Dec 102017

And we’re off for some sightseeing.

We got an early start but had to turn around before we got far down the road to return the keys that remained in my pocket.

Today we are headed to Nata Bird Sanctuary and Elephant Sands. We weren’t far out of town when we spied our first black-backed jackal and then giraffes on the road.

Giraffes in the road, Botswana

Giraffes on the road. We don’t see that in Alaska!

Nata Bird Sanctuary

Friends, Ali and Mark, launched their boat at the Nata Bird Sanctuary in May when the water was high and birds were nesting. Three hundred millimeters in rain in February was a boon that brought the water level up to an impressive level, and they were eager to see how far it has receded. About a meter, they figure, based on our photos.

When we stopped at the gate, the woman tending it said, “You won’t see anything; it’s too hot.”

We’ve heard that before . . . and then been gobsmacked by the quantity and variety of wildlife spotted. Of course, this woman is used to seeing the place full to the brim with birds and other animals, so to her what we saw probably was “nothing,” but we measure with a different scale. We have never seen the place before, and the few animals that remained were fun and satisfying to see. They kept us entertained for a quick two hours. Besides, we were partly there for research purposes, to see how much water was in the pan in early December.

The surrounding area was dry, dry, dry. In fact, a number of fires burned nearby, hemming us in with stacks of black smoke. We thought twice about our plan when we saw orange/red flames. The wind wasn’t blowing toward the road, so we kept going. I don’t know if those were wildfires, maybe caused by lightening, or if they were deliberately set to clear the land of dry brush. No one was attempting to put them out.

Wildebeest, Ostriches, Flamingos, and Pelicans

Winding our way through the parched, sandy landscape of the sanctuary, we first saw wildebeest in the distance. A steady breeze created a Krummolz effect on the mohawks of the wildebeest, which I thought was striking and funny. As we crept closer, one wildebeest walked apart from the group and stood huffing at us, making a sound like blowing across the skinny top of a whiskey bottle. I couldn’t decide if it was a sound made for us or simply a heat-related panting sound. He continued to make the sound as we moved off, so I’m leaning toward the latter explanation. We found yet another group enjoying a small pan of water.

Wildebeest at the water hole, Nata Bird Sanctuary, Botswana

Wildebeest at the water hole, Nata Bird Sanctuary, Botswana

We also spied ostriches, males and females. These are females.

Female ostriches, Nata Bird Sanctuary, Botswana

Female ostriches, Nata Bird Sanctuary, Botswana

None of the animals were doing much, conserving their energy in the heat of the day. As we watched the wildebeest and ostriches, we scanned the pan and discovered a bunch of flamingos and pelicans, as well as terns, stilts, and other water birds.

Flamingos feeding, Nata Bird Sanctuary, Botswana


Pelicans in Nata Bird Sanctuary, Botswana

A pod o’ pastel pelicans

Elephant Sands

The next stop and our destination for the evening was a private camp called Elephant Sands, which offers camping, chalets, a restaurant, bar, and pool. Oh yeah, and elephants. Wild elephants, but habituated to the place and people, to be sure.

According to rumors and advertising, there has never been a problem between the animals and people, and I find that amazing. Much credit to the elephants for their tolerance. Just driving in, we met two other vehicles also arriving. One was another group of self-drive campers and the other was a sedan with a large family. We came upon elephants in the road, and the sedan seemed flummoxed about what to do. Their windows were down and they were loud and excited, bouncing in their seats and gesticulating. I wanted to hush and still them. They backed up, seeming afraid to get too near, but when the other truck moved slowly by, the sedan followed. Except it sped by, or sort of lurched by, eager to get past the ellies ASAP, rather than moving slowly and smoothly. Oy. We watched a bit then slowly moved on. The elephants took it all in stride, loud people and uneven, unpredictable speeds, included.

The Elephant Sands water hole is human made and maintained. Right now, it’s a mud hole with a trough that is fed water. It seems the water-filling speed, however, is slow, slower than elephants can drink, anyway.

We arrived in the late afternoon, in the heat of the day. The dozen elephants milling about the trough seemed only able to drink from one end, in what appeared to be a small hole. Elephants—all of them male—jostled for position and access, rumbling, growling, charging, pushing, blocking, and intimidating others with stare downs.

Elephants sharing the water hole, Elephant Sands, Botswana

Sharing nicely. Or not.

As we watched from the open platform around the pool, just beyond the open-air bar and restaurant, one bull clearly dominated. He didn’t budge from his uphill position by the hole except to lean on someone else to push him aside, or to occasionally growl and swing about to force everyone else to back off a little. He drank and drank and drank. Others squeezed in downhill and from the sides as they could.

See the elephants vie for drinking rights, or watch on YouTube. The video is 1:20 minutes long.

And then a more dominant bull arrived and the first Big Bully stepped away. He put up no argument at all, just moved around to the downhill side and staked out a new position there.

How does it work?

Strategically placed concrete pyramids with re-bar sticking out of them prevent elephants from walking onto the platform or getting close enough to the ablution blocks to reach inside to toilet tanks and shower heads. The system is rather like the spikes people put on window sills, roofs, and moorings to keep birds off them: These are spikes on the ground that elephants don’t care to walk on.

Toilet with elephant outside, Elephant Sands, Botswana

I know there’s another water hole in there!

Other than keeping the elephants away from buildings, though, there are no barriers. Walking from the vehicle to the platform or a cabin or an ablution block, you can cross paths with an elephant. An elephant can park anywhere a car can park. Elephants can even sit around the campfires or use the braais (BBQs) if they have a mind to.

Mike at Elephant Sands, Botswana

No barriers between us and the elephants

Watch them come into the water hole here or on YouTube. The video is 1:12 minutes long.

We set up our tent with the truck on one side and a braai behind, giving us more solid barriers on two sides, in case, you know, an elephant couldn’t see the tent or something. On one hand, I was fairly confident that an elephant would walk around a tent rather than through it. We trust moose and bears to walk around tents in Alaska, after all. But we also own tents with bear prints and claw holes in them. Wild animals are a gamble.

Elephant in our campsite, Elephant Sands, Botswana

Yep, that’s where we camped, right behind this elephant

The other two campers had roof-top tents, as many campers here do. While it’s true that an elephant isn’t likely to walk on a roof-top tent, it wouldn’t be protection from an angry elephant. An angry ellie could push over a truck or pull down a tent from the top if it were so inclined. I do not believe ground camping to be comparatively unsafe. Not at all.

We took several breaks while setting up our tent to hold still and be quiet as elephants walked by to the water hole. A couple were a mere fifteen feet away from us at times. At one point, I was squatted inside the tent, laying out the bedding, when two elephants having a tiff shoved one another our way. Mike suggested I get out when it was convenient, until they moved off. Getting shoved into the tent by a pushy mate . . . well, maybe.

And for the record, no elephant took issue with our tent raising, but one did turn to face, stare down and shake his head grumpily at one of the roof-top campers when the noise of the hydraulic lid disturbed him. So there. Clearly, elephants prefer ground campers.

We set up our chairs in front of the truck and spent the evening watching the elephant channel. The main ellie highway went behind the ablution block, but ellies wandered in and out from every direction, between cabins and tents, around the restaurant and platform, and fifteen feet away from where we sat. Seriously. That’s close! At one point, I was stading by the truck with my arms full of water bottles and I don’t know what, and Mike was coming back from the ablution block. I was watching the highway behind the block when Mike nodded at something behind me. An elephant approached from the other side of the truck. He walked casually around the truck and turned to face me head on. He, too, was a mere fifteen feet away, so close I was compelled to talk in my quiet, calm, calming voice, “Hello there, fellow. It’s all right. Everything’s fine.”

Jen watching elephants arrive at Elephant Sands, Botswana

Watching elephants arrive on the highway

I wasn’t wrong. He appeared completely relaxed—more so than I, most likely—just checking me out, maybe saying hi. He didn’t pause long before turning and heading to the crowd at the water hole.

Elephant at rest, Elephant Sands, Botswana

An elephant at rest

As night came on, more and more elephants arrived and left, arrived and left, with over 20 at the hole most of the time. With more elephants present, the pushing and growling increased. While we watched, none of the elephants stumbled blindly into the tent, alleviating Mike’s concern, so eventually we brushed our teeth and went to bed. We continued to hear close footfalls, more distant stomping, growling, and occasional trumpeting well into the night, but by cool morning all was silent, and the elephants were gone. We broke camp leisurely and hung around a bit but saw just two elephants before we left; each had the water hole to himself.

The second fellow had either an injury or birth defect toward the end of his trunk. It looked as though something had taken a couple of big bites out of it, though it was well healed now. At the top of the gap in trunk was a hole that went all the way through so that liquid spilled out when the elephant sucked water in or blew it into his mouth. At first, we thought he was just a messy drinker, but closer inspection revealed the flaw.

Elephant who sprang a leak, Elephant Sands, Botswana

Old Leaky Trunk

Wow! What a treat to be so close to such enormous multi-ton wild animals. But I have a question: Why don’t other animals come into this water hole? Is the trough designed in such a way that only elephant trunks can access it? I should have asked someone there, but I didn’t. I’m asking you. Ideas? Anyone?


 Posted by  Africa 2017, Travel
Nov 282017

What do you do when you have hundreds of photos of hippos?

That’s not a joke. I’m asking.

Here’s what I’m doing with a few of them. Yes, Mike, just a few. You’re welcome, everyone else.

Hippo Habitat

Hippo habitat, Khwai River, Botswana

This is the Khwai River. It comes off the Okavango River and forms part of the northern border of Moremi Game Reserve. It’s not a very big river, at lease not here, but it seems like a good and reliable water source.

You can camp here in a community-operated campground, in actual designated campsites, but there are no amenities. We stayed here three years ago, but only for one night. I would stay here again for several nights, but I’m not sure it’s on the agenda this time around.


Hippo, zebras, waterbucks, egret, Khwai River, Botswana

According to one source, hippos are the third largest land mammals, with elephants and rhinos out-sizing them. However, another source counts giraffes as larger than hippos. I’ll just say they’re enormous.

Multi-species photo: Hippo, egret, waterbucks, zebras

Hippo Hero

As in the hero of our tale.

Model hippo on land, Khwai River, Botswana

“Hippopotamus” comes from the ancient Greek for “river horse.” The Greek adjective follows the noun, though, so it’s “hippo” that means “horse,” not “potamus.”

River, yes. Horse? Hmm . . . I don’t think so, ancient Greeks.

More like τελμα λουκανικο, or telma loukaniko, or telmaloukaniko. According to Google Translate, that’s “swamp sausage” in Greek! Although, technically, I think it would be λουκανικο τελμα.

Howling Hippos

Hippo hollering at no one, Khwai River, Botswana

Okay, probably not howling. Singing opera, perhaps. Actually, I don’t know if this one is vocalizing at all; it very well might be standing there with its mouth open. They do that. Apparently, facing another hippo with your mouth open is a sign of submission. (So I’m likely to be seen as no threat when I get face-to-face with a hippo, right?)

But perhaps I should point out that this one isn’t facing anyone. It might be looking at us, or not. It is walking from Pool A to Pool B.

Open-mouthed hippos, Khwai River, Botswana

I’m unclear what constitutes an aggressive yawn and what constitutes a submissive open mouth.

Hippos sparring, Khwai River, Botswana

These two definitely seem to be sparring.

Hippo Hissyfit

Hippopotamus scooping water, Khwai River, Botswana

“Water scooping” is another common behavior that is said to be an aggressive display.

Hippo water scooping, Khwai River, Botswana

That’s a big scoop splash! Is this an exceptionally grumpy hippo?

A Fine Hippo How-Do-You-Do?

It started like this:

Two hippos traversing land, Khwai River, Botswana

Two pals strolling along . . . or so it seems

A Tale of Two Hippos turns into A Tail of One and A Tale of Woe.

See if you can make out what’s happening before I explain. Mike got a series of still photos, and I managed to make a bad (but mercifully short) video. In my defense, I was filming something else and had to swing over to this action while something else entirely was also screaming for my attention. Seriously, three things happening at once. It’s a wonder I got anything at all.

The still photos:

Hippo dung showering, Khwai River, Botswana

Can you see what’s happening here?

Fifteen-second video of the same, which you can see full-screen on YouTube.

Want to be a hippo?

Scientists have decided to call this “dung showering.” We have to call it something because it’s a common behavior. That’s right, everybody’s doing it, on land and in the water; although, not always in someone’s face. Sometimes they shower in solitude. Some people report watching two bulls standing head to tail do this to one another, and others have witnessed territorial males meet at a shared border and exchange excrement.

As always when it comes to animal behavior, we can only theorize about why hippos do this, but let’s do that, okay?*

  • to demonstrate dominance
  • to mark territory or announce one’s presence
  • because hippos that did this survived, and hippos that didn’t do this died
  • freedom of expression through exterior design

Hushed Hippos

Hippos resting peacefully, Khwai River, Botswana

All quiet on the hippo front. Huh. This may be the most rare sighting—and photo—of the lot.

*I might be joking about one of these.

Nov 242017

Our second day trip from the Maun homestead was to the Khwai River. We headed out toward the South Gate road, on the horrible, headache-inducing corrugated and soft-sand road, but went right at the Y instead of left and then continued on a good deal farther.

Getting There

Our first wildlife sighting was a parade of 13 elephants, marching one-by-one across the road, with the tiniest calf smack dab in the center of the procession.

African elephant crossing sand road, Botswana

Elephant crossing

As a species, African elephants are classified as vulnerable, with their numbers increasing. In this particular area, though, they are abundant. When we’re not seeing elephants, we often see elephant signs, like broken trees and tree crumbs strewn across the ground.

African elephant and broken tree, Botswana

Elephant and elephantized tree

When we were here three years ago, I marveled at surviving 4.5 months and I-don’t-know-how-many thousands of miles on rough roads and rocky/sandy non-roads without getting a single flat tire.

This time around, we didn’t survive two relatively easy out-of-town drives. The main sand road is rough, to be sure, but it’s sand. And the flat occurred after backing up in soft sand to look at an elephant.

Flat tire in Africa

Mike gets to work changing the flat

Thankfully, Mike is a champion tire-changer. If you ever drive with him up the AlCan or across the Lower 48 or around Alaska, he can and will point out the many places he’s had a flat. He’s done a lot of driving, and often on less-than-ideal American tires. African tires, by the way, are a cut above American tires, built to withstand extreme heat and tough road conditions. Notice, too, that there are two spares on this safari vehicle.

Now, don’t go thinking I didn’t help. Who do you think took the picture? And who do you think was watching out for lions and leopards? That’s right. I had an important job to do, too.

With two spare tires, we didn’t hesitate to continue on.

And then there were . . .

Waterbucks, Botswana

Waterbucks, the shaggy antelopes

. . . waterbucks, which are the peaceful, long-haired hippie antelopes.

A bit farther down the road, we came across this:

Dead elephant along the road, whole

What is that?

This thing was close enough to catch our eyes and be clearly visible without binoculars, but far enough away that we didn’t immediately know what it was. My first thought was that it was a giant gray rock, but there were no other such rocks around. “Is that a dead elephant?” I asked. “I think so,” Mike answered.

Further scrutiny confirmed that notion.

Dead elephant, head labeled

Can you make it out now?

Oh, how I wanted to walk over and get a good look. The skin and bones looked desiccated, so it wasn’t a fresh death or kill, but it was just far enough away, and there were just enough trees and brush around, that we didn’t feel completely comfortable walking away from the truck. (Lions and leopards, y’all. Remember?) I know there’s not a lion under every bush or a leopard in every tree. I walk around in the AK Bush where there are bears. But still. We didn’t go.

Now, if Ali and Mark had been there and thought it was okay, I’d have been out there in a heartbeat. Without running, of course. Whatever you do, don’t run. But we played it safe and enjoyed the view we had.

Just down the road, the stench confirmed again our conclusion, if you harbor any doubts.

A Certain Spot on the Khwai River

Soon, we arrived at our destination: a particular stretch of the Khwai River, which is a smallish river. Here, we found lovely scenery and a variety of wildlife.

Multi-species scene in Botswana, zebras, waterbucks, wildebeest

Lovely scenery and mingling species

Multi-species photos are quintessential Africa to me. Maybe you can make them out, or not, but this group is comprised of zebras, wildebeest, and waterbucks, with an egret in the foreground. And that’s just the background of the scene.

In the foreground, we have . . .

Hippos, Khwai River, Botswana

Hippos doing what hippos do

swamp sausages! Also known as hippos, or maybe hippopotami.

Enormous (up to 13 feet long, 5 feet tall, and weighing 3.5 tons), cranky, and fierce as they are rumored to be, they crack me up. The my-mouth-opens-wider-than-your-mouth posturing is awfully silly, don’t you think?

Twice as we watched the hippos, something somewhere startled the smaller, more distant ungulates. (Hippos are ungulates, too.) Several impala and a single lechwe charged right past us in their panic.

Impala individual, Botswana

Look at that skinny neck and head!

All right, this one’s not charging in this particular moment.

While we watched the hippos and enjoyed lunch, Mike considered reminding me of the close encounter we had three years ago with an elephant right on the curve ahead of us. Before he got the words out, though, an elephant strolled up, not too far in front of our parked truck. Do you suppose it’s the same one?!

Elephant drinking at the Khwai River

She dumps out the water from the top of her trunk

She just wanted a drink. Between each squirt-gulp, she dumped the last bit of water from her trunk. You know, like dumping remains from the bottom of the glass. It makes sense to me: Who wants to drink the water that’s been way up in your nose?

We pulled ahead to the next bend in the river, leaving this lovely lady to do her thing. When we turned around to leave not long afterward, we might have had another close encounter, but we spotted Ms. Ellie browsing on the road and took a detour.

One the way out to the main (awful) sand road, we passed an impala nursery and a few female kudu.

Impala nursery, Botswana

Nursery charges in front, adult supervisors in back

Kudu at the Khwai River, Botswana

Female kudu. See the frosting drips down her back?

On the Way Home

The bumpy ride home continued to offer up wildlife sightings.

Bateleur, Botswana

A bateleur, a medium-sized eagle

First there was a bateleur, which is a nicely colorful, medium-sized eagle. It’s endemic to Africa and parts of Arabia. Its French name translates to “street performer,” which I haven’t yet connected to any behavior. In fact, this is the first time I’ve had a decent view of one.

Ground hornbill, Botswana

Ground hornbills dining on something dead

At first, I thought these ground hornbills might be doing a sort of mating dance, but it seems they are merely eating. If bateleurs are street performers, then ground hornbills are dinner-theater performers.

Warthog, Botswana

A warthog who opted for whiskers over tusks

Then we spied our first-for-this-visit warthog. The tusks are less than impressive, but those sideburn whiskers more than compensate.

Roan antelope, Botswana

Roan, ready for action

And, finally, we drove past several special antelopes. They’re special because we saw them only a couple of times during our last visit. I recognized them immediately, but couldn’t get through the detritus in my brain to say their name. So I just bounced in my seat, flapped my hands, pointed, and said “eh-eh-eh.” Mike caught a glimpse, and in his excitement rattled off the antelope names on his mental list, top to bottom.



“Gemsbok! (Say “hemsbok.”)


And, then, just in time to prevent my head exploding and my hands flying off and out the window, he came up with “Roan!”


Beautiful roan antelope.

Roan, the superhero antelope

Roan are the superhero antelope. See their superhero, identity-hiding masks? And then there are those ears. Those gigantic ears! Those are another superhero feature. Roan have super hearing, and I’m pretty sure they can fly with those things.

And in Summary . . .

The flat tire was a bummer, and that shortened our time with the hippos, but what a day!

I call hippos “swamp sausages” because that’s what they look like on land. More on that soon. What nicknames come to your mind for any of these animals here?

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

Guess where we are.


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 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.


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.


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.

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!


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


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 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.


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.


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.