Friday, February 24, 2017

#30 - Friday, 24 February 2017 | Langkawi, Malaysia

I have dated this post as Friday because that is what it is for my readers, but it actually just chimed midnight Saturday morning here in southeast Asia. Today has been a strange day as I haven't felt well after having a restless night before. The heat and humidity have taken their toll, as has drinking much more than I normally do. The truth is that I rarely drink alcohol and here it has been a daily activity. The fabulous boat adventure on the Andaman Sea really sealed the exhaustion and heat effects I had already been feeling.

Today I tried to go back to sleep after breakfast but that was not to be, and Mark, Brandon and I walked to the Oriental Village for our daily fish therapy. The Anjung Spa charges 15 ringgits for 15 minutes of soaking your feet in cold water as the "Dr. Fish" feed off your dead skin. It is so relaxing and meditative and 15 ringgits is about $3.65. I bought a few souvenirs and Mark changed some currency and then we headed back to the resort. Brandon and I enjoyed a Salted Caramel Frappucino from the Starbucks kiosk in the hotel lobby. I walked to the pool with them, but then returned again to my rainforest chalet for yet another cold shower and another failed attempt at napping. Eventually I did drift off a bit and when I woke I decided to walk back to the Oriental Village for an espresso and chocolates at Chocohauz. All during our stay at Berjaya Langkawi Resort, Mark and I have had a routine of getting four pralines each at the chocolate shop. I wasn't up for it during the morning visit to Oriental Village, but I sat alone with a shot of espresso and enjoyed the chocolates, and some good air conditioning and wifi. Part of the reason for my return trip to Oriental Village was to photograph an Argiope sp. orbweaver spider that we had observed in the ornamental bushes that line the road between the village and resort. I don't usually carry my macro rig, so I had it and also had my longest lens mounted to another camera body. It was a good thing as I finally was able to get some clear shots at an Oriental Pied Hornbill and one of the butterfly lizards that inhabit the dry grass around the helipad and tennis courts. I also photographed a few beautiful birds and a troop of spectacled langurs that were moving through the Oriental Village.

Today (Saturday) I begin the long trip home. Flying west is into the wind and each of the three flights will take longer than they had when I traveled out (1+ hr to Kuala Lumpur, 7.5 hrs to Dubai, 5+ hr layover in Dubai and then 15+ hour flight from Dubai to Chicago). It will be going back in time (it is fourteen hours ahead of Chicago time here), and I expect that to suffer from jet lag when I finally arrive at O'Hare airport mid-afternoon on Sunday. I am hoping to keep my chalet as long as possible as I don't need to be to Langkawi's airport until about 9 pm or so. I'd prefer not to be the sweaty mess that I quickly become when I board the plane. I expect I'll mostly relax around the pool and have a nice early dinner at Pahn-Thai before I depart for the airport.

All the best, M

Thursday, February 23, 2017

#29 - Thursday, 23 February 2017 | Langkawi, Malaysia

What a day yesterday! I am exhausted and sunburned from an amazing adventure on the Andaman Sea aboard the Damai Indah. Captain Eva and her crew outdid themselves and the food, drink and hospitality were incredible. 

But before I talk about our boat trip I'll fill you in on what occurred on Tuesday. Two years ago when I first visited Langkawi a small group of us hired Wendy Chin for a guided birdwatching trip. Her business is the aptly named "Langkawi Nature Guide". She has begun to generalize a bit more and explores the island for wildlife other than birds now. Part of that I'd like to think is due to meeting Mark and I and learning more about spiders and reptiles. She arranged our trip into the mangroves of Tanjung Rhu for the Mangrove Pitviper (Trimeresurus [Cryptelytrops] purpeomaculatus) earlier in the week, and we hired her to take us to Teluk Datai on Tuesday. This is the area she had taken Mark in February and June of 2016 and where they found what we feel is a new species of arboreal tarantula. Mark wanted to return to the area and bring myself, Ray & Angela Hale and Jean-Michel Verdez along. It was quite the group of international tarantula experts, but we couldn't locate the adult female that Mark had discovered with an eggsac the previous year. We did, however, find what was likely one of her offspring and evidence of others in the area. I located one silken entrance to a liana hole and was able to spy the forelegs of a juvenile Phormingochilus sp. Mark has bought an endoscope that connects to his iPhone via wifi and he saw it as well. However, in the few hours we had to comb the jungle above Datai Bay we could not find other theraphosid spiders. We did observe quite a few "flying lizards" of the genus Draco and I photographed one very special species of true spider – the Curved Spiny Orbweaver, Gasteracantha arcuata.

Gasteracantha arcuata © Michael Jacobi

But back to the Andaman Sea ...

Our group of 18 – comprised of 13 mad hatters from Bristol, England, 2 originally from Birmingham, England and now of Polegate in the south of the U.K., 2 from northern France and this lone American – boarded a private coach to take us on the forty-five minute drive from Berjaya Langkawi Resort clockwise around Langkawi to the Langkawi Yacht Club in Kuah, the commercial center of the islands. I guess this is the time for me to tell you a little more about Langkawi ...

Langkawi is an archipelago off the northwestern coast of peninsular Malaysia. Some sources say it is a cluster of 99 islands, while many others state 104. It is officially known as Langkawi Permata Kedah or Langkawi, the Jewel of Kedah, Kedah being the state of northwestern Malaysia. The largest of the islands is Langkawi Island and that is where I am typing this from. In the map below you can see the dark line representing the border between Thailand to the north and peninsular Malaysia to the south. You will see that the Langkawi Archipelago lies to the west about 30 km almost even with the border.

Jeremy from Australia actually steered our vessel as we left the jetty of the yacht club while Captain Eva commanded her crew of three and her German Shepherd "Rebekka". The Damai Indah has a full bar and two coolers filled with beer and soft drinks as well. We weren't even underway before I had a cold tin of Tiger in hand and was slurping down some fantastic seafood cocktail. In was less than an hour before we were anchored at our first stopping point, and I was the first person to jump from the second deck into the ocean. Before long Mark and two other mates were bobbing in the Andaman Sea with me and we were chucked cold cans of beer. It's not a bad life treading water in the warm and salty turquoise water with a refreshing Tiger lager. Appetizers were continuously served when we re-boarded the Damai Indah, and included corn on the cob and a wonderfully marinated tempeh on skewers, and we sailed on to another anchoring location where we returned to our ocean swimming while a secondary boat took some of our group to a beautiful and secluded private beach. Dinner followed and there was plenty for vegetarian, pescatarian and carnivore alike with steamed mixed vegetables, broiled corn on the cob, rice pilaf, red snapper, prawns, meatballs, chicken satay, baked chicken and more. The drinks were flowing and I dozed under the shade of the upper deck while others sat atop under the sunscreen socializing and enjoying more than a few cocktails. As the sun began to set, we headed back to the main island's harbor where we arrived after dark.

Today I've spent a good deal of time resting my sunburned carcass in my air conditioned chalet, alternating correspondence with napping. I finish this blog entry after meeting Mark and family at the pool bar and having a late afternoon snack. Tonight we have a reservation at the Mizumi Japanese Restaurant in the Oriental Village.

All the best, M

Monday, February 20, 2017

#28 - Tuesday, 21 February 2017 | Langkawi, Malaysia

It has been almost a week since I've blogged. Langkawi and the Berjaya Resort are paradise and I haven't wanted to focus on my laptop and write. This is a magical holiday and I have been consumed by some wonderful activities as well as relaxation in the pool with a cold Tiger lager. I am not much on swimming pools or daytime drinking, but this is a special vacation and the pool bar is a great place to unwind. It is very hot and humid here and everything is incredibly tiring. Being submersed up to your chest in the pool with a cold beer isn't a bad way to spend the afternoon. 

My chalet is my sanctuary where I have the air conditioner set to 16ºC and take several cold showers a day. My Instagram has depicted some of the wonderful wildlife I have encountered here on the resort grounds and also on a boat trip into the mangrove of Tanjung Rhu. Later today we are taking a trip with our local nature guide friend Wendy to return to the spot where she and Mark found a new species of arboreal tarantula last year. Tonight we have dinner reservations at the Pahn Thai restaurant that sits on the Berjaya seafront.

Last night we celebrated Mark's wife Kim's birthday with an elegant dinner on the beach. The Berjaya Langkawi staff outdid themselves with an amazing setting and delicious food for both vegetarians and meat-eaters alike. My friends Ray and Angela arrived Sunday morning and yesterday we took them to the Oriental Village. We took a VIP glass bottom Sky Cab cable car to the top of the island. It is said to be the steepest cable car ascent in all of southeast Asia if not the world. I am no fan of heights, but it was amazing to view the Seven Wells Waterfall and the jungle mountains of Gunung Raya from the aerial tram. Through the glass bottom we looked at the vast jungle below. Again, see Instagram for pix. I also have been posting daily snapshots during adventures to my exotic fauna Snapchat.

We disembarked at the top of mountain and I had an engraved heart lock made for Bailee, a lovely lady who is extremely special to me, and now my feelings for her are forever locked high above the montane Langkawi jungle.

(Side note: If you haven't heard the song I wrote for her ("Bailee's Grace") click here to listen to it on my Soundcloud page. I will be re-recording the song soon and intend to release a full CD of new original acoustic guitar music this year.

Tomorrow is our big boat trip. Two years ago when I first visited Langkawi we sailed with a German woman named Eva on her Damai Indah. Damai Indah and Damai Indah Lagi are charming traditional wooden cargo-boats that Eva, the only lady-captain in the area, has converted and renovated to become luxurious charter-boats. Captain Eva provides an amazing experience with full open bar, delicious food and a vessel that is a perfect party yacht for a group of 18 (15 mad Brits, one French couple, and this lone American). We all loved it and are excited about tomorrow's adventure on the Andaman Sea. As wonderful as drinking a Tiger in the pool bar here at Berjaya is, it pales in comparison to diving off the Damai Indah into the Andaman Sea somewhere between Malaysia and Thailand and having someone toss you a cold can of Tiger.

I type this from the cool comfort of my rainforest chalet, but soon will be off in search of spiders and, perhaps, reptiles. We have much planned between now and Saturday when I head back to Kuala Lumpur and then on to Dubai and then 15 hours of misery flying over the Atlantic back to Chicago. I'll try to write more when I can.

All the best, M

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

#27 - Wednesday, 15 February 2017 | Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

This morning our group is traveling. After a flight from Kuching, Sarawak, Borneo back to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, we are headed to Langkawi Island and the beautiful Berjaya Langkawi Resort. Next week two more friends from England will join us to bring our group to 16. Langkawi sits off the northwestern coast of Peninsular Malaysia on the Andaman Sea very close to Thailand. Two years ago I surprised my mate Mark on his birthday whilst he ate breakfast that morning in the Beach Café. The resort grounds are teeming with wildlife and we will have plenty of hikes to other nearby locations in pursuit of spiders, snakes, birds and mammals. Kuching was amazing with very warm and humid weather and torrential rains. Langkawi promises to be significantly hotter and drier. This afternoon I will get situated in a rainforest cabin at the resort and settle back into the routine of almost exactly two years ago. All the best, MJ

Monday, February 13, 2017

#26 - Tuesday, 14 February 2017 | Kuching, Sarawak, Borneo

It is a rainy and heavily overcast morning here in Kuching. Last night torrential downpours forced our group to return from dinner in taxis. Of course, that is to be expected during the rainy season in the rainforest.

Yesterday nine of our fourteen person group went to Taman Negara Bako (Bako National Park), home to about 150 endangered proboscis monkeys, bearded pigs and beautiful pitvipers. The 10 1/2 square mile park sits on the Borneo coast in Sarawak where the Kuching and Bako rivers empty into the South China Sea. The park can only be reached by boat. Starting from the jetty of Bako Terminal, we took two boats to beach on the Muara Tebas peninsula in knee deep silty water and walk across the grey-brown beach into the jungle. Two boats were necessary because of the high tide and big waves. Our group boarded one larger boat for a ten minute ride and then we met smaller boats at the halfway point and changed ship, as it were, in the rocking waters off the mangrove coast. Fortunately me and my camera gear were not swallowed up by the flowing estuarine abyss.

Our guide for the day was one of the two guides who had brought us to Semenggoh the previous day to look for orangutans. That day was a success and our morning in the sanctuary was followed by an early afternoon at the Annah Rais Longhouse. We toured the traditional Sarawak community of two tribal longhouses where rice and tapioca and ginger were laid out on mats to dry in the sun baking the bamboo floors. Annah Rais is also a homestay for the adventurous who want to spend the night in a tribal setting. However, I have only passing interest in “culture” and we will now return to Bako.

As we waited to begin our walk I milled about the grounds and saw my first bearded pig grazing in the field. These large porcine have amazing bristles covering the bottom of their heads. The male I photographed seemed completely unbothered by my presence as he rooted about the undergrowth. The trail we took through the rainforest was anything but a walk in the park. However, even those of our group who thought they might not be able to continue as path passed out of the mangrove flats and the tree root formed trail climbed and descended with precarious footholds made it one hour to where the jungle opened into another beach along the South China Sea. We caught glimpses of the rare proboscis monkeys high in the trees seeking the leaves that make up their diet. Once we arrived on the beach we were greeted by amazing rock formations and the moody skies above the churning waters. Long-tailed macaques were perched on the rocks of the beach and I photographed a mother with an infant with the skies as a backdrop. As ours and other groups took a break on the sands, I decided I’d rather make the return hike alone and set off back into the jungle. Again I saw proboscis monkeys from a distance, but they had too much cover and were too far away to photograph. Once I arrived back at the mangrove flats near the trailhead, where nice platforms form paths above the mudskippers and crabs, I sat on a bench and waited for everyone else to join me.

We had lunch in the cafeteria and our guide came and got me to “show me something”. I had told him that I sought pit vipers and spiders and was sure he had spied one of the beautiful green Wagler’s tree vipers that I had hoped to see or at the very least an orb weaver spider. Just behind the restaurant perched a couple feet above the ground was a gorgeous snake and I set about getting photographs. After lunch we walked about the area and were treated to a group of five or six proboscis high in the trees. Even with my longest lens they were out of reach, and my photographs are likely to be useless, but I was very much living in the moment as I watched these amazing “big nosed” monkeys chewing on leaves and leaping to neighboring trees. I thought about the people you see at concerts who spend the whole time filming it for social media instead of really immersing themselves in the experience. I love sharing my adventures, but photography seemed so unnecessary when I could just watch an endangered species I never expected to see in nature. As I stood straining my eyes towards the canopy I almost didn’t notice the large shape passing right in front of me. I looked down and saw 250 pounds or so of bearded pig strolling by as if with no care in the world.

Last night I had planned to get a traditional hand-tapped Iban tribal tattoo from Mark’s friend Ernesto who operates his Borneo Headhunters Tattoo Studio here in Kuching. I had really wanted to do it just for another life experience, but once I found out how much it would cost it made me reconsider the entire notion. The truth is that I am not a fan of tribal tattoos, even if this would be a true Iban tribal design and not the faux tribal that Caucasians walk around wearing. On top of that I had no idea where I would put it with my arms and lower legs already covered. I had thought to put it on the front of a thigh, but my quad muscles were strained and burning from the day’s trail ascents. I decided to cancel and I am so glad that the very sore thighs I have today aren’t even more sore from having a little Bornean dude hammering a needle into my flesh for four hours.

After taxis spared us from a drenching post-dinner, our group sat on the LimeTree hotel rooftop and had our nightcaps. A couple of bottles of tuak (traditional rice wine) had been purchased at the longhouse and shots were passed around. I had shared a few jugs of Tiger lager during dinner and my nightcap was a lime mojito. So beer, rum and tuak were combined to make me wake before 3 a.m. with a splitting headache. I was so exhausted, but I was agitated by something and, as I laid in bed thinking, I became increasingly restless. The pain medicine took effect and my eyes were heavy, but my mind was racing and sleep became more and more elusive. So here I sit at breakfast alone typing this. I intend to hang the “do not disturb” sign on my door and have officially cancelled this day. I had already told Mark that I planned to keep to myself mostly today. I am used to being alone and being part of a group of 14 that likes to do everything together is not in today’s plans. I have work to do on my laptop, and now I am in need of a few more hours rest.

All the best, M

Saturday, February 11, 2017

#25 - Sunday, 12 February 2017 | Kuching, Sarawak, Borneo

It's 3 a.m. Sunday morning. I can't sleep so I may as well type. Then if I can't fall back asleep I'll prepare my camera gear for the day. Our group is meeting for breakfast at 7 and are being picked up at 8 to travel to a nature reserve in search of Orangs. You can call these great apes orangs or orang utans or orangutans, which are derived from Orang Hutan or, literally, "man forest", just please not oh-rang-you-tangs. There is no "g" on the end. There are two species - the Borneo and the Sumatra - and the Bornean orangs are divided into three subspecies. Interestingly, the Borneo species is more often seen on the ground and this is believed to be because there are no tigers here, whereas there are in Sumatra.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Yesterday a contingent of 13 friends from England's west country arrived. My Bristolian second family was just as knackered as I was the previous day, but they checked in midday and we all met in the lobby of the LimeTree Hotel at 1 pm to take a walk around Kuching. Kuching means "cat" and we walked by several cat statues and then walked along the Sarawak riverfront. Kuching is the capital of Sarawak and is located in northwestern Borneo. The island of Borneo is comprised of three different countries; in the north, Sarawak and Sabah states are part of Malaysia, and the tiny country of Brunei sits between them along the north coast of the island, while the southern bulk of the island is the Indonesian Kalimantan. 

Except for me and one couple, our group has all been here before and has favorite places for dinner and drink. Our walk brought us to one of these and I enjoyed cold Tiger beer and a delicious and spicy Tom Yam Laksa. Laksa is spicy noodle soup of Chinese and Malay origin and this one certainly cleared my sinuses and added to the substantial brow sweat due to the heat and humidity. After a half dozen pitchers of Tiger and some local cuisine we continued to tour the area, popping into numerous gift shops with textiles, spices, and other "tat". And speaking of "tat", we eventually walked by Borneo Headhunters Tattoo Shop owned by Mark's dear friend Ernesto. At this point our group splintered, as some of us were eager to say hello to Ernesto and his partner Robin. Eventually all but Mark and I continued back to the hotel. We stayed until Ernesto finished a tattoo and Mark, Ernesto, Robin and I had a coffee and chatted. Mark's tattoos were all done by Ernesto and are traditional hand-tapped work of Iban tribal designs. The Iban people, also known as Sea Dayaks, are mostly native to Sarawak and were once renowned for practicing headhunting and being fierce warriors in pursuit of tribal and territory expansion. I was very interested in getting a tribal snake design and we made an appointment to return Monday night at 9 pm for me to get my first traditional Bornean hand-tapped tattoo.

Mark and I stopped for one more Tiger beer on our walk back to the LimeTree and waited for an afternoon sun shower to pass. Back at the hotel our group had made arrangements to meet on the hotel rooftop for Mark's birthday dinner at the LimeLight Rooftop Lounge. Gifts and cards were exchanged and I brought Mark a Lenser P7.2 flashlight (the Brits call them "torches") for our night wildlife hunting. I had pasta and garlic bread and we all turned in early so they could recover from their own long flights and we would be rested for our orang adventure, which is to be followed by a visit to a traditional Borneo longhouse and a toast of Tuak (Bornean rice wine).

But here I am wide awake several hours before breakfast writing this. I guess I'll get the camera gear ready and then do my best to fall back asleep ...

All the best, M

Friday, February 10, 2017

#24 - Saturday, 11 February 2017 | Kuching, Sarawak, Borneo

It's early Saturday morning. It is my mate Mark's birthday and he and his entourage of mad Brits is en route to join me here in beautiful Kuching. I finally got some sleep. Last night I sat on the rooftop of the LimeTree Hotel and had an amazing plate of vegetarian Tom Yum fried rice and downed two extra delicious and perfectly chilled pints of Tiger draft. The LimeLight Rooftop Lounge had a refreshing breeze. I arrived in overcast conditions in Kuching and the weather was much less stifling than it seemed in Kuala Lumpur. Perhaps I've already acclimated, but it was an incredible surprise to experience cool winds blowing above the fifth floor of our hotel. I love it here. 

My flight from Dubai to Kuala Lumpur was made better by being on a brand new 777-300 and having an empty seat between my window berth and the young German lady on the aisle. Her name was Louisa and she was to meet friends in KL to begin a two month adventure in Malaysia, Cambodia and Vietnam. In between our conversations and both of our failed attempts at sleeping, I watched the movie The Girl on the Train. Louisa and I walked through KL airport together and it took us almost an hour to get through customs. It was a grueling trip to arrive and I'm trying to put my eventual return feat of endurance out of mind. 

Last time I was in Kuala Lumpur International Airport it was in the middle of the night and the place was deserted. Yesterday the it was so unbelievably crowded and it seemed like the humidity was about 300%. I had a fairly long layover, but made the mistake of going through security as soon as I could and ended up exhausted near the gates with little options for food and zero options for beer. I decided to try to keep awake and have a triple espresso and a little snack. Eventually I plopped my tired carcass into a comfy business class seat and prepared for 90 more minutes of air travel that would bring me from mainland Malaysia to Kuching, in Sarawak, Borneo. It took all of 8 minutes to get from the plane to taxi. I was the first off and the first to customs and then headed straight to the airport taxi desk and was whisked into a tiny and timeworn taxi on the curb. 

The drive from the small airport to LimeTree Hotel was no more than 20 minutes. The hotel staff was extremely attentive and I was rushed to my cozy third floor hotel room. I was completely exhausted, but also wound up, excited and badly in need of a long shower. I dozed a bit while surfing the Internet, but ended up seeking Tiger lager and some food. 

This hotel is amazing. I type this during breakfast of coffee, fresh lime juice, buttered toast, plantains, omelette, potatoes, shrimp, cakes, jack fruit fritters, and laksa.

As always, see Instagram for more pix ...

It looks like rain is coming and I forgot to grab rainjacket from the Wheelhouse sitting almost 12,000 miles away. But I am off to walk the city a bit before Mark, Kim, Brandon and the rest of my Brit mates arrive in a few hours.

All the best, Michael

#23 - Thursday, 9 February 2017 - 37,000 feet over Turkey

I am in an Emirates Airlines Boeing 777 37,000 feet above Turkey. Three hours remain until Dubai. The flight is 7400 miles of agony. After this 13+ hour flight I'll still have a lengthy layover and 6 1/2 hour flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and a longer layover and 1 1/2 hour flight from KL to Kuching, Sarawak, Borneo. At least the last leg is business class. Yeah, I know ... the world's tiniest violin is playing for me ... great joy requires great suffering and you don't want to hear my bitching. Emirates is the best airline in the world and cramming my big, 6'2" frame into an economy row is made better by the service, food, entertainment and wifi. Hope y'all keep up with my Instagram pix. I am already behind as I haven't posted many from my last Florida adventure, but I will be posting more as I can and posting at least iPhone snapshots to Insta as this adventure continues. For those of you who Snapchat, I also am posting quickie pix to My Story there. Follow exoticfauna Snap. Best, MJ

Monday, February 6, 2017

#22 - Monday, 6 February 2017 | Bowling Green, Kentucky

Apparently I have become a regular at this Country Inn & Suites in Bowling Green. Last night was my third stay in less than three weeks. Yesterday was a shorter driving day. I left another Country Inn (my favorite chain for value rooms that are modern and clean and not creepy) in north Macon yesterday and was easily relaxing in my hotel here long before Super Bowl LI started.

Saturday I drove about three hours from the state park to Barracuda RV & Boat Storage in Ocala. I parked my traveling home and then continued about four more hours to north Macon. The drive was easy, with overcast skies making it less tiring than driving in the blazing sun. I've driven this road so many times. I've made plenty of trips from Chicagoland to Florida. But even more than that I've driven both north and south when I was based in Nashville. The stretch between Nashville and Louisville, Kentucky is particularly well-traveled as I used to exhibit at a monthly reptile show in Shelbyville, KY. Each month I would drive three hours north on Interstate 65 to just south of Louisville before I'd veer east to continue to Shelbyville. Trips to visit family and friends in the Chicago area were fairly frequent when I was living in east Nashville. Nashville south to Atlanta was also an oft traveled path, and I was thinking yesterday how that road must be disconcerting to some travelers. When driving I-24 out of Nashville to head to Chattanooga and on to Atlanta or elsewhere in the southeast, some motorists must become confused. As you near Chattanooga you suddenly see a sign welcoming you to Georgia. I wonder how many drivers think they have missed a turn. Five miles farther another sign welcomes you to Tennessee. The mountains forced a brief dip into Georgia before I-24 could turn back northeast toward Lookout Mountain and the city of Chattanooga. 

I'll be back in Huntley and Hoffman Estates this afternoon. Tomorrow I have lunch with my sister Lisa and dinner with my bonus dad Joel scheduled. I also need to get ready for Wednesday evening. I'll be at O'Hare at about 5 pm to catch my 7:40 Emirates flight to Dubai. It arrives Thursday evening due to time zones and the fact that it is a bloody long flight of about 15 hours! Then I arrive in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Friday morning and catch a flight to Kuching, Borneo. Then it is a taxi to the LimeTree Inn where I should arrive in the mid-afternoon. I'll have an evening to myself Friday night before my friends/second family join me on Saturday. It will be my mate Mark's birthday and, as far as I know, our plan is still to visit his friends at Borneo Headhunters Tattoo in Kuching to get traditional hand-tapped tribal tattoos.

All the best, M

Friday, February 3, 2017

#21 - Friday, 3 February 2017 | Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, Florida

It is Friday morning. I woke before dawn and decided to make a cup of coffee and take a sunrise stroll. The birds were singing and coaxing me to join them for the break of daylight. Deer were everywhere. I walked along and they didn’t seem too bothered by this early-rising primate, but would bound into surrounding cover if my approach was too close. I had one camera. I also had my iPhone. I must learn to live fully off the grid and not be so dependent on it, but there was a message I wanted to send so I hoped I would acquire signal at some point. I saw a raccoon walk across the crushed shell and sand main road of Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. The post cold front skies had been clear all week, but some morning clouds today aided me in capturing a few beautiful sunrise images. I saw more and more white-tailed deer. When I got to the park office I sat at one of the picnic tables and checked my cell signal and was able to send a couple important direct messages and also answer a few emails. I sat finishing my coffee and three young deer approached. One got within ten feet of me before finally spooking and trotting off a bit.

Yesterday I went to breakfast at Cowpoke’s Cafe, which is maybe ten miles from my campsite. You drive several miles to exit the park and then follow the paved roads towards the main road. The cafe is remote and I wondered about the locals that were inside. After an omelette, toast, juice and coffee, I drove back to camp and along the park road stopped for six snakes that were sunning in the road. Three were Florida garter snakes and three were related ribbon snakes. The largest was no more than two and a half feet long, and most drivers would have just thought they were twigs or other debris. When I arrived at the park office on the first day I saw a graphic that explained that 80% of the animals found dead-on-road (DOR), victims of vehicles, are snakes. Certainly these small snakes, which were motionless and sunning and not moving across the road, would be overlooked by most drivers and accidentally killed. However, the sad fact is that some drivers that recognize snakes on the road go out of their way to crush them beneath their wheels. Humans can suck. I photographed a couple of the snakes and released all in the roadside grass. I’m sure they went right back out onto the road, but at least the traffic I saw during the rest of my drive wouldn’t kill them.

I parked back at my campsite and decided to hike towards the slough that runs through the park where I was certain to find alligators and wading birds. As I walked down the path running parallel to the wetland I came upon an alligator sunning in the trailside grass. It was a six-footer and didn’t even move as I stopped to photograph it. Farther along I saw many alligators ranging from six to ten feet or more. Great blue herons, great egrets, wood storks and other birds took to flight at my disturbance. The area is close to the park road and allows access for those less adventurous than me. There is a bench on one side of the path and a picnic table a bit farther up on the other side. I spent a couple hours at the site with my long lens on a tripod and another camera in my hand. I watched both great blue and little blue herons, cormorants, egrets, ibis, wood storks and, of course, alligators. Fish were constantly jumping in the marsh and I saw some large fish in the shallows. It was a serene spot to spend the late morning. I was by myself except for a couple that road up on mountain bikes. I recognized them quickly as my campsite next-door neighbors. Their arrival sent the birds to flight, but I waited for many to return.

Tonight is my last night here. Tomorrow morning I will drive two and a half hours north to Ocala where I will be storing the Wheelhouse while I am in Borneo and Malaysia. Hopefully I will be done by midday and then I will continue north to Macon, Georgia for the night. I intend to make it back to my bonus dad (stepdad) Joel’s house on Monday. On Tuesday I will get ready for my overseas trip and have lunch with my sister Lisa. I fly out of Chicago’s O’Hare airport Wednesday evening arriving in Dubai on Thursday evening, Kuala Lumpur Friday morning and then Kuching, Borneo on Friday afternoon. My friends will join me in Kuching on Saturday.

Today after I have everything packed I am going to make the campsite and RV tour video I never got to yesterday and I also am going to buy some firewood so I can have a campfire on my final night and enjoy the big can of Foster’s lager I bought the other day.

Due to the lack of wifi and almost no cell signal I am way behind on posting images to Instagram. Tomorrow night when I reach my Macon hotel I will bomb Insta will loads of pix. I'm sending this from town, but have no wifi and am using my cell data plan. Images will have to wait until the weekend. Enjoy yours!

All the best, M

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

#20 - Wednesday, 1 February 2017 | Okeechobee, Florida

Hello February from Okeechobee, Florida where it is currently 78ºF/26ºC. I type this during my second visit to Applebee's since my arrival to the area (the first was the first night's dinner). Tonight will be night three of five at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. Not only is there no wi-fi, but my cell signal is almost non-existent. The park is situated far from cities and cell towers and my beautiful campsite is shaded by amazing old trees covered with epiphytes and Spanish moss. I hope to wean myself of my Internet dependency as the year progresses, but I will always seek out free wi-fi when I can. Starbucks is the most dependable source of both the finest espresso and high speed inter webs, but there isn't one anywhere near here. The drive from my campsite to Okeechobee is about 50 minutes, 15 of which is spent driving the white sand and gravel road leading out of the park. The remoteness of Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park (KPPSP) lends itself to many things. It is known to be the finest place in Florida for stargazing and one of my campsite neighbors has two huge telescopes set up next to his equally huge and impressive RV coach.

Site 27, Equestrian Campground, Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park

My favorite part of the drive 33 miles southeast to Okeechobee (and back) is the huge flocks of Sandhill Cranes I see each time. I so enjoyed photographing these magnificent birds in northern Illinois last year and I wonder if any of those that frequented Huntley are feeding in the south central Florida warmth. The first evening I saw one pasture that held at least fifty cranes, perhaps closer to 75. Today I saw groups ranging from several to dozens and many were near water-filled oases. I also saw many in flight. Sandhill cranes 

The state park is beautiful and this morning I hiked almost four hours. The park is expansive (54,000 acres) and there are many trails. As it is prairie filled with palmetto scrub, there is little tree cover, but many of the trails lead from the sweeping grassland vistas in out of shady hammocks. In one island of trees I watched a pair of flickers (woodpeckers) for some time and photographed them. Vultures soared overhead and small birds flitted among the palmetto. They were far too fast to view for long much less photograph, but I believe that many were the endangered Florida grasshopper sparrow. The sun was strong and my liter of water began to disappear quicker than I would have liked. My eyes scanned everywhere for reptiles and I had hoped that they would be warming after a comparatively cool early year night. I startled a couple of grouse hidden in the scrub. Actually, my heart jumped and it would be fairer to say that they startled me. Further along a raptor rosefrom the trailside ground ahead and flew across the prairie. Although it quickly distanced itself from me, the beak shape revealed its identity and I may have cursed at having missed the chance to get a good view, and perhaps a photograph, of a Crested Caracara. These falcon relatives are very different in shape and habits, and are known to often feed on carrion. They are known from central Florida, central and southern Texas and south-central Arizona south into Mexico. I continued along the trail and was surprised that what seemed like mostly a dry area became increasingly wetland. I hoped this might mean snakes and I searched around accumulated water. Out of water and my the ball of my right foot becoming very pained I picked up speed after consulting my trail map and finding the right trail to lead me back towards camp. The white sand trail became wide enough for my truck and I observed tracks from the ranger's ATVs and some paw prints that had me wondering if panthers were found in the park. A blue heron and a couple of great white egrets spooked as I approached and I knew that the sides of the trail must be marshy. Soon the water reached both sides of the trail. Where one culvert passed beneath the trail I paused and saw both baby and juvenile alligators in the water. I photographed them for some time and began to wonder if mother might be nearby. The marshy grass showed clear signs of alligator trails. There were banded neonate alligators, but also yearlings and they varied in size based on feeding and growth. I started looking more closely for an adult. I walked to the other side of the trail (the other end of the culvert pipe) and I don't know if mom or I were more startled. She was about seven feet long and was laying in the grass sunning herself. At sight of the big tattooed primate she dove into the water and sought cover inside the mouth of the pipe. I moved along and picked up pace to return to camp for much needed water and a cold shower.

Once I was refreshed and wearing t-shirt, shorts and sandals, I headed into town. As I drove out of KPPSP, I saw a raptor ahead on the road. I slowed my truck and noticed that it was feeding. As I got closer I knew that it was a crested caracara. Perhaps I would have another chance to capture an image or three. I pulled over. Whenever I am driving I have two cameras on the passenger seat. One body has my 300mm f4 super telephoto with 1.4x teleconverter and the other has my amazing 70-200mm f2.8 wildlife workhorse. The first is equivalent to 630mm on my APC (cropped sensor) bodies and I pointed it at the bird. I was able to snap a couple of exposures, but it took to flight before I had a chance to do what I hoped. I jumped back into the truck and chased after it. It was flying parallel to the road on the right side perhaps 50 feet above the ground and moving at a good clip. I drove faster in pursuit watching for it to land. Ahead it landed on a elevated wood platform. I am not sure what the purpose of the structure is, but it sort of looks like an osprey nesting platform only about ten times as large. I'll have to investigate it later when I return to camp. The caracara landed and I was able to drive just past and pull off the road. It seemed much more comfortable sitting high above the ground and I spent about five minutes firing off maybe 100 exposures. I can't wait to review my photos later. Hopefully at least one will make it to Instagram along with some gator shots. I won't be able to post until I have wi-fi again though ...

My plan for the evening is to finish tidying the Wheelhouse. Almost everything is put away now and I will then relax with a movie. Tomorrow morning I plan to film a tour of the campsite and the interior of the Wheelhouse. I'll post it to YouTube and share here.

All the best, M