All posts by Natalie

Out of Africa

I’m back and fighting off severe jet lag from a 15 day photographic safari to Zimbabwe and Zambia.  Accompanied by my husband and my father, the adventures we had exceeded all expectations and were often beyond any comprehensible dream (and sometimes, nightmare).  This trip proved that adventure really does find me.

When turning in for the evening after one especially adventurous day, my husband summed up the trip perfectly by exclaiming:

“I almost died twice today!  It was awesome!”

Stay tuned for the stories.  After all, he almost died.  Twice.  And it really was awesome.

Beng, Beng, Bengity Beng, Beng, Beng, Beng, Beng Mealea

BengMealea3Our guide barks a stern warning:  Do not stray from the path, not under any circumstance.

He isn’t concerned about damage to the temple or about one of us breaking an ankle as we climb the immense, moss-covered temple stones that had collapsed long ago.  In this rural area, a former stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, he’s concerned about land mines.

As Cambodia has one of the highest unexploded ordnance mortality rates in the world and an estimated 6 million remaining mines, this is a warning to take very seriously.  While the path through the Beng Mealea complex has been cleared of land mines, a fall into any of the surrounding fields could prove deadly.

This 900 year old temple was not yet on the tourist trail, free of both the fees and the touts of the more popular Cambodian ruins.   We BengMealea6find ourselves alone to explore the ancient structures that the jungle is determined to reclaim.  In nature’s own version of the childhood game “king of the mountain”, tree roots clamber over stones to sprout large trunks on top of the remaining roofs.  Some of these games create two winners as the encroaching vines weave their way into the walls, reinforcing the structures from collapse.  Others result in a clear loser as the structure gives in to nature, crumbling into piles of rubble below.

Childhood laughter sounds from behind.  My mood suddenly darkens.  A family must be approaching and will inevitably ruin my sense of peace.  I am not good at sharing special places.  But then, the laughter rings out from in front of me.  I spin a circle, looking for the source, baffled at how the family could have gotten ahead of us without our seeing them.  I feel eyes watching me, yet cannot make out the source.

A flash of movement andBeng Mealea 7 more laughter, this time from inside a temple.  I’m reminded of a silly movie of a tomb raider searching for jasmine at a temple 63 kilometers from this one.  The laughter of a hidden child led the tomb raider to find what she was seeking.  Where would the laugher lead me?

We follow the sound to a wooden platform and down steps leading to an ominous doorway.  The laughter continues from inside, echoing off the walls.

“We must step carefully and move slowly”, our guide says as we approach the corridor.  “Sleeping snakes live inside.”

“Sleeping snakes?” I ask.

“Yes, sleeping snakes.  If you are bit by one, you will fall asleep and you will never wake up.  Don’t worry.  The sleeping snakes are asleep. ”

Posing a greater danger than the remaining land mines, the  snake of concern is the monocled cobra.  Known as having the highest fatality rate among snake bite victims in Southeast Asia, the firstBengMealea4 manifestation of the venom is often drowsiness.  Respiratory paralysis and death follow within 60 minutes of the bite.

Hesitating at the temple door, I consider the risk.  We are a good 90 minutes away from any hope of an anti-venom.  Having no source of light to guide our passage, pure luck will decide whether a foot rouses a resting cobra.

Laughter emanates from the corridor once again, beckoning us to follow.  I look back at my husband and smile.  “Let’s do this.”

In a single file we follow our guide, toes colliding with fallen stones as we gingerly make our way through the darkness.  I hear the footsteps of my husband behind me as he estimates where my last step had been, trying to place his feet in that exact spot.

We speak no words, our ears listening for any signs of slithering.

At last, light.  We have reached the other side.  Once safely outside, I inquire to what timeBengMealea2 the sleeping snakes wake.  “Five o’ clock”, our guide answers.  My husband looks at his watch.  It is 4:55.

 

Before our adrenaline levels normalize, laughter rings out from above.  Raising our eyes to the sky, we finally identify the source.  A local child is standing on top of the temple that we had just passed through.

He smiles and runs away.  In an amazing display of parkour,  he scampers across the roof, bouncing off tree roots to clear the places where no footings remain.  He leaps from the temple and over the walkway where we stand, landing on the stone wall opposite of us.  The show is worthy of a million YouTube hits, yet in this remote area, the child undoubtably knows nothing of the internet.

Using the branches of a tree as a trampoline, he springs down toward the path in a death-defying act that pays no heed to the dangers of mines possibly obscured by the roots below.  A few feet from the bottom, the child lands in a perfect sitting position onBengMealea5 a natural swing formed by the branches.  We applaud.  With that, he laughs again, pausing just long enough for us to snap a photo before reversing his path and disappearing over the wall.

As we take our own exit, I look back to the empty complex.  In a few years, news of Beng Mealea will spread.  The area will be cleared of more land mines and of the sleeping snakes to make a safe passage for an influx of tourism.  The boy will likely learn to charge for photographs or will give up his antics altogether to sell postcards to tourists.  Knowing that a future return could never be the same, I take one last mental picture of the empty complex and vow to remember the sound of his laughter.

Here Kitty Kitty

I’m awoken in the middle of the night by a high-pitched cry.

“Did you hear that?” I ask my husband.

We’re camping in our secret spot in the high Uinta mountains.  There is no campsite, no toilet, no picnic table, just a clearing by a small lake covered in lily pads.

It’s a place to go and be alone, far beyond the limits of other campers.  It’s where our time with nature will not interrupted by drunken campers, by loud music at midnight, or by the sounds of generators firing up to power televisions in motorhomes purchased to “get away from it all.”

Our dogs, including a 12-week-old puppy, are sound asleep next to me.  We had led them on a ten-mile hike earlier in the day and for every foot we covered, they covered two and exemplify dog tired.

In our sleeping bags, we lie stick still, ears trained to the sounds of the night.  Another wail cuts through the silence, closer than before.

“It sounds like a baby crying.”

Neither of us feel the need to state the obvious…that there are no babies up here.   The sound is that of a cougar.  Over the ridge from our campsite is a rocky outcrop that dens this lion of the mountain.

Cougars are solitary animals, powerful ambush predators that hunt under the cover of night.  We have no reason to be concerned, however. While cougars occasionally attack humans, their main prey is deer of which these mountains have in abundance.

A wail rings out again, this time followed by several smaller cries.  The cougar is accompanied by two young.  This mother is teaching her kittens the lessons they need to survive, to hunt their own food when it is time to part from her side.  We listen to them cry out, their sounds echoing off the granite hills.

Just as we’re falling back asleep, everything changes.  The cries are now on our side of the mountain.  While it takes us about an hour to hike to the top of the ridge, we know that the cougars can clear it in minutes.

“The puppy makes an easy target” my husband points out.

The cries continue to cut through the night, closer than ever before.  Our dogs wake up with a jolt and let out low growls, their hackles rising from the tips of their tails to the tops of their heads.  They are nervous, sensing that a predator is close by.

We debate not our own safety, but the safety of the puppy.  Nothing but a thin nylon wall separates him from a predator looking to feed her young.  Another cry rings out, this time sounding from near the base of the mountain, almost in the small valley where our tent stands.

David decides not to risk it.  He grabs the car keys and the flashlight and darts out of the tent to our SUV parked 25 yards away.  He comes and goes several times, working quickly to get sleeping bags and pillows, water and dog bowls, and everything else needed to make us somewhat comfortable spending the night in the car.

As soon as the seats are down and the beds are set up, he comes back for the dogs.  The older two don’t need prompting, darting from the tent and leaping into the back of the car.  Closing them in, he returns for me and the puppy.  Once inside the car, we shut the tailgate behind us and put our nerves to ease.

Thirty minutes later, a bell rings out in the night.

*Ding ding ding ding*

Then another.  *Ding ding ding ding ding*

We shine our flashlights out of the car window but can’t see the tent through the trees.  We don’t need the light to know what is making the noise.  Lined up along the inside edge of the tent are three bear bells.  We had taken them off of our dog’s collars just before bed, not wanting our sleep disrupted by ringing every time one of the dogs readjusts themselves.

The ringing of the bells let us know that the cougars are at our tent.   They’re poking and prodding the tent walls, causing the bells to roll and ring out.  I think of a house cat batting around a ball.  Amused, we listen to this noise until our tired bodies lure us to sleep.

The sun rises and the car heats up.  We are anxious to get out and stretch our cramped legs.

David is the first one out.  “Oh wow,” he says.  “Come check this out.”

Three sets of cougar tracks circle the car.  We follow the tracks back to the tent.  In our rush to get to safety, we had left the outer screen of our two room tent open.  The tracks not only go around the tent but into that second room.  Sleeping in the car was a wise decision.

Feeling secure in the morning light, I start a campfire and brew coffee.  Breakfast is consumed while sitting on rocks at the water’s edge and discussing the events of last night.  Our trip is just getting started and we had planned to stay for  several more nights.  As the sun rises high above the ridge separating us from the cougar den, I make a decision.

“Let’s go home.”