put on an earlier flight. So we had to come back a day earlier from Mindo and book an overnight stay at Quito. At 5 am on 3rd May, we queued up at the Quito airport for an entry permit / “visa” to the Galapagos Islands costing $20 per person. We had to get all our luggage scanned to ensure we weren’t carrying any organic material and then each one was sealed, a process that was repeated on entry and exit out of the two islands we visited.

Our flight with a hop at Guayaquil, the largest city of Ecuador, was to the Baltra island (Isla Baltra) in Galapagos, one of the 18 major islands and is solely dedicated for the airport. Only 3 airlines/alliances operate flights to Galapagos.

IMG_2379At the Baltra airport, we were greeted by warm weather, a welcome change from the chill of Quito, and a desert like environment.

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As we entered the terminal building of the Aeropuerto Ecológico de Galápagos, the first things to catch the eye were the huge fans, two of them covering the entire “immigration” hall. These industrial fans with temperature and CO2 sensors to auto-operate them are part of the energy efficient design of this LEED certified airport.

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We went through the “immigration” checks to verify our passports and entry permits and paid the Galapagos Islands entry fee of $100 per person. After collecting our baggage we boarded a bus that took us to the dock for a short ferry ride across to Isla Santa Cruz, the second largest island and the one with the largest population.

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At the dock we were excited to see numerous birds, some of which we could not identify then, flying around and diving for fish. Pelicans flew by so close, it was breath-taking!

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We unloaded a second time at Santa Cruz to take a taxi to Puerto Ayora, the town that was to be our base for the next few days to explore Galapagos.

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45 minutes later we were at our hotel, finally! We freshened up and headed out to the Charles Darwin Research Station that was a 10-minute walk away from us.

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Here we were delighted to spot Marine Iguanas for the very first time as well as the brightly coloured Sally Lightfoot crabs, some Darwin’s finches, a type of cuckoo later id’d as the Smooth-billed Ani and a striking songbird later id’d as the Galapagos Mockingbird.

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Marine Iguana
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The brightly coloured Sally Lightfoot Crab on the dark volcanic rocks is quite a sight!
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Smooth Billed Ani – a type of cuckoo
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Ground Finch – one of Darwin’s finches, endemic to Galapagos
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Ground Finch – female
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Galapagos Mockingbird

All this excitement even before we entered the core area of the research station that hosts Giant Tortoise and Land Iguana breeding centres. And then we came face-to-face with the gentle giants that gave Steven Spielberg his inspiration for the visage of E.T.! These creatures at once evoked reactions of E.T., Anaconda and Voldemort 🙂

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Galapagos Giant Tortoise – the inspiration for the face of E.T.
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The largest species of Tortoise, now Vulnerable – the Charles Darwin Research Station has a breeding centre where eggs are collected from islands for safe hatching and later release into natural habitat
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A neck that can extend quite a bit to reach up for food, perfectly adapted to its environment and thriving on Galapagos islands until man struck here!

A few steps ahead and peep over the wall revealed the beautiful yellow shades of a Galapagos Land Iguana.

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Land Iguana – a Vulnerable species, endemic to Galapagos

We noticed the unique tree-like cactus growing all around, and later read that it is called Opuntia echios, endemic to the Galapagos islands and a very important part of the ecosystem as a food source.

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Opuntia echios – grows slowly in the volcanic rocky crust, provides food for iguanas, tortoises, finches

After a lot of time spent admiring these beauties, it was time to head back with Mika having learnt a bit about Charles Darwin and his Galapagos inspired Theory of Evolution.

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Mika with a statue of Charles Darwin

Let me share a little perspective on Galapagos that we learnt while here. The first recorded visit by humans to these islands was in 1535 when a Spanish ship on its way to Peru was blown off-course. It is possible that the the islands were visited earlier by the Incas but no records exist. The islands were initially named Las Islas Encatadas by the sailors who reached here; while today this is popularly translated as the Enchanted Islands in the “charming” sense 0f the word, the sailors meant it as “bewitched” because of the islands suddenly appearing & disappearing in the fog. All life originally found here arrived either by the ocean or aerial route and hence the marked absence of any land mammals. All arrivals had to adapt to harsh conditions to survive and significantly, the same species adapted differently in different islands in isolation from each other. As observed by Charles Darwin, this archipelago seems to be nature’s laboratory of evolution by design!

The islands are of volcanic origin resulting from an intense “hotspot” beneath the ocean on the equator. There is constant activity which results in the formation of new islands and disappearance of older ones. In geological terms, the current islands are described as young meaning just over 2 million years old! Contrast this to human history terms .. we view the 5000 year old Egyptian civilisation as ancient!!

The climate of the Galapagos islands is determined entirely by ocean currents, the major one being the cold Humboldt Current which brings cold south polar water to the shores of these islands. No wonder then that the water here is so cold despite being on the equator! While this makes it difficult for people like us to get into the water to get a peek at the aquatic life, it is what makes the ocean extremely productive by pushing up nutrients from the ocean floor to upper layers where life-giving sunlight reaches.

The name Galapagos translates as per different accounts to either a type saddle or tortoise. Any which way, the name is derived from the Giant Saddleback Tortoises that roamed the islands in huge numbers when they were first visited by the Europeans.

On day 2 we headed off to the Tortuga (Tortoise) Bay in the hope of finding marine iguanas in the wild and an opportunity to spot some sea turtles and fish while snorkelling in the bay. It was a 2+ kilometre trail to walk from the entry point – worked well for us serving the dual purpose of getting some exercise and enjoying the place in peaceful solitude.  At the end of the cactus and then mangrove vegetation lined trail, was the vast blue expanse of the Pacific with waves breaking on the lava rocks at some places and rolling on to the white powdery sand at others.

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Our first look at Blue-footed Boobies from a distance and without knowing what we were looking at!

As we walked across the beach to cover another kilometer to the bay, we saw a swarm of birds who were flying and diving from time to time. The dive was a vertical drop, like a rocket! We managed to capture some of the action. It was later we learnt that the diving rockets we saw were the clownish Blue-footed Boobies who we got to see and admire from very close quarters. Hordes of pelicans were “surfing” and flying, just having a wonderful morning!

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A circling swarm of birds with some diving in at regular intervals
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A Blue-footed Booby diving vertically to catch fish!
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Brown Pelican

As we neared the bay, we spotted a Great Blue Heron standing still and to our huge excitement we saw our very first set of Marine Iguanas “in the wild” with a 2-metre radius circle drawn on the sand around them. It is a standard instruction everywhere in Galapagos to keep a 2-metre distance from all animals.

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Great Blue Heron – seemed to be meditating
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Marine Iguana basking in the morning sun – Tortuga Bay, Isla Santa Cruz

The Marine Iguana, endemic to the Galapagos, is the only sea-going lizard in the world. We were entertained by the occasional “sneezing” of some of them – a mechanism to excrete brine. The bay ahead was a good place to relax and build a sand castle with Mika, something not done in a long time. But the water was not clear at all for any luck with spotting anything while snorkelling. But our day was made with the mutiple “clusters” of marine iguanas we saw on the beach as well as witnessing some taking off to the water and some swimming up to the beach and move across to find their own spot under the sun.

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A Marine Iguana swims to the beach to sun itself

As we left the beach, I saw this pelican which seemed extremely content!

Sand, Sea, Self, Shadow, Sun - Satisfied!
Sand, Sea, Self, Shadow, Sun – Satisfied!

Standardisation of services is always useful for visitors – in Puerto Ayora all taxis are Toyota Hilux / Pickups with a standard charge of $1 for a ride anywhere within the town. So after the 3+ km walk back out of the trail to the beach, it was a $1 taxi ride back to our lovely accommodation for a refreshing shower before heading out to what became one of our favourite places in town – the harbour. One just needs to stand by the pier and watch to see a whole variety of animals – sea lions swimming or resting on the benches, pelicans and herons on boats, marine iguanas climbing up the walls and sea turtles, golden rays and baby sharks swimming past!

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Animals have right of way and seating here!

The next few days saw us venturing out to the non-human inhabited North Seymour and Santa Fe islands. The former hosts colonies of the Magnificent Frigate birds and Blue-footed Boobies along with Land Iguanas that we got to see at just over an arm’s length. The latter provides great snorkelling spots where we got to swim with sea turtles, sting rays, baby sharks and watch a bunch of young sea-lions up close. We had just five people on the Santa Fe trip and our guide forecast correctly that it was a “lucky day”. He showed us a fantastic sight of hundreds, maybe a thousand fish forming a beautiful pattern on the ocean floor at one of the spots and in another (with truly freezing water) we saw the most amazingly colourful fish right out a NatGeo production!

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A Magnificent Frigatebird family nesting in North Seymour island – the father takes the responsibility of safekeeping of the eggs and upbringing of the chicks, the mother helps with the feeding of the chicks
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Male Magnificent Frigatebird with his scarlet throat pouch inflated like a balloon, common in the breeding season
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Blue-footed Boobies seen on Santa Cruz northern harbour
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A Blue-footed Booby family nesting in North Seymour island – what a lovely close-up view!
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Blue-footed Booby taking care of its eggs – the male and female take turns to do this
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The scrubby terrain of North Seymour island
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The North Seymour shoreline
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In the backdrop here is Mosquera island, a sand beach at sea level
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A sea lion stretches itself neck after a swim on the North Seymour shore!
Our guide for Santa Fe - the smiling Camillo who made it a great experience for us
Our guide for Santa Fe – the smiling Camillo who made it a great experience for us

Isla Santa Cruz has sights to explore on land as well. The ones we visited were the beautiful Las Grietas, Los Gemelos and the giant tortoise reserve and lava tunnels at El Chato.

Las Grietas - a volcanic fracture where the cool ocean water mingles with rainwater to provide a deep blue "swimming pool" with the colourful parrot fish for company
Las Grietas – a volcanic fracture where the cool ocean water mingles with rainwater to provide a deep blue “swimming pool” with the colourful parrot fish for company

At Las Grietas, we opted for snorkelling looking at the depth of the water and lack of “landing” places in between the length but our little mermaid was off swimming by herself and disappeared to explore the next two pools beyond!

Los Gemelos are an interesting feature in the highlands of Santa Cruz where the vegetation is completely different from the lowlands due to higher precipitation. On two sides of the road are two large sinkholes (not craters) created when the earth surface became unsteady and collapsed due to the hot magma underneath. Over the millenia, a lush green forest has grown here.

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Los Gemelos – large sinkholes where the surface sank due to the hot magma underneath, now covered with a lush Scalesia forest
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Tree covered in moss, perfect Halloween prop!

The El Chato tortoise reserve is privately owned and a large property where giant tortoises roam freely. The property also has a series of lava tunnels that one can walk through like an underground tunnel.

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El Chato Tortoise Reserve – where the gentle giants roam free
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Unique road sign – probably the only place in the world
This 100+ years old giant munches on grass
This 100+ years old giant munches on grass
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Lava Tunnels at El Chato, Santa Cruz island
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Lava Tunnels

Six days later we left to go to the Isabella island, the largest in the archipelago and the youngest at about a million years of age formed by the merger of 6 volcanoes of which 5 are still active. The last eruption on this island was a year ago in May 2015. Isla Isabella was our base for the next 3 days to explore and admire the rich wildlife in and around it. It was a 2-hour boat journey in the middle of the Pacific, both unnerving and calming at the same time. Unnerving when we looked at the expanse of water with some large waves and not a speck of land in sight making the power boat look quite powerless. Calming to stare into infinity and feeling the harmony in the interconnection between everything around.

At both Santa Cruz and Isabella islands, the bigger boats dock a little away from the piers and water taxis (smaller boats) are used to transfer people & goods to the island. It is a very systematic execution with perfect coordination between the boatmen in handling everyone and the biggest pieces of luggage for a smooth operation. And standard rates for the water taxis with no haggling for luggage. A very pleasant experience overall.

As our water taxi approached the island, the boatman pointed out to a penguin standing on the rocks, it felt like a dream to be seeing this! One of the reasons for coming to Isabella was to see the Galapagos penguins that reside here.

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Entry into the little village of Isabella, solar-powered street lights in the background

A walk to the bay later that day offered us sights of numerous sea lions and marine iguanas snoozing near and on the walkways, benches, anywhere they wished! And penguins swimming around looking like ducks in the water 🙂

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Three sea lions snoozed peacefully with a larger adult on a bench nearby, completely unperturbed by the humans passing by within a couple of feet
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The largest single congregation of Marine Iguanas we saw in Galapagos was on Isla Isabella
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Penguins swimming near Isla Isabella dock

The next morning Manish & Mika decided to go snorkelling to Tintoreras just off Isabella; I opted to stay back and catch up on some writing as I am not too fond of being in the water and wanted to reserve my last bit of stamina for the next day’s snorkelling at Los Tuneles, the lava tunnels in the ocean. The under-rated Tintoreras turned out to be the most magical experience for Mika and Manish with close encounters with sea lions and penguins in the water and sighting scores of white tipped sharks from arm’s length while walking the Martian terrain. For the details of this day, you need to read Mihika’s blog on her experience!

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Galapagos Penguins at Tintoreras, off Isla Isabella
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White-tipped sharks resting in shallow pools at Tintoreras
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A sea turtle raises its head out of the water!

For all the action I missed in the morning, we compensated with sighting of dozens of brilliant Flamingos on another part of the island.

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American Flamingos in Isla Isabella

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The next day was the big day with a 45-minute boat ride to Los Tuneles, with a short circle around Union Rock where we sighted Nazca Boobies, another species of boobies, this one with black feet.

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Nazca Booby at Union Rock, off the coast of Isla Isabella
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Nazca Boobies

The snorkelling at Los Tuneles was a long, exhausting and fully worthwhile experience for the ability to see and swim with seahorses, full-sized white tipped reef sharks, different types of rays including the beautiful Manta Ray, octopus and giant sea turtles.

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A delicate seahorse
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Swimming with the Rays!
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White-tipped Reef Sharks rest here
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Mika at the Los Tuneles under water!
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Lobster on the head!!
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Los Tuneles – the lava tunnels off Isla Isabella
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A sea turtle swims by at Los Tuneles

The day ended with a relaxed stroll on the beach and watching a beautiful sunset.

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A colourful sunset at Isla Isabella

As we ended what we thought was a once-in-a-lifetime stay at Galapagos, we were quite sure we would be coming back here some day ….

Hope you’ve enjoyed reading this. Posting this as we leave for the Amazon rainforests with no phones, internet for 3 days and generated electricity for only 3 hours each evening! Good luck to us 🙂

In the Middle of the World!

Our maiden visit to South America had a very pleasant start at the Miami International Airport in the very comfortable lounge of Avianca, the oldest operating airline in the Americas and the second oldest in the world after KLM. We were welcomed by a very friendly lady from Colombia with the warmth of the hospitality services we are accustomed to in India and usually miss on our travels to the West. Rested and refreshed we were on our way to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, transiting through Bogota, the Colombian capital and hub of Avianca.

Ecuador literally means the Equator in Spanish, the official language of the country. We landed in the middle of the world in the middle of the night and were pleasantly surprised and happy to see that all the immigration officials, barring one, were women! I do not recollect having seen a single female immigration official in any of the airports in India and now I wonder why?

As we were being driven to our hotel from the airport, it felt like we were headed to a hill station. I didn’t realise then that Quito, at an altitude of 2,850 metres above sea level, is the highest of all national capitals. The next morning we could see just how many hills and valleys there were in this city.IMG_20160429_102845IMG_2033

We stayed in old Quito, the historic centre characterised by cobbled streets, monuments and colonial style buildings, that became the first UNESCO World Heritage Site (along with Krakow). Our hotel was an old bungalow with a central courtyard, a common feature of traditional homes in many parts of India. The Presidential Palace of Quito features this too. I am sure you can guess which of the two courtyards below is our hotel’s and which is the Presidential Palace’s 🙂

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We spent the day exploring the
monuments and sights starting with the central square, the Plaza de la Independencia more commonly known as Plaza Grande, that is flanked by the Presidential Palace and the Metropolitan Cathedral and the Archbishop’s palaceof Quito.

IMG_20160429_104312It was a bustling square with vendors selling a variety of fare – handmade shawls, hats, eatables and so on. An interesting feature were the shoe-shine boys on one end of the square.

The Presidential Palace
The Presidential Palace
Metropolitan Cathedral of Quito flanking the Plaza Grande
Metropolitan Cathedral of Quito flanking the Plaza Grande
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View of the Plaza Grande from the Presidential Palace
A Shoeshine Boy at the Plaza Grande
A Shoeshine Boy at the Plaza Grande
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A street food vendor

Next we headed for a guided tour of the Presidential Palace that was possible since the President was not in residence on the day. We had to handover our passports and go through expected security checks to enter the building that had no external signs of opulence.

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We started with huge murals depicting the discovery and conquest of the Amazon by the Spanish and walked through lavish meeting and banquet halls before stepping into the radiant “Yellow Room”.

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The Yellow Room

IMG_1981All gifts received by the various Ecuadorian presidents from different countries were on display. Samples here are from Peru and Saudi Arabia.

IMG_20160429_114643IMG_20160429_114406We then strolled out onto the cobbled street and headed to La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús (the Church of the Society of Jesus) known for its Baroque style architecture and ornate interiors with elaborate gold leaf decorations on its walls and high ceiling. The facade of the church bears no hint of the splendour inside.

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Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús

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The next highlight was Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco (Church and Monastery of St. Francis) featuring twin bell towers. Notice the storm clouds gathering above the bell towers!

Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco
Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco

As we walked through this pretty part of the city, we noticed how well the traffic was being managed through these narrow streets by very committed traffic-police, most of them being women! No wonder there are no traffic jams here.

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We walked on to the La Ronda street which looked picturesque and right out of a European town with eateries lining the pedestrian-only cobbled street.IMG_20160429_132035As the street comes alive in the evenings, we decided to come back there for dinner.

And there were women constables patrolling the streets.

IMG_20160429_130257It was great to see so many women in law enforcement roles, more so because traditionally there has been a disparity in women’s status in terms of education and economic status.

In the evening we strolled around to take in the evening lights & atmosphere and stopped by a small eatery to taste our first Humitas, a traditional steamed corn snack. We saw many signs of “Cafe con Humitas” suggesting it was something like “Chai with Samosa” for the locals. Corn and plantains are a big part of the daily diet here. We returned to La Ronda and found a place with a guitarist playing & singing as a nice way to wrap up the day. Given the lack of an English menu, vegetarian food and English speaking folks around, it took some effort to choose what we wanted. Just when we sat back to enjoy the music, Manish realised the backpack he had placed next to him was missing! A frantic search around the place ensued and quite soon it was clear the bag had been taken. The usherer at the door thought a guy who just left the place had taken our bag mistaking it for his own and ran out to find him. We found another backpack neatly tucked away a little further from our table, but given the place & manner in which it was kept it became apparent that it was not a mistake at all by the person who had taken, rather stolen our bag. As we stood on the street quite shaken thinking about what happened and asked to restaurant to call the police, we recollected the contents of the bag. To our utter relief, the bag didn’t contain our passports and any valuables. Thanks to Manish’s research on safety during travel and his habit of preparing for the worst, he had our passports, cash and cards all on his person. We figured we had lost our rain jackets, a portable mobile charger & phone cable, some medicines & first-aid and a water bottle. The police arrived immediately and they called for an English speaking officer who also turned up pretty quickly. On hearing the details, they apologised for our bad experience, duly recorded our complaint and gave us a copy of the report. The restaurant turned in the backpack left by the thief who for sure would have cursed his bad luck at getting nothing of value in return for the loss of his own backpack! Not in the script as Manish said, but a briefly nerve-wracking experience to reinforce the absolute need for alertness in cities.

The next day dawned, we put the previous evening firmly behind us and headed right to the middle of the world – latitude 0°! Interestingly, before the advent of GPS, the location of the Equator near Quito had been wrongly marked and the official monument Ciudad Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World City) is situated about 200 metres south of latitude 0°. So instead of IMG_2092this we headed to the Intiñan Museum that is closer to the right spot. Here we heard some interesting facts about the native tribes of the region, saw totems representing Inti (the Sun) from different countries, witnessed experiments demonstrating the Coriolis effect, tried our hand (successfully) at balancing an egg on the head of a nail and walked on the red line representing the Equator.

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An ancient tribal ritual of creating a pendant from an enemy’s head!
A burial mound
Replica of a burial mound – the dead were placed in fetal position in a pot that denotes the womb – tribal belief of rebirth

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Balancing acts, each one trying to centre ourselves!

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The below pics of parent and child on the two hemispheres are symbolic of the differences that exist (and always will!) between generations, despite our attempts to be “cool” parents. We’ve decided to just “mind the gap” and Mika is happy we finally accept the “gap”!

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The demonstration of the Coriolis effect helped us understand the difference in the directions of weather systems north and south of the Equator – hurricanes & tornadoes that hit North America move in an anti-clockwise direction while typhoons in South America have a clockwise circulation.

The tribal handmade crafts on display were a colourful visual treat and we also witnessed a demo of a tribal dance.

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From here we headed further up the Andes towards Mindo for a rendevous with the clouds in the cloud forest and an opportunity to see some of the hundreds of bird species that inhabit them. Needless to say, some of the bird species are in danger of extinction.

In our journey of about an hour & a quarter, we came across some scenes reminiscent of home – what car would you say is the one overtaking the cattle carrier?

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In our Mindo hotel balcony we found ourselves at an arm’s distance from Hummingbirds of so many different types with their resplendent colourings shining in the sunlight that we remained excited, mesmerised and clicking away for a long time! It was unbelievable to see so many of these tiny birds feeding with their wings flapping rapidly at the feeder placed by the hotel staff. We got to see from close up the backward flight that we had heard and read about. And various kinds of colourful Tanagers were frequenting the guava tree next to our balcony, making us wonder at the colours and types of the birds residing in the forest where we would be heading to the next morning!

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Andean EmeraldRufous-tailed HummingbirdWhite-necked Jacobin - Female

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Palm Tanager

We strolled through the rather little main street in this quaint little town, more like a village actually. We loved the peaceful, laid-back atmosphere and had an enjoyable dinner of fresh handmade pizza at a local bakery. Mindo is not a typical family destination, it is a haven for backpackers and young travelers who are either nature lovers or adventure-seekers coming here for the thrills of rafting, tubing and canyoning.

It was an early start the next morning and a pleasant walk with our naturalist and guide Irman where he pointed out many Tanagers and small birds like Seedeaters quite early on. We were eager to see the bigger & brighter ones that are much harder to spot. We admired the streams and the view of the clouds touching the forest canopy on the way.

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Hearing the calls of toucans, our guide ushered us on. The first ones we got to see were the Crimson-rumped Toucanets, a smaller variety of the Toucan family and then the big Pale-mandibled Toucan. What a majestic sight!

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Crimson-rumped Toucanet
Chestnut-mandibled Toucan
Chestnut-mandibled Toucan

Then came a really beautiful call that got our guide all excited and soon enough we were rewarded with the sight of an amazing bird – the Masked Trogon, what a beauty & what a beautiful call!

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Masked Trogon

Another beauty that we saw a couple of was the Rufous Motmot.

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Rufous Motmot

We learnt that it is common practise for many of the residents to place food (bananas) in their backyards to feed birds. This attracts many colourful birds from the forest to come and feed, providing an easy opportunity to see them from close quarters. We did this at the end of our forest walk in one of the little farms and got to see the bright Red-headed Barbet, Toucan Barbet and Golden Tanager amongst many others.

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Amazed by the stunning colours and beauty, we spent many more hours admiring our own clicks of these wonders of nature and watching the thunderstorm of the late afternoon with the rain continuing through the night.

Having experienced the stunning diversity of mainland Ecuador, we were all keen to head out to the islands of Galapagos to see Evolution in action! Though part of our Ecuadorian Odyssey, Galapagos demands a separate post for it has way too much to offer and is truly a world apart.

Thanks for reading and being a part of our journey!

Pa-hay-okee: The River of Grass a.k.a Everglades

The natives who inhabited South Florida for many centuries, the Calusa Indians, certainly understood and grasped the beauty of the blessing we now call Everglades. They called it “Pa-hay-okee” which means “grassy waters” / “river of grass”, a most apt description for this complex wetland and forest ecosystem dominated by expanses of sawgrass through the slow moving Shark River. So slow is the movement of water that it appears still and could be mistaken as stagnant water to the uninitiated.

Sawgrass stretches dotted by Cypress trees
Sawgrass stretches dotted by Cypress trees

The original inhabitants had a lifestyle based on estuarine fisheries rather than agriculture, which was in tune with the natural ecosystem, thus conserving it for centuries before the 20th century pressures of agriculture and urbanization hit. Only ~20% remains of the original expanse remains conserved in the Everglades National Park, now declared as an International Biosphere Reserve, a World Heritage Site, and a Wetland of International Importance, one of only three locations in the world to be covered under all three conservation lists. We learnt from the rangers of the park how the damming & channeling of water of the Okeechobee lake following hurricanes and flooding in the late 1920s, resulted in cutting-off of the life blood of the Everglades (the slow moving fresh water from Central Florida), and the $8+ billion dollar plan now in place to reverse engineer and restore the natural flow of water to the extent possible.

We explored this beautiful area that hosts a myriad of habitats – mangrove forests, prairies, hardwood forests and pine forests – starting from its western fringes on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

IMG_1416A boat tour of the mangroves was a visual treat with both large expanses of water and narrow canals with the rich mangrove forests all around.

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We looked at shell mounds built by the Calusas and learnt about their unique fishing technique using the tidal highs & lows to trap fish in the shallows created by the mounds! A brown pelican flew by as we watched.

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Brown Pelican

We got to see some more birds though it was midday – an egret, a double-crested cormorant and a beautiful pair of Osprey in their nest.

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Double Crested Cormorant

Osprey

The real treats were sightings of two endangered species – a sawfish (critically endangered) and a manatee (vulnerable). In the below pics we were able to capture the fins of the sawfish (you should be able to see 3) and the nostrils of the manatee as it surfaced for air.

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Manatee

Satisfied, we headed onto explore of the Big Cypress National Preserve on the scenic Loop Road with fingers crossed to find some American alligators in the wild. Pretty soon Manish spotted the first one, right beside the gravel track! See the beautiful eye through the leaves?

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Mika was thrilled, her wish was to see 10 alligators and her counter had started! Hovering around this fascinating creature, we soon realised there was a another alligator in the water with only its eyes visible. Over the next hour we found a dozen alligators (Manish has mastered the art of identifying spots to find them!), most of them snoozing in the shallow fresh water streams and some basking in the sun on rocks.

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IMG_20160423_153928They appeared blissful in their beautiful environs. The water was so clear, we could see many different shades of red, yellow, brown and green. With cypress trees on both sides of the streams and their reflection in the water, it was a mesmerising scene!

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We also spotted this majestic heron, later identified as a Little Blue Heron.

Little Blue Heron

As we drove on, the scenery changed with different colours on the two sides of the road – almost like fall & spring at the same time!

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On our way out from the Loop Road to join the Tamiami Trail, we came across many houses of the Miccosukkee, a surviving tribe of natives, who came to inhabit the area when they were driven south by the European invaders.

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As we headed towards Homestead, our base to explore the area, we were amidst the large farms and nurseries on land which may have once been part of the Everglades. Coming from Orlando, we found the place had a very different look and feel to it, almost as if we had left the US and entered Mexico or Cuba!

The next part of the Everglades we explored was the eastern side that begins with the Ernest Coe Visitor Center, named after the gentleman who worked had to have a national park setup to preserve the Everglades. There were four trails that we covered here, starting with the Anhinga Trail which derives its name from the American darter birds that are commonly found here.

IMG_1488There was more water than usual for this time of year we were told due to the higher than normal rainfall in Nov-Dec 2015 due to the El Nino effect. So the expected congregation of wildlife around waterholes wasn’t really there. We did not see any Anhingas unfortunately but got to see beautiful views, a lot of fish, IMG_1496quite a few turtles, an alligator, a cormorant, dragonflies, butterflies, a very bright coloured insect, a swamp-hen and a bird with bright red on its wings. This we learnt is the Red-winged Blackbird, also called locally as the “warrior of the Everglades” due its fearless nature in chasing away larger birds.

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Warrior of the Everglades – the Red-winged Blackbird

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Dragonfly

Butterfly

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Swamp Hen – the American Purple Gallinule

Next was the Gumbo Limbo trail, a hardwood hammock (a shady, closed canopy forest), that derives its name from the Gumbo Limbo tree, a native of the region. The tree which is extremely useful for its medicinal properties is comically referred to as the “tourist tree” because it’s bark is red and peeling, like the skin of sunburnt tourists!

Gumbo Limbo Tree
Gumbo Limbo Tree

This is a different habitat – no water here, it is at a slightly higher elevation than the adjacent Anhinga trail area though this is imperceptible. We learnt how very small changes in ground elevation result in different habitats each with its own types of flora and fauna in the Everglades. After the trails, we attended a ranger-led session on alligators and crocodiles and learnt how to differentiate between these two often confused reptiles. We learnt that the alligator is the only reptile in the animal kingdom that cares for its young starting with aiding the hatch and going on for 2-3 years! We also learnt that the Everglades is the only region in the world where the ranges of the American alligator (which lives in fresh water) and the American crocodile (which prefers brackish / salty water) overlap.

On our third trail we explored another hardwood hammock, the Mahogany Hammock and then headed to the Pa-hay-okee Outlook which provided us with a vantage viewing point for the defining expanse of sawgrass that gives the region its name.

All of the activities for the day got Mika interested in becoming a Junior Ranger of the Everglades and started her preparation to receive a badge and certificate by the time we completed our Everglades exploration!

The last part we covered on another day was the Shark Valley, in some senses the heart of the park, named so as it is a valley (again imperceptible) situated in the Shark river between the slightly elevated areas of the Big Cypress on the west and the hammocks on the east.

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We took the tram tour on which we learnt interesting facts such as the origin of the river Shark’s name, the lone incident of a human injury by an alligator in an “accident” in the park’s entire history, as well as some disturbing facts of how humans are endangering the Everglades in more than one way. A very real danger for the flora and fauna of the region comes from “exotic” and invasive species that have been released / introduced into the national park by people. The biggest of these threats is the Burmese Python, which some people kept as an exotic pet and when any became unwanted, the easiest way to dispose them was to release them into the wild. While the Burmese Python is itself classified as a vulnerable species in its native habitat of South & South-eastern Asia, in the Everglades they have overrun the endemic species of the region. It is reported that over 90% of the mammals in the park – white-tailed deer, rabbits, opossums, raccoons, Florida panther – have disappeared over the past decade or two. A number of captured pythons have had these in their stomachs. Attempts to capture the pythons have met with very little success and it is estimated that over a 1000 remain in the park, continue to multiply and pose a threat to the native species.

Back to the interesting sightings we had on this two-and-a-half hour tour. Baby alligators to begin with – they have yellow stripes for camouflage to help with their survival to adulthood.

Congregation of baby alligators
Congregation of baby alligators – how many can you spot?

We came upon a Green Heron, a Great Egret, a Great Blue Heron, a Red-shouldered Hawk, Black Vultures and finally an Anhinga!!

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Anhinga – American Darter

A soft-shelled turtle bearing the marks of a recent alligator encounter was spotted right next to the track.

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But the best was saved for the last – an alligator (a mother as we figured later) with a kill of a smaller alligator and getting defensive of her food. We learnt that adult alligators are cannibals. While watching this rare sight, we observed 4 to 5 baby alligators that kept swimming and surfacing near the adult and that was how we figured the adult was a mother.

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Thus ended our rendezvous with American alligators, creatures that we learnt are fairly shy and unlike the often believed notion of being human attackers, only ever consider humans as food when humans start feeding them! The park has warning signs all over that feeding animals in the park is illegal and carries a fine!

With all this learning and park activities done, Mika qualified as a Junior Park Ranger!

IMG_20160426_122524In between our Everglades exploration, we took a day to drive down to the Florida Keys to see the picturesque view of the Atlantic ocean all around on the Seven-Mile Bridge and stopped at Key Largo to visit the John Pennakemp Coral Reef State Park. Manish and Mika went snorkelling but I chickened out as the water was choppy & called for strong swimmers. I caught up with some of the local inhabitants meanwhile 🙂

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IMG_20160425_124808Next destination was Miami and its famed South Beach.

Thanks for reading. We look forward to your feedback.

We are privileged to be posting this article on a rich ecosystem from the mega-diverse Ecuador, the most biologically-diverse country on the planet – the subject of another post!

Please do read Mika’s blogpost on Everglades – http://www.iammihika.com/index.php/2016/04/28/everglades/.

To the Moon & Beyond: The Kennedy Space Center

On the bright sunny Florida morning of Earth Day 2016 (22nd April) we set out on our maiden drive on the “other side” to the Kennedy Space Center. A few navigational hiccups and acclimatisation with the “other side” later, we were comfortably cruising down FL-528 E (state road/highway 528 heading East) towards our destination.

As we entered the NASA Causeway, it was a breathtaking view of shimmering water of the lagoon Indian River on both sides of the road. We crossed over to the NASA Parkway and were delighted by our first sighting of an American alligator in the adjoining stream! We later were told by our guides that the Space Center prides itself for being a haven for the resident fauna comprising alligators, bald eagles and many others, including some endangered species.

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We started with the bus tour that took us around the massive facility to see some of the massive equipment used to move the rockets and shuttles for launch and the rocket assembly building, before taking us to one of the major highlights – the Apollo/Saturn V Center.

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Here we were invited into the actual Command Center that was used for the launch of the Apollo 8 to view a film on the history of the NASA space program from its start until Neil Armstrong’s small step that was a giant leap for mankind.

The Apollo 8 Command Center
The Apollo 8 Command Center

It was so overwhelming to sit there and watch history unfold, we were close to tears. The insecurity of the US at Russia’s launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 (which triggered the establishment of NASA) followed by the successful space mission of Yuri Gagarin in 1961 at the height of the cold war, the challenge of “We choose to go the moon” set by President John F Kennedy, the tragedy of Apollo 1 and the perseverance of so many people in the years that followed leading to the success of multiple Apollo missions until Apollo 11 landed on the moon on 20th July 1969.

As we stepped out of the command center, we came face to face with the massive 363-foot Saturn V rocket, the largest ever made, used to launch the Apollo vehicles and others over a 20-year period. Simply awesome!

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We then walked around admiring all the memorabilia from the Apollo missions that are exhibited here – lunar rock samples (one of which can be touched), a moon buggy, space suits of various astronauts including Alan Shepard (the second human & first American in space), Kitty Hawk (the shuttle/command module) of the Apollo 14 mission

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We learnt that the shuttles were named by the commanders of the mission, so Kitty Hawk was Alan Shepard’s choice for the Apollo 14 command module and Neil Armstrong had christened the Apollo 11 command module as Columbia. The lunar modules which detached from the command module and actually landed on the moon had their own names too – “Eagle” was the first one. We watched a simulation of the tense moments preceding the landing of the Eagle on the moon when communication was lost with the Houston Mission Control (which takes over from the Kennedy Center after launch and manages NASA missions until reentry back into the Earth’s atmosphere when Kennedy takes over again) and Eagle had to change course and choose a different landing spot from the originally planned one. Eagle ran into a low-fuel situation and all mission controllers could do was hold their breath and cross their fingers until they heard Neil Armstrong say “the Eagle has landed“! Heart-stopping!

After all this excitement, we headed back to the bus to get back to the main visitor’s complex to see the next highlight for the day – the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit. On the way our lady guide (& driver) pointed out the huge nest of a bald eagle that has been an inhabitant of many years. A huge fuel tank (a real one) with solid rocket booster replicas make for a dramatic entrance to the exhibit that covers 30 years of space shuttle missions from 1981 – 2011.

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We were introduced to how the concept of a space shuttle orbiter that can take-off and land back like a plane evolved with many iterations on feasible design and years of hard work of multiple teams of engineers. Reuse was also a major consideration and so came the reusable solid rocket boosters that were separate from the fuel tank and retrieved after each launch for reuse. We learnt that the space shuttle does not take off vertically, rather it launches into a trajectory and reaches a velocity that lets it escape being pulled down by gravity but then orbit the Earth, much like the moon. After the introduction, its curtains-up and we gasped at the real space shuttle Atlantis that was suspended right in front of us!

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All around it are the facts and figures as well as some simulators to help us get a feel for what the controls of a shuttle look like and what it could be like for astronauts to work in space.

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But the best of all was the chance to actually experience the Space Shuttle Launch Simulator to get a feel for what it would be like to be inside a space shuttle during its launch! We got to experience being vertical in the shuttle for launch position and then “zero G” in just a few moments as the shuttle accelerates from 0 to 17,500 mph (28,175 kmph) in 8 minutes!! Definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me, could be more than once for my daughter though!

We were fortunate to have the opportunity to hear from and meet an astronaut, Bob Cenker, about his actual experience of being in space. He spoke about the physical challenges and his own experience of “space adaptation” and “re-adaptation” which is often termed as “space sickness” by the media.  His most beautiful memories he said are of “going through a rainbow” every sunrise and sunset, which happen once every 90 minutes while they orbit the earth!

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Mihika with Astronaut Bob Cenker, Mission Specialist 1986

Mihika had been asking us if astronauts got paid a lot and soon enough she had her answer when the question was posed to Bob who answered in the negative and explained how there were a huge number of applicants for the position of astronauts making it very competitive. Manish asked what disciplines should aspiring youngsters pursue if they wished to one day make it to space and happily for us his answer reinforced the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering & medicine).

In very interesting 3D features, we learnt of the Hubble telescope repairs, the beautiful and intriguing images it has been sending, the discovery of galaxies, the setup of the International Space Station and the latest mission of NASA called “Orion” to send humans to Mars. That will be one lonesome mission for those who go – three years away from Earth, family, friends …..

Wondering if space travel will indeed become a reality in our lifetime, we wandered into the Rocket Garden to see the impressive display there before calling it a day. And what a day!!

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Thanks for reading!

Next up will be a most wonderful experience of nature’s wonders at the Everglades National Park in South Florida.