Nov 182017
 

My Favorite Out-of-Maun Road

We are again house- and pet-sitting in Maun. While here, we aim to get out once a week for a day trip, what I call a “safari self-drive.” We don’t have to go far out of town to feel like we’re on safari. Wild animals are literally just around the corner—or even just beyond the garden gate.

We headed to what we call the “South Gate Road,” my favorite out-of-Maun road. It’s a sand road that leads to the South Gate of Moremi National Park. We don’t go into the park; we just drive to the gate and turn around. As with National Parks in the US, there are no fences, and the animals roam anywhere they choose, not distinguishing park land from non-park land. Last time we were here, we saw heaps of wildlife along this road, both a wide variety of animals and significant numbers of them—by our standards, anyway. Mind you, African wildlife guides may have different opinions.

Three years ago, we didn’t know what to expect from a day trip out of Maun, and we were blown away each time we ventured out. I’m sure our expectations were higher this time around.

Ch-ch-changes From Three Years Ago

This year, we’re here a bit earlier, more on the tail end of the dry season. Animals may still be congregated around reliable water holes in the park, rather than wandering farther afield. What were semi-permanent puddles along the South Gate Road three years ago are currently dry mud pans.

In addition, the grass, brush, and trees on the first half or more of the drive were recently burned in a wildfire. The terrain is black and barren. I suspect new grass will spring up in profusion when the rain comes, as fireweed does in Alaska, enticing grazers from miles around, but we’re not there yet.

So there wasn’t much wildlife on the whole first half of the drive. Disappointing? Sure. But it was also exciting to see what is now familiar turf, recalling animals we’d seen on previous trips.

And then the scenery turned green. The first large animal to make an appearance was . . .

Male ostrich, South Gate Road, Botswana

Male ostrich outside Moremi NP

. . . an ostrich! Three of them, actually. This guy had two females with him.

Ostriches

Ostriches are cool—and funny, in my experience. Skittish, so we’ve never been especially close. Some seem to have a hair-trigger panic button, which we’ve seen cause comical escape scenes. I think running ostriches are inherently funny. We’ll try to show you. These guys didn’t panic, though.

On the other hand, ostrich necks are a million times more flexible than a giraffe’s neck. They have an admirable grace sometimes. I imagine giraffes have neck envy, and then my brain takes off, making up silly stories where giraffes take ostrich yoga classes, hoping they can one day bend down to drink without splaying their legs. Or I imagine a gorgeous, sweet giraffe joining an ostrich dance troupe and being the much loved but gawky klutz of the group.

Three years ago, I don’t think we saw ostriches here, so this was a nice surprise.

And then there was a pair of . . .

Steenbok male and female, South Gate Road, Botswana

A pair of steenbok

. . . steenboks. These are small antelope, not the smallest of antelopes, but the smallest we’ve ever seen, just 22 inches high at the shoulder. That’s tiny! Imagine even smaller ones—ones half this size.

Steenboks

Steenboks are generally solitary, except during breeding season. That must mean they’re super-brave, right, to be tiny prey animals who forego the safety of herd numbers? And while the female here is looking scruffy, they’re generally sleek—friction-less for great speed. I love the dark lines in the ears that look like veins in a leaf. Lots of antelope have those ear lines.

And then there were the lovely but chronically undervalued impala, rendered common and un-special by their vast numbers and frequent presence. They can be like caribou in Denali NP.

Impala, males, South Gate Road, Botswana

Impala

Impala

But these guys are very cool, too. They wear their hearts on their ankles, for one thing; although, you’ll have to wait until we get a better picture of that particular feature.

What’s a safari without . . .

Elephants under a tree, South Gate Road, Botswana

Ahhh, blessed shade!

. . . elephants? Especially here in Botswana.

Elephants

Do you suppose that it’s still cooler in the shade when you’re smooshed together with a bunch of hot elephants? I suppose it must be or they wouldn’t smoosh like this. Most animals seem willing to smoosh for a bit of shade. The sun can be brutal.

Elephants under a tree, South Gate Road, Botswana

That calf is in good hands . . . or trunks

There were four calves with this group of cows. That seemed like a lot of young ones for a relatively small group. Then again . . .

Elephant cows and calf, South Gate Road, Botswana

Elephant cows and calf

. . . maybe we weren’t seeing the whole group of cows.

How to hide an elephant, South Gate Road, Botswana

How do you hide an elephant? Like this!

At home in Alaska, I’m amazed when a thousand-pound moose disappears in the brush. Here, we’ve got multi-ton and two-story animals disappearing in brush. How crazy is that?! It doesn’t seem possible, but time and again we see it happen.

Zebras

Just before the park gate, five zebras stepped out of hiding to round out our day. These are two of them.

Zebras, South Gate Road, Botswana

Zebras make an appearance

I love those piano-key manes!

The highlight of the day, however, came between the ellies and the zebras.

Sitting giraffe, South Gate Road, Botswana

It’s sitting down! On the ground!

A giraffe. Sitting down!

And not just one giraffe sitting down. In all, we saw four giraffes, three of which were sitting on the ground, legs folded beneath them; although, we couldn’t get all three in a single shot.

Giraffes

Two giraffes sitting, one standing, South Gate Road, Botswana

Two giraffes sitting, one standing

This is special. For starters, we’ve never seen giraffes sitting down. More significantly, they don’t do it very often, at least not in the wild. As with drinking, when they have to splay their legs to reach the ground, giraffes are vulnerable when they sit or lie down because it takes them some time to get up—time that is precious when a lion or leopard is pouncing.

As a result, giraffes spend little time sleeping and even less time sitting or lying on the ground. In the wild, giraffes average 30 minutes of sleep per day, usually getting only a few minutes at a time, and often standing while sleeping. Young giraffes get more sleep, of course. In captivity, a mature giraffe might sleep as much as 4.5 hours while sitting/lying down, head resting on its rump. Those lazy, coddled giraffes!

These giraffes sat for a long time; though, they weren’t sleeping. One was sitting when we arrived, sitting when we left, and still sitting after we’d gotten to the end of the road and turned around. We were probably with them for 30 minutes, at least.

Sitting and standing giraffes, South Gate Road, Botswana

One up, one down

We got lucky again. Not only did we get to watch the long and labored (not really) stand-up process, we caught it on video, so we can share it with you. Check it out—here or on YouTube. It’s 20 seconds long.

And there it is. A relatively slow wildlife-viewing day on a road that was 50% torched.

I can stand being disappointed like this. I wouldn’t mind being this disappointed for the next three-plus months!

Nov 132017
 

Eating elephants. Elephants eating. Say what? Watch and see! The video is less than five minutes long.

If the embedded video doesn’t work for you, you can watch on YouTube. You may want to do that anyway for a bigger image.

More on the Boro River

As I mentioned in the previous post, we got crazy close to some of these elephants—far closer than we would have gotten had Mike and I been on our own—that’s the benefit of traveling with experienced and knowledgeable friends. But the Boro River is narrow—at least it was on this day—so in some cases, closeness couldn’t be avoided. And, of course, we simply moved slowly and quietly and paid attention to the responses of the elephants, which is what we do around any wildlife. If the animals showed signs of discomfort, we moved on. If they didn’t care, we hung out and watched a while.

Man and elephant, Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

It’s Right There! And it’s HUGE!

Up Close with an Elephant’s Trunk

Even though we were so close, I spent time watching the elephants’ mouths and trunks through binoculars. Those trunks are incredible! An elephant trunk has over 40,000 muscles, which scientists somehow divide further into 150,000 individual units. Compare that to human bodies that have a total of just 639 muscles—and no trunks at all! A human hand, which is wonderfully dexterous and maybe the most comparable thing we have to a trunk as it’s used here, does its work with just 34 muscles.

See? Calling a trunk “incredible” is not exaggerating.

Elephant trunk grabbing lilies, Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

I’ll take this batch, thank you.

What we got to see was the trunk selecting batches of grass and/or lilies under water, yanking them out of the earth, aligning them, further preparing them by swishing and slapping them in the water and against their trunks, and then placing them into the mouth. I wonder how often an elephant bites its trunk. You know it happens, just like we bite the insides of our mouths.

Sometimes a trunk stripped roots off a grass bunch or leaves off lily stalks. The elephant at the end of the video ate the whole lily plant, roots, stalk, leaves, and all. Obviously, elephants have personal preferences, but that’s hardly surprising. Show me an animal that doesn’t.

Elephant Teeth

I’ve read that the “washing” is to remove dirt and rocks. Maybe that action is motivated by taste: Elephants don’t like the taste of dirt. Or maybe it’s hardwired: Elephants that do this survive and pass on their genes. Or maybe it’s something else: Cows like bulls that wash their food? Okay, I’m pushing it with that one. 🙂 One result of the action, though, is that the elephants’ teeth are not worn down by grinding dirt and rocks while eating.

Elephant swinging grass, Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Quit playing with your food!

Elephant teeth are also interesting. They generally rotate through 26 teeth during life. Two incisors, the ripping and tearing teeth, become tusks; the rest are molars or pre-molars, flat chewing teeth, used to grind vegetable matter. Four molars (or pre-molars) occupy the mouth at a time, two on top, two on bottom, so that means an ellie cycles through six sets of four molars in its lifetime.

I’m confused about what the “pre-molars” are. It seems to me that they refer to the first three sets of molars, but in a human mouth, pre-molars are present with the molars, in front of them. My understanding is that the first three sets of molars (12 teeth) take an elephant through the first 9–15 years of life. The latter three sets of teeth, then, must last the elephant the rest of its life, which could be another 50–60 years. They can’t afford to wear out their teeth chewing dirt, sand, and gravel.

Unlike human teeth, which grow upward and downward out of the jaws, elephant teeth grow forward from the back of the mouth. It’s like a conveyor belt of teeth.

Digging Up Roots

Some elephants used their feet to dig out the roots of the lilies. We could see them shuffling their front feet while grabbing with their trunks, and then pulling up a wad of white roots, like a pom-pom. I would expect them to use their tusks to dig, too, but maybe they don’t want to dunk their heads in this case. They certainly dunk them when swimming and cooling off, so it’s not unheard of.

Humans here also harvest lily roots, which are called “tswee.” I’d like to try them, but we’ve never seen them available in a store. We’ll have to look for them elsewhere.

Do you suppose that humans saw elephants harvesting the lily roots and decided to try it? Or might elephants have seen humans harvesting lily roots and decided to try it? Maybe an elephant scared away a human while she was harvesting lily roots and got to eat the ones she left behind, discovering they were delicious. Or do you suppose humans and elephants decided to try lily roots independent of each other, both concluding they were delicious? So many questions! And I have no answers.

Elephant in spray, Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Splash!

Blog Comments

I love it when you comment and ask questions here! Thank you for that! I’m sorry I was slow to respond to the last batch; apparently, I turned off email notifications for comments, but I think I’ve turned them on again, so I should see them sooner. And I’ll just pay more attention—or Mike will, anyway; he’s good at that. If there’s something in particular you’d like to know or see, don’t hesitate to ask.

Once you’ve had a comment approved here on this blog, your future comments will appear immediately, but I do have to approve your first one.

Many of you already know (Allen, I’m looking at you), but I should say it more than I do: Most photo credits go to Mike. He’s King Photographer, and he has sold photos professionally to the likes of National Geographic and Sierra Club, but it’s not a career he pursues. Some photos will be mine, but even then, at least a little credit goes to Mike because he taught me all I know about photography. I often shoot video while he shoots stills, but one of the clips in this series is from a video he shot. I don’t distinguish who shot what; sometimes we don’t know, and we simply don’t care. We tend to think of it this way: Words are mine; photos are Mike’s. But, really, you can’t be 100% sure in either case.

Nov 102017
 
African elephant ear, eye, tusk, trunk; Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Guess where we are.

Yopp!

We are here. We are here! WE ARE HERE!

In Maun, Botswana.

We were here three years ago. And now we’re back. It was a trip so nice, we’re taking it twice.

An Adventure Begins

We enjoyed our first foray into the wilds of Botswana, being treated by friends, Ali and Mark, to a boat excursion some 40 miles up the Boro River into the World Heritage Okavango Delta. We snuck in under the wire, as the flood waters are receding and sand bars are rising, which will put an end to boat travel for the season.

  • Knowledgeable, sharp-eyed, well-prepared-with-water-and-food, first-rate company. Check.
  • Expansive scenery full of secrets and surprises to keep a visitor alert and engaged. Check.
  • Shockingly comfortable weather thanks to kind clouds that played with the sun so it wasn’t inclined to play too harshly with us. Check.
  • Birds, reptiles, and mammals to fascinate and entertain. Check.

What a day!

Birds

Birds are Ali and Mark’s wildlife passion. It’s been three years since Mike and I have seen Botswana birds, and this was a nice refresher. I’m pleased to recognize many, though I may or may not remember their names. I especially like it when I see a bird and recall the scene of where and how we previously encountered it. If there’s a story to go with it, even better.

Two birds whose names I actually recalled, were the fish eagle and pygmy goose. The fish eagle reminds me very much of the bald eagles at home, and the pygmy goose is the smallest of Africa’s ducks and one of the smallest in the world. Apparently, it especially likes to eat seeds from the lily flowers, which may explain why there were so many here.

Fish eagle, Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

The fish eagle looks a lot like the bald eagles at home.

Pygmy goose, Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Pygmy goose, which is really a duck.

The bird highlight of the day, amongst roughly four million sightings, was the Carmine Bee-eater. Bee-eaters may be my favorite Botswana birds: They’re colorful, and they sometimes have cool tails. And I have a story about them from our last visit. The Carmine bee-eaters are scarlet with turquoise on the head and rump. Brilliant!

Carmine bee-eater, Boro River, Okavango Delta, Jen Funk Weber

A carmine bee-eater along the Boro River in the Okavango Delta, Botswana

After lunch, Mark led us on a stroll through some trees, and across a dry, grassy plain to a Carmine nesting site.

Walking to the carmine bee-eater nesting site, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Walking to the carmine bee-eater nesting site, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Normally, these birds nest in banks, but the conditions here are just right for a colony on the ground. Dozens and dozens of adults flew in, beaks full of bugs, popped underground briefly, and then popped back out and flew away. Mark commented that many of the insects being brought in were huge, which suggests the hunters were feeding partners, not chicks. He thought it was too early for chicks.

Carmine bee-eater nesting area, Okavango Delta, Botswana, Jen Funk Weber

Carmine bee-eater nesting area, Okavango Delta

Carmine bee-eater nesting area, Okavango Delta, Botswana, Jen Funk Weber

Carmine bee-eaters. Look at that color!

On the way home, we came upon a flock of vultures perched in a tree. They didn’t look full, which means they were still waiting for dinner, which means the predators were probably still having their fill. We searched and searched, but, alas, could see no kill. It would be stupid to get out and walk around in search of an answer to the mystery, but, boy, that’s what I wanted to do. Oh, to be a hamster in a sturdy ball.

Reptiles

Reptile sightings included five smallish crocs and two monitors. The prehistoric look of crocs, and their potential to be dangerous, makes them fascinating, no matter the size. And the monitors, scrambling to disappear, are funny.

No pics of reptiles this day. Boooooo.

Mammals

Dozens of elephants and lechwe (an antelope partial to wet terrain); several hippos, monkeys, and babboons; and a single giraffe showed up to welcome us back to Botswana. Or they just showed up to eat.

Hippopotamus, Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

A hippo ahead.

Giraffe, along the Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Ahhhh, the stately, two-story giraffe.

Many groups of lechwes milled and munched about the water’s edge. I said I wanted to see some graceful, athletic leaping, and, what do you know, a couple of groups indulged me!

A group of lechwe along the Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

A group of lechwe along the Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Leaping lechwe line, Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Leaping lechwe line

Leaping lechwe, Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Leaping lechwe

The ellies were the mammal stars, allowing us to get quite close—I’m talking twenty-feet-away close—while they noshed on grasses and lily stalks and roots along the edge of the narrow river.

Female elephant and young, Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Female elephant and young.

Elephant trunk and lily flower, Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Advice from a wise elephant: Take time to smell the lilies.

We got close-up views (and video footage) of the tearing, washing, chewing, digging, and more. The sounds were as fun and interesting as the sights: splashing, slapping, chewing, and occasionally the low rumbling that is their talk, a sound that has a vibrating feel to it, too, even for my human ears and body. Unfortunately, the videos picked up more wind and boat sounds than ellie sounds, but there are some.

Elephant swinging grass before eating, Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Swinging grass and roots pulled from the water.

When the elephants ripped a batch of grass or lilies from the bottom of the river, they slapped the ends on the water and against their trunks and swished the stalks back and forth. When the grass had been thoroughly swung, swished, and slapped, it was ready to eat. I’ve read that they’re cleaning the dirt off the plants. Maybe they don’t like the taste of dirt, but it also helps preserve their teeth, as dirt and rocks wear them down faster than plant material. It’s like us keeping our chainsaw blades out of the dirt.

An Adventure Concludes

As we wound our way home, the day’s clouds gathered together over Maun, exchanging electric gossip and giving us a nice light show. Daylight faded and rain pelted down as we neared home.

We milked every second of light out of the day and were richly rewarded. That set the bar pretty high for our wild-land adventures this time around, but this is Africa. I’m not worried.

Wattled crane and lechwe, Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

I love the many multiple-species-in-a-single-photo opportunities that Africa provides. This is a wattled crane hanging with some lechwe.

Aug 112017
 

I am a big fan of what I call “Busy Books.” This name should not be confused with “busy work,” which is generally considered a waste of time. Busy Books are good things. Excellent things!

Busy Books are meaty books with lots of different (related) nuggets of information or pictures or ideas, like Richard Scarry books and Where’s Waldo? Kids who may not love reading are often captivated by the busy-ness of such books, and text nuggets are easier to consume than the walls of text in other books.

Well, there’s a new Busy Book on the block, and I love it: 50 Cities of the U.S.A., written by Gabrielle Balkan and illustrated by Sol Linero.

50 Cities of the U.S.A, by Gabrielle Balkan and Sol Linero

50 Cities of the U.S.A, by Gabrielle Balkan and Sol Linero

The title says it all: 50 cities are examined in detail, giving us a wide variety of fun facts and illustrations, including famous people, events, places, and so much more.

This is the Anchorage spread:

50 Cities of the U.S.A., Anchorage, AK

50 Cities of the U.S.A., Anchorage, AK

Busy, no?

Let’s zoom in:

50 Cities of the U.S.A., Anchorage spread

50 Cities of the U.S.A., Anchorage detail

These are some of the fun facts included:

  • ALASKA WILD BERRY PRODUCTS 3,000 pounds of chocolate (from the seeds of the cacao fruit) go into the world’s largest chocolate waterfall here.
  • EARTHQUAKE PARK commemorates the tragic 1964 4-minute quake where an entire neighborhood slid into the ocean.
  • MANY MOOSE As many as 1,000 roam Anchorage in the winter. Their antlers grow about an inch a week.
  • NO SALES TAX Anchorage is in one of the only five U.S. cities that does not have a sales tax.
  • OSCAR ANDERSON HOUSE MUSEUM Oscar is said to be the 18th non-native person to arrive in town, and build this, the first wood home, in 1915.
  • RED KING CRABS These shellfish are “king” of the local fishing industry, can live up to 30 years…and taste great with lemon and butter!
  • THE 20 STATE LANGUAGES include Inupiaq, Siberian Yupik, Alutiiq, Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian…and English.
  • THE ANCHORAGE INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT is one of the world’s busiest airport for cargo traffic.
  • TURNAGAIN ARM This narrow inlet sees bore tides that can climb 10 feet tall and read speeds of 15 mph—some of the highest in the world.
  • THE FUR RENDEZVOUS FESTIVAL includes an ice carving competition and a Mr. Fur Face Contest, which gives awards for impressive and unusual beards.

This book can be enjoyed anytime, anywhere, but it strikes me as the ultimate Road Trip book. I received a copy of this book free of charge from the publisher in exchange for a review. While I often give away the books I receive for review after I’ve read them, I won’t be giving this one away. I will save it to share with young visitors who come to Alaska. It’s just the thing for the long drives in this largest of states.

Feb 262017
 

According to our guide book, Elafonisi makes the Top 10 in three categories: Islands and Boat Trips (that’s a single category), Areas of Natural Beauty, and Beaches.

Elafonisi cave shrine 2

Elafonisi from the cave shrine

If the guide book hadn’t called it an “islet,” I wouldn’t have known. The sandbar connecting it to the mainland was above water the whole way. I guess that’s not always the case.

I loved today! We enjoyed a lovely country-road drive, glimpses into local life, and gorgeous Mediterranean scenery—and all of it mostly to ourselves.

Western Crete Coast - Jen Funk Weber

The oh-so-gorgeous western Crete coast. Look at that water!

Favorites

Barb: Driving rural Cretan roads with views both far and near.

Mike: Little towns with roads running right through them.

Jen: Locals leading livestock on roads: old men with donkeys and young, modern men with sheep.

The Day

We drove SSW, winding through hills, down the west coast of Crete, stopping along the way to enjoy the views, both near and far, and to take pictures. When it comes to traveling, I think this is the tip-top favorite thing to do for all three of us. Guide books are full of specific places to see (museums, archaeological sites, beaches) and things to do (take a boat ride, dine out, get drink, shop), but this—just driving through the countryside and taking in the scenery and local life—is what makes my heart and mind soar.

Local Color

I’m a huge fan of color, as most of you know.

We saw several older women in babushkas carrying canes and collection bags poking around in the greenery beside the road. I thought maybe they were searching for some sort of edible greens, like the fiddleheads that grow on roadsides in AK. I don’t know what they were doing, but several different women in several different places were doing it. Nope, we didn’t get any pictures.

A couple of handsome, 20-something, modern men herded sheep down a curvy mountain road. We, in our car, and another truck scooched around the herd, but not before a small group panicked, broke away, and had to be shepherded back. The guys handled it with good humor. Seems to me they need a couple of herding dogs.

Greek shepherd dudes, Crete - Jen Funk Weber

Because there was time to do so, I took a surreptitious photo.

An older man in a classic Greek watch cap led a donkey by rope along the road, and later in the day, an even older man with deep grooves in his face, rode a donkey along the edge of the road against traffic so that he was right beside Mike’s and my windows. The man leaned over, peered into the car, and grinned, as though expecting to have his photo taken. I imagine that happens a good bit in the summertime when tourists flood the roads and beaches. We are much too shy (polite?) to take photos of strangers, but boy did I want to capture that vision. And I did, in my memory. And now here, in words.

Sights and Sounds

These roads are narrow, twisty, and hilly. In some places, they are single lane even though they serve two-way traffic. We are sharing them with local workers only, but in the summer, thousands of tourists make this drive to the beach. The guide books talk about how dangerous the roads are, and that’s easy to understand, what with the lack of enforced road rules.

Which brings me to another common sight: roadside shrines. These mark places where someone has either died or had a close call, narrowly escaping death. There are a ton of them, which confirms the guide books’ claims that these roads are dangerous.

Grand roadside shrine, Crete - Jen Funk Weber

The grandest of roadside shrines

Goats and sheep grazed everywhere. Most of the animals wear bells, so there’s a clanging cacophony in the air even when animals aren’t readily visible.

Sheep on the road, Crete - Jen Funk Weber

See the sheep? Yeah, you gotta watch!

It’s olive-harvesting season, and Crete is jam-packed, coast to coast, with olive trees.

Endless olive trees, Crete - Jen Funk Weber

Coast to coast olives on Crete

We’re seeing nets laid out under trees to catch the olives when they are shaken from the branches. Branch-shaking tools look like weed whackers, but instead of plastic strings on the end, they have forks to catch and cradle branches.

We saw pickup trucks heaped with olive-filled burlap sacks, as well as stacks of these sacks piled outside buildings. More than once, we had to slow down, wait, and/or skirt around people folding nets out on the road after harvesting.

Truck loaded with sacks of just-picked olives, Crete - Jen Funk Weber

Truck loaded with sacks of just-picked olives

Piles of olives, Crete - Jen Funk Weber

Piles of olives

Elafonisi

And then there was the destination: the island of Elafonisi.

This is an only-slightly-developed beach area with a nice, sandy beach; dunes sporting pretty greenery; and gorgeous, turquoise water. It’s obvious why it’s so popular with locals and tourists in summer, but I would hate it then. I’m not a beach person in the way that most people are beach people. Now, however, I think it’s fabulous!

10 Things About Elafonisi Beach

1. Windy. Strong wind made for blowing hair and shivering which I combatted with a tightly bound hood. A babushka would have been so much better, though I suspect the fashion statement is pretty much the same.

Elafonisi beach, Crete - Jen Funk Weber

What do you mean I look like a dork? Why are you looking at me when there’s this gorgeous beach all around?

2. No people until the end of our visit, and then just a few.

3. Lighthouse.

4. Cuttlefish bones. Nail file, anyone?

5. Cave shrine. Apparently, 600 women and children were slaughtered by the Turks here not too long ago. I don’t know what the specific conflict was, but I do know that Greece has been occupied by many people, including the Turks, over the years.

Elafonisi cave shrine, Crete - Jen Funk Weber

Actually, according to my own definitions, this qualifies as a chapel.

6. Rock formations. These make for more interesting scenery and photos, and they’re fun to climb on. Combined with the sandy beach, there’s something for most everyone here.

Rock formations and turquoise water at Elafonisi, Crete - Jen Funk Weber

Great rocks, great water

7. Turquoise water. Mmmmmmm. Mediterranean blue. This is one of my favorite things about Greece. It amazes me not a little that the water around here is so crazy beautiful despite the presence of people for thousands of years. I would expect more pollution and destruction, yet the water and coast seem to be holding their own.

Turquoise water at Elafonisi, Crete - Jen Funk Weber

Turquoise water at Elafonisi Beach. Cheers to Mike for tons of photos to choose from!

Turquoise water at Elafonisi, Crete - Jen Funk Weber

Turquoise water at Elafonisi, Crete – Jen Funk Weber

8. Pink sand. There’s not a lot of this—and signs ask visitors to please not take any away—but it really is pink, and it’s beautiful!

Pink sand, Elafonisi Beach, Crete - Jen Funk Weber

Pink sand on Elafonisi Beach

9. Shell-sand pockets. Sand that’s made of tiny shells. I could spend hours picking through a few handfuls.

Shell sand, Elafonisi Beach, Crete - Jen Funk Weber

Shell sand at Elafonisi Beach

10. Wiper grass. Ha!

Wiper grass, Elafonisi Beach, Crete - Jen Funk Weber

Wiper grass on Elafonisi Beach

The Rest

On the way back to our hotel in Kissamos, we stopped at a few sites mentioned in our guide books.

Elos: a Turkish aqueduct that is now incorporated into someone’s house. I hope no one turns on the water!

Turkish aqueduct at Elos, Crete - Jen Funk Weber

See how the Turkish aqueduct (the arched bridge-like structure) connects to the house on the left?

Milia: a “traditional-living” village. Here are a handful of folks who live a subsistence lifestyle off the grid and invite tourists to come unplug, relax, and eat healthfully for a few days.

Milia traditional-living village, Crete - Jen Funk Weber

A pretty building at Milia traditional-living village

Polyrinia: This is the site of an ancient acropolis, aqueduct, and Venetian fortress, but it turned out these things are a hike away from the town, and it had already been a long day, so we canned this idea and walked around the tiny village instead, strolling through narrow walkways that feel like hallways inside people’s homes. Again, we marveled at houses stacked on each other and ancient ruins. And again, residents waved and nodded, thinking nothing of strangers walking through their personal, not-at-all-private spaces.

Walking paths of Polyrinia, Crete - Jen Funk Weber

Walking in Polyrinia

Such a wonderful day driving along the western Crete coast!

Crete coast - Jen Funk Weber

Switchbacks along the western Crete coast

Feb 092017
 

We’re visiting more archaeological sites today: Gortys and Phaestos. No, Stepford was not an archaeological site, but we visited it, too. You’ll see.

Gortys

Gortys had its heyday in the 6th century BC, when the Dorians, one of four groups within Greek society, ruled the area. It was probably first settled by Minoans or Mycenaeans, but it didn’t garner a spotlight until later. In the 2nd century BC, Gortys defeated its rival, Phaestos, to become the leading Cretan city.

We got here fairly early and were the only ones in the place. The women in the ticket booth didn’t seem to speak English, and the giant laminated info map was all in Greek, useless to us. We sorted things out as best we could with our guide books.

Basilica of Agios Titos

The first ruins on the circuit were of the Basilica of St. Titus. Titus came with St. Paul the Apostle to Crete in AD 59 and stuck around to become the first bishop of Crete.

Agios, Titos, Crete, Greece - Jen Funk Weber

Agios, Titos, Crete

Agia Titos, Gortys, Crete, Greece - Jen Funk Weber

Nice artsy picture, Mike! I love this!

Roman Amphitheater

For being a leading city on Crete, this odeion is pretty small, emphasis on “pretty,” though.

Roman Odeion at Gortys, Crete, Greece - Jen Funk Weber

Roman Odeion at Gortys, Crete

We all loved the intimacy of the place combined with the beautiful, fresh, green, open surroundings. It was easy to imagine plays and speakers here. The guide book mentions gladiatorial events as well, but those didn’t suit my imagination, so I chucked them right out.

The best part for me, though, is hidden at the back of the amphitheater. Come take a look.

Roman Amphitheater, Gortys, Crete, Greece - Jen Funk Weber

Roman amphitheater, closer

See that big brick building on the left behind the seats? Let’s walk through it.

A Greek Surprise at the Roman Amphitheater

Gortys laws, Crete, Greece - Jen Funk Weber

Gortys Code of Laws

Gortys Code of Laws, Crete, Greece - Jen Funk Weber

See the writing on the wall?

You know how craftsmen re-used materials when constructing new buildings? Well, the builders here used stone slabs inscribed with laws, dating from around 500 BC, making this the oldest and most complete record of ancient Greek laws. How flipping cool is that?!

Now look closer. Note that there is no punctuation, and there are no spaces between words or sentences. Oy. What a struggle to read, no?

Look closer still, especially if you’re at all familiar with Greek letters. Notice how one line of letters reads left to right, as we read today; all the Greek letters appear normal. On the next line down, however, the letters are backward. That’s because they’re read right to left. This text is read back and forth across the page slab.

And now for bonus points, if you know your Greek letters and can sound out words, see if you can find a word you recognize! If you find one, leave a comment. There might be a prize involved. Actually, you should leave a comment whether you find a word or not; I always want to hear what you have to say.

Olive Trees and Where’s the Rest of Gortys?

In addition to the archaeological ruins, Gortys had some wonderful, twisty, old olive trees. The older the olive tree, the wider and more gnarled the trunk. Scientists have verified some olive trees to be at least 2,000 years old. And they stay productive, too, unlike, say, chickens.

Old olive tree at Gortys with silhouette, Crete, Greece - Jen Funk Weber

This is an old olive tree

And look: More olive trees all around.

Olive trees on the countryside, Crete, Greece - Jen Funk Weber

Olive trees and more olive trees. And a rainbow.

And more!

Olive trees on the countryside 2, Crete, Greece - Jen Funk Weber

Soooooo many olive trees!

Now, according to our guide books, there was plenty more to see at Gortys, but we looked and looked, making two full loops around the site, and we couldn’t find the rest. Where were they hiding them? Were they out on loan? Did Lord Elgin take them back to England?

In hindsight, we think they were keeping the rest across the street, but we saw no signs and didn’t figure that out on our own. Instead, we moved on to Phaestos.

Phaestos

You can think of some other ways to spell this, right? I’ve seen “Phaistos” and even “Faistos.”

While Arthur Evans rebuilt Knossos according to his wishes and imagination, Italian scholar, Frederico Halbherr, meticulously unearthed earlier and later Minoan palaces at Phaestos, the earlier palace being destroyed at the same time the earlier palace at Knossos was destroyed. He made no attempt to reconstruct anything, just recorded what he found and let the site stand on its own crumbling floors and walls.

Our Guides

I think we were the first visitors to arrive at Phaestos, too, and we were greeted and escorted by several kitty-cat guides. Two stuck with us for a long time—until other visitors arrived and we’d proven ourselves to be non-sharers of food.

Phaestos feline guide, Crete, Greece - Jen Funk Weber

Phasetos feline guide 1

“This is the Grand Stairway,” she indicated.

Phaestos feline guide 4, Crete, Greece - Jen Funk Weber

Phaestos feline guide 1

“You’ll find lots of information on these interpretive signs.”

Phaestos feline guide 2, Crete, Greece - Jen Funk Weber

Phaestos feline guide 2, perhaps in training

“Brilliant choice! That’s a lovely shot, Two-legs.”

Phaestos feline guide 3, Crete, Greece - Jen Funk Weber

Phaestos feline guide 2

“Look at this one.”

The Details

Phaestos had features and a layout similar to Knossos.

Grand stairway, Phaestos, Crete, Greece - Jen Funk Weber

A grand stairway

A grand stairway.

Stairs at Phaestos, Crete, Greece - Jen Funk Weber

Ancient stairs

Less grand—but more interesting—stairs.

Circular pit at Phaestos, Crete, Greece - Jen Funk Weber

Circular pit you can walk into

Giant circular pits. Grain storage, perhaps?

Theater seating and stairs, Phaestos, Crete, Greece - Jen Funk Weber

Theater seats on the left; stairs ahead

Theater seats—or stairs that end in a rock wall.

Clay pot at Phaestos, Crete, Greece - Jen Funk Weber

Large clay pot

And, of course, the ubiquitous clay pots. This is another biggun. With a face! I want to call it “Humpty Dumpty.”

Phaestos central court, Crete, Greece - Jen Funk Weber

The wide-open central court of Phaestos

All surrounding a central courtyard.

Greek statue at Phaestos, Crete, Greece - Jen Funk Weber

Life-size Greek statue demonstrates how tall these walls are.

But Phaestos also had a Greek statue. Or a Greek-like statue, anyway. Look how tall those walls are. Hide and seek, anyone?

I loved Phaestos! Popular opinion says Knossos is #1, but it takes a back seat to Phaestos as far as I’m concerned.

Stepford

Food! We need food! So off we went in search of a grocery store where we could forage for dinner materials.

A landmark we used to locate our hotel was a Carrefour store, which is a large-ish grocery chain resembling American grocery stores. We decided to go there rather than wander the town streets in search of a small local store. Cut us some slack. It was a long day.

We pulled into a nearly empty parking lot, where two forlorn cars slumped in two lonely spaces. This photo is from another day; the parking lot occupation has doubled in this photo:

Stepford store, Kissamos, Crete, Greece - Jen Funk Weber

The empty parking lot at the Stepford grocery store

Upon entering, the first thing I noticed was a display of Lipton tea boxes on shelves to the right of the door. Lipton Strawberry Cupcake green tea?! Intriguing! The display stood out as both strange and effective: Individual boxes of tea, twenty bags per box, spaced about a foot apart occupied a large section of shelving. The empty space got my attention, to be sure. If that was the marketing goal, it worked, but the “waste of space” seemed extravagant.

Except it wasn’t extravagant.

The entire store was stocked this way, with huge gaps between products. We found no tuna for our proposed tuna-and-white-bean salad. We had a choice of three cereals, two of which were corn flakes. A few geriatric chickens sprawled lethargically in the deli case. Crack me up! Barb wondered if the owners were actually aliens trying to appear normal and missing the mark. Stepford sprang to my mind. Mike feared we might discover the doors were locked as we tried to sneak out.

So in the end, we wandered the streets of Kissamos until we found a tiny shop with narrow aisles and shelves packed with a variety of foods and sundries. We walked and drove past the alien store a few times during our stay, and I said I wanted some photo evidence of the freaky experience, but we didn’t muster our courage to go back into the lifeless Big Box.