Category Archives: Animals

Land or Sea Based Whale Watching in Hermanus South Africa

One of the best things about being in Cape Town during the winter months is the ability to stand on shore and watch Southern Right Whales. We did this at Hermanus, which claims to have the best land-based whale watching in the world. Southern Right Whales got their names because they were considered the right whales to hunt. They are slow and float when dead, making them easy to kill and haul. Their unfortunate nature led to their near extinction. However, several conservation efforts in addition to the 1986 ban on commercial whaling have enabled whales to make a come back. Standing on the shores of Hermanus, you would never know that whales are endangered. A keen eye will spot several distinct v-shaped blows out of the water, along with dark flippers, tails and heads.

We were so impressed by what we could see from land that we decided to take a whale tour and find out what awaits on the wide open Atlantic. I’ll spare you the details but, during our three hour trip, Ava and I saw more of the insides of paper bags than we did whales. I went on to the deck thinking fresh air would help. It didn’t. I have never felt sea-sick before. We spent an entire day on an ocean safari in Namibia and none of us had any issues. Just as I began analyzing what made this boat ride different, I saw who was behind the wheel in the cabin.

While our two-year old was driving, a two-year old humpback was below the boat making his own waves. In addition to several whales we saw in the distance, we (by that I mean those of us whom were not stuck in paper bags) saw a few whales up close and personal. They were very playful and curious about our boat. We learned that the motor sounds like a heartbeat to them, so the younger whales spend some time trying to get acquainted with the strange sea creature. Southern Right Whales are identified by their characteristic white markings. They also accumulate barnacles, which they try to rub off along the shoreline. This is one of the reasons why they are easy to spot closer to shore than other whales.

Just as I was muttering about how I saw more whales on shore than on the boat we were back on terra firma. We opted to wait out the rest of the day on land, where a gorgeous sunset provided the ideal backdrop to watch whales playing in the far distance.

This was the first experience on our journey where our family had very a divided reaction. Sandeep and Kayan loved the trip. Sandeep was racing in and out of the cabin, up and down the stairs, eager to see each and every movement up close. Kayan was busy entertaining the crew with his rendition of “All the Single Ladies” and his mad driving skills. Ava and I wished we had stayed on shore and enjoyed the whales over a picnic. Either way, one thing is certain. You can’t go wrong whale watching in Hermanus. On shore watching is easier on the stomach and allows you to watch the whales in nature. A boat gets you up close if you have the stomach to watch.

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Filed under Africa, Animals, South Africa

Signs We Love Cape Town

We have a fascination with odd road signs. In Namibia we snapped many picture of signs that we had never seen before, some of which we never deciphered. We rent a car each weekend in Cape Town and Sandeep drives us around the wineries, ocean routes and mountains. What makes Cape Town memorable for us is its natural beauty, so it’s no wonder than many of the road signs have something to do with nature.

Capetonians seems to defer a lot to nature. The joke about the weather is, “If you don’t like the weather in Cape Town, wait an hour.” The winds off Table Mountain are so strong that the trees surrender in odd angles. One day I literally thought the wind was going to swoop Kayan away. Signs everywhere tell us to take care of nature, be it in the form of penguins or baboons. We weren’t sure if this sign at a Stellenbosch winery was asking us to watch out for ducks or snails. Either way, all four of us obediently had our eyes peeled on the road, although I must say it seems futile to try and avoid snails when driving.

The day after we watched for snails we watched whales along the Whale Coast Route, a stretch east of Cape Town which claims to be the best spot in the world for land based whale watching. Around July, Southern Right Whales migrate  from Antarctica. They get very close to the shore, where they rub off their accumulated barnacles on the massive boulders that line the ocean floor. It is still early in the season, but we were lucky to see a few whales in the distance as we sat on shore and ate lunch. We never even knew that the concept of land based whale watching existed and it’s a memorizing experience to be on firm ground while watching these giant creatures out in the vast ocean. We’re planning another trip back in a couple of weeks when hopefully more whales will have migrated.

While there is some marine life we want to see, there is others that we’d rather avoid. The same coast that attracts whales, penguins and seals also has one of the highest concentration of Great White Sharks in the world. Kruger National Park and Great White Shark diving are often cited as the two most popular reasons that tourists come to South Africa. These blue boards educating surfers, swimmers and beach goers about sharks dot the coastline. The last fatal shark attack in these waters was in April 2012, although such attacks are rare. Many of Cape Town’s beaches have official shark spotters and signage that informs people about current shark conditions.

The shark smart board reminded us that we humans are more often encroaching on these animals’ habitats than the other way around. We are so fortunate to be able to enjoy all sorts of animals, from lions to whales, in their natural habitat while in Africa. These experiences have been opportunities for our entire family to really understand that we share this world with so many creatures and that their survival depends on our care and respect.


Filed under Africa, Animals, South Africa

A Day of Penguins and Rainbows on Cape Town Southern Peninsula

Our trip down Cape Town’s Southern Peninsula ended up being an extended safari of sorts. Boulder’s Beach, just half an hour from Cape Town, got its name due to the 540 million year old boulders that are scattered on its shore. In 1982, the relatively calm bay along the beach attracted the attention of two penguins who set up camp here and have since grown their community to over 3,000 formally outfitted birds. Penguins mate for life after a three week courtship. We had a lot of respect for that, particular since Sandeep and my courtship lasted all of a few hours before we knew we’d be together forever. This pair walking along the shores of Boulder Beach reminded us of an old couple taking an evening walk. Perhaps they were discussing their anchovy dinner plans, what to do with their nest and who to frolic with that evening, not unlike humans that have grown into routines together.

South African National Parks has created a boardwalk that respectfully passes through the penguin habitat. It’s close enough for humans to see the birds, but far enough that the penguins go about their business of courting, mating, nesting, and regurgitating food. The proximity does, however, mean that extra care needs to be taken.

As we made our way around the peninsula, we saw this sign.

We passed our first ostrich farm, although we have yet to actually eat the bird (despite Ava’s plea).

What we did feast on was a fish and chips lunch at Kalky’s, a Cape Town institution set on the docks of the fishing town of Kalk Bay. South Africa has been home to many different cultures over its tumultuous history and this is one of the few places where we know we’ll get crisp fresh fish and chips along with perfectly made samosas.

We have yet to fully understand the fishing culture in Cape Town, but we have seen people fishing from many points along the water. Some vineyards we passed also promoted fishing on their grounds. I suppose when you have a view so beautiful, fishing is an ideal way to be alone with nature.

We drove back home along Chapman’s Peak, a route dug high into the mountainside above the ocean. Cape Town’s quintessential winter fog and rain descended just as we were prepared to enjoy this drive. Many people warned us that Cape Town’s winters are a dreary affair. We haven’t been to bothered with it yet. On our drive back a rainbow appeared over the water. Ava was the first to notice it. She seemed shocked. “Is that a real rainbow?” It’s the first one she’s seen in real life. We had thought that the animals in Etosha or perhaps the penguins we saw earlier in the day had the biggest impact on the kids thus far on our Africa travels. However, for Ava, a simple rainbow was her most magical moment yet.

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Filed under Africa, Animals, Food, South Africa

An Ocean Safari in Walvis Bay Namibia

Here’s another adventure that would have required a sign-off in America – allowing a two and four year old to hang off a catamaran and cuddle wild seals. That’s what we did in Walvis Bay (whale bay) on our last day in Namibia.

Walvis Bay is the only deep sea harbor along Namibia’s otherwise foreboding coastline, making it a main shipping and fishing port.

Several pelicans trailed our boat as we undocked and made our way to a dwindling colony of flamingos. Changing weather patterns have altered the birds’ migration habits and now more flamingos spend the entire year in Etosha National Park rather than make the migration back to Walvis Bay. Our second neighborhood stop was at a seal colony, where the deafening barks of the seals had Kayan frowning, “too loud!” In addition to seals, the kids expectantly watched the water for bottle nosed dolphins.

For nourishment, we feasted on oysters, fresh from an oyster farm in Walvis Bay. We introduced oysters to Ava when she was one, on a beach in Puerto Plata as a fisherman freshly shucked them for us. Despite the number of oysters we’ve collectively consumed over the years,we never knew how they are farmed. We watched as men hoisted up baskets of shells and learnt that a Chinese fishing company (more on how China is already ruling the world in a later post…) had an industrious idea of transplanting Chilean oysters to Walvis Bay and seeing how they fare in the cold plankton rich waters. The same oyster that takes up to three years to mature in Chile reaches succulence within 10 months in Namibia. The result is a massive oyster farm off the coast of Namibia that sends 80% of its stock to Beijing, according to our catamaran captain. Luckily, we got to dine on some of the 20% that remains in and around Southern Africa.

Between our safari in Etosha and our day on Walvis Bay, Namibia has provided us with some rich animal encounters. The kids have been able to see the creatures they read about in books and visited in aquariums and zoos. As our catamaran approached the dock, I saw Ava and Kayan engaged is some sort of imaginative play. When I asked them what they were doing, Ava barked, “We are seals!”


Filed under Africa, Animals, Namibia

The Hard Life of a Lion in Etosha National Park Namibia

Our days in Etosha National Park just kept getting better. On our third day, while driving along the southern coast of the Etosha Pan, we saw a large sandy body swaggering through the grass.

He may be the king of the jungle, but life hasn’t always been easy for this handsome guy. Mainly due to power struggles with other males, only one in five lion cubs live to see their second birthdays. If they are lucky to survive, when they turn three they must leave their pride or risk being perceived as a threat by the older lions. Between the ages of three and five, a single lion will roam the grasslands, often alone but sometimes with one or two other males. These nomadic lions remain bachelors until they are five. They then battle weaker lions to take over existing prides and the cycle continues.

Once a lion has a pride, life is pretty sweet. The lionesses do the hunting and child rearing. The lion’s main jobs are to defend his pride’s territory and procreate. Kayan tried his best lion roar (once we rolled up the windows and gave him permission), but thankfully the lion didn’t seem bothered with our male cub. Watching this lion saunter in front of our car, mark his territory and then disappear back into the bush was exciting. This time, we were careful not to stall our car.

Throughout the day, we experienced several animal crossings throughout the park. We will never look at Zebra crossings the same way again.

Elephants, giraffe and springbucks all decided to make their way in front of our wheels. The animals are weary of cars, which is good, but don’t let us disturb their activities.

Apart from the quiet gravel roads, the land in Etosha is undisturbed by humans. This carcass is a reminder that we were very much in the wild.

The scenery and animals are something that I could not capture on film no matter how hard I tried. Perhaps if I had this guy’s camera I would have done a better job.

In March, when I wrote Anyone Can Travel, Just Let Go, I said, ” By the end of our trip Kayan will know a zebra, lion and rhinoceros because he saw them in the wild, not because he was shown them in a book.” We are so fortunate that we were able to follow through on this prophecy. The kids saw all these creatures and more during our three day Namibian safari. Even though he saw hundreds of zebra and a few dozen giraffe, Kayan still consistently called a giraffe a zebra and a zebra a giraffe. However, he knows his lions.


Filed under Africa, Animals

The Lions Were Not Sleeping in Etosha National Park Namibia

We woke up at sunrise on our second day in Etosha in hopes of seeing more lions. June is dry season in northern Namibia, which means that animals congregate around a few sources of water, usually early in the morning and in the evenings. This makes animal sightings easier than in the summer. The camp told us that mornings were the best time to see a pride. We plucked the kids out of bed and put them in the car, still wearing their PJs. We didn’t see any lions at two different watering holes. Just as we headed back for breakfast, we noticed six sandy heads bobbing towards us.

Yesterday, we were so excited to see the back of one lion’s head. The thrill of seeing a pride trotting towards us was a little too much. We stopped the car and watched. They got a little too close for comfort, so Sandeep tried to start the engine, except it didn’t start. The windows were down and four lions were coming straight towards us. I was about to hurl myself over the kids when Sandeep realized that in his excitement he had shut off the car in Drive. Once we sorted that out, we inched away carefully.

Etosha is a very easy park to self-drive and it seems that animals are pouring out of every bush and corner. This is the scene at a watering hole around noon, were we saw an elephant, a white rhino, zebra, springbuck and countless birds congregated together for a drinks.

Another watering hole boasted as much diversity – zebra, gemsbuck, wildebeest, springbuck, ostrich and birds – in an even larger quantity.

When we pointed out our first ostrich, Ava said, “Wow. That is a big bird. I don’t think I can eat it like that so you’ll have to cut it up in small pieces for me.” The kids have been great on safari. They are willing to wait patiently and watch the animals. To keep things educational, we taught them how baby animals drink from their mothers.

Just to make sure our day couldn’t get any more perfect, we came back to the camp and found this family of elephants quenching their thirst at the watering hole about 100 yards from our chalet.

The more animals we see the more we want to go looking for more. The hunt is addictive.



Filed under Africa, Animals, Namibia

Our First Hour in Etosha National Park Namibia

Sandeep and I chatted the night before we headed to Etosha National Park in Namibia and I told him one of my childhood memories. I was six. My parents had returned from safari in Kenya with pictures that I still remember in vivid detail – a lion with a magnificent mane, a leopard draped over a tree branch, and a herd of zebras. After seeing those pictures, going on safari has topped my list of travel dreams. The thought of being hours away from realizing the dream made me nervous. What if we couldn’t see any animals? We had no idea what to expect. To manage expectations, we prepared ourselves for a few days of seeing nothing but birds.

On our four hour drive from Windhoek to Etosha, the kids sang about a dozen renditions of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Ava kept asking if we were in the jungle yet. We pointed out a few warthogs by the side of the road but she didn’t seem too impressed. Kayan practiced his lion roars with increasing intensity. We entered Etosha’s gate an hour before sunset.

We thought it would be too bold to pursue wildlife without getting the lay of the land first. So our plan was to head straight to our new home, Okaukuejo Camp. However, within a few minutes, I spotted several giraffe heads bobbing in the distance. Giraffe and zebra topped my list of desired sightings and I was too excited to pass up on the opportunity. Plus, giraffe seemed tame enough that we figured we would just take a quick look. We turned onto a dirt road to find this group drinking water.

A car heading our way told us that there were lions ahead. We had no idea what to do. Were we supposed to stop the car or gun the engine? After hours of hearing, “Hush my darling, don’t cry my darling, the lion sleeps tonight” and Kayan’s lion roars, it seemed like a sign that we should forge ahead. We went ahead very slowly, windows up and doors locked. They took a while to spot but we finally saw three female lions lolling away the evening. (All pictures on this blog are untouched, so I have not zoomed in on the lioness. If you are having trouble spotting her, she is sitting in the middle of the picture looking right.)

Sandeep and Kayan have been very excited about seeing lions, so this was their moment. Just as Sandeep said, “What I really want to see is a lion hunt,” a herd of zebra meandered by the other side of our car. We braced ourselves to be caught in between the predictors and their prey. These must have been very satiated or very lazy lions, because they didn’t budge. The lions and we just watched the zebras sway into the grass, creating a geometric pattern in the savannah. Sandeep said something about it being too bad the lion didn’t eat the zebra and Ava wanted to know why anyone would want to eat a zebra when it was so beautiful.

The sun began to set and we finally checked into our camp. We couldn’t believe that we had seen all these animals within our first hour in Etosha, at a time when we weren’t actively searching for wildlife. Our first impression is that self-driving in Etosha is very easy, even with young kids. We couldn’t have asked for a better welcome to our African safari experience.


Filed under Africa, Animals, Namibia

Is Traveling to Africa with Kids Too Risky

Extended travel requires planning. There’s a delicate balance between planning enough to have stability and leaving an itinerary open enough for spontaneity. Between Internet research and personal recommendations, this has been an easy balance to strike during our travels in Asia and Europe. Things may not be quite as easy in Africa. We’ve just started planning for a June arrival in southern Africa and preliminary research makes us feel like novice travelers. Things such as car jacking and being eaten by lions (toddlers make good lion bait is one thing we have repetitively read) are risks we just haven’t had to consider elsewhere.

Here is last night’s conversation between The King of Paranoia and The Queen of Rationalization.

Sandeep: We should have planned for Africa months ago. I’m looking at these game reserves and the good ones book out a year in advance. And then a lot of them don’t allow kids.

Diya: Oh yeah? Well, can’t we just camp? Isn’t that what the One Year Off family did?

S: I’m not camping in the bush.

D: Why? We can take a guide with us.

S: There are wild animals in the bush. And a lion can definitely bite through a tent. Plus, how are you going to control the kids in a tent? What if Kayan just runs out? There is a reason that these places don’t allow kids.

D: I think there are better things for a lion to eat than our tent. But I get what you’re saying about Kayan. I’ll look into what our options are with kids.

S: And we should research all the other risks in Africa.

D: Like?

S: Scorpions, snakes, crime.

D: We know Africa has all those things, we just have to be careful. If I see a scorpion I’m not going to and make friends with it.

S: This is not funny. There are specific risks and if we don’t research we won’t know how to prepare. Like what if we need to buy the kids closed shoes to protect them from scorpions?

D: I am sure all the kids in Africa don’t have closed shoes.

S: That’s not the point. Look, we have two kids to worry about and we need to know our risks. You wouldn’t go to war unprepared, would you?

At this point I can see that Sandeep is really annoyed so I search “risks to visitors in Africa” on Google. This is a really stupid thing to do. There are over 50 countries in Africa and the risks include pirates, guerrilla warfare, and of course scorpions and snakes.

D: I don’t know how to do this. It’s telling me things like don’t have s*x with strangers because a third of Botswana’s population has AIDS. What do I do with that?

S: Look D, I need to know that you’re taking this seriously otherwise we just shouldn’t go.

Of course we are going to go. The kids are so excited about seeing Africa’s animals, although even they don’t know what they are in for. Kayan’s closest encounter with a wild cat is his affectionate relationship with Tiger.

I joke with Sandeep that he’s African and our trip should be like a happy homecoming. He was born in Nigeria, which is a very different country now than it was almost four decades ago. Moreover, Africa is a diverse continent and one that neither of us knows much about. The King of Paranoia has a point when he says we need to research the risks. Our Sikkim experience taught us that we are city slickers and not intrepid wilderness types. I can deal with a horse being outside our tent in Sikkim, but knowing that canvas is all that separates the kids from a lion will elicit fear even in The Queen of Rationalization.

Come June, while Sandeep, Kayan, Ava, Tiger and I watch a lion kill a zebra, I hope we all can rest assured knowing that we are prepared for the experience. Our next several days will be spent figuring our our Africa plans. Who knows, we may even go shopping for some closed shoes.

When planning for travel, which camp do you fall in? Paranoia or Rationalization? We’d love to hear your stories of when either worked for or against you.


Filed under Africa, Animals, Travel With Kids

Street Dogs and Cats in Istanbul

We expected a coffee shop on every corner in Istanbul. We expected mosques everywhere. We even expected a well groomed crop of Istanbullus. What we didn’t expect was the plethora of stray dogs and cats. Growing up in Egypt, where we were the rare family that had dogs, I know that dogs are considered unclean by Muslims. Turkey is about 98% Muslim yet groomed and well generally behaved dogs not only freely roam the streets of Istanbul, they are taken care of by Istanbullus.

Until 2004, the city used to capture and kill its strays. Public outcry urged the city to rethink this practice. While Islam does have negative connotations about dogs, it also urges its followers to treat all creatures with kindness. The compromise in Istanbul is that strays are vaccinated and neutered or spayed by the municipality and released back into the area in which they were found. The treated animals are tagged and micro chipped with a record of their medical history. Istanbullus rarely allow these animals into their homes, but take it upon themselves to feed and sometimes provide outdoor accommodations. I am a big believer in having a pet, but Sandeep, who doesn’t mind animals from a distance, argues that this is the more natural way of treating animals. Their basic needs of shelter and food are provided by humans, yet they avoid pent up energy by roaming freely. This is not unlike what we observed in Chiang Mai, with it’s pedigree-like crop of stray dogs.

Istanbullus that have chosen to semi-adopt a stray take their duties seriously. Every evening, we see little aluminum trays with pet foot outside the doorways of our neighborhood. Most have dried kibble, but many have delicious looking hot food. We’ve seen cardboard and straw bedding outside stores for the dogs. The tiny corner store on our block, where I couldn’t even find cereal, had a variety of cat and dog food in single serving baggies.

The practice of treating and releasing the dogs is not without its issues. Animal rights organizations around Istanbul still claim that the municipality doesn’t fully follow through on its directives. Some report that dogs are captured and released into uninhabited areas, where they are left to starve. Aggressive and temperamental dogs are not unheard of, and their night time barking can be a nuisance.

Islam doesn’t hold the same negative connotations about cats as it does on dogs. That, combined with the more reclusive nature of cats, makes them more tolerated on Istanbul’s streets. In addition to the well groomed people, even the animals seem to take their style seriously. I took this picture a few days ago, finding it rather amusing that the cat matched the bike. The cat has been on that bike for the past two days, which just goes to show that every stray has a home in Istanbul.


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Living as Real Nomads in Sikkim

When people now ask us where we are from we usually reply that we are nomads. Here is a typical scene of our family, with our bags packed and ready to find a new temporary home.

Nomads are technically “a member of a group of people who have no fixed home and move according to the seasons from place to place in search of food, water, and grazing land.” How many if us really have a fixed home, or a single place where we find all our basic necessities? I’d say that we are all nomadic to some extent. We often work and live in separate places, spend parts of our days in a gym, jump from one restaurant to the next for dinner, maybe even couch surf on occasion. Even if you’re a homebody, chances are you’ve moved several times in your life. When it comes down to it, we all have elements of nomadic life.

While we have been nomadic for the past five months, we took our nomadic lives to the extreme during our five day trek in Sikkim. Our only option to reach Dzongri from Yuksom was by foot through the uninhabited Kanchenjunga National Park.  The Sikkim government prohibits solo trekkers and requires them to be accompanied by guides and porters (not that we would have actually tried to do the trek on our own anyway). To support our nomadic lives in Sikkim, it took a guide, a cook with two helpers/porters, a horseman, and five horses. That entire entourage was just for Sandeep and me. Like extreme nomads, our group spent each night in a new place, found new water sources wherever we were, and managed on the food we carried. Our animals did plenty of grazing.

The horseman made sure the five horses stayed together as they hauled our tent, the kitchen tent (which also doubled as a tent for our five companions), a bathroom tent (as in a tent that surrounds a hole in the ground), our bags, sleeping bags and mats, and the horse food. Sikkim has two types of pack animals, horses and dzos, which are a cross between a cow and a yak. Dzos are easier to breed and purchase, but horses are preferred as they are less prone to wandering and don’t come with the dangerous horns.

Our cook and the two helpers took everything needed for five days of pretty amazing meals. This included a gas tank, a variety of pots and pans, a table and chairs (unnecessary but definitely a bonus after a day of trekking), and the food itself. They churned out meals that included gluten free pizza and steamy soups, all from a single kerosene stove and a couple of pots..


At first Sandeep and I couldn’t understand why we needed an entourage of five people and five pack animals. However, we realized that we used everything that we had taken up the mountains at some point during our trek. We carried all our waste back to dispose of responsibly upon our return to Yuksom.

Traditional nomads travelled in groups and were always accompanied by animals. Our Sikkim trek brought us as close as we’ve ever been to real nomadic existance.

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