Sunday, 27 August 2017

Africa 2017

At the beginning of summer I made a last minute decision to visit my friends who were  volunteering in Malawi. With just a few weeks to research and pack it wasn't long before I was on my way from LHR to Lilongwe in Malawi, via South Africa. 

Flying out on my own was a little daunting, especially as my "arranged" taxi to the hostel wasn't in fact arranged - not the best start, but onwards and upwards! After a few days in Lilongwe I met my friends, Lizzy and Alice, and we began our journey to Zambia in a very full minibus and a rather informal looking taxi. Our first main stop of the trip was South Luangwe National Park, which was perhaps one of the most beautiful places I've ever been to. We were greeted by the staff at Marula Lodge with fresh juice and big smiles, and after a tour of the lodge grounds we relaxed in the open plan restaurant, cup of tea in hand and the sounds of birds and crickets surrounding us. But soon enough, just as we began to feel settled and comfortable our attention was drawn to a dark figure moving slowly behind us - a hippo - chomping away on the grass just metres from my feet. This individual hippo, who seemed to be a regular, was later named Mozzarella and became a favourite amongst our group! 

Our dorms were very large, very clean but nothing special. This was my opinion on arrival at the lodge, but that opinion changed at 11:32pm on our first night at Marula. Here is a short diary extract from that night...

"I woke to the sound of leaves rustling behind me, my eyes stitched closed with tiredness, but my hearing sharp with the relative silence of the savannah. moving slowly towards the dorm window expecting to see nothing but a wandering villager, my breathing became naturally quieter. As I pushed aside the curtain I realised I was in the presence of something much greater."

This presence was that of the African Elephant, or more accurately, 5 of them. Every day at around 12 and every night at 11:30 this wild herd would arrive in camp to feast on the nuts and seed pods cluttering the ground. To be able to watch these scarily powerful yet beautifully gentle creatures so close was unbelievable. Despite spending most of our time in the relative safety of the restaurant area, the presence of potentially dangerous animals all around me made me feel surprisingly free, and that's something I now miss back in the UK. Over the next four days we woke up at 4:30am every morning, had a quick breakfast and headed out with our guide Duncan, crossing the river into the park in time for sunrise. 


The diversity of life within the park was phenomenal, with countless bird species I'd never seen before, and even more that I didn't even recognise! Over the four day period we saw a leopard cub and its mother, a lion pride on a kill and over 35 elephants crossing the river at sunset. This was, of course, alongside many other amazing wildlife spectacles. Just before sunset everyday we would stop for tea on the river bank, here is a diary extract describing the scene...

"The sun was setting faster than I'd ever seen before; the last few moments of exposure causing the surface of the Luangwa River to shine like the sun itself - a blanket of shattered glass unbroken until the horizon. The edge of the world."

Following the four days of safari we caught a night bus from the nearest village to Lusaka - a very, very long journey beginning hours before sunrise but not arriving into Lusaka until twilight. We stayed at Lusaka Backpackers, a small but inviting hostel in the middle of this bustling city. After a day of sightseeing and some rest we continued our onward journey to Livingstone, the tourism capital of Zambia. One of the highlights was, of course, Victoria Falls or "Mosi-oa-Tunya" as it is known by local people, which translates as "the smoke that thunders". On the path up towards the falls, which twisted through thick undergrowth, Alice got a banana out despite the numerous warnings of animals, and ended up throwing into the air in fear of being mugged by the troops of baboons lining the track. Something which I now wish I'd caught on camera! The beauty of the falls can't be put into words, but there was something else which caught my eye...

"The air was cold with the fine mist of the falls, light bouncing everywhere, a cloud of embers burning through the blue, and otherwise unbroken, sky. Nearly unbroken. A figure appeared, silhouetted against the skyline like a ship on the horizon, seemingly metres from the edge of the falls, and minutes from the inevitable."

After the falls we visited a local market where there were many stall holders also named Billy - what an amazing coincidence!! This market also had "no pressure shops" which really didn't live up to their name. Nevertheless I ended up leaving the market with a two wooden hippos, a bowl and a few other essentials - this was the kind of market you bought things first and asked yourself why later. 

The next day was one of my trip highlight, setting off from Jollyboys (our lodge) with around 10 other fearful backpackers ready for a day of guaranteed adrenaline lined up. Following a short trip we arrived at the gorge, got our life jackets on and completed a form which signed away our insurance, and practically our lives. Our boats guide, Boyd, didn't make much effort to reassure us, but rather told us how rough the water was looking, and that a "flip" would be guaranteed. He was right. The croc infested waters of the Zambezi were stronger than even the most powerful swimmers, so if you fell in you just waited until the rapids spat you out again ... not the most relaxing lazy river. 

The last few days of our trip were spent mainly around the lodge, exploring the markets and trialling the local cuisine, with Cafe Zambezi being our favourite with some fantastic veggie options! Overall it was a fantastic adventure; one which I will remember for many many years to come, not just because of the experiences we had but also the company we enjoyed. 

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Sri Lanka 2016

With not enough hours in the day I'm struggling to keep up to date with all my wildlife endeavours, hence why for this blog post you will have to cast your mind back to the slightly warmer months of July and August. 

My summer holiday was satisfyingly frantic, visiting the East Coast of America with my family, but also spending two weeks in Sri Lanka. My school runs an annual award scheme in which students from year 12 can compete to win a holiday of their choice funded by the school. The trip has to be "broadly educational" but there is an enormous amount of leeway, with groups pitching trekking expeditions, far-flung cultural trips but also more modest sight-seeing holidays. My friend Avishka, and I, were lucky enough to win this award along with two other groups, allowing us to take a 2 week trip to Sri Lanka practically free! The main objectives for the trip were to explore the countries huge array of wildlife, much of which is endemic to the island, but also to experience the local culture and cuisine. We began our adventure on the west coast of Sri Lanka, in the capital of Colombo.   

Common Grass Yellow 

The culture shock of arriving in Sri Lanka was definitely an experience. The contrast between the overcrowded market streets lining the city and the areas of tranquility that could be found dotted amongst the chaos was astounding. Butterflies and birds were in every patch of greenery, and the sound of parakeets echoed over the city every morning. Monkeys perched on rooftops and brick walls waiting for their chance to steal fruit from the market stalls below. This combination of chaotic streets, the safe sanctuary of buddhist temples and areas of total wilderness created a very memorable, and unique, atmosphere.  

Red-vented Bulbul Pycnotus cafer

On the way from Colombo to the south coast we encountered a huge colony of bats hanging high up in the trees, in broad daylight. They themselves were just as huge as the colony, easily on par with the size of the UK's larger birds of prey species. Kingfishers were another surprisingly abundant species, having seen many different species throughout our trip. 

White-throated Kingfisher Halcyon smyrnensis

As Avishka has relatives in Sri Lanka we were fortunate enough to stay in accommodation which we wouldn't have been able to afford without their recommendations. In the small town of Balapitiya on the southwest coastline we stayed in a beautiful villa with a private beach...the views were incredible, especially in the evening when the sun set over the sea. Hermit crabs, other crab species, and even hedgehogs could be found on the beach and in the surrounding dunes. Whilst staying at Balapitiya we also helped out at local primary schools, one of which our school funded the rebuilding of following the boxing day tsunami in 2004. 

After our stay at Balapitiya we moved along the coast to Galle, a lovely walled city with lots of shops and cafes. But even in this urban settlement wildlife seemed to appear around every corner. This (oriental garden) lizard was happily bathing in a patch of sand no more than two metres from our table whilst we were having lunch. I very much appreciated it's confidence as it allowed me to capture some up-close shots. The second image illustrates it's abilities to blend into the surroundings perfectly. 

Both Avishka and I agreed that the highlight of our trip was visiting Yala National Park on the south coast, where we managed to see Ceylon Spotted Deer, Asian Elephant and even Sri Lankan Leopard! This was a huge privilege as the Leopards of Yala are often very elusive and shy. Even our safari guide was over-the-moon to see one despite touring the national park every day!

We watched this individual for about 20 minutes, quietly following it (from a distance of course) along the track. Just when we thought it couldn't get any better a Spotted Deer appeared out of nowhere, and we managed to watch this beautiful leopard stalk the deer. Unfortunately we didn't see the kill as the leopard chased the deer into the bracken shortly after. The third image was taken just before the hunt began...

There was wildlife everywhere. The only problem was trying to spot it!

Juv. White-bellied Sea Eagle? 

Indian Cormorant Phalacrocorax fusciollis

(Purple-Rumped?) Sunbird Nectarinia zeylonica

(Purple-Rumped?) Sunbird Nectarinia zeylonica

Common Tailorbird Orthotomus sutorius

Yellow-wattled Lapwing Vanellus malabaricus

Other bird species we saw included: Painted Stork (Mycteria leucocephala), Black-headed Ibis (Therskiornis melanocephalus), Cattle Egret (Bibulous ibis), several species of Parakeet (Psittacula), Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis), Pied Kingfisher (Ceryle rudis), House Crow (Corvus splendens), Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis) and Spotted Dove (Stigmatopelia chinensis). Huge thank you to AFON (A Focus on Nature) for providing me with the 'Birds of Sri lanka' field guide, it was an enormous help!

Great Thick-knee Esacus recurvirostris

Ceylon spotted deer Axis axis ceylonensis

Overall it was a fantastic trip that I will never forget, with the highlight definitely being the extremely lucky sighting of the Sri Lankan Leopard. Once I got back from Sri Lanka it was only a couple of days before I was off again...this time to America!


We stayed in Boston on the East coast of America for three days, before moving south to Philadelphia and Washington. Whilst staying in Boston we went on a 4-hour boat trip into massachusetts bay in search of predominately humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). Not only did we see around 5 humpback whales we also saw a finback and a what looked to be a shark just below the surface of the water. 

During our trip to America we saw a huge variety of other species, but as this was a family sight-seeing holiday I didn't always have time to grab my camera! It was very enjoyable never-the-less. 

American Goldfinch

My family have already started planning our next summer holiday - it will definitely take a lot to beat these two trips!