Sunday, July 12, 2015

Ireland's Belfast

 Ireland has been on my itinerary for a long time and I finally got there.  This trip will be split in several sections due to the extensive travel throughout the island.  There are two countries here,  The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland which is still part of the British Empire.  The history is complicated and it took me a while to figure it out but I may be wrong. When the English conquered Ireland, the Irish became indentured servants and were not allowed to own land.  The English Lords moved in and developed their estates.  The civil wars started and the Republic of Ireland gained its independence in 1922 from England  just as the USA about 240 years earlier. Similarly the northern borders of the liberated countries in this case, Northern Ireland and Canada, remained part as part of the English Commonwealth.
 Belfast is the capital and largest city of Northern Ireland and at one time was an industrial and economic power that faded with the British Empire by the end of WWII.  Its name has nothing to do with breakfast but it means “Mouth of the River”.  It has a magnificent City Hall completed in 1906, with a park full of statues and the inner halls preserving the greatness of the past.  It is readily accessible and open to the public and the grassy areas are full of life - particularly at lunch time when the office workers come to enjoy their lunches - with vendors and itinerant musicians.  Surprisingly I did not see street people living in the park. There are numerous stained windows but the one shown attracted my attention because of its content; it depicts various episodes in its history such as the heavy bombing during WWII and maritime heritage.  Being a working City Hall, there were various wedding parties celebrating the events…little did they know that there were going to be caught by paparazzi.

 The city is modern and clean with the traditional botanical gardens, museums and university.  The botanical gardens include the domed glass Palm House built in 1849 is unique in having a cold wing and a hot wing where the dome is located. You never know who you are going to run into - a statue of Lord Kelvin is also on the grounds.

 The Ulster Museum was renovated in 2009 combining multiple collections of biological, geological anthropological  as well as historical artifacts located at various levels with a central atrium looking down into the entry level.  It has modernistic sculptures but most interesting at the time of the visit, a display of Viking Deadly Dragons that attracted children as if they were ice cream. The last image is that of the Belfast University where all the stories of dragons, witches and leprechauns are delegated to myths.  The museum layout is different but worth visiting.

 Walking downtown one encounters the grotesque as well as the unusual.   Imagine running into Medicare here…nostalgia of home. A giant quilt covering the facade of a sewing schools and multitude of pubs.  Surprisingly traffic is heavy and the streets are busy.  Belfast seems to be undergoing an economic rebirth.

 Belfast economic power originated with the linen trade and at one time produced most of the linen and the maritime ropes used by the shipping industry worldwide.  Shipbuilding was a major industry at the beginning of the XX Century, and when the Titanic was launched in 1912, it had the largest shipyard in the world.  There was also airplane manufacturing that contributed to the war effort during the WWII.  The Titanic Museum (below) has a very modernistic building that seems to follow the lines of the famous ship.  I hesitantly went into the museum and was pleasantly surprised.  It mostly deals with the construction of the ship with lots of trivia; for example, 3 million fasteners of 6 different types in fastening the hull steel plates.  There is a suspended ride that takes you through the different stages of construction of the ship - all well done.

 Recent history of the city deal with the “Troubles”, the result of the divisions in Northern Ireland between religious groups that has been quiet recently.  But tension can still be seen in the graffiti in some sectors of the city.  Below is a partial photograph of the “Peace Walls”.  Suggest you refer to the history of the “Troubles” on the internet. The last photo is that of the Northern Ireland Parliament at Stormont.

I will continue this blog covering my travels along the coastal roads on the island moving counter clockwise.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Tanzania 2015

I visited this East African country for the first time in 1997 and then returned yearly from 2000 to 20003, again in 2007 and this year. Tanzania has two unique treasures, the Ngorongoro Crater and the calving of the herds in the Serengeti during late January to early March. The crater is considered one of the Wonder and is largest volcanic caldera in the world.  Descend into the crater is by a steep road as well as the ascent. What is interesting is that driving into it the vegetation to the sides of road are mostly candelabra, cacti, whistling acacias and other kinds of desert type plants.  But in the way out, the vegetation is different and the wall of the crater is covered by vegetation resembling a tropical forest.  There are two micro climates controlled by their location in the rim of the crater. The first time I visited, the Maasai were not permitted to bring their cattle into the crater for grazing.  But this has changed and they are allowed to bring the cattle in and out daily. This is a hard life; you can see them bringing the cattle early in the morning and listen to the cows’ bells.  The wildlife in the crater is no different from that of the Serengeti other that for a population of lions that seems to have a darker mane.  Black rhinos are found here and are constantly guarded to prevent their poaching for the horns as well as other ungulates.

 Birds’ area abundant particularly in the winter because of the northern hemisphere migrants that come here for the season.  While I there, the yellow-billed storks were getting ready to return to Europe and they could be seen circling the thermals overhead ready to head north in the evening, the next morning they were gone.  Other birds are locals and stay all year round such as the Egyptian Geese, the Black Crowned cranes and the Abdim’s storks.

 Driving west from the crater I headed to the Serengeti and after registering at Naabi Hill gate, entered the park proper.  The facilities at Naabi Hill, has grown and now there are several tented camps there as well as a trail up the hill to view the plains of the Serengeti interrupted by the rock outcrops called Kopjes.  These rocks formations are unique and during migration, one can see lions resting in the top waiting for the approaching migrating herds; once these get close, they descend for their meals.  The kopjes are also a great to spots leopards that often use them as dens to raise their cubs.

 Witnessing the calving is a privilege, I was lucky to see it twice during pass visits.  This year due to the drought, the herds were dispersed and not all have calved in unison as is customary; not many calves were being born.  The dropping of the calves by both the wildebeests and the zebras that migrate together, it tied to the rains.  Still, lots of activities in the drying-up waterholes is going on.  After so many years of visiting Africa I had never seen a male bushbuck, finally one late evening at sunset there it was, walking towards the waterhole.  The male bushbucks tend to be solitary and mostly active at night; probably the reason why I had not seen one before.

These waterholes also provide habitat for the birds to feed and built their nest.  I had the opportunity to observe the interactions between Black winged Stilts and a Goliath heron, the biggest in the world.  The heron was encroaching into the stilts nest and they were defending it.  Notice in the second image below that the heron was standing in the nest with the eggs.  The encounter went on for considerable time but eventually the heron walked away without damaging the nest.

The Retina Hippopotamus pool in my opinion is the best place to photograph these animals of what I know of Africa where they can be found here in great numbers.  The best time to go is early in the morning when the light is best and the tourist tours have not arrived yet. Another plus for going earlier is that the hippos are returning to the pool after spending the night out grazing in the nearby areas. There is always a fight going on, those in the pool trying to keep the incoming ones from taking their places.  Sometimes the fights get bloody but they are mostly limited posturing with a lot of noise.  Back in 2007, I had positioned myself below the bank of the river so that I could photograph the hippos at eye level with the surface of the water.  Suddenly my drive yelled at me that there was a crocodile swimming underwater heading for me; I did not bother to looks and flew up the cliff.  I guess the guide did not want to lose an old costumer since I had traveled with him several times.  Notice in the first image below the yellow-billed ox-peckers feeding in the blood of the hippos.  They peck these wounds open but it appears not to bother the hippos much.

Backtracking from the Serengeti east I headed for Ndutu Lake. In the past this area has been very productive for sighting leopards and the only place I had seen bat-eared foxes in Africa.  As the rest of the area, the drought has keep everything dry of the lake, just a few wet green areas left. However, the giraffes, cheetahs, warthogs, some antelopes and the lions were there but very few elephants

 Ndutu Lake was a dust bowl and the few safari vehicles there raised large clouds of dust.  This and the heat, made the visit not too pleasant but I was greatly rewarded photographically.  One photographic safari vehicle had so many photographers that the cheetah got mad for not been tipped.  Another first for me was the sighting of a Steenbok, a species of antelope rarely seen here.

 Great wildlife photographs are captured two ways; (1) by been at the right place at the right time (lucky) or (2) by stalking a subject, positioning to get the best light and framing, being patient and alert for when the action happens; usually no second chances.  I had seen the leopard below the evening before so I knew where he was and returned the next morning and found him.  I followed him and when he lay down next to a tree, I waited.  It was still cool in the morning and I knew that when it got hotter later on in the day, he will climb the tree to catch the breeze.  I got the image!!!

Finally I stopped at Tarangire Park, that has the largest concentration of elephants.  These giants are intriguing to watch and I spent hours with them just watching and learning about their behavior. How they protect their young, the ways they communicate by sounds, flapping of the ears, touching each other with the trunks or by the way they position them; kind of a sign language.  How many elephants in the first image below?  The second image shows a young ones playing with dried mud balls.  The one to the right will pick a ball with its trunk, put in its mouth, rolled around and dropped it.  Then will repeat the process with other ball again and again. Notice the younger one to the right also playing in the dirt…just like human children.