Saturday, December 31, 2011

Goodbye 2011


I found myself returning to Argentina and Chile yearly since 2009.  These are fabulous countries because their landscapes, wildlife and people. These countries are so close and yet so different except for the language; and all due to the Andes that separate them.  In January I returned to coastal Patagonia in Argentina and visited mostly Puerto Deseado, a port with a large fishing fleet.  Nearby there are old caves with hand paints; these are not protected but they have been respected. At the nearby national park I found a friendly horned owl in plain daylight and at he Island of the Pajaros, also easily accessible from Puerto Deseado where the Rock Hopper Penguins nest.






Further up the coast, I visited Bustamante, one of my favorite places in the world. The rocky beaches locally called the Roquitas because of the bright color of the rocks. There are great opportunities to capture images of skunks, Choiques as well as an old can inside of an abandoned ship on the shoreline.
From Bustamante, I drove to Comodoro Rivadalia to catch a fly to Punta Arenas in Chile.






Punta Arenas is wonderful city that reminds of a typical small town back in the 1960's in the USA, very colorful with a long history and currently undergoing an urban revival. Every street brings colorful wall murals and graffiti.  It is the point of departure for the Fitz Roy Expedition aboard the M/V Forrest that sails along the islands of the straits of Magellan's (http://www.patagoniaphotosafaris.com/index.html). Landing in some of the islands, one has the opportunity to photograph the wildlife, that like in the Galapagos seem to have no fear of man. And plenty of whale tails.






In June flew to Denver and drove up to Mount Evans where I photographed the Bristlecone Pines, among the oldest trees in the world.  Then headed west to Camas Refuge in Idaho where I saw yellow-headed cowbirds for the first time; they were abundant but the mosquitoes were even more; they would eat you alive.  The marsh wrens were all singing and fighting to establish their nesting territories. 




Drove back east towards Yellowstone; some of the roads were still closed due to the heavy winter snowfall. Got there on time to catch the brown and grizzly bears coming out of hibernation, they were all over the place. At the Lamar Valley, there are always opportunities to see wolves, coyotes and badgers. Near the northeast entrance to the Valley, there is Trout Lake where I witnessed the seducing dance of the goldeneyes, perfect timing, saw the whole thing.





From Yellowstone headed south to Jackson Hole took a detour and made my routine drive up Mormon Road, where the most photographed barn in the USA; but I will not bore you with another photo of the barn.  Instead, the fields were blooming with yellow flower in which the buffaloes were feasting; what a contrast of the yellow against the brown hide of the buffalo.  Can you find the cowbird?


Jackson Hole is a favorite overnight stop and I always, stopping at the Cadillac for a beer and a buffalo burger is a ritual.  I was lucky to capture a Western tanager framed by a fence in the outskirts of the town, and not far away, there was a coyote hollering for company. 



Then headed West again towards Brigham, which claims to be the Gateway to the Greatest Bird Refuge; the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge.  I was not disappointed at the Bear River, even when the some of the roads were flooded.   The American Avocets were pairing and was able to observe their elaborated courting dances; these birds are regal.  Then drove east again to Denver for the return flight home



Pantanal in Brazil was the best trip of the year.  It was a new place and the variety of new species of fauna seen for the first time was overwhelming. The reason to go what to photograph jaguars; my encounter with them was addressed in previous blogs, so I will kindly refer you to them.  But then there were the giant river otters; they live in close families and hunt fish together.  One day I was recording their squealing calls with a tape recorder. I rewinded the tape live to listen to the calls backwards at high speed.  What a commotion, the otters went wild and surrounded the boat and one of them even jumped in the prowl of the small boat squealing his head out.  I stopped the tape recorder and the guide started the outboard before otter jumped off the boat.  All I can guess is that perhaps the sound of the recorder may have mimicked the otters stress calls exciting the family; what an experience.  Also was lucky to see a small, dark brown colored and very inquisitive crab eating fox, another new species for me.



In October headed for the Old World for a River Cruise up the Rhine; this trip was described in the previous blog.  Enough of 2011 and let's see where 2012 takes us. Happy New Year to All!!!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Rhapsody on the Rhine River

Arrived in Brussels October 17 and was taken by bus to the M/S Rhapsody river cruise boat in the port of Antwerp where I spent 2 days.  First thing I saw was Larger Wapper, a famous local water spirit next to the Stone, a medieval castle. Walking further up ran into the Aan Stroom Museum, a large red box set in an open plaza. When in front of City Hall, saw a group of artists dressed in early 20th century outfits; I got the beauty among the group. This is a very historical city as well as an industrial powerhouse full of photo opportunities as one walks down the streets.






I had been to Holland several times with the intention of visiting Kinderdijk; finally got there.  It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the name means Children's Dike. It has 19 windmills built in the XVI century and were used to pump water out of the polders; most of the windmills I had seen before were used to grind grains. While here, I suffered a hailstorms, rain and sunshine, all within an hour.  What an opportunity to get a variety of images of the windmills.




Nijmegen is the oldest city in Holland, an as in most other places visited during this river cruise, the Romans were there.  It was bombed by American planes and heavily damaged but today, there are no signs of it.  Found store windows full of those wonderful cheeses for which the country is known and other items of clothing.  And the City Hall has the typical Dutch architectural style.




Sailing up the river Rhine,  arrived in Bonn, the former capital of Germany before the fall Soviet Bloc.  Most of the government activities were move to Berlin but it still preserves an air of sophistication and is the birthplace of Beethoven and Schumann.  The German Army Band was playing next to Bethoven statue and collecting donations of the wounded veterans of the Afghanistan War. Nearby is the Augustusburg Palace, another World Heritage Site, built in the XVIII century.  The most interesting part of this Palace is the stairs leading to the second floor which unfortunately are not allowed to be photographed.  The gardens date to the XIX century and were in full fall colors at the time of my visit.






Navigating up the Moselle River, the mountains in both shores were covered with grapevines exhibiting their rich autumn colors.  The famous Moselle wines originate from the various wineries along the river.  Disembarked at Cochem for the daily tour; it is in the left bank of the Moselle, it has a picturesque central area as most other cities visited in this tour.   Reichsburg Castle is the major tourist spot dating back to the XI century, it was rebuilt in the Gothic Revival Style by a businessman from Berlin in 1868.  Live in a castle was harsh, not the idyllic type that one reads about, with damsels in distress rescued by a knight in shinning armor.








Bernkastel is another city in the winegrowing region of the Moselle River; it is renowned for its gabled timber houses dating back to the XVII century. Riesling is the predominant wine variety grown here with the Bernkasteler Doctor wine being the most famous.  The story goes that back in the old days a Bishop got sick and there was no medicine that would cure him.  A winemaker came forward and promised that if he drank his wine, he will recover his health and sure enough, the Bishop got well.  As a result, the Bishop granted the winemaker the title of "Doctor."  Had the opportunity to visit the cave where the wines are aged and tasted them…very nice and "expensive" too.  Across the river there is a cliff that shows rock stratification of a peculiar red color.






One of the rewards of travel is the historical perspective gained from the various places visited.  And at Trier, the surprise was unexpected; imagine a Roman city north of the Alps. At one time, it was the capital of the Western Roman Empire where Emperor Constantine resided for a few years.  I ran into this historical giant first in York, England, next in Rome, later on in Constantinople, and now in here.  The most spectacular ruin is the Porta Nigra, the best preserved roman city gate north of the Alps; the black color is due to air pollution.  And as in any important Roman city, there are the Baths, the Basilica, the oldest roman bridge north of the Alps still in use, the amphitheater, and the magnificent Cathedral of St. Peter, another World Heritage Site. It was built after the conversion of Constantine to Christianity and is the oldest cathedral in Germany. The most famous relic here is the Holy Tunic that was removed from Jesus by the roman soldiers that crucified him.  According to tradition it was obtained by Constantine mother Helena when she traveled to Jerusalem around 328, along with several other relics. It will be exhibited to the public in 2012; your opportunity to see it.







Luxembourg is located in top of cliff next to the Petrusse River with extensive medieval fortifications, but these did not prevent it from being occupied by Germany during  World War II. It is considered a tax heaven and has the highest per capital GDP; what a coincidence. It is ruled by a Grand Duke as a constitutional monarch. Nearby is the American Cemetery and Memorial, where most of the American casualties (@ 5,000) of the Battle of the Bulge are buried. General Patton although not a casualty of the battle but of an automobile accident, is buried here at his request since he wanted to be next to his soldiers. Among the many local guides that I met during the voyage, the gentleman guiding during the tour of the cemetery is the most dedicated. It was clear that he was doing this not as a job, but as a voice from the past.  As a young child he witnessed Patton's funeral and was proud to show his photographs of the occasion.






Boppard is located in the Rhine River Gorge another UNESCO World Heritage Site. North of this city, the river makes its biggest bend with the surrounding mountains covered with vineyards. In the way to Marksburg Castle, there was a stop at a local brewery where beer, sausages and French fries were served; all was great but the fries, better than those are MacDonald's.  While cruising in the river, saw a tank that contrasted with the white truck below; war and peace?






The most peculiar thing about Speyer, is that everything seems to be tied down with a chain or cable; noticethe foot and the chairs in the street cafĂ©. The dominant point of interest is the cathedral than when finished in1061, it was the largest Christian structure.  The city was busting with activity the day I visited.


 







Finally left Germany and arrived in Strasbourg, France. Other than the language, there was not much change in scenery.   This city has changed ownership between Germany and France during past wars, but it appears now secured in French hands.  The Marseille, the anthem of the French revolution was composed here, but the most interesting item here is the astronomical clock inside the cathedral.  There are canal cruises in the city that are worthwhile taking; it reminds me of Bruges but in a larger scale.




Took a side trip to Riquewihr, a small medieval town whose architectural style has been preserved; almost. The first floor of every building in the main street, are tourist traps selling the routine paraphernalia except for the coconut macaroons; the competition for selling them is furious.  Merchants at each stall were given free samples, all excellent, but after eating so many I was full and did not buy any.  The locals are dog lovers, never seen so many well behaved ones; I wonder if they eat macaroons too.  In the way back stopped at a Center for Reintroduction of White Storks to Alsace.  These birds' populations have decreased in recent years; for more information go to: www.cigogne-loutre.com.  They also keep nutrias in the park.




Departed France and arrived in Basel, the end of the River Tour.  I had been in several river tours but this has been the most perfect of all.  The crew was incredibly competent and the Captain was the friendliest, they usually keep an air of aloofness but not this one.  There were 3 tour guides and all of them had a sense of humor as you can see from the photo below.  And then Susana, always cheerful and reading your body language as to when to bring the next libation.  Tot ziens, Auf wiedershen, and Aur revoir.




After the river cruise I extended in Lucerne; I was there in 1993 and other than the Chapel Bridge, had no recollection of anything about the city.  I wonder why travel if I cannot remember where I had been.  The city has more banks than tourist places. Took a train ride to Engelberg one day and from there rode the Titlis Rotair to the Titlis Glacier Station where I visited the glacier cave.   The next day flew home out of Zurich.