“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Whale Sharks and Jungle Trekking in Belize

OK, swimming with whale sharks was not the only reason we went to Belize.  We wanted to see the Yucatan jungle, visit some Mayan ruins, do some birding, explore caves and canoe a couple of rivers.  But the sharks were my primary goal.
So we loaded up and headed to the Yucatan peninsula to begin our quest.  We decided to combine time on the water with a trek through the Belizean jungle--a good decision.  We hooked up with Adventure Life, an outfitter we have used in the past for treks with great results, and flew into Belize City where we caught a ride to  Pook's Hill Lodge, deep in the western jungle near the capital city of Belmopan.

After a quick stop along the way at the Belize zoo, we arrived at Pook's Hill, our home for the next four days.  Nestled deep in the isolated hills and surrounded by lush jungle, it was a charming and restful home base for our week's excursions.  After setting in, we met the staff and Vicki, the gracious owner of Pook's Hill.  As it turned out, after the first night, we were the only guests for the duration and had the attention of the staff entirely to ourselves.
And grand attention it was!  Excellent food, knowledgeable guides and intact jungle trails at our beck and call.  Local guides took us on daily hikes in the morning and evening, searching our local flora and fauna.  I added 49 new birds species in our walks.  We also took advantage of local adventures including a visit to the ancient Mayan ruins of Xunantunich, a canoe trip on the Rio Macal, a visit to a butterfly farm, a hike (swim) into Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave, a canoe trip on Barton Creek and a stop at Blue Hole National Park.  Hard to say which one was our favorite but the ATM Cave trip was incredible--this is a wild cave tour, definitely not for the casual tourist.  Swimming and squeezing through narrow passages, all in darkness with only headlamps for light.  But the payoff is worth it, the cave is liberally littered with ancient artifacts, bowls, tools and human skeletons and skulls (it was a religious sacrificial site).
After our week of jungle adventures we moved onto the beaches of Placencia, a small and relatively undeveloped village on a peninsula in the Gulf of Mexico.  Robert's Lodge was our base for the remainder of the trip.  Located directly on the Gulf, it was a pleasant dream land for our whale shark trek. 
We loaded up for our trip out to Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve.  I had intended to scuba dive but after talking with Linda at Pook's Hill she convinced me that snorkeling would be just as productive.  I was glad I opted for snorkeling.  Our dive outfit (Seahorse Dive Shop in Placencia)  had snorkelers on one boat and divers on two others.   As it turned out, we (snorkelers) saw and swam with three whale sharks.  The two dive boats saw one and none respectively.  It was a wonderful experience, the thrill of a lifetime to swim with such magnificent creatures.  I will let the videos speak for themselves.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Adventures in Parasites (and Ants)

Like a lot of people, I liked The Revenant, and the grizzly attacking Leonardo DiCaprio was one of the most intense cinematic scenes ever.  After seeing the movie, people who know I travel a lot to wild places asked me if I’d ever had a dangerous wildlife encounter.  I’ve had sketchy encounters with wildlife so I tell them about stumbling on a black bear sow and her two cubs, a face-to-face encounter with a moray eel in a sunken wreck in the Bahamas,  skirting a caribou bull in Alaska and being charged by an angry bull elephant in the Serengeti.  I unknowingly parked directly under a leopard crouching on an overhanging acacia tree limb in Tanzania.  I’ve run across more snakes than I care to remember, found a scorpion under my sleeping bag in the Grand Canyon and tagged angry sharks in South Carolina
But my worst encounters were with nemeses smaller and much less menacing.
My most memorable experience (in many embarrassing ways) was caused by a microscopic critter called giardia lamblia.  Ran into this one on a canoe trip in Minnesota.  I picked up my little friend by drinking contaminated water in the northern backcountry.  My friendly giardia protozoa zeroed in on my gastrointestinal track where he immediately found things to his liking and proceeded to wreak havoc, his specialty being a nice little affliction called giardasis.    
 I don’t need to explain here the symptoms of contaminated protozoa in your small intestine, just suffice it to say that you don’t want to be on an airplane when those symptoms hit.  Which, of course, is precisely where I was.  Dominating an airline toilet when 150 other passengers are aboard does not make one a popular travel mate but I didn’t really care, I locked the door and spent the majority of the flight in rumbling seclusion.  Longest, most miserable flight of my life.  Followed by two more weeks of bathroom sprints and churning stomach aches before antibiotics finally kicked Mr. Giardia’s butt.  Lost five pounds and my dignity.

My Nemesis
The most painful encounter I had was with a one-inch insect.  I was hiking in the central cordillera of Costa Rica and my guide had just told me to watch for bullet ants—one-inch black ants with intimidating outsized pincers.  “They have a very painful bite,” our guide said and he barely had those words out of his mouth when I reached over a ledge and felt a searing pain in my middle finger.  I pulled my hand back and, yep, bullet ant with both pincers embedded.

Now you have probably been bitten by a fire ant and know the unpleasantness of that pain.  Trust me, you don’t know pain.  The Schmidt Insect Pain Scale Index (yes, there is such a thing), developed by Dr. Justin Schmidt, ranks insects based on the severity of pain of their bite or sting, 1.0 through 4.0, increasingly more painful.  Fire ants rank a lowly 1.0, bullets ants are alone at the top of the heap, the most painful of any insect on the planet, an excruciating 4.0+.  Schmidt further provides incisive, and rather humorous, descriptions of the various stings (a raving masochist apparently, he actually allowed himself to personally experience the bite or sting of each of the 150 ranked insects).  He describes a fire ant as “like walking on carpet and getting a static electricity shock.”  A bullet ant is described as “walking on hot charcoals with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.”
I was hurting—HURTING—for eight hours, the pain crawling up my hand, my arm, into my chest.  I thought I was having a heart attack. I broke out in sweat, I panted, I was nauseous, I almost threw up.  Searing pain surged through my hand and arm, a severe debilitating pain that lasted for more than four hours.  I wished I had encountered a lion or tiger or bear instead of an ant. Our guide led us into a nearby village where the local shaman offered a cure, which I declined after seeing the concoction he wanted me to drink.  I gained a new-found respect for bullet ants.

So there you go Leonardo, take your wimpy old grizzly attack, ants and parasites are what I fear.