Category Archives: Blog

Road Scholar Trip to Panama, Nov. 11 – 17, 2018 Part 5

Thursday, Nov. 16 — We’ve traveled on planes, taxis, buses, and boat.  Today we get to add the train.

But before that we took a bus tour of the Colon area, and then headed to the Agua Clara locks.  These are the new locks that run parallel to the Gatun locks for the larger ships.

Rey told us a lot about the Colon area, as he lives here, and has most of his life.  During the period of US control of the Canal, he worked for the US, and lived on the base near our hotel.  We were given the tour on the bus, which also kept us out of the rain.  As part of the transfer to Panamanian control at the end of 1999, the bases were turned over to the Panama Canal Agency.  Much of the housing was sold to private ownership, and while the basic structures are all still quite similar to the eye, many have been improved and maintained.

2018-11-16 12.17.11-1217.111618Our next stop is the Agua Clara locks complex, opened in 2016.  In 2007, the Panama Canal Authority was authorized by popular vote to bring the aging Panama Canal up to a higher capacity.  The vote authorized the building of the wider canal lock structures to allow ships that exceed the old Panamax size vessels into the Gatun Lake and to deepen and widen the lake channels so more traffic could flow more easily.

2018-11-14 13.36.54-2-1336.111418Agua Clara locks on the Caribbean side provide this extra access.  This aerial view of the locks shows clearly one of the obvious improvements over the older locks.  Each lock bay empties its water into three reservoirs, which then are used to fill the bay back up when appropriate.  The older locks on this end get water from Gatun Lake and dump it into Caribbean as they were designed back in the days long before global warming.  The new design diminishes the water necessary to operate the locks.  As with the older locks, there are no pumps, the water is moved strictly with gravity flow from place to place.

2018-11-16 11.09.04-2-2-1109.111618

2018-11-16 10.59.44-Pano-1059.111618


The picture above shows the Gatun Lake side of Agua Clara, coming up to the first gate.  Note in the lower picture that the gates are car-capable-road width, and are pushed across the lock bay using hydraulic pressure rather than the electric cable systems used by the smaller gates in the older locks.

2018-11-16 11.07.49-2-1107.111618

Above you see the lock bays emptying into the Caribbean, each bay slightly lower as your vision moves from left to right.

2018-11-16 11.07.42-2-1107.111618

Here can be seen a number of ships that have either just completed the Canal crossing or are waiting for the next opportunity to head for the Pacific side.

2018-11-16 12.25.52-1225.111618After looking around awhile, we headed back to the bus.  When we got there, we discovered that there is a family of howler monkeys in the trees behind where the bus is parked.

2018-11-16 12.28.37-1228.111618.jpgIn the trees could also be seen this vulture, well camouflaged.

2018-11-16 13.02.40-1302.111618

As we drive out toward our next stop, the driver (whose keen eyes provided us the more unique animal sights we saw along the way) caught sight of this sloth and her baby resting themselves.

2018-11-16 12.37.08-2-1237.111618While we are on the animals we saw from the bus, here’s a Coatimundi that was kind enough to pose for pictures.  I’m told this animal is related to the raccoon that we know and periodically see in Michigan.

2018-11-16 13.18.47-1318.111618Next up is our train ride back across the isthmus to Panama City.  I want to compliment our tour guides for their excellent timing on this trip.  Even though we were visiting at the height of the rainy season, we almost never were out in the rain.  As can be seen in many of the pictures, there were often huge cloud formations above us, but to our comfort, when we were outside (like on the boat trip, or walking around old town Panama City), the rain held off.  This comes up now because our train ride back to Panama City finds us happily sitting in the domed car while the rain pelts down.

As with most train rides I’ve been on, this one opens with a view of the not-so-impressive parts of Colon.

2018-11-16 14.18.11-1418.111618This one is in some senses worse than usual, as we are treated to a view of the garbage dump on our way out of Colon.

Most of the trip (total time one and a half hours, compared to the nine hours on the Islamorada), gives us good views of Gatun Lake.

2018-11-16 14.29.47-1429.111618

2018-11-16 14.31.13-1431.111618The clouds break up as we head south (yes, the Canal runs basically north-south as Panama itself can be seen on a map to run basically east-west).

2018-11-16 14.44.31-1444.111618The sun never really comes out from behind the clouds, although we do get some color from the sunset.

When we get to the station on the Panama City side, we are met by our favorite bus and its expert driver.  He uses his considerable skill to take us to our hotel for the night in downtown Panama City.

IMG_1835-2042.111618We have a bit of time to settle in, and then its out onto the terrace looking out on the buildings near by to have our dinner.  It is actually one of the best dinners we have had, and then when we are done eating, Juan Carlos has a surprise for us.  For our entertainment, a group of dancers and musicians perform for us native Panamanian dances in spectacular costumes they have made themselves.

IMG_1858-2049.111618The men in the group wear hats that don’t look like what is considered a Panama hat.  The Panama hat, which is sold by every souvenir store we walked by, has a flat brim all the way around.  The hats these men wear are bent back front and back to be parallel to the rise of the part that fits over the head.  These hats are considered authentic Panamanian hats.  The souvenir Panama hats are modeled after a hat worn by President Teddy Roosevelt when he visited Panama during the building process.  This visit, by the way, was the first foreign visit by a sitting president.

IMG_1865-2055.111618The ladies costumes are quite intricate, as shown by the picture.  These are traditionally made by the dancer herself.

The dancers went through several traditional dances, and then invited a few of the group to join them for the final dance.

IMG_1914-2110.111618After the dancing was completed, Rey, Gabe, and Juan Carlos (l to r) were thanked by all of us for the wonderful job they did throughout the program.

Tomorrow, we go back to the airport for our return to Palm Springs.  The return trip turned out to be a lot longer than it should have been, and we missed our plane from Miami to Palm Springs.  We were rebooked on the next flight to Palm Springs, but instead of a comfortable trip on a 777, we had to settle for an uncomfortable one on a 737.  Oh, well, the visit was fun, and quite a very well done tour!




Leave a comment

Filed under Blog

Road Scholar Trip to Panama, Nov. 11 – 17, 2018 Part 4

Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018 — A leisurely trip through the Panama Canal on the good ship Islamorada.

2018-11-13 09.50.12-0950.111318The Islamorada now takes tourists through the Panama Canal, but it has quite a history.  It was built in 1912, and purchased by Al Capone in 1919.  He used it as a “rum-runner”, bringing then-illegal booze to the US from the Caribbean.  It was eventually confiscated by the US government, and served as a mine-sweeper during WW II.

So we are off.  Our journey begins in familiar territory, going down the channel we overlooked in our hotel room, now following the course of the large ships we have seen.  On our right, beyond the pelicans, is the Panama City skyline.

Coming up to us is a small boat which will deliver our pilot to us.

2018-11-15 04.52.38-0452.111518He will guide us through the Canal, as he and fellow pilots do for all the ships in the Canal.

We go under the Bridge of the Americas.  Off to the right, we notice that there is enough traffic on the Canal to make billboards a creditable source of advertising.

2018-11-15 05.14.48-0514.111518Beyond the bridge, there are ships being loaded with containers.  This port area is a large storage and redistribution yard where containers can be left off, and others going to the ports where a ship is heading added on.  These large ships are thus able to better maximize the value of their trips.

Low and behold, we are headed toward the first lock!  Come to find out we have been given permission to enter the gate, and proceed without any other ships in the lock with us — a very rare opportunity.

Very soon we are in the lock bay, with a rope tying us to the side to keep us from drifting too much.  The rear gate is closed, but for some reason it takes awhile for the water to start to lift us up.  The birds watch for fish.

Once the water has gotten us to the right level, the gate in front of us opens, and into the next bay we go.

That bay brings us up to the level of Miraflores Lake for our brief trip across to the last step up at the Pedro Miguel Locks.

At Pedro Miguel Locks, we will be put into a bay with a tug boat and a large tanker.

We are tied to the tug boat, and come extremely close to the back end of the tanker.

The bay fills from the bottom through several ports that are opened together to bring the boats up evenly without much motion front to back or side to side.

2018-11-15 07.06.50-0706.111518Thus the mules engines, tied to the larger vessels, have a steady change as the ships rise relative to the position of the mule on the side of the lock bay.

Now we are at the height of the Gatun Lake and are ready to enter the Calibra Cut area.  The tanker leaves, followed shortly by the tug.  The tug pulls up behind the tanker, and it seems as though it will end up pushing it.  But no, it ties on just behind the tanker.

We are told that the tug boat in that position serves as a large rudder for the boat, helping it to steer through the channel.  Looking back, I notice that the large container ship we saw at the entrance to the Miraflores Locks (the pink one) is coming toward us.  It came through the newer locks.

We enter the Culebra Cut.  Work is ongoing here to widen the channel through here.  The big challenge is the landslides that bring dirt and rocks back into the channel.  They have developed two obvious tricks to counteract this movement.  The first is the terracing evident all along the channel.

2018-11-15 07.37.40-0737.111518The second are the rectangular geometry of pads on the higher vertical surfaces drilled into the sides to hold the earth in place.

Gatun Lake spreads out before us, and we have a nice leisurely cruise through it, taking in the scenery.  Making the trip are a number of large ships.

The large cruise liner is the first we’ve seen.  We’re told that due to flooding in Colon, our destination on the Caribbean, it had some trouble getting into the Canal, so it will have a foreshortened cruise.  It is in the process of turning around and we will see it in Gatun Locks.

2018-11-15 11.28.21-1128.111518Gatun Locks are the next stop.  This is the three-step down part of the process as we go from the height of Gatun Lake back to sea level.

Sharing our bay is another large tanker.  For some reason in the lock bays where the height is lowered, smaller vessels go in first, and the larger tanker second. The tanker steams up behind us.  It doesn’t come fast, but it does bring scary images to mind as it moves up toward us.  Also sharing our bay is another tourist vessel, the Discovery.  It is smaller in length than our boat, but large enough to have a group of perhaps 20 people on board.

2018-11-15 11.50.56-1150.111518The Gerakas, the ship we accompanied at the Pedro Miguel Lock bay is in the bay beside us here.  It sits very high in the water compared to the ship coming up behind us, clearly empty of cargo.

We go through the process of lowering to the next level and then moving to the next bay in sequence, and then we are on our way to Colon.  The Discovery hurries on ahead of us.

2018-11-15 12.59.48-1259.111518It seems we have to wait for a spot to dock, so we spend quite a bit of time motoring around the harbor, first going by some interesting ships, then watching the cruise liner dock, and finally we get our chance.

The blue ship with the white top is a car carrier.  Tied up next to it is a tanker which says its cargo is liquified petroleum gas.  The ships off to our left side are smaller freight vessels. We haven’t seen any of these smaller vessels during our trip through the Canal, and I wonder if these are just used to haul containers around the distribution yard here.  The storage and distribution center here is at least as large as the one on the Miraflores end of the Canal.

Our trip through the canal has taken nine hours by the time we dock.  The plan allows for 12 to 13 hours, so our trip has been swift.

After landing, we find our bus, and it takes us through the town of Colon and to our hotel.  Tomorrow we will do some touring around, and get on board a train to take us back to Panama City.

Leave a comment

Filed under Blog, NAFEM

Road Scholar Trip to Panama, Nov. 11 – 17, 2018 Part 3

Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018 — a long day in a bus.  Our trip today is ultimately to the first of the locks, Miraflores.  However, before we get there, we have some other places to visit.  Once on the bus, we head over the Bridge of the Americas, our first such opportunity.  Note the Biodiversity Museum on the left hand side.

IMG_2018Once we are over, we head into Panama City for a short shopping stop.  On the way, we pass below the terrace we stood on yesterday at the Panama Canal Agency’s headquarters.2018-11-14 06.26.47-2-0626.111418

The store, called Rey, is huge;  certainly larger than any market I’ve been in lately.  It has a profusion of products, many of them US-sourced.

Perhaps the best comparison is Costco, or Sam’s Club, although the ones in Michigan do not compare in size to this store.

Time for an economics lesson: living accommodations.  In Panama City, many of the buildings that are viewed as part of the skyline are actually high-rise apartment buildings.  Out here on the edge of the city, there are many apartment buildings, just not so high. 2018-11-14 07.23.57-0723.111418Once out a bit further, the land use is a little different.  Juan Carlos tells us that many of the small houses built on the cleared land are squatters — people who put up shacks and make a home for themselves.

Once they have been there for awhile, they get together with their neighbors and demand city-like services: connection to electricity, water, sewer, garbage collection and so on.

Once those things are in place, they then claim the land they occupy, and they have successfully established ownership rights. 2018-11-14 07.46.32-0746.111418The houses we see along the way are in various stages in this process.  The farther away from Panama City, it seemed, the earlier in this process the buildings seem to be.

Our bus continues on, and our next destination is Madden Dam.  This dam, completed in 1935 was built to prevent the occasionally torrential flow of the once wild Chagres River from interfering with the navigational route for the ships through Gatun Lake and to control the level of water in that lake during the dry season. Water from the dam’s reservoir is also used to generate hydroelectric power and to supply Panama City with fresh water. 2018-11-14 08.04.47-0804.111418

2018-11-14 08.22.42-0822.111418Whenever we stopped along the way, we were visited by the police.  There is only one police agency in Panama, the National Police.  There are no independent city or other entity police departments.

Our bus driver, who was very good at finding animals along the way, pointed out crocodiles in the lake.

On the way to Miraflores Locks, we stop as our route crosses the Camino de Crusces, the historic road from Panama City to a small village on the Chagres River called Venta de Cruces.

2018-11-14 08.52.29-0852.111418

The cannon marks Camino de Cruces as it crosses the highway

In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, when Spain controlled Central and South America, gold would be brought to Lima, Peru and other main ports along the Pacific coast then shipped from there to Panama City.  It was then transported overland along the Camino de Cruses to Venta de Cruces.  There it would be put on small boats to transit the Chagres River out to the Caribbean and along the coast to Portobelo.  From there it would be put on ships for the trip to Spain.

Pirates were a constant danger.  In 1671, Henry Morgan reversed the path with an army of 1200 men, devastating Panama City, as well as Venta de Cruces, and taking 250 mules and 600 captives for eventual sale.

2018-11-14 11.25.49-1125.111418From here, it’s on to Miraflores Locks.  The visitor center sits across from the lock control center.  The control enter sits on the strip between the two parallel lock bay channels.  The viewing decks give access to watch the ships pass through the three lock bays on their way into or out of the Canal.

2018-11-15 06.08.27-Pano-0611.111518

We are told that the Control Area is quite spectacular, with electrically connected controls to perform all of the operations necessary to the operation of the lock bays, but much to the disappointment of our engineers, it is not on display for visitors.  When it was built, it was (along with many other aspects of the Canal project) a marvel of design, ahead of its time.

At Miraflores, each ship must pass through two lock bays.  Here, the Navig8 Turquoise, a chemical/oil products tanker, sits in the lock bay at full height, and then 15 minutes later, it been lowered approximately 27 feet ready for the lower lock gates to open allowing it to move to the second bay.

Now it has moved into the second bay, and 15 minutes later, it has been lowered to the level of the Pacific Ocean so it can continue, as shown below.

2018-11-14 12.56.55-1256.111418Ships carry many things in addition to the chemical and oil products carried by Navig8.  They all seem to have similar lines, but they vary widely within those lines depending on the actual cargo they are built to carry.  A couple of examples include

the Golden Rose, a bulk carrier, and the Dusseldorf Express, a container ship.

These large ships fit snugly within the walls of the lock bays, and well they might, as they were built to fit.  They move forward only on their own power, but to be sure they don’t bump the walls of the bays and damage themselves or the locks, the little engines, called “mules” that can be seen at the lower right in the last picture are used.  Through coordinated effort, lines tied to each of the mules maintain the right pressure to keep the tankers parallel to the bay walls.

Not too far beyond the lock bays in front of us can be seen a ship moving parallel to the ships going through the locks.  It’s larger than the ships in the near locks, and it is going through a new set of locks designed and built starting in 2004, and opened for business in 2016.  These locks enable ships carrying up to 13,000 40-foot containers to go through Miraflores.  We’ll visit the parallel new lock structure at the other end of the Canal (Agua Clara) in a couple of days to get a closer look.

We have dinner in the restaurant here at the visitor center, and then head back to the hotel.  Tomorrow, we sail through the Panama Canal!






Leave a comment

Filed under Blog, Uncategorized

Road Scholar Trip to Panama, Nov. 11 – 17, 2018 Part 2

Monday, November 11, 2018 — the first day of our official Panama Canal tour, and arrival day for everyone else.  We spent the day relaxing and reading about our adventure ahead.  We ate dinner at the hotel’s independent restaurant, TGIF’s.  It is a bit of a surprise to see this restaurant here.  The offerings on the menu are not significantly different than what I would expect to see at any TGIF’s in the US; definitely not local Panamanian fare.

Tuesday, November 12, 2018 — we meet after breakfast and spend a little time getting to know one another.  Our group numbers around 43, so it will not be possible to get to know many of them in this short week.  Many are retired (like us), and as might be expected there is more than one admitted engineer. interested in the design of the canal and the details of how it was built.  We have three group leaders (Juan Carlos, Rey and Gabe), each offering his unique perspective on the canal, its history and context including the current political situation here and the flora and fauna of this country carved out of the rain forest.  Juan Carlos is of an age with our son Kyle, and like him, he has a new-born keeping him and his wife awake at night.  He is the leader of the leaders.  Rey is the veteran of the crew, perhaps in his 60’s, he lives in the Colon side of the canal, and has done a number of things in his long life.  He provides the perspective of one who has lived through the transition of Canal control from the US to the Panamanians in 1999.    He was employed by the US prior to the transition, living and working on one of the US bases we will visit on that side of the Canal later on.  Gabe is the youngster of the crew, and our expert in residence on the rainforest and its residents.

Next up is the tour of old town Panama, so we load up three small buses (the local streets are too small for the standard-sized tour bus we will use the rest of the journey), and off we go.  On the way, we pass by this local monument to Dr. Arnulfo Arias Madrid. He was founder of the Panameñista Party and a three-time president of Panama during the 1940s. Each term ended prematurely by a military coup. The ensemble depicted on the monument represents the classes of citizens who followed the popular political leader.

Our first stop on the tour is the Headquarters of the Panama Canal Agency, an arm of the national government.  Our tour leaders take us to the central rotunda of the main building, a place that has the feel of a small version of the US capitol building.  Our group fills the rotunda completely.  Above us are four paintings depicting scenes from the build process.


2018-11-13 06.46.10-0646.111318This picture depicts the bulk of the digging and rock removal.  Digging the Culebra Cut, the place where the canal cuts through the Continental Divide, was one of the major engineering marvels of the whole construction.  It remains the narrowest place along the canal route, and the reason that the canal is a one-way traffic only operation.

2018-11-13 06.46.05-0646.111318This next picture depicts a railroad structure.  Temporary railroad tracks were laid to move heavy equipment to the Cut, and more importantly to transport the dirt and rocks blasted out on a daily basis to the designated landfill areas.  Upon completion, the peak of the Continental Divide had been reduced from 210 feet above sea level to 39 feet across a 299-foot-wide base.  This effort required the removal of approximately 120 million cubic yards of earth and rock.  For comparison purposes, a so-called half-ton pick-up truck can carry approximately half a cubic yard of dry aggregate material.  The bottom of the Cut at 39 feet-above-sea-level is covered by water to bring it up to the 83 feet-above-sea-level of the Gatun Lake water contained between the locks of the canal enabling the large vessels to travel safely through.  The surface of the water at the Cut is approximately one-third of a mile (1760 feet) across.

2018-11-13 06.46.27-0646.111318Continuing around the dome, this picture is centered on the circular drainage culvert running between two side-by-side lock bays.  This central culvert is 18 feet in diameter and is connected to smaller culverts that run below each of the bays.  The picture also shows several of the different types of cranes used to move equipment, concrete, framing timbers among other things around the lock sites.

2018-11-13 06.46.18-0646.111318The last picture gives a closer view of the framing and structure of the miter gates (so called because they come together in a wide “V” shape) used to hold the water in or out of each lock bay.  Each gate leaf is 64 feet wide by 7 feet thick, varying in height from 47 to 82 feet, depending on the bay’s height.  Hinted at in these pictures is the science and engineering developments necessary to form, mix, shape and let harden appropriately the concrete used.  Concrete is a precise mixture of sand, water and cement with rock of defined size.  Construction use of concrete is something that was new in the late 1800s, and use in the quantities and structures of the Canal was unprecedented.

Beyond the rotunda our leaders took us to the terrace looking down on a small park with the Goethals monument at its center. 2018-11-13 07.05.06-0705.111318Colonel George Washington Goethals was appointed Chief Engineer of the Panama Canal in February 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt.  The president had decided after some wrangling with interested parties that it was best to have the Army Corps of Engineers run the canal construction instead of an independent contractor.  Goethals managed the job to a successful conclusion two years ahead of schedule.  He was widely acclaimed for his work on the Canal, garnering numerous awards and accolades. In 1914, shortly after completion, President Woodrow Wilson appointed now General Goethals the first civil governor of the Panama Canal Zone.  He left this post in 1916 to become Quartermaster General of the US Army as the US was preparing to enter World War I.

Now it was back to the buses and on to the old town of Panama City.  The first stop on this walking tour was the Panama Canal History Museum, where we received our first instruction in the more detailed history of the building of the canal.  After we completed this, we walked to Plaza Mayor.  Here we had an unscheduled stop as a group of protestors were walking around the plaza announcing their concerns with loudspeakers.. 2018-11-13 08.43.38-0843.111318Juan Carlos explained to us that they were retirees who were complaining that the Panamanian version of Social Security was not sufficient for them to live on.  He explained that the average monthly entitlement was around $250.  This is far below the minimum wage of approximately $600 per month, so the protest was reasonable.  He also said this was part of a yearly process, and in the past, such protests had led to improvements for the retirees.

When we were allowed, we continued our tour.  Shortly thereafter, we came upon the ruin of Saint Dominic’s Church.  The major feature of this ruin is the internal arch which supported the choir, designated the Flat Arch.


This arch (15 meters long and 10 meters high) was a popular tourist attraction in the 19th century, despite being part of a ruin.   It was declared a national monument in 1941.  Unfortunately, for reasons unknown the arch collapsed in 2003, but has been rebuilt with the same bricks.  The photo was taken from the terrace where Gwen is relaxing.

We continued on to the Plaza de Francia, as Gwen and I had seen it the day before on our own walking tour.  The picture below, taken from the walkway shows the obelisk and if you look closely, you can see the twin towers of the Cathedral at Old Panama.


Spinning about a quarter turn from this spot, off in the distance can be seen the distinctive roofline of the Biodiversity Museum.  After a brief stop for lunch, our tour group broke into parts, and I chose to visit this museum.


Situated on an isthmus that parallels the Canal entrance channel, close to our hotel, the Biodiversity Museum provides a look at the biological history of Panama in the context of the the broader biological history of the Earth.  The museum discussion starts with some broad statements about what biodiversity is, then we are drawn down a corridor leading to a diorama of life size animals all of whom have lived in Panama at one time or another.

Down below the diorama there are columns with pictures and stories concerning the change of biological life from prehistoric to modern times, with some further discussion concerning future problems and efforts to solve those problems.  After that, it’s on to the biodiversity gardens outside the building.

The building’s architecture is even more colorful when seen closer up.

Fascinating information: did you know that plants reproducing via seeds, the predominant method used by the vast majority of flora in today’s world is only the latest mechanism?  From 350 million years ago until 280 million years ago, plants reproducing through spore production dominated the damp rainforest-like landscape.  As the earth continued developing, the continents separated and dryer land became common, the much more efficient seedling approach became dominant.  This information, along with example gardens developed around the theme of sustainable food production with walkways around and through form much of the area behind the building.

There, as well, is another spectacular example of those large fig trees with roots extending from and supporting its branches.  On the one side of this area is another spectacular view of the Panama City skyline,

2018-11-13 12.56.41-1256.111318and from the other side is a grand view of the Bridge of the Americas, the bridge we’ve seen from several angles before.

2018-11-13 12.51.54-1251.111318From here it is a simple walk back to the hotel.  Well, maybe simple, but longer than anticipated.  Along the way, there were some interesting sights.  A great heron caught my eye.

There were also several large houses that upon closer examination appeared to be abandoned.

The tour group gathered again later in the afternoon and heard an excellent presentation given by a gentleman named Jaime, who has worked for the Canal Agency since before it was turned over to Panamanian control.



Leave a comment

Filed under Blog

Road Scholar Trip to Panama, Nov. 11 – 17, 2018 Part 1

Early in November this year, I turned 70.  My wife Gwen and I have gotten to the point where celebrating birthdays and anniversaries only happens when they end in 0 or 5.  Otherwise, we acknowledge it but don’t do anything special for it.  For this one, we decided that a trip to Panama would be a celebration we both would enjoy.

Our usual method of choice for such trips is Road Scholar, as we enjoy the educational aspect to their tours, they are well-prepared, populated with friendly folk, and we’ve enjoyed them several times in the past.  This one is no exception.

On Sunday, Nov 11, we travelled from Los Angeles Intl. Airport to Miami to Panama City, Panama.  This was a long trip, but comfortable, as the plane rides were more or less on schedule.  We arrived late in the evening, and took a taxi to the Radisson Hotel for a comfortable day on Monday, and then the first meeting with our tour group on Tuesday.

Monday morning, we got our breakfast and began our holiday by studying our surroundings.

2018-11-12 06.23.47-0623.111218

Out on our balcony, we have a clear view of the Panama Canal.  It turns out all of us on the tour have rooms on this side of the hotel, thanks to our tour leaders.  To the left are several ships probably lining up to take their turns to go through the lock systems, headed from Panama City (the Pacific side) to Colon (the Caribbean side).

2018-11-12 06.20.09-0620.111218

To the right, we have a great view of the hotel’s huge pool area with the Panama City auto bridge in the background.  Panama City has grown into a large metropolis, and many of the people who work there live outside the city.  They are building two more bridges to help ease what we are later told is a Los Angeles-size traffic jam every week day.

2018-11-12 08.47.59-0847.111218

We also get our first view of one of the large container ships making its way to the first of the canal’s locks {just beyond the bridge}.  We would learn that this ship, while large, is not the largest now accommodated by the locks.


We took a stroll around the hotel, and came upon this unusual tree.  It’s huge, and its most distinctive feature are the roots that drop from the branches embedding themselves in the ground below to find nutrients and to help hold up the branch.  These are fig trees; we had seen similar ones in Hawaii.

Monday afternoon, we decided to take a taxi into the old town of Panama City (Casco Viejo), even though we knew we would see parts of it again on Tuesday with our tour group.  Mainly we wanted to get an opportunity to try a local restaurant and enjoy the good weather afforded to us.


The taxi driver dropped us at his recommendation for a good place to eat: the Casablanca Cafe, located across from the Bolivar Square.

The paella is tasty with spice, but the fish bits are rubbery and thus unappetizing, unfortunately.  Gwen’s chicken in sauce dish was bland, so this place does not get our recommendation.  As we are at Bolivar Square, however, we decide to take a look around.  Simon Bolivar lived in the early 1800s, and was the most memorable of the political and military leaders in the fight to free the central and south American peoples from domination by Spain.

On the other side of the square, behind the statue, is the Iglesia de San Francisco de Asis.

It is a pretty church, and we enjoyed visiting the sanctuary with the tremendous altar.  Encouraged to continue our self-guided walking tour, we come upon the Plaza Mayor, and to one side is the Cathedral at Old Panama, or the Sacred Heart Cathedral (SpanishCatedral Basílica Santa Maria la Antigua de Panamá).  or the Metropolitan Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitan).  It is  currently closed for renovation in anticipation of the Pope’s visit in 2019. IMG_1795-1414.111218The outside is quite spectacular, making us wish we could have seen the inside.  It was built starting in 1688, and finally consecrated in 1796.  Why does it have so many names?  I am not patient enough to wade through the internet references to find the answer.  It probably has something to do with its age, the specific congregation it serves, or perhaps the level within the Catholic hierarchy of the religious leader to whom it serves as home.  Maybe all three.  I did find that roughly 69% of the Panamanian population regard themselves as Catholics, thus explaining the Pope’s pending visit and the number of such churches we have seen in our walk.

We continued our tour, eventually finding ourselves in a park that juts out into the body of water that serves on one side as the entrance to the Canal, and on the other borders downtown Panama City.  This is the Plaza de Francia, with the Instituto Nacional de Cultura as its central building and a giant obelisk as its central attraction.  A stairway winds around the obelisk and up to a walkway above the Cultural Institute, and so I leave Gwen at the bottom of the stairs and climb.  At the top is a view to a highway raised just above the water running all the way around this little peninsula.  Looking to the left, I am treated to a breathtaking view of Panama City’s skyline.


The picture does not do justice to the view, especially the first time I saw it.  The airport is on the other side of the city so we’d been driven through these buildings the night before, but I didn’t realize how spectacular the city’s architecture is until getting this view.  Like any city skyline, the buildings are each distinctive in their own way, but most emphasize the vertical geometry as they reach for the clouds in the sky above.  The one exception in this skyline is the one pointed at by the thick white wall that borders the walkway. IMG_1800-1434.111218Instead of emphasizing the vertical, this one twists as it rises and glows with a curious green color.  2018-11-13 09.06.21-0906.111318-2

This building is the F&F Tower named for the construction company that built it.  Called the Revolutionary Tower on the drawing board, this office building was opened in 2011.   Designed around the themes of a rotating geometry and a prism, it quickly became and remains one of the most iconic buildings in Panama.

Gwen shortly joins me on the walkway, and after we admire the view some more, we continue walking, enjoying the sights, eventually finding a taxi and returning to the hotel.

Leave a comment

Filed under Blog

Fabulous Trip to Africa, 22 Sep to 4 Oct 2015, Post 12 – Nairobi

We got up this morning (without a wakeup call, for once), and got our breakfast downstairs. At 8:30 we were off in a different van, but still with Charles. Our first stop was the Giraffe Center, where the guide gave us a very well done presentation on the three subspecies of giraffe in Africa, and the many activities the Center is involved in to not just rescue babies and heal sick ones, but more now to educate the community in general on the value of the animals to Kenya now and for future generations. We then went to the platform where we got up on the second floor and with food provided for us to give to them, fed two adult females and a youngster that were there.  Down on the ground, there were four warthogs making sure that none of the feed that didn’t get to the giraffes went to waste.

20151004-DSC_5315 20151004-DSC_5319 20151004-DSC_5320 20151004-DSC_5326 20151004-DSC_5332 20151004-DSC_5342 20151004-DSC_5345 20151004-DSC_5355 20151004-DSC_5359

Got some great pictures of Gwen, Dee and Gretchen holding food in their mouths so one or another of the giraffes could give them a “kiss” to get it.

20151004-DSC_5369 20151004-DSC_5380 20151004-DSC_5390

We toured the rest of the Center, including an area where they had some giraffe bones, enabling us to see just how bid the animals were.  20151004-DSC_5399Gwen got a good view of a giraffe jaw, for example.

We then went off to the David Shellbeck Wildlife Center, which specializes in caring for elephants and rhinos that are orphaned in the wild. In both cases (the giraffe and elephant centers), the idea for the orphaned animals is to put them back into the wild when they are old enough, and when they can find a place in the animal society. After gaining entrance to the Wildlife Center, we walked down to an arena where there were already elephants drinking what looked like milk from large containers (it wasn’t milk, but a mixture of nutritional components that David Shellbeck had taken 30 years perfecting to maximize the opportunities these orphans had to survive childhood).

20151004-DSC_5412 20151004-DSC_5415 20151004-DSC_5420

One of the younger (and they all were young) and smaller elephants fell into the central pond, but was able to make his way out without a lot of trouble.

20151004-DSC_5433 20151004-DSC_5442 20151004-DSC_5448 20151004-DSC_5451 20151004-DSC_5469 20151004-DSC_5479 20151004-DSC_5501 20151004-DSC_5522 20151004-DSC_5527

The area inside the arena had a couple of watering holes, where the elephants can play and get wet, and plenty of dusty clay to throw on their backs to keep the sun off.  The elephants were there to eat, and you can see the large “milk” bottles in a couple of the pictures.  T

20151004-DSC_5556 20151004-DSC_5578 20151004-DSC_5591

The keepers had some leafy branches and a soccer ball in the arena as well for the elephants to play with (and a couple of ostrich females that were there as well). The ostriches ate the leaves on the tree branches more than the elephants, but all seemed to enjoy their time in the arena. One of the keepers took to a microphone and told about the work done by the Center, and then proceeded to introduce each of the elephants by name, age and reason for being there.

That was quite a thrill, but after that was finished and they took the first group back out of the arena, a second group was brought in and the process started again. There were about 30 elephants total between the two groups.

That ended the show, and so we headed off to a restaurant with outdoor seating where we enjoyed a very nicely prepared lunch off the menu.

Firefinch, Red-Billed

Firefinch, Red-Billed

Afterwards, Charles drove and Philip introduced us to the various buildings in downtown Nairobi. As it is Sunday, traffic was not that bad (it was bad enough), but we were told it is much worse during the week.

20151004-DSC_5634 20151004-DSC_5635 20151004-DSC_5647 20151004-DSC_5653

Eagle, Tawny

Eagle, Tawny; a city park dweller.


Stork, Marabou

Stork, Marabou. These storks abounded in the city, much to our surprise.

Well, we are now back in the Eka Hotel, resting and getting ready for our trip back to the airport and our farewell to Nairobi, to Kenya, and to this safari adventure!

Leave a comment

Filed under Blog, Travel to Africa

Fabulous Trip to Africa, 22 Sep to 4 Oct 2015, Post 11 – Masai Mara to Nairobi

20151003-DSC_4937 20151003-DSC_4941

Back to Nairobi by airplane today. But we had time for one last short safari in the morning to try once again to find the male lions. We were out at 6:30 am, and bouncing along the back trail from our camp. Sammy, the driver, worked with Philip. 20151003-DSC_4952The first good thing: the sunrise, and the six balloons aloft to catch the morning light. Beautiful!

After that, we saw some birds (storks, vultures, ground birds), but no lions. Then, off in the distance, Philip spied what we were looking for. We were across the river from the two male lions, so Sammy accelerated, and we were headed swiftly toward the fording point. We made it across, and headed back to where we had seen the two lions.

20151003-DSC_4968 20151003-DSC_4963The two were coming to greet each other. They are according to Philip, brothers, and so didn’t fight each other. Instead they keep mostly to their own side of the territorial markers.

20151003-DSC_4975 20151003-DSC_4978 20151003-DSC_4984 20151003-DSC_4994 20151003-DSC_5009 20151003-DSC_5025

We got some great shots of both the males, and it was really exciting to hear them roar their greetings to each other.  At one point they were roaring at a female lion up on the far ridge from us probably 500 yards away.  20151003-DSC_5034 20151003-DSC_5049The female roared back, but kept on walking away.  Philip believed she had mated already this cycle, and was not interested in more of the same.

We stayed near them for awhile, but then decided to see if we could catch another cheetah that had been sighted in the same area yesterday.

20151003-DSC_5126We never found the cheetah, but found two more male lions, this time on the other bank of the river. We watched them as long as we could (they were walking parallel to the river). After awhile, the one in front stopped, and the other caught up. These two are also brothers, all four Philip tells us are from the same father. When the second brother caught the first in this second pair, they started playing just like youngsters, rolling over and nuzzling each other. 20151003-DSC_5206We soon left them, and what do you know, we found yet another male lion. He was hidden in some bushes, so we didn’t stay with him long. Oh, what fun to find so many lions — it made for a great end to the safaris.

Stork, Marabou

Stork, Marabou

Stork, Marabou

Stork, Marabou

Stork, Yellow-billed

Stork, Yellow-billed

Sand Grouse, Yellow-throated

Sand Grouse, Yellow-throated

Guinea Fowl, Helmeted

Guinea Fowl, Helmeted

Stork, Marabou

Stork, Marabou


Plover, African Wattled (Lapwing)

Plover, African Wattled (Lapwing)

Along the way, we saw more birds and other animals just as we’d seen on almost all our expeditions.  So, after returning to the camp, we ate breakfast, finished packing, checked out and headed for the airport.

The plane, this time a twin-engine plane was almost full, but it flew at 15,000 feet (as opposed to the 8500 feet that the single engine plane that got us to the camp flew at), and while I’d like to say it was smoother, I really can’t. Thank goodness we were all seasoned travelers, as it was a rough ride. One woman behind Bruce and Dee gave up her breakfast before we landed.20151003-DSC_5260 20151003-DSC_5293

Nairobi’s Wilson Airport (not the large international one) where we landed put us all through a security check before they let us out of the area, including a belt for our bags and a walk-through scan, but I was less than impressed with their practices. The buzzer went off when I went through, but no one noticed, so I just kept on walking.

Charles, our driver from the last time we were here met us outside the terminal, and off we went to lunch. Lunch was at the “Carnivore” restaurant, a very up-market place. Their way of working is to bring soup and then to put hot plates in front of you. They then come around with skewers of hot meats of many varieties for you to sample. You keep getting offered more meat until you take the little flag down from the center of your table. The food was not particularly tasty, but the variety made up for it.

Then, it was to the Eka Hotel where we had stayed the first night we were in Nairobi at the start of our adventure. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it easily. We got within a mile or so, and the van broke down in the middle of a very busy dirt road. 20151003-DSC_5310Trucks (large ones, with 40 foot containers on their beds were many, as were trucks that I connected with the construction activities along the road. It took about an hour for someone to come rescue us, and now we are happily put up in our rooms.

Tomorrow, the elephant and giraffe hospital, and eventually the flight home!!!

Leave a comment

Filed under Blog, Travel to Africa

Fabulous Trip to Africa, 22 Sep to 4 Oct 2015, Post 10 – Masai Mara

20151002-DSC_4528Today was another early start: 6:00 wake-up call and 6:30 take-off. We got to see the hot air balloons taking off as we ourselves took off.

We headed out to see what we could find, and it turned out to be birds, topi, Impala, and elands, along with some banded mongooses before breakfast.



Spurfowl, Red-necked

Spurfowl, Red-necked

Longclaw, Yellow-throated

Longclaw, Yellow-throated




After breakfast, we saw two lions, a mom and her 3-year-old daughter with a warthog’s’ head in her mouth.  Further along, there was another lion who went to investigate some noise in a gully, and a cape buffalo came up to meet her challenge!


A thrush?

Heron, Black-headed

Heron, Black-headed


A lion looking down in the gully just beyond


A cape buffalo coming up from the gully to “play” with the lion, who had beat a hasty retreat


Daughter lion with lunch

In addition, we saw the usual variety of antelope, zebras, a crocodile and warthogs.

The sky took on an interesting feature, as a halo of light surrounded the sun.  There were clouds in the sky, and knowing how dry the season had been, we asked about the likelihood of rain.  We were told that the halo was usually seen before rain showers, and sure enough later on in the day, it did rain for a short while.

The highlight of the antelopes we saw were three male eland, which could be easily differentiated from the females by the large dewlap they had hanging below their broad necks.

Male Eland

Male Eland

20151002-DSC_4682 20151002-DSC_4776

A very pregnant hyena

A very pregnant hyena


A cheetah resting

This afternoon we’ll visit a Masai village hopefully!

20151002-DSC_4813 20151002-DSC_4817 20151002-DSC_4832

And it was quite a visit. The headman in the village introduced himself to us, and then presented the Masai men, who did their chant with bass and harmony (no instruments, mind, just with their voices), and to these chants, they jumped — who jumps the highest? This went on for quite awhile, and then they approached us and we all participated in the chant and structured walk.


Next he took us into the village proper. This is a rough circle with about seven houses in it. There is a twig fence around the whole thing, with four openings, one for each main family in the village. When their cattle are driven into the center of the compound for the night, they know to come in the correct entrance. The houses themselves are made out of sticks and cow dung daub, mainly because the cow dung does not get infested by pests.

20151002-DSC_4848 20151002-DSC_4854 20151002-DSC_4867

The next was a demonstration of making fire. The men gathered a flat stick about 1.5 inches thick and a round stick about a foot long and half an inch in diameter. One of the men then put his long knife on the ground, flat, placed the flat stick on top of it, and then used the round stick to spin back and forth creating friction. Meanwhile another man pulled some elephant dung from the roof of the house next to him, and pulled it apart, exposing the undigested dry straw. The heat from the friction and the softness of the wood began depositing smoldering ash on the knife below, and when the man spinning the stick decided that he had enough burning material, the generating sticks were removed, and the embers were put into the elephant dung. With a little blowing encouragement, the fire indeed flamed up, and if it had been wanted for broader purpose, it would have been put under larger wood shavings. From what they said, the bush people taught this to the Masai.

20151002-DSC_4884 20151002-DSC_4885 20151002-DSC_4886

We went into a house, designed and built by the women. There is an entrance room, followed by the main room where the fire for the cooking burns. This has benches on two sides, and a vent hole high on the wall behind the fire. The houses are dark (no windows), and the roof is flat, with cow dung on top.

20151002-DSC_4901 20151002-DSC_4919

We came out and the village women gave us their version of chants and songs. They also were unaccompanied by instruments. The women didn’t jump, however — that’s just for the men (and boys).

We were lastly led outside of the village proper where there were the women had laid out their wares for us to peruse and purchase if we wanted to. We all picked out something to buy, and bargained our way to the deal.


It was back to the camp, and this evening Nixon (whose village this is) is going to talk to us about the Masai some more.

Nixon’s talk went into more detail about the Masai culture. They believe that God (undefined) dropped the first human on earth in the Northern Africa area of the Nile River, closer to the source than the delta. He is named, and his wife is named, as are their three sons. Their three sons each started a clan, and the rule became no one could marry within their clan. There are now thousands of clans, and the rule still holds. Marriages are arranged between the parents of the man and prospective wife, based in part on the dowry (in terms of number of cows) on offer.

Their diet consists primarily of the blood, milk and meat of the livestock (cows originally, and now including sheep and goats). Masai are nomadic, in part to provide feed for their livestock, and to account for the weather. Nixon said that the warrior who has two wives will leave his primary wife at the first location, and take his second one with him to the second encampment, to build the house and keep him in the way he has been accustomed. Apparently his village is planning a seasonal move within the next couple of months as the grass is getting too dry to support their herds.

He also talked about the changes that have come about to the nomadic aspect due to the need to have their children in schools. Providing education requires a more stable community, and so that has slowed down the movements of the tribes. He talked for a good 30 minutes, and covered a number of topics. Then it was on to dinner and back to the rooms to pack for tomorrow’s trip to Nairobi.

Leave a comment

Filed under Blog, Travel to Africa

Fabulous Trip to Africa, 22 Sep to 4 Oct 2015, Post 9 – Masai Mara

Up early again, we were on the road a little after 6:30. In addition to the normal animals, we saw five hot-air balloons rising near the camp. Gretchen got a good picture of a couple of them as they took off. She saw them from the bar area of the camp, as one of the balloon concessions is run out of our camp.

Guinea Fowl, Helmeted

Guinea Fowl, Helmeted


Jackal with Crowned Plover (Lapwing) in the distance

Jackal with Crowned Plover (Lapwing) in the distance

It took awhile to get started, but we saw the cheetah mother and her cubs playing with each other near a different tree from yesterday.

20151001-DSC_4015 20151001-DSC_4021 20151001-DSC_4025 20151001-DSC_4028 20151001-DSC_4037 20151001-DSC_4053

We saw a group of hippos in a rather disgusting pond which had only still water, so their waste just stayed put.

Eagle, Tawny

Eagle, Tawny


Vulture, Lappet-faced; Vulture, White-backed

Vulture, Lappet-faced; Vulture, White-backed

Vulture, Lappet-faced; Vulture, White-backed

Vulture, Lappet-faced; Vulture, White-backed

Vulture, Lappet-faced; Vulture, White-backed

Vulture, Lappet-faced; Vulture, White-backed

Vulture, Lappet-faced

Vulture, Lappet-faced

It was a small pond, with a number of hippos. One stayed off by him/herself, and she put on a good show. Among other things we saw a group of vultures surrounding a kill that had already been abandoned by the killer (a lion, it was guessed based on the footprints in the area). We also caught up with a number of warthogs and their youngsters. Apparently the warthogs at the height of their reproductive capability will have four babies, having graduated from one upward, and then as she declines, she will have less number of babies. The ones we saw typically had three babies, but at least one had four.

Warthogs - tails up!

Warthogs – tails up!


Hightailing it!

Hightailing it!

The wildebeests were common all around, and we even had our breakfast in their midst (well, they were aways away really).

20151001-DSC_4083 20151001-DSC_4126

Picnicing in the midst of the wildebeest

Picnicing in the midst of the wildebeest

Sammy and I practicing to be Maasai

Sammy and I practicing to be Maasai

Another group lunching amongst the wildebeest

Another group lunching amongst the wildebeest

We went to a common crossing point in the Salama River (?) where there were a number of hippos, a number of crocodiles, and a number of vultures.

Vulture, White-backed; Goose, Egyptian

Vulture, White-backed; Goose, Egyptian

20151001-DSC_4319 20151001-DSC_4326 20151001-DSC_4309 20151001-DSC_4322 20151001-DSC_4366

There were also several wildebeest bodies hung up on the rocks in the river. We were told that the river had been much higher and faster last week, and the wildebeests had had a hard time getting across quickly. They stumbled over each other and in the process a few drowned, were captured by predators, or just weren’t strong enough to make it to the other side. It made for a gruesome scene, yet somehow from a distance, natural. We went to another area where it looked for awhile like a herd of wildebeest was going to cross, but they stopped, and we grew tired of waiting, so headed back for lunch.

20151001-DSC_4250 20151001-DSC_4257 20151001-DSC_4265

Young warthogs

Young warthogs



Stork, Yellow-billed

Stork, Yellow-billed

This afternoon, we’re going to a school to give them the school supplies we brought for them. The school is nearby, and one of the Masai warriors who work at the camp (Nixon is his name) has siblings who go there. It is the Loingo (?) Primary School, meaning it has children from nursery school through level 8. It is a residential school, so the students live there during the terms (three months in school and a fourth month at home). Unfortunately, there is a teachers’ strike right now. We are told the reason is that an official in the central government gave the teachers a 50% rise in pay, and it has since been determined that this is not really a good thing to do, so they have tried to rescind it, but the teachers now are striking to have it reinstated. The net result is that schools are not really in session. The only class running at this school is the level 8 class as the students have their state-run graduation test in November.

There are 19 in that class, 15 boys and 4 girls, at least there were on the day we were there. After a brief introduction by the principal, and a welcome song by the students, we were allowed to talk to them individually or in groups. I ended up talking to six boys who were quite interested in interviewing me (as I was them). They asked all sorts of questions about me, my occupation, what it meant, where I lived, what the USA is like (what is our economy based on — yes, that was one of the questions!), what our weather is like, what religions we have, what our political parties are, and a whole variety of other things. They knew President Obama, and wanted to know more about him.

20151001-DSC_4485 20151001-DSC_4486 20151001-DSC_4487 20151001-DSC_4489

I asked them about their economy (farming and herding based), their religion (mostly Christian, although they also knew of Muslims), their schooling (they do have high school, if the child and his/her parents choose to take advantage of it), what their ambitions are (pass the test, and then be herders), and so on. They were very attentive, and interested in the answers to their questions, as well as interested that I understand their answers to my questions.

Bruce's turn to be Maasai

Bruce’s turn to be Maasai


Robin-chat, White-browed

Robin-chat, White-browed

After we finished, the principal had us into his office to do his bit for getting us to gift money to the school, but we demurred by suggesting he send a list of needed books to Philip who would forward it to us and then we would work on providing them to the school.

After we left, we came back to the camp, where we took the afternoon off, meeting again for dinner. The big adventure in this interval was the decision of a large baboon to visit Gretchen’s tent-cabin. He made a lot of noise, and when she came out to investigate, he was on her roof. She went back in to grab her camera, and when she reappeared, he had gone over to the side closest to our tent-cabin, and Gwen had come out to see what the commotion was all about. He saw Gwen, and ran back over to Gretchen’s side. He quickly decided that wouldn’t do, and disappeared up one of the many trees right above our tent-cabins. There was a smaller monkey in the trees as well, just to increase the fun. Unfortunately, no pictures were taken, so we have to rely on Gretchen’s and Gwen’s descriptions.

20151001-DSC_4495One other event worth recording is the latest adventure with Frederica and Nameless. They are the eland females who are domesticated enough to be allowed to inhabit the main areas of the camp. Before dinner, the three of us (Gretchen, Gwen and I) were sitting in the bar area, when the two eland walked by the registration desk and headed toward the patio just outside the barroom walls. Standing with her back to them was a young Japanese lady, who was almost rammed by Frederica. When she turned around to see who bumped into her, she screamed loudly and threw up her hands. The eland were remarkably calm about the whole thing, but the woman got flustered a bit. Gwen was closest to see, and tells me we should have a shot of the Japanese lady’s face when she realized she was being bumped by an animal that was just about her size!

Leave a comment

Filed under Blog, Travel to Africa

Fabulous Trip to Africa, 22 Sep to 4 Oct 2015, Post 8 – Lake Victoria to Masai Mara

Another travel day, sigh. We met again at 6:30 for breakfast, and then again at 7:00 at the truck to drive to the airport. When we got to the truck, we found that Bruce and Dee had lost their passports and money. Bruce was just coming to the truck to check his backpack, with very little hope of finding anything. But, sure enough, they were there, right in front!  Such a relief for all of us.

On the road there was lots to see.

The road serves many purposes

The road serves many purposes



Brick houses arising alongside the straw and grass structures

Brick houses arising alongside the straw and grass structures


A local school

So off we went for first the Tanzania – Kenya border, and then the airport. The border was not really a problem, we visited first the Tanzanian agents in one building, and then crossed the border and visited the Kenyan agents in their building. Once we did that, we got back into the truck, and headed for the airplane. 20150930-DSC_3546 20150930-DSC_3558We got off the main road about an hour later, and drove a little way on a secondary dirt road, and pulled under a tree where a woman and her two daughters had set up a souvenir stand. This was the airport. About 20 minutes later, sure enough, a single engine plane drops down out of the sky and meets the runway (which was perpendicular to us), runs to where the tarmac stops, turns around and makes a turn towards us. After saying goodby to Everest, who had unloaded our bags, and hello to the pilot and copilot, we stood around and waited. Everything got on board, but there were three more passengers to meet us. At least an hour later, the first one arrived, and perhaps another half an hour elapsed before the other two got there. We were told that there was a big political rally in town, and our three compatriots had been slowed down for having to make their way through the crowds. By the time they arrived, two more planes had arrived (a twin-engine plane from Kenya Air, and another Safariair single engine job. 20150930-DSC_3589 20150930-DSC_3591 20150930-DSC_3600

Approaching the cliff that marks the edge of the Masai Mara

Approaching the cliff that marks the edge of the Masai Mara

With all aboard, we took off. We flew for about 20 minutes to the first of two Masai Mara airports. About 15 minutes into our flight, we flew over the edge (literally!) where the plain we were on dropped down to the Masai Mara plain, about 1000 feet down.  The cliff seemed to carry on in both directions forever.  It felt like the whole of the Masai Mara had been scooped out flat with a giant bulldozer.

Approaching the cliff that marks the edge of the Masai Mara

Approaching the cliff that marks the edge of the Masai Mara

20150930-DSC_3624 20150930-DSC_3628The vegetation immediately went from relative green to almost completely brown, except along the winding waterways.

The plane landed at the first airport, unloaded two of our extra passengers, and then we were on our way again, Up over the next ridge, about 5 minutes flying time, and we set down at the second of the two airports, our destination (almost). Our new driver greeted us, and we set off on another 30 minute drive to the Fig Tree Lodge. We arrived at about 2:00 and immediately had lunch, which was very nicely done. We were all ready for it! Now I’m sitting here on the porch of our tent-cabin, while the domesticated eland is munching at the greenery around.

Gretchen petting the hotel's pet eland

Gretchen petting the hotel’s pet eland

She is certainly calm enough. 20150930-DSC_3665Gretchen got pictures, and then got right up and petted her. Bruce and Dee came out to see her, but now I am left to watch and wonder about her. Just the other side of the path she is on is the bank of the river that runs through the camp. It is down about 10 feet from the level we are on, but it does have water in it, despite the obviously dry conditions all around.


Two cubs playing while mom eats

This afternoon, we went on our first drive through the Masai Mara. 20150930-DSC_3720 20150930-DSC_3742 We were very lucky, seeing a mother Cheetah and two young cubs finishing off a kill (Thompson’s gazelle, we think.)

They were near a tree, and the youngsters were splitting their time between eating and playing with each other. They were clearly full of food, as their approach to the kill was fairly nonchalant. We spent a long time there watching. 20150930-DSC_3801 20150930-DSC_3807 20150930-DSC_3837Finally the mother got up and wandered about 25 feet away from the kill and lay down. The cubs joined her, and they licked each other’s faces necks and fronts. Philip says this is common procedure to get the blood off of each other. The youngsters didn’t stay with mother all the time though, they wandered back to the tree, playing with each other. A van pulled a bit too close, so one of the cubs came to challenge the interloper. The van didn’t move, and eventually the cub lost interest. It was a fun watch! In driving around, we also saw another leopard (our fifth),

Vulture, White-backed

Vulture, White-backed

Vulture, Lappet-faced

Vulture, Lappet-faced


Hornbill, Ground

Hornbill, Ground

20150930-DSC_3945and quite a few birds. We saw several vultures of various kinds, especially after we left the cheetah kill. A hyena was asleep near the road as well. We saw a hippo pod in a pond, where they were bunched up together.

20150930-DSC_3904The most fun sight, however, was a giraffe getting a drink from a creek.  Giraffes have to get into an awkward position to drink, and it is at this point that they are the most vulnerable to attack.  As a result, they are very wary as they drink.  This I already knew.  What I didn’t know was that they come up quickly with their mouths open, spraying water as they rise.

20150930-DSC_3924 20150930-DSC_3928 20150930-DSC_3925 20150930-DSC_3926 20150930-DSC_3927 20150930-DSC_3933

We came back and had a nice dinner, got to our tents, and had a good night’s sleep.

Leave a comment

Filed under Blog, Travel to Africa