Comet Neowise 2020

The year 2020 has been one for the history books for so many reasons. Few of them on the positive side. One literal and figurative highlight has been the comet Neowise. It was one of the brightest comets in recent times and could be seen with the naked eye, although a good pair of binoculars certainly helped.

The weekend of July 18-19 was perfect for viewing it as it was new moon and Neowise was still reasonably close. Unfortunately, due to work constraints, I was not able to go to my usual dark sky area in the northern Death Valley. Still, I did not want to pass up this once in a lifetime opportunity to see it. Besides, I had just bought a new camera and lens (Canon EOS R and RF 15-35 mm f/2.8L IS USM) and was itching to go try them out. The next best area is about 1.5 hrs from home in a little valley above Ojai, CA. It is not perfectly dark, but the valley shields a lot of the light pollution from LA and the central valley. A set of camping chairs and an excellent bottle of wine (Bedford Cabernet Franc) completed my photography setup. We set out to get there before sunset to set up and enjoy the views. And the views did not disappoint. It was one of those breathtaking moments to see Neowise slowly appear above as the sun sets. It was bright enough see both the blueish ionization trail and the white dust trail. Of course, being in a dark area with the milky way up, I could not resist to take another panorama.

My work obligations were finally resolved a week later and so we set out to go to a true dark sky area to see if we could still enjoy Neowise. The Jeep was quickly packed with the camping gear and we set out to the Sequoia National Forrest near Kernville, CA. While the area around the river Kern is absolutely overcrowded, the high meadows above are practically deserted. Perfect to avoid COVID and have no disturbing lights.

Some friends joined us to enjoy the sights. It was a bit sad to have to set up camp 20 meters apart keep our masks on in the wilderness. But it was well worth it in the interest of keeping safe while enjoying the sights. We had to hike up a bit to see Neowise and so we set up on a rock outcropping nearby. Nature opened up the night’s entertainment with a gorgeous sunset over the horizon. The second and main act, Neowise, was soon to follow. Much smaller than even one week before, it was still visible to the naked eye. Except, this time we had the magnificent landscape to accompany it. And if that was not enough, a long, bright shooting star came along (second photo below). The moon was up in the sky until about 11 pm. Normally I would avoid going out for night photography with the moon up, but it turned out to be a blessing after all. The moon was bright enough to light up the foreground, while still sufficiently dark to not wash out the stars. The closing act was of course another view of the milky way spanning the horizon behind us.

This trip was all about the night sky and it sure did not disappoint. With all that night beauty it is easy to forget that the Sierras offers plenty of beauty during the daytime as well. A couple short hikes and some exploration of the various dirt spurs revealed plenty of critters and views.

Neowise will only be back in about 6700 years and no other bright comet is predicted for the next couple years. It was once more an amazing experience to see the beauty of nature.

Driving through Namibia 2019

The Trip

Namibia map

It is said that once the Africa bug bites one has to keep coming back. That is certainly true for me. Ever since my first trip to Botswana in 2013, I have been returning to Africa every couple years. There is something amazing and mesmerizing about seeing animals in their natural habitat, rather than in a zoo. Just as in the past, this was another camping trip to be closer to nature.

This trip included most of the normal tourist destinations in Namibia like Etosha National Park, Sossusvlei and Swakopmund. But Namibia has a lot more to offer and so we went off the beaten path all the way to the Caprivi strip and only recently opened areas of Etosha. Overall the trip took a bit over three weeks, of which 20 were actually enjoying this beautiful country. The rest was the very long and tiring flight. Getting from southern California to Windhoeck required stops in London and Johannesburg and took a total of about 36 hrs each way. It was well worth it. We drove 4830 km (3019 mi) and came back with over 90 GB worth of photos and videos.

The car

Unlike my previous excursions to Africa, this trip was a self-drive trip in a slightly modified Toyota Hilux from Bushlore. It had two fold out tents on top which were surprisingly roomy, stable and, most importantly, comfortable. The back had a large drawer with all the kitchen tools, pots and pants as well as a fridge/freezer. The latter did indeed freeze quite well as we discovered the painful way after my beer became frozen solid. A few adjustments resulted in a better experience. The car itself is a solid 4×4 performer with a locking rear differential. Both are essential to successfully navigate the more remote areas.

Namibia in general is ideally set up to drive by yourself. It has a very good network of gas stations throughout, most of which accept credit cards. The road system is for the most part well maintained, although that varies with the commercial importance of the region. However, even the worst gravel road is signposted. It is almost impossible to get lost as long as you have a decent map.

Days 1 – 4: Windhoeck to Rundu

The adventure started right away after the long hours en-route to Windhoeck. The car company picked us up from the airport and proceeded to provide an hour long introduction into the various aspects of the Hilux we had rented. I do quite a bit of off-roading in the Mojave desert near where I live so this part was fairly easy. Driving this truck on the left hand side through rush hour Windhoeck on the other hand was less so. Especially considering that I do not have any muscle memory for the manual transmission in my left hand. In the end we made it to our first base, the Trans Kalahri Inn (A), and were able to enjoy and nice cold beer and the first of many unbelievable sunsets in Namibia.

The next day started off with acquiring provisions and Money. The Superspar near the Maerua mall is convenient as the mall next door also offers an easy point to exchange money. Few banks will exchange money in Africa, something I suffered from on other trips. With the car fully loaded up, the trip started in earnest going to the Okonjima Nature Reserve (B) which was to become home for the next two days and nights. The latter should not be overlooked. With almost no light pollution, the night sky is breathtaking.

Okonjima is home of The AfriCat Foundation. This foundation rescues and rehabilitates carnivores throughout Namibia. The Okonjima location houses leopards and cheetahs, some of which we would get to see during our stay. The reserve itself offers a couple nice hikes as well as the opportunity to visit the AfriCat Foundation. All of the hikes are inside a large fenced in area and thus safe from predators. It is a great introduction into the local flora and very much worth it. The reserve also does the obligatory game drives and the more interesting leopard tracking. Personally, I found the tour of the AfriCat Foundation and vet clinic the most rewarding of all options. If offers a great insight into the dangers these large cats face in today’s Namibia. Of course the visit ends with a tour of the resident leopard and cheetahs. Even though they are in a fenced in enclosure, it does appear zoo like.

The first part of the trip concluded with the longest drive of the trip going up to Rundu at the Angolan border. Fortunately, the B1 is tarred and in excellent condition. Unfortunately, the fridge in our truck decided to give up. The prospect of warm beer did not sit very well with me. Being the engineer I am, I started to disassemble the battery wiring of the car. Here is a little bit of background on cars that are upgraded for these types of trips: They have two batteries. One for the engine and a second one for the fridge and auxiliary lights. The two of them were connected through a rather ingenious piece of electronics, the Electronic Battery Isolator. This thing is supposed to connect the two batteries while the motor is running and disconnect them when still to prevent the main battery from being discharged by the fridge. In between is a large 100 A fuse that protects this gizmo. It was broken and thus the second battery did not charge. That fuse is not easy to get to and has no window to show its status like normal car fuses have. Long story short, I removed all the wires, checked them with a 12 V light I had and was able to patch it. In the end all was good. The fridge worked again, the car still worked, I had no parts left over and none missing, and most importantly, had cold beer again.

Rundu, at long last, is a rather drab city. It is the main gateway to the Caprivi strip that runs between Botswana and Angola.  As such there is a lot of truck and passenger activity going to all the neighboring countries. It is the last opportunity to load up on groceries before heading east. While Rundu has a few decent lodges and places to stay overnight, it is hardly a destination in itself. I chose the Camp Hogo Kavango (C), located right on the Kavango river, to rest for the night. The bar is located right on the river with some of the most beautiful sunsets anywhere.

Days 5 – 9: The Caprivi Strip

The Caprivi strip, as Wikipedia informs named after German Chancellor Leo von Caprivi, is a long thin land strip running between Botswana and Angola, almost reaching Zimbabwe. I have been to the Botswana side many years ago and was amazed by the animals drawn to the water here. The rivers flow year round and the landscape is unusually green and lush compared to the rest of Namibia. Especially this year since the last rainy season essentially did not happen. However, even here the lack of rain has left its mark with many normally full channels being completely dry. It was a theme we would see many more times this trip.

The trip along the strip was divided into two locations, the Popa Falls and Bwabwata National Park on the western end and Nkasa Rupara National Park on the eastern end. Popa Falls are the shallow waterfalls the Kavango river goes over before flowing into Botswana to become the famous Okavango delta. There are two accessible areas of the Bwabwata National Park that lines the Kavango river. On the western bank lies the Mahango Core Area and the eastern bank houses the Buffalo Core Area. The rest of the park is not accessible other than driving along the B8 autoroute that runs the entire length of the Caprivi Strip.

The morning of day 5 was spend shopping in Rundu to load up on supplies for the coming days. So we arrived late at the Popa Falls Resort (D) run by Namibia Wildlife Resorts, the state owned company managing accommodations in the national parks. The resort is located right by the falls and has a nice deck from which to enjoy the sunset overlooking the falls. While it is certainly very relaxing to enjoy a cold beer there, the falls are really more of a set of slow rapids. Anyone expecting something along the scale of the Victoria Falls will be very disappointed.

The wildlife on the other hand is everything but disappointing. Both the Mahango and Buffalo core ares are easily accessible by car and very much worth it. A 4×4 does help as there are a couple sandy stretches. Otherwise, the resort, like all others, offers a 3 hrs game viewing drive. 3 Hrs on each side is plenty to see everything there is to see as the road only runs a couple kilometers to the Botswana border. The Caprivi strip is about the only area in Namibia were one can see hippos. There is just not enough water elsewhere in the country. Besides the hippos, all the park has an abundance of all the other animals one expects to see in Africa, Elephants, Giraffes, Zebras and of course as the name would suggest, Buffalos. For those interested in history, there are old military installations from times past.

When planning this trip, I was somewhat exited at the possibility of driving the B8 through the park and seeing all the animals. This road did not deliver on that hope, though. It did however offer a good insight in how the locals live in this part of the country. For that it was interesting to drive along here. And since I am at the topic of the local population, there is stark difference between this part of Namibia and the usual tourist paths between Swakopmund and Etosha. There are comparably few tourists in this area and as such the people do not pay a lot of attention to the random white guy showing up. Whereas elsewhere I was immediately swarmed by people trying to sell stuff and asking for money.

For anyone looking to have a national park to oneself, Nkasa Rupara is a dream come true. This park is essentially a flood plane of the Linyanti and Kwando rivers that border it. It is criss-crossed by channels and mud and sand planes. Quite a few of the roads running through the park require some more advanced 4×4 skills to use. And that is if the road can even be found. On many occasions we had to double back because a road simply did not exist anymore as a new channel had formed where the road used to be. However, that also led us to discover a lot more of the park than we would have otherwise seen. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. There are 3 camps in the park, two tented lodges and one small campground, the Nkasa Rupara Restcamp (E), in which we stayed. It is fairly small with only 7 spots and rudimentary facilities. It also came with one crazy Hornbill that clearly had lost a couple marbles along the way.

Nkasa Rupara NP

After two days in this beautiful part, it was time to move on by retreating all the way back to Rundu with another stop at the Popa Falls Resort. The goal was the famous Etosha National Park some 900 km (560 mi) away. However, before we got there I had to learn the hard way why all the cars come with two spare tires. On our way out of the park I drove over a dead acacia twig. Anyone who has seen these things before will know what came next. A 5 cm (2 in) long thorn bored into the front tire. Fortunately there are no lions in this park as I had to spend some quality time in the dirt to change and fix the tire.

Days 10 – 15: Etosha National Park

When most people think of a safari in Namibia, it will invariably be Etosha National Park. The Park is centered around the large Etosha salt pan which in the past used to be the only accessible part of the Park. Pretty much everything in this National Park is enormous. The park itself, the size of the animal herds and the size of the human herds which are being brought in literally by the busloads. It was a stark difference from Nkasa Rupara with its almost lush greens and utmost lack of humans. Etosha is dry, very dry. Especially due to the lack of rains in the past years. While there are a couple natural waterholes, most are artificial with a bore and solar pump. They were made not only for the sake of the humans visiting, but also to draw large animals away from the surrounding farmlands.

Etosha has three main lodging locations. From east to west these are Namutoni with its fort, Halali at the center and Okaukuejo at the west. Until a couple years ago the western half of the park with its mountainous terrain was closed to tourists. It is now open and has one more campground, Olifantsrus. The line separating the main, eastern part of the park from the newly opened western part also separates the park into mass tourism in the east from the calm in the west. Unlike the camp in Nkasa Rupara, all the campsites are surrounded by an electric fence with the main gates closing at sunset and reopening at sunrise. This is to protect the humans from predators, but adds a distinct zoo-like feel to it. All camps also have an illuminated waterhole with stadium seating to safely see the animals at night.

We drove the entire length, or rather width, of the park staying at all four campsites. We spend one night each at Namutoni (F), Halali (G) and Okaukuejo (H), and two nights at Olifantsrus (I) using the day to drive every available road from one camp to another. There are not a lot of roads available and off-roading is strictly prohibited. That results in a constant, insane traffic on all roads which distracts quite a bit from the overall experience. Another quirk of the mass-tourism at Etosha manifests itself every morning at about 6 am. All guides state that the best times to see animals is early morning and late afternoon when the temperatures are more agreeable. And so, every morning, dozens of diesel powered buses and trucks take off in search of whatever walks and crawls. Not only is it impossible to sleep in a bit, but the whole camp sounds and feels worse than a highway during rush-hour.

The first day we drove around Namutoni in search of lions of which there are supposed to be around 200 in the park. The search for lions became a constant and futile endeavor for a while. What we lacked in lions we saw in all other animals. In that regard Etosha does not disappoint. My personal favorite was a little elephant having fun and blowing bubbles in a waterhole. Overall, the region around Namutoni is marked mostly by the salt pan with a rather featureless landscape. Namutoni camp itself is rather large and features the old fort prominently. The campsite is also home to a large group of Banded mongoose which are a lot fun as long as they do not steal ones breakfast.

Halali camp is a bit further remote from the pan in a forested region of the park. Although with the lack of rains, the forrest is suffering and not a lot trees have any leafs left. There are supposed to be a couple rhinos in this area, but we did not encounter any. With this area also being far from any water sources we did not see many animals in general until we got closer to Okaukuejo. Okaukuejo at the western end of the salt pan is the largest of the camps and the main entrance for most visitors. It had the largest waterhole of the three camps and offered a beautiful sunset with various animals.

The next day we departed for the newly opened western half of the park. As soon as we left behind the main road out of the park Etosha returned to wild and empty. The single road from Okaukuejo to Olifantsrus is a steady slow climb away from the salt pan to the more mountainous region of the park. And here we were finally lucky and saw our first lions. It was already noon by the time we encountered them and thus they were more interested in what little shade there was to be found to what cats to best: sleep.

The next 80 km (50 mi) of road were almost desert with only the occasional little remnant trees. I fear that if Namibia does not get significant rains in the coming years, most of the park will become like this. Global warming is having catastrophic effects and this region bears the brunt of it. These days the only water in the vast region of Etosha is found at the artificial waterholes. They all consist of a solar powered pump feeding a swallow concrete pool. The overflow then feeds a natural dirt pool below. While animals keep their distance from one another in the natural pools further east, they all cluster in huge impressive herds around here.

Olifantsrus camp is the newest and smallest of the camps and features only 10 sites for single cars. Like the other sites, it has an artificial waterhole with viewing platform. However, here they build a small house next to the waterhole outside the fence and connected it to camp by an elevated walkway. This allows for much closer view of the animals which is very impressive. Especially when herds of elephants come by to drink and get a mud-bath.

We stayed at this camp for two nights to be able to drive the last of the roads further west of the camp. Here the park transforms into a mountainous terrain with tall acacia trees. It is quite different from the lower elevations and we got the see the first of the red sand which is so prominently featured further south. After another gorgeous sunset and star studded night, it was time leave the park and make our way to the Skeleton coast. But before we finally left, we were rewarded by another group of lions with the most impressive male so far.

Days 16 – 17: Skeleton Coast

There are two ways to get from the Dalton Gate at the west end of Etosha to Swakopmund. The first first goes by Palmwag and includes almost the whole drivable length of the Skeleton Coast. The second runs through the interior to the old mining town of Uis and then turns toward the ocean. We first planed to take the former, but then in the last minute decided to drive by Twyfelfontein to see a bit more variety. I was hoping to have enough time to maybe see the petroglyphs at Twyfelfontein.

That was not to happen. Turns out that our map had the road marked as asphalt, but in reality it was all gravel and sand. Worse yet, most of it was in terribly washboarded condition. Travel was slow and painful, both mentally and physically. The landscape was beautiful, though. First passing through the Grootberg pass and then through the desert valley dotted with oasis in which Twyfelfontein is located. If we had one more day, stopping in Twyfelfontein would have made all the difference. But hindsight is 20/20 and we had to be in Swakopmund the next day. I also wanted to drive at least a little bit of the Skeleton Coast to view the seal colony there.

Uis is a small town next to a now defunct tin mine. Closing the mine dealt a devastating blow to the community. Today the town is little more than a refueling stop between Swakopmund and Etosha and the north. The old leisure facility with a huge pool has been converted into the Brandberg Rest Camp (J) in which we stayed. The hot shower and ice cold draft beer helped undo the damage from the road. A ginormous burger from the restaurant helped a well for sure. Unfortunately, the washboard also did a number on one of our tents as one of the main brackets broke.

The next morning we drove to the coast and were amazed at the difference 100 km (60 mi) makes to the temperatures. It was freezing cold wind coming in from the ocean while we had endured 40 ºC (104 ºF) just before. The roads at least did change for the better with the old gravel washboard giving way to a nice salt road. They use salt brine to bind the dirt and it makes a rock hard surface almost like concrete. We made good use of that road looking for two things the Skeleton Coast is famous for: Ship wrecks and seals.

Turns out there are not a lot of wrecks still visible, safe for a recent Angolan fish trawler that is now a bird heaven. The seals on the other hand were abundant at the Cape Cross seal reserve. There were thousands of them all over the place. Many had pubs and were still nursing. The sounds and smells were overwhelming, but seeing them up close is amazing. The seals are so accustomed to humans that many will let you touch them. I can now understand why people used to like fur coats. They are very soft and cuddly.

As the day was drawing to a close we arrived in our first hotel in over 2 weeks. After eating pasta for most of the trip, the prospect of a real meal, a real bed and a real shower was awesome. We decided to stay right in the middle of the old city at the Secret Garden Guesthouse (K), which I can highly recommend. Swakopmund is nice, but an odd city overall. It is a German city transplanted into the desert and just does not really seem to fit in. It is also a huge tourist hub with buses upon buses of tourists descending on every available restaurant. Strolling around town and watching the sunset over the pier was a nice break from the arid climate elsewhere.

Days 18 – 20: Sossusvlei

After a bountiful breakfast we returned inland on our way to the last stop of this trip. The red dunes and dead trees of Sossusvlei are maybe the most famous and visited destination in Namibia. I have seen pictures of Dead Vlei and had wanted to visit for a long time. All I can say in short is that this place is mesmerizing. We stayed at the NWR campground at Sesriem (L) at the end of the regular road and entrance to the park. The camp itself is nice and conveniently located, but that is also its biggest drawback. Just like in Etosha all the guides state that sunrise is the time to be in the park and so, at 5 am, the diesel caravan takes off with all the noise and commotion that comes along with it. We did not experience a sunrise, but I can confidently say that sunset is marvelous and you have the park to yourself.

Sossusvlei itself is another 60 km down the only road after which the nice asphalt turns into deep, soft sand. There are two options. Park your car the end of the road and have the park shuttle take you in to see the main attraction or put the car into 4×4 and master the sand yourself. The latter is not very difficult, but definitely requires true 4-wheel drive and high clearance. This part absolutely not doable in a normal car.

Sossusvlei has four major stops along the way. First one is the aptly named “Dune 45”, located 45 km (28 mi) along the road. This is one big dune and everyone crawls up along the spine. The second stop, Hidden Vlei, is at the end of the asphalt road by the parking lot. It is called that because in order to see it one has to hike 2.5 km (1.6 mi) over soft dunes to get there. Take enough water and start at the wooden sign. The path is not well marked, though. Once you cross the little forest, look slightly to the left and there will be rods in the ground. Follow them and you will be rewarded with an empty desert and have Hidden Vlei all to yourself. It is worth it! The next stop is about 4 km (2.5 mi) along that soft sand road. Sossusvlei, all the way at the end, has a couple nice shaded picnic benches. Otherwise, sadly, I did not quite see the appeal of the namesake of this park.

For me Dead Vlei, shortly before Sossusvlei, is the true marvel of the whole park. The photos with the dead trees in front of red dunes are all from Dead Vlei. It is just a short, easy hike of about 1.1 km (0.7 mi) away. For a desert-lover like me, this place is breathtakingly beautiful, almost spiritual. Make sure to get there about 1.5 – 2 hrs before sunset and you will be rewarded with shaded red dunes and the long shadows that amplify the otherworldly experience. And as all the tour buses have left to drop their human load off at Dune 45, you will again have this all to yourself. Although in my case I had a small hawk or falcon to accompany me. If you really feel adventurous, you can climb up Big Daddy, a huge dune at the far end of the vlei. I did not, but I am sure the views must be gorgeous.

Remarkably, even in this most arid of all regions, there is an abundance of animals. We have seen lots of Oryx and antelopes all over and even the occasional jackal. After a couple hours of taking it all in, it was time to return to camp.

Next morning we went to the Sesriem canyon after which the area and camp are named. It is nice little slot canyon with a water hole at the end. One hour is about all it takes to see it. Just avoid the early afternoon as that is when all the buses arrive.

Finally, the last day had come around and we made our way back to Windhoeck. We had to return the car and exchange the hiking clothes of the past 3 weeks for a more civilized attire. That last day was bittersweet. A cold beer, nice steak and comfortable bed awaited at the end of the long road back. However, it also meant that I had to trade the beauty of Namibia in for the sights and comfort of 36 hrs in airports and airplanes.

Final Words

We spend 20 days in this beautiful country full of amazing signs and experiences. The people are genuinely friendly, helpful and proud to show off their country. Namibia is very safe. Even the folks trying to sell trinkets or asking for money were not very pushy. Other countries are far worse in that regard. At no time did I ever feel threatened or uncomfortable.

Self driving is very easy and allowed us to do things at our own pace. The fully equipped rental car is not cheap and a no-frills bus tour might come in lower. But then you do not have the peace we had. Namibia is also quite popular. We tried to do this trip a year before but did not allow enough time to book everything. In the end we booked all the major stops in December for a September trip.

If you are ever thinking about visiting Africa, Namibia is an easy introduction. Go ahead, but be warned. If the Africa bug bites, you might just have to come back for more.

P.S. Since I talked a lot about a cold beer, I recommend the Windhoek Draught beer.

A weekend in Tucson, AZ

For far too many years I have been running in and out of airports during business trips without ever looking at the location. A while ago I decided that life is too short for that and now always take a weekend to explore wherever fate drops me off. This time around it happened to be Tucson, AZ for a training class on product design reliability. I am focusing this year on introducing more advanced statistical methods to improve product design and failure analysis. It was a great class, but I guess it would bore the hell out of anyone who does not share my passion for math and engineering.

That leaves me with 2.5 days in Tucson, AZ. Turns out there is a lot to do in this place. First day, I explored the Colossal Cave and the eastern Saguaro National Park. There are quite a few caves around, but what makes this cave especial is that is was eroded from below by acidic volcanic water being pushed upwards. That makes for different formations compared to what one might be accustomed to. Most caves are formed by water coming in from above. They do offer real caving tours where one has to crawl through some tight spots to see otherwise inaccessible parts. Unfortunately, I did not have the time to do that and did only the regular tour. Even that was very interesting. The day was then followed up by driving through the eastern Saguaro Nation Park. The park has far more diversity than the name might suggest. But, of course, the saguaros are amazing. It is even more amazing to see a dead one and see the internal wooded structure that allows the cactus to grow to such impressive heights.

Day two was a technology and space day. First off was the Titan Missile museum. The only one in existence. Again, I only had time for the regular tour. They take you through the control room and to see the actual missile (sans warhead). Some of the design features of the facility are very interesting. For example, the entire facility is designed to withstand a nuclear impact including the earthquake like shock wave. To that end everything vital, including the entire control room, is suspended on springs. I did a little bit of history that day as well. The Mission San Xavier del Bac is pretty close to the museum. It is worth a visit. The highlight of the day, however, was the nightly observation program at the Kitt Peak National Observatory. It is one of the active scientific stations and thus a lot of effort is taken to ensure no light pollution hinders the research. That also makes it for gorgeous skies. The tour starts with a light dinner and walk out to see the sunset. Then there is an hour of basic introduction to star gazing using a planisphere. I never knew how to use one properly. Of course, these days, a smartphone will do the same. Then the program concludes with an hour spend with an actual research grade telescope looking at various points in the sky. It is an awesome experience.


The last day was back to nature with the western Saguaro National Park and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. The latter is an open air museum and zoo featuring all the local flora and fauna. Lots of docents all over to show individual animals and explain more about them. My favorite part was the walk-in hummingbird aviary. If you have time for nothing else in Tucson, go there. It is very well made and a great place to learn more about this region.

Overall, I am surprised about all that Tucson has to offer. I even lucked out out on the weather. A nice upper 70’s and sunny. Summer might be a bit more uncomfortable, but I would still recommend a couple days in Tucson.

The Amazon Experience 2017

The Trip

There are a few places on this planet that everyone knows about, but yet only few people have ever been to. The Amazon is certainly one of those places. It was also true for me. I have flown over it countless times and seen all sorts of National Geographic articles and documentaries about the Amazon. So I decided that it was time to finally visit it myself.

One of the most important questions for any animal photography trip is when to go. I learned soon enough that there are really two main seasons, wet and very wet. The former being referred to as the dry season and the latter as the flood season. What it really means is that during the flood season, there are areas of the Amazon, the várzea forests, that are completely flooded. No dry land anywhere. Those areas have a bit less dense vegetation than the terra firme forests. While that is less impressive than the dense jungles, it makes it easier to see animals. Given all this, I knew where to go. As for the when, I had no choice. This was an add-on to a business trip and so I had to go during the height of the hot season.

The Lodge

The place I chose to go to had some of the best reviews and is also a community run project. All the profits stay local and give the local population more incentive to protect the flora and fauna. All the more reason to support them. The Uacari Floating Lodge is about 1.5 hrs by boat from the next airport in the city of Tefé. That again is 1 hr upriver by plane from Manaus, itself not really the center of the universe. All that translates to remoteness, quietness and lack of cell phone signal (yay!!).

As mentioned above, this area is completely flooded for part of the year. Therefore all buildings are either on tall posts or are floating structures. The lodge is an assembly of several floats located at a quiet river bend. Five floats with two rooms each and a central dining and bar area along with staff quarters make up the lodge. It is simple, but functional and beautiful. I should also mention that all the electricity is generated by solar power and thus there is no AC. However, the evening thunderstorm and the ceiling fan help to cool things down to a comfortable level.

The days where divided into 3 activities, nicely interrupted by an abundance of fresh local food. The mornings being a bit cooler where mostly used for hikes in the forrest. Local guides with an incredible skill at finding the local fauna and explaining how the forrest is used made that the best part of the trip. Lunch was followed by a nice siesta to pass the heat of the day. The afternoons usually had a boat trip to make use of the cooling water. Those trips ranged from fishing for piranha, watching the dolphins, canoeing and bird watching. Finally, after dinner (there was tea time, too) the staff or local scientists would do a presentation about the area, the various animals etc. The bar then served a nice nightcap.

The River

One cannot talk about the Amazon without first admiring the Amazon river. At this location, upriver from Manaus, it is not yet called the Amazon river. The lodge is located at the confluence of the Solimões and Japurá Rivers. The vast expanse of the rivers is an amazing sight.

Dolphins

The rivers also harbor some unique wildlife not found anywhere else on the planet. The largest scaled fish alive, the Pirarucu or Arapaima, is a constant sight during the dry season. Their splashing is heard all day and night and is a soothing background noise. Two species of fresh water dolphins live here as well. The Tucuxi, which looks more like a “regular” dolphin, and the Pink River dolphin or Boto, which is more like a cross between a beluga whale and a sun-burned dolphin. They are not easy to photograph, but a lot of fun to watch.

The forrest

Now is the time to step off the boat. This time of the year, there is plenty of dry land. Owing to the fact that the forest is submerged for several months every year, there is not a lot of underbrush as one would find in a dry or terra firme jungle. That makes for very comfortable hiking and also makes it easier to spot animals. The trees and vegetation that does exist, though, is uniquely adapted to the flooding. They grow very fast and develop an amazing root system.

I do have to mention one downside of this fauna, though. Everything lives on top of the trees. My neck is still sour from looking up the whole time and holding up a heavy lens to capture it all.

Monkeys

The first thing you will hear while walking through the forest are the monkeys. Specifically, the Howler Monkeys. The little audio sample below is from one of the hikes. At about 1 min, the monkeys come out in strength.

There are five types of monkeys in this area that one will commonly come across during the hikes. The Howler Moneys as heard first and foremost. Then there are two types of Squirrel Monkeys. These are the smallest ones. A bit larger are the Capuchin Monkeys. Finally, the very shy Uacari Monkeys after which the lodge is named. They are also the most interesting ones. Long white fur paired with a bright red face. Unlike the other Monkeys, the Uacaris really do not like people. As soon as they realize that they have been spotted, they take off, making photographing them a lesson in patience.

I do have one fun side story. There are a couple photos of Squirrel Monkeys with an Iguana. Those monkeys always move in a huge group. As it happened the only branch connecting two trees was already occupied by an Iguana. So monkey after monkey happily ran along until they suddenly spotted the reptile and froze. That was followed by a panicked look and lots of head-scratching to decide wether to turn around or brave the monster. In the end they all made it across, but it was clear they did not trust the Iguana.

Birds

The animal that the Amazon holds in abundance is birds. Everything from water fowls, to parrots, to birds of prey. This place is simply heaven for any bird lover out there. For me it was special as well as I always wanted to see Macaws in their natural habitat. And in that I was lucky. The other bird I really wanted to see are Tucans. Fortunately there is not shortage of those funny birds.

Sloths

With all those animals I had to think for while to decide which one was actually my favorite of them all. In the end, I decided for the Sloths. They just simply seem to be always happy with a big smile on their face. We even lucked out and saw a two-toed sloth, which is rather rare.

Final Thoughts

This one week in the Amazon was an amazing experience. But I am not quite done with this area of the world. There is still one animal I have to see and that is the Jaguar. However, during the dry season it is almost impossible to see them. During the flood season on the other hand, they retreat to a couple specific tree types, making them much easier to find. So there is one more trip in it for me.

All in all, I can only highly recommend this trip. One week will provide plenty of opportunities to spot some unique and endangered animals. The Uacari lodge is a perfect base to run the expedition from. They offer a “photography package” which really consists of a private guide and a boat available at any time. That is truly the way to go as the smaller group will scare the animals less and no-one is annoyed at the photographer taking an inordinate amount of time to capture the right images.

Jessica and Marildo, my guide and spotter, where amazing in showing me the splendor of the Amazon forest and its inhabitants. They explained how all the different plants are used locally and patiently waited until I got all photos I wanted. Thank you for a wonderful trip. Mutio obrigado!

Desert Wildflowers in Anza Borrego SP 2017

Every once in a very great while Anza Borrego State Park does get a substantial amount of rain. Once that happens, all the wildflowers come out in a color explosion. The last time we had such a good bloom was 2005. So I did not want to miss this one. Also, this time I had my Jeep and had access to areas that I could not get to back then.

In short, it was awesome. We started the tour off with Rockhouse Canyon on the north-east end of the park. The first part was pretty crowded, but once the first rocks appear on the road, the crowd thins out quite a bit. For the most part we had the canyon to ourself.

After exploring the area for a while, we set out to Coyote Canyon. As it turns out the park recently graded the road and it is now a highway. At the end of the canyon things get a bit better as the road goes through deep water and a gnarly rocky hill. Easy going for the Jeep I thought and went up to Sheep Canyon. Very much worthwhile as it is nice and quiet up there.

However, somehow I managed to break the link between the 4×4 shifter and the transfer case. That got the Jeep stuck in normal 2-wheel drive. Fine for getting home on the highway, but a mess for getting down that rock hill. Still, that transfer case also has a neutral setting. So it could have stranded me for good.

Rather frustrated, I decided to head home rather than camp overnight. The tour for the next day would have required 4×4. Just as I was about to call the day, we noticed a bunch of people looking up on the hill. Figuring that this is either an elaborate prank or something on top of the hill, I took my chances and asked. Turns out there was a group of 5 bighorn sheep up there. I always wanted to see them and this more than made up for the broken Jeep.

Northern Chile 2017 (Atacama and Puna)

The Trip

screen-shot-2017-02-25-at-15-53-38There are a few places in the world that I have always heard about, but never really thought about visiting. Not for lack of interest, but more for there being too many places to go to. Northern Chile, especially the Atacama desert, was amongst those. After traveling for 10 days through that wonderful area, I have to say that I did it great injustice for not putting it on the “Must-Go” list.

This trip materialized after a serendipitous coincidence of both me and my always adventurous mother being on the same continent at the same time. Rather than going to some fancy dinner, we decided to rent a car and drive through the Atacama desert and the northern chilean Puna. 

We chose two base cities, San Pedro de Atacama and Putre, to stay overnight and do day trips to the sites of interest. Altitudes range up to 5,000 m (16,000 ft) with peaks above that. As such the first two days were a bit rough oxygen-wise, but it is amazing how quickly the body adapts. After a couple days I learned one other important lesson: There is not much atmosphere to filter out UV light there. Even though I was wearing long sleeves, a hat and a shemagh (a Palestinian  head scarf) along with factor 50 sun-block, I got a really nice suntan bordering burn.

Day 1

It started with flying into the small airport of Calama, picking up our car and making our way to San Pedro de Atacama. That city is remarkable only in it that it is the tourist hub for the region. Every other shop is either a tourist agency or bar. It is very popular with young backpackers. That is were the own car comes in handy. As you had east and up (and up and up), you get away from folks and to the gorgeous landscapes. The one advantage of San Pedro is there are plenty of stores and restaurants. Of the latter, Sol Inti and Las Delicias De Carmen were our favorites. Also, at about 2,500 m (8,200 ft) it is a good height to start to get acclimated to the higher altitudes while still being very comfortable.

Day 2

We decided to start the trip of nice and slow and visit the nearby attractions. The Atacama desert is one of the most arid places in the world and so I found it rather odd to see lakes. I thought it even more odd to find these lakes full of flamingoes. But they are there and seem perfectly happy. The easiest place to see them is at Laguna Chaxa. It is a protected area with a educational path to show the brine shrimp that live in the shallow lakes and feed the birds, the lakes themselves and finally the flamingoes.

After spending some time admiring the birds, we drove on to two of the most famous lakes, Lagunas Miscanti y Miñiques. They are at about 4,200 m (13,800 ft) and thus became my first encounter with the somewhat lacking oxygen. I suppose it affects people differently, but for me it was like having run a sprint even though I was only carrying my camera backpack for 100 m. This was a vacation after all and so it was time to slow down, take a deep breath and enjoy the majestic views.

On the second and smaller lake we finally saw some Vincuñas, a relative of the Llama. Those being my first ones, I spend all the time photographing them in the distance. Little did I know that they are all over the place. Still, it was beautiful seeing them. The return trip had one more surprise for us as we came across one of the local foxes (Zorro culpeo).

Day 3

There are a couple places that are on every guidebook’s highly recommended list. The Salar de Tara is one of them. However, in order to get there one needs a 4×4 capable vehicle. Ours was not and so we decided to become a bit more sociable and participate in a tour.

It starts off with a long uphill road with a scenic stop at the volcanoes Licancabur and Juriques. After some more climbing we reached another small lake with more flamingoes. This is about as high as we would get topping out at 4,800 m (15,800 ft). From there the off-roading starts. First stop after leaving the road was the Monjes de La Pacana, which are remains of past volcanic eruptions. They now make for a nice sculpture garden. Just go nice and slow as oxygen is still quite scarce around there.

The tour then ended at the Salar de Tara. The area that is accessible is at the deeper end, which is more of a lake than a salt flat and dotted with abundant numbers of flamingoes. While enjoying those, I noticed some dirt being thrown around nearby. On closer investigation the culprit revealed itself. It was a Cholulo, essentially a guinea pig with a small tail, during spring remodeling of his burrow.

There is one more thing for which the Atacama desert is famous for. That is the night sky. After a day in the thin air it is easy to want tug in at night, but that would be huge mistake. The night sky is just as impressive as the sights at day. Not to be missed for sure. There is a reason why some of the largest telescopes are built in this desert. All that is needed is to drive out of the city with its pesty lights and look up. There are not a lot of places in this world where one can see two galaxies with the bare eye, our own Milky Way and the Great Magellanic Cloud (the cloud on the right in the photo below). If really interested, there are plenty of tours that take people out at night and bring along small telescopes.

Day 4

For the last day in San Pedro we decided to venture out farther away from the tourist hot-spots and drove almost all the way to the border with Argentina. The first stop was Piedras Rojas, a shallow lake with red volcanic rocks. All the other lakes we saw were that deep crystal clear blue. This one was a gorgeous turquoise which contrasted beautifully with the red rocks. I think this is a great time to note that none of these landscape photos do the reality any justice. The shades and hues of colors with the deep blue sky are incredible. Add to that the quietness of only the wind. To me it is the very definition of serenity.

We them drove on a bit more to Laguna Tuyacto (also spelled Tujajto) were we just sat down and took in the scene for a very (!) long time.

Days 5 and 6

Per our original plan, San Pedro de Atacama was only to be the first act of this trip. Everyone we asked mentioned that we should really go to Putre to see all the animals and none of the tourists. There are two ways to get there. Return the car in Calama and then spend a day in planes to go to Arica, or drive the 800 km (500 mi) north across the lower desert. Of course we chose the latter and were well rewarded for it.

A bit west of Calama are the geoglyphs of Chug-Chug. Essentially like petroglyphs on steroids. Unfortunately the SD Card in my camera decided to give up and freeze up the camera along with it. So, no good photos. You will have to go and see for yourself. There is a small group of archeologists living at the site who were more than happy to show us around and patiently answer any questions we had. There are 100’s of geolyphs at the site. Some are geometrical forms while others are humans and animals.

About at the halfway point, near the city of Iquique, lies another treasure. The UNESCO world heritage sites of Oficinas salitreras de Humberstone y Santa Laura (Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works). Chile was the world’s largest producer of saltpeter for a time and lots of abandoned works are strewn about. What makes this site (two sites actually) stand out is the state of preservation.

In order to mine the saltpeter and iodine, they build an entire city next to the extraction plants. Houses, shops, a marketplace, churches and a hospital are all there and owing to the lack of rain, very much intact. They even build a swimming pool out of train cars and a theater. A lot of the mining buildings and machines are still visible as well. I am an engineer and scientist, so this was all especially exciting.

We also got there pretty late and were for the most part the last people around. The abandoned buildings with all the dust and bits and pieces of metal clanging around gave it that post-apocalyptic feel. It does help that in order to mine the saltpeter, the ground is blown up with explosives and then carted off to the plant.

Day 7

The Atacama desert and the Puna could not be more different. At the end of the long drive through absolutely bone dry desert, the roads winds itself up the Andes to about 4,000 m (13,100 ft). Along the way the dryness gives way to green grass and shrubs. However, where there is green, there is rain and we got treated to lots of it upon our arrival in Putre.

The first morning the sun came out and we set out to visit the sights along the main route to Bolivia. First stop was Lago Chungará. Another big difference between here and the Atacama is that there is no salt flats here. Besides lots of Taguas (the local coots) we found another curious animal. I am not sure what to describe it as, but it belongs to the chinchilla family and is called Viscacha. It really looks like a cross of rabbit with chinchilla.

The next stop was the mostly deserted village of Parinacota. We were told that there are only 2 or 3 families left. It is known for its beautiful little church which we got to visit after tracking down the one last person with a key. As promised we found plenty of the animals around and virtually no humans. Pretty much the only people living in this region are people hearding Llamas and Alpacas. One interesting detail about the animals is how they are marked. Unlike cows or horses that are branded, the owners put colorful wool strings on their animals. I guess that is the smart thing to do as a branding would be invisible under all the wool. Besides, I never liked the idea of putting a hot iron to an animal.

Day 8

This day started off with a beautiful clear sky and so we decided to take our little car off-pavement to see some of the more remote areas. I really wanted to see the abandonded sulfur mine next the Tacora volcano, but I was told not to. First, our car would not be able to handle the terrain. I was willing to challenge that, but the second reason did convince me. The mine is right next to the border with Peru and the area still has landmines from the Pinochet regime.

Instead we drove a long loop around the tri-corner region between Chile, Peru and Bolivia. It was very much worth while. Besides the beautiful landscapes, we saw the last of the four camelids living here, the Guanacos (the other being Vicuña, Llama and Alpaca). On a side note: If anyone is wondering where Chewbacca vacations when not with Han Solo, I got a photo of him right here.

There is one more area I tried to get to, but had to abort because of terrain. The plateau called Suriplaza has some amazing colors from the erosion products of the volcano around it. But getting there requires driving up a curvy little road that had turned to clay with the recent rains. Very slippery and not much to stop you on your way down. We still got a nice view of it. On the way down we then encountered one more odd bird. It is a flightless large bird like the Emu and is called Suri (or Rhea in English).

At about this time, the sky started to take on an ominous dark color and we were about 80 km (50 mi) from the next main road. Rather than retreating the way we came we decided to complete the originally planned loop. Mostly we wanted to see the very impressive Quebrada de Allane, a deep gorge with a wide river crossing. After a couple detours and a very helpful, albeit somewhat surprised, police officer we found our way. On the very last miles before the road the clouds opened up with lighting and a heavy downpour.

Day 9

All good things have to come to an end and this vacation was regrettably no different. Last night’s rain turned into snow and so we went back up the mountain to see a whole different landscape. It goes to show how adaptable the local animals are. Only days before we had Vicuñas in the arid desert. Now they were happily grazing in the snow.

We concluded the trip at the northern port town of Arica. There is not much to see or do there besides the Cuevas De Anzota. Those caves used to be a guano mine (and still smells like one) right next to the ocean. Today it is a small park and seems to be the local romantic hangout.

Last thoughts

This region is a great treasure trove of flora and fauna, with incredibly friendly people and unforgettable landscapes. It should be on every bucket list out there.

The airports of Calama and Arica are easily reached via Santiago and rental cars are readily available. On that topic, I do recommend to splurge a bit and rent one of the 4×4 pickup trucks. Many areas can be accessed by normal car with some light off-roading, some really require a more capable vehicle.

And just to do a bit of advertising: In San Pedro de Atacama, stay out of the city centre in the quiet, nice little Hostal Rincon de Quitor. In Putre, I can recommend the Terrace Lodge. One word about Putre, though. There is no gas station anywhere. The only source is either to drive all the way to Arica or buy it from the hotel at a 75% surcharge.

Jordan 2016

The Trip

The trip

I wanted to see the ruins of Petra for a long time. But I wanted to make it a larger trip through the sites of the Middle East. The conflict in Syria prevented me to do this trip. After Palmyra was lost, I decided not to wait any longer. Jordan has been a very stable and progressive country under King Abdullah II, but the future is uncertain. Limiting the trip to Jordan made it a bit shorter, but also easier to fit into a normal vacation.

After having made this journey, I can clearly say that Jordan is a very liberal and progressive country. It is also perfectly safe, except for crossing the streets. We have met some very friendly locals and have always been treated with respect and a smile. Everyone asks where we came from, but only to reply “welcome, welcome”.

Day 1: Lax – Amman

The trip started with a very long travel day with a stop in London. We finally arrived rather late at our Amman base, the Hawa Guest House in downtown Amman. We booked the premium room with ensuite bathroom, but ended up with the even larger family room. It is a very lovely bed & breakfast with very friendly and helpful owners and lots of cats for entertainment.

Day 2: Downtown Amman

After a way too short a night we set off to explore downtown Amman on foot. Amman is built on a bunch of hills, which is represented in the names of the various neighborhoods. We were in Jabal Weibdeh. Jabal meaning mountain in Arab. First down tons of stairs to climb them back up on the other side to the Citadel. From there you have great views of downtown Amman. The citadel is a mix of buildings from Roman times forward. It has been constantly rebuild throughout the history of Amman. A small archeology museum completes the site.

From there we went down all the stairs to the Roman Theater. It is still in very good shape, but somewhat isolated as nothing else from that time has survived nearby. Somewhat tired we tried to get back home, but as we tried to cross the road, I inadvertently hailed down a cab. Since it was there, we decided to take it to the just recently opened Jordan Museum. It was well worth it. The museum seems to not be quiet completed just yet, but is very interesting even now. They even have pieces of the Dead Sea Scrolls. That was a very nice and unexpected bonus. Now knowing how to hail a cab in Amman, I got us another one for the way back home.

Day 3: Northern Jordan

Traffic in Amman is a bit on the crazy side and I did not really want to navigate it. So we hired a very friendly driver called Osama. This day we went to the northwest of Jordan. First stop after a 2 hr ride was Umm Qays, a quaint little Roman settlement with attached Ottoman village. There are nice views of the Golan heights and the Sea of Galilee.

Next we continued on to Ajloun castle, a still very impressive castle on top of the city of the same name. It was built during the crusades to fend off the crusaders. It is in remarkable condition and offers gorgeous views of the surrounding lands. Final stop was the huge Romand city of Jerash. It is now completely surrounded by the city, which detracts a bit from the ambiance. The Main Street, starting at the Oval Plaza, is still fairly intact and an awe inspiring sight. Unfortunately, the city is littered with sellers. That was a sign of things to come at the main tourist spots. Unlike many other places, the sellers are not overly pushy, though. The night was then closed with a take-out pizza before we crashed early.