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A Few Days in Death Valley

When I jetted off to Las Vegas in February for a four-day photo expedition in Death Valley, I had no idea it would be the last trip I would take for the foreseeable future. So in week five of sheltering in place against the Covid-19 pandemic, this post will return me — virtually — to that remarkable place.

Most people know that Death Valley is one of the hottest places in the world, right up there with deserts in the Middle East. The hottest air temperature ever recorded there — and on earth — was 134° F in 1913. It’s also the lowest place in North America, with the salt flats of Badwater Basin sitting 282 feet below sea level. Four mountain ranges hem the valley in, accounting for the rarity of rainfall and extreme heat.

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It rained the day we went to Badwater, and the slick of water on the crystallized salt looked like ice or marble. I kept thinking I was going to slip and fall — until I saw a teenage girl prancing around in bare feet. We were all surprised by the rain, since the average annual rainfall is 1.5″.

Another morning we visited Dante’s Point at dawn and saw the Basin from above — in freezing winds that made it hard to keep the tripod steady.

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While summer temperatures give Death Valley its name, the early spring is lovely, with days in the 70s and nights in the low 50s. Unfortunately, we were too early to see the desert bloom.

The geology of the valley is beautifully dramatic, in a stark, almost other-worldly way. One of the weirder places we visited was the Racetrack, a perfectly flat dry lake about three miles long, surrounded by rocky mountains, reached by traversing a 27-mile rutted dirt and gravel road.

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The site is known for its sailing stones, rocks that are extruded from the mountains when ice sheets melt and are sent “sailing” across the playa, leaving a trail on the surface.

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In contrast to the unforgiving jagged rocks that dominate the landscape, near our hotel we explored a small set of dunes that softly undulate toward the surrounding mountains. I say small, because they can’t match Namibia’s gigantic red dunes, but they were significant, nonetheless, as you can see from the teeny tiny people walking along the crest.

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When I was a kid there was a TV show called Death Valley Days, sponsored by 20 Mule Team Borax, a detergent. Of course, I had no idea what borax was, or the significance of a twenty-mule team. But the Harmony Borax Works, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is the eerie remains of a 19th-century borax mining enterprise in Death Valley. Chinese laborers were paid about $1.25 a day to collect chunks of the mineral from the valley floor and load them onto these double wagons pulled by teams of twenty mules. This was the most efficient way to bring the product to market.

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Perhaps the most spectacular location was Zabriskie Point, a lookout we visited at sunrise one day. Some of the geological formations were created by ancient volcanoes. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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Richard, our photographer leader, urged us to think black and white for these monochrome landscapes, but the colors were so rich and diverse that it seemed a shame to mute them. I did convert a few from this shoot, however.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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As our short stay wound down, my friend Terry and I took off in our rental Mustang (think Thelma and Louise) back to Las Vegas. Our last views of Death Valley were along Artists’ Drive, a one-way loop through the unique rock formations dubbed the Artist’s Palette. The vibrant colors come from oxidized metals. I can only imagine how spectacular this would be in early morning light, rather than the harsh afternoon sun.

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Until next time….

Hermetically Sealed

The campus of the private school where I’m holed up with my family is eerily deserted. Usually as spring break ends, the high schoolers return to campus and on a lovely early spring day would be tossing frisbees on the Great Quad and shouting greetings to their friends. Instead, the only sound accompanying me as I walk my granddaughter in her stroller is birdsong, welcome enough on the odd warm day leading up to April.

The Great Quad
300 year-old tree on campus

These days are strange indeed. Since I’m in the at-risk age group, my daughter and son-in-law have forbidden me to go to the grocery store or pharmacy. Each day requires a plan to keep almost-4 year-old C occupied with activities ranging from science experiments to art to reading to chores to playing soccer or tennis in the basement playroom. He needs the stimulus of his classmates at daycare, but that’s not happening anytime soon. One of his favorite activities is going to the library — who knows when we’ll be able to go back?

His parents, K and J, are working/teaching from home, a complicated dance necessitating tag-teaming child care. Teaching students who have retreated to their homes all over the US and the world requires a different kind of planning. Though the campus “lockdown” is scheduled to last till the end of April, we suspect it will extend to summer break.

One upside to the deserted campus: C is getting a lot of practice on his “pedal bike” without having to worry about cars.

The past few days have been rainy and raw, and those are the worst, with abbreviated trips outside just to get fresh air. We’ve pretty much exhausted the thrill of looking for signs of spring, though we’re still excited about the fox that appears from time to time in the yard in the morning; everyone has seen it but me. C observed today that Felix doesn’t come out on rainy days.

It seems as if we’re living in a state of suspended animation, waiting for something to change. The news is uniformly bleak, but I still follow it assiduously, as it feels like my only connection to the outside world. I worry about my friends who have small businesses, especially those who provide personal services. I ache for the people on cruise ships that aren’t allowed to dock anywhere. And most of all for the front-line healthcare workers and emergency service personnel whose lives are at risk every day as they toil with inadequate personal protective equipment.

How will COVID-19 change our lives permanently? Will it be for the better? Will we do a better job taking care of each other?

More from Abruzzo

As promised, here are more images from Carunchio and the surrounding area. Although November is not the most beautiful time to visit this quiet region, it’s still fun to find interesting scenes to capture, like these castle ruins next door to the palazzo, or the snow on the Apennine Mountains to the west.

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I made the image above as I was hustling back to the palazzo before the rain (and the dark) caught me. Rain came down in buckets and the wind howled. Frequent strong winds are a factor in local construction, evidenced by the large stones placed on roofs to keep the tiles from blowing off.

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One couple in our group seriously considered buying and restoring a local property, #12 below; there were plenty of fixer-uppers to choose from!

Several cats followed us everywhere when we were out and about. This little sweetie was a poser, for sure. She looked pretty well-fed, especially considering she bore no signs of an owner.

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The niche on the right above marks the honeymoon suite at the palazzo. Ivy clung to every neglected wall. Below I caught my friend Laura on her solitary trek down the hill.

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The sun finally came out for our expedition to Vasto, a little city of 40,000 perched above the Adriatic Sea. Christina, who lives there, gave us a tour before she left us to wander the tiny streets. Supposedly the town was founded by Diomedes in 1300 B.C. In the Middle Ages the area was conquered by the Turks, and the architecture reflects their influence.

A belvedere at the top of the town gives a lovely view of the crescent-shaped beach, and the piazza in the town center serves as a good meeting place.

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On another day we motored to Agnone, visiting a cheese-making factory and watching the process. The cheese below is Caciocavallo (which means cheese on horseback!).

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Our next stop was the Marinelli bell foundry, which is Italy’s oldest family business, having been established in the 1300s; the Marinellis have owned and operated the foundry continuously since then. The foundry building itself dates from the year 1040. They still use an ancient process involving wax castings (etched with the design) and a brick “false bell.” The Marinellis have created many famous bells that hang all over the world, including one in the United Nations, and they are the official foundry of the Vatican. They have an interesting museum with models showing the steps in the forging process; unfortunately, no photos are allowed in the museum.

Lunch that day was a delicious porchetta sandwich on a crusty roll, very typical of the region. After pizza-making (described in my last post), singing and much merriment, we called it a night and left for Rome the following day.  All in all, a great week of cooking, eating, learning and culture with a genial group of people.

Off to Cooking School

As all my friends know, I’m an enthusiastic cook, and have enjoyed various cooking schools. To cap off 2019, three friends and I ventured to Abruzzo, a lesser-known region of Italy on the Adriatic, for a week of culinary adventure during the olive harvest.

The school and our accommodations were headquartered at Palazzo Tour d’Eau at the top of Carunchio, a village of 500 souls about 3 ½-4 hours east of Rome.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The palazzo dates from the 17th century, and was abandoned for fifty years before a retired Italian diplomat bought it and, with his son Massimo and daughter Christina, gutted it and turned it into a recreational cooking school with comfortable sleeping rooms. Ours was the last group of the season, and was comprised of sixteen people, easily accommodated in the teaching kitchen.

Our first excursion was to an olive farm, where we picked olives in the traditional way, raking them off the trees, then tasted several EVOOs.

On a typical day we would rise for breakfast, then have class from about 10:30-12:30. After a short break when the staff cleaned the prep table and turned it into a dining table, we’d eat what we prepared. After some free time in the afternoon we’d gather for dinner and lots of wine.  Other days we might take an outing in the morning and cook around 5:30. Christina had things impeccably planned so our days were full but not overwhelming. The ever-present and always pleasant Tony served us breakfast, assisted with the classes, drove us on our excursions and tended bar; while Sarah mostly assisted in the classes and served dinner. Some of us took a soap-making class from her one afternoon, which was a fun diversion.

Dino was the quintessential chef, generous in his instruction and fun to be around. Below are the gnocchetti (baby gnocchi) and pork and pancetta ragu we made, along with our delicious individual tiramisus.

 

Friday was pizza night, and what fun it was! We started with a salad pie of baby arugula, tomatoes, mozzarella, olive oil and balsamic vinegar, then made about ten different variations. It was a real party night, with a friend, Marco, playing his accordion, then Dino, Christina, Tony and Sarah serenading us with a medley of Italian tunes.

Tony, Me, Christina

More later with photos from the region.

Baby Tira…and Elephants

We had heard about a baby zebra born with unusual coloring: white polka dots on black fur, a rare condition called melanism. Determined to find him in the great expanse of the Mara, Jonathan, acting on a tip from another Sunworld driver, made a beeline across the savannah toward an immense herd of grazing zebras and wildebeests. Stopping along the way, he stood on the car seat and pointed his binoculars toward the herd ahead. “Got him!” he told us jubilantly, as we made our rollicking way forward. Sure enough, about 2 miles(!) later, there was little Tira, grazing with his mother. These images don’t do justice to the tens of thousands of wildebeests and zebras in the surrounding area, which made it all the more remarkable that Jonathan actually spotted him.

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We were concerned that his distinctive coloration would make him stand out to predators or cause the herd to reject him. We learned that zebras are very tolerant of differences, so no worries on that score. Hopefully some naturalists are tracking him; it will be interesting to see if he passes his condition on to his progeny in a few years, assuming he survives.

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I’m endlessly fascinated by these highly intelligent creatures. Kenya has taken aggressive steps to curb poaching, and several organizations besides the Sheldrick (mentioned in an earlier post) are committed to rescue and anti-poaching efforts. It’s mind-boggling to realize that 100,000 elephants were killed for their ivory just between 2010 and 2012. There’s a wonderful episode of the PBS series Nature about Naledi, a calf orphaned at six weeks when her mother died. The film recounts desperate efforts to keep her alive when, uncharacteristically, other herds refused to adopt her. Check it out!

 

A Goat Roast!

Our photographer leader, Piper, has spent a lot of time in Kenya over the past 16 years, and actually lived there for two. As a result, she has developed warm relationships with some of the tribes and is greeted enthusiastically when she appears in a village, hence our invitation to join their goat roast celebrating the circumcision of the 14 year-old boys of the tribe.

We spent some time with the Samburu, including a visit to the chief’s home (one room, made of mud and sticks), and were enchanted by the children, whose first question is always, “What’s your name?”

Following the men to the top of a hill at the edge of the village, we watched them paint each other’s faces and fancy up in beaded necklaces and feathers as the most adept butchers among them slit the goats’ throats and drained the blood (for drinking). After skinning the carcass they cut it into large pieces which they placed on the bonfire they had started by rubbing sticks together. We sampled the roasted liver, which they generously offered — and it was tasty!

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What a special evening it was!

More Cats

It’s hard to choose which cat images to share, as I have so many decent ones. On our last morning game drive we were lucky to catch a leopard in a tree. He had a kill stashed up there with him, as evidenced by the blood dripping off the branch, but since we didn’t see him put it there we couldn’t see what it was. He very cooperatively posed for us for quite some time.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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Our young lions were active this morning, one energetically gnawing at the wildebeest he had killed.

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And the lion family were also up and about…

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This cheetah looked particularly handsome in the golden light.

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To the Maasai Mara

It’s a seven-hour drive southwest to the Maasai Mara, Kenya’s most famous national park, with a good part of the road being rutted dirt. By the time we arrived at the Mara Bush Camp it was already almost dark, but even after the long drive from Nakuru, followed by a game drive in the Mara, we were exhilarated by what we had seen.

We were welcomed by our first leopard (though by no means the last we would follow in the next four days); and by a family of lions who would cross our path almost daily.

The two lionesses seemed to share in caring for their cubs, seven in all. It’s remarkable how these mothers tolerate their babies crawling over and nipping at them.

Our tents at Mara Bush Camp were spacious and comfortable, and we were serenaded to sleep by the snuffling, grunting hippos in their nearby pool. Because the camp is not fenced in, animals are free to roam in; so we were cautioned to call our Maasai warrior escorts whenever we would walk after dark. Our William was draped in a traditional red plaid shuka (blanket) and armed with a spear, a knife and a flashlight. One morning as he was escorting me to the Land Cruiser he stopped to flash his light on a cheetah that was strolling through camp.

Bush Camp Courtyard

We took our meals in the courtyard at the center of camp, and each night at cocktail hour we enjoyed sitting around the bonfire and chatting about our day.

Maasai Mara is home to big cats, and we saw many. Besides the lion family and leopards, cheetahs were everywhere. No one — even Jonathan, Wilson and Piper — had ever seen a leopard sitting on its hind legs, so we were lucky to get the shot!

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As hard as it is to get out before dawn (and breakfast) the rewards are plentiful.

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At the other end of the day, as light was fading, we saw two magnificent young lions — still without their manes — whom Piper said carried all the signs of being the next leaders of the pride. Wilson explained that the lions in the Mara form coalitions to lead their prides, rather than taking down the current elder and fighting each other for supremacy. We saw these boys almost every day.

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Day’s end.

Through the Great Rift Valley

Northwest of Samburu, a six hour drive through the Great Rift Valley, lies Lake Nakuru National Park. Famous for its huge flocks of flamingoes (a flamboyance), climate change has altered the water level and alkalinity dramatically in the last two decades as well as the algae upon which the flamingoes feast. Sadly, we only saw these colorful birds from a distance. Skeletal dead acacias, their feet deep in water, testified to the precipitous rise in the lake level.

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However, here we got our first peek at rhinos, both the critically endangered black and the white varieties. My past encounters with rhinos had been at such a distance that they looked like grey boulders, but here we were able to get close enough to zoom in.

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White rhinos have a shovel-shaped snout, while the black ones have a pointed upper lip. Otherwise, they’re hard to distinguish from each other. The above images are black rhinos; the mother and calf below are white.

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The climate in Nakuru was cool and misty, lighting the yellow acacia forest with a magical glow. On an early morning game drive we could detect the giraffes’ breath in the golden rim light.

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Later in the morning we spotted a lioness with her cubs tucked into the grass beside the road. I couldn’t get enough of these precious babies.

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After a while she led them to a small thicket, where she tucked them in and presumably gave them instructions to stay still and quiet while she went hunting.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The dirt roads in these parks are deeply rutted, and during a bouncy ride on our second morning in Nakuru, I remarked to my mates that our driver, Jonathan, had just turned  down a road marked “Road Closed.” About ten minutes later we found out why.

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After Jen, Marsha and I delicately disembarked, Jonathan called Wilson for assistance. After speculating that they might not be able to get the Land Cruiser out of the sucking mud — necessitating calling Nairobi for another one, 8 or more hours away — they connected the two vehicles with a heavy cable and Wilson was able to pull it out as Jonathan gunned the engine. Only after we got back in the vehicle did we think about the rhinos we had seen just beside the road…

Our Days in Samburu

Wildlife in Samburu was abundant. Pre-dawn excursions offered beautiful light. We would typically jump into the vehicles before the sun came up, chase some animals, and stop between 9 and 10 to have our breakfast in the bush. By 11 we were back at the lodge for lunch and a rest before heading out again around 4 p.m. to catch wildlife during the golden hour.

One animal new to me was the gerenuk, aka the giraffe gazelle, for obvious reasons. It’s remarkable how they delicately eat the tender leaves and leave the nasty thorns behind.

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The river running through the preserve was a rich source of activity, including a sighting of wild dogs who apparently haven’t been seen here in over seven years. Their manic racing made it extremely difficult to capture focused images.

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And then there were the scores of guinea hens with their remarkable blue plumage and polka dotted undercarriage scurrying across the road… OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here we saw Rothschild’s giraffes in the wild. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Grevy’s zebras continued to fascinate us, as we followed their peregrinations and antics. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Next up: Lake Nakuru.