Thursday, December 31, 2009

Personal training update - Week 1

And so it starts. All my life I have been avoiding push-ups, but after 57 years they have caught up with me. My new personal trainer – Gamell at MyFitness on Memorial Drive – likes push-ups a lot and I am doing several different kinds of them (elevated, involving an exercise ball, combined with scissor jumps & more) during every session. Why have I been avoiding push-ups all these years? Because they overtax my weak upper body. Why does Gamell think I need to do (more) of them? Because they target my weak upper body, naturally.

The pic was taken on December 31 2009, one week after starting to work with a personal trainer. Weight = 168 lbs.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

New Year's resolutions

Well it is almost that time of the year. Time for New Year’s resolutions, turning a new page, shedding some baggage. Most of us have something to shed other than baggage and yours truly is no exception. No mystery as to the cause. Remember all those wonderful meals and tea-time treats at various safari camps earlier this year? The taste is all but a fond memory now, a vague but pleasurable recollection of sweet and sour, salt and vinegar, tropical and tangy. The two solid handfuls of belly fat which I’ve gained are anything but a sweet memory. They’re just there, breaking the surface of the water in the bath like an unwanted recollection from years ago intruding into your consciousness. Ugh. Not good for the looks and certainly not good for the running. I’m never going to break that 5K personal best with 5kg of blubber slowing me down.

So it’s back to the dietary drawing board one more time. By now I know the recipe: several smaller meals are better than a couple or so big ones; no snacking in-between meals; watch those portion sizes; treat food as fuel and not fun, and don’t be fooled into thinking that you can eat anything you want, just because you exercise a lot. It doesn’t work like that. Just one candy bar consumed in a few minutes of indulgence wipes out the calorie deficit of more than three miles of running. Unless you tackle the intake side of things, you’re never going to make much headway solving the problem.

I’ve made one commitment already which I started with a couple of weeks ago. That is to work with a personal trainer three times a week to improve all-round strength and flexibility. And of course to help me find my long-lost abs. As some of you may know, they abruptly disappeared just like Jimmy Hoffa about 25 years ago and haven’t been seen since. I might post some ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs – we’ll see.

On the running front, there is life in the old bones yet. I’m not keeping track of mileage but will likely total about 20 miles for this week. A good starting point after too many weeks of not being able to do much at all. Of course I have abandoned any thoughts of a good (as in fast) Chevron Houston half marathon on January 18. It will be a very relaxed training run, should be nice not to have any serious time goal for once. One other resolution: to race a 5K or 10K pretty much every weekend from now until March or April. First one coming up: Jan 10 Houston Homeless Run. It has a 10K option but I will opt for the 5K. Need to set a 2010 benchmark and start to improve from there.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Botswana trip report: the Kalahari

I was immediately impressed with the spacious and attractive lounge, dining room & bar area at Nxai Pan Camp, with the entire front part of the building open to the outside. The large thatched structure, made of an innovative Styrofoam wall, covered with chicken wire and cement on both sides, somehow fit in quite nicely in this wide open environment, with a 180 degree view over a grassy plain fringed by acacia and purple pod terminalia. The nine rooms (including a family room and pilot/guide room) were equally spacious with high ceilings and extensive views over the plains through three large screened sliding doors. Inside, each of the suites have a separate sitting area with two comfortable wicker chairs, a built-in desk and leather chair, indoor and outdoor shower, large bathroom with his and hers washbasins and a separate flush toilet. The big double bed faces the plains and every day we briefly watched the sun rising over the horizon before getting ready for the morning activity. On our first morning there was some cloud cover present, making for a rather brilliant sunrise. Unfortunately I missed the peak color by about 3 minutes…

A portion of our room at Nxai Pan Lodge

The view towards the bathroom

If there is any criticism of the rooms at Nxai Pan, it relates to the fact that the rooms, despite the seemingly well fitting screens in front, are not at all impervious to insects. On each night there, we were bothered by various small flying insects, mostly bugs and small beetles, which made reading before going to bed a rather tricky affair, trying to swat away insects and trying to prevent them from getting into bed with you. There were hardly any mosquitoes but that was small comfort. This problem can be taken care of by plugging up the two glaringly obvious gaps between the thatching and the walls. The door also does not fit well and should be adjusted. All in all I think mosquito nets would be a good idea, especially for the summer months.

Some of the rooms at Nxai Pan as seen from the front of the lodge

The main lodge at Nxai Pan

Early morning breakfast at Nxai Pan

The pool at Nxai Pan

A large baobab close to camp

After enjoying a refreshing afternoon tea break, with several tasty food items including a hot achar-like vegetable chili and bottled beetroot, we set out on our first drive to the actual Nxai Pan itself. Initially it was rather quiet, but we soon started to see more and more animals of various species scattered over the flat grassy plains which seemed to stretch out in every direction. The only problem was that most of the animals including Burchell’s Zebra, giraffe, springbok and Oryx, were very far from the road and practically impossible to photograph. We did get a few good shots of some springbok and later on zebra, while stopped for afternoon sundowners. At the end of the first afternoon at Nxai Pan we were guardedly optimistic but not totally sold on the place.

In the summer months from about December through March, Nxai Pan is all about zebra so we have quite a few photographs of them. Some feisty individuals here!

Springbok are just as plentiful as zebra at Nxai Pan

December 12

On this day we made a long road trip – about 3 hours in each direction – to Baines’ Baobabs, an imposing and historically significant landmark in the Nxai Pan area. At this site the British naturalist/painter Henry Baines camped and painted (on 22 May 1862) the now famous quintet of massive baobabs which can still be seen standing in the same spot. Almost 150 years had elapsed since Baines passed this way, but the scene is probably still very much the way he saw it, and not dissimilar to what it looked like 3000 years ago. A very prominent outcrop in the flat Kalahari basin dominated by a grove of mature baobab trees, overlooking flat sandpans in several directions. What makes it unusual is the fact that these are the only large trees for miles and miles in any direction.

Baines' Baobabs; this fallen over tree had already toppled over when Baines painted the scene nearly 150 years ago

One of the huge trees with the saltpan in the background

A herd of oryx on a saltpan near Baines' Baobabs

Tracker P.K. serving drinks at Nxai Pan

After enjoying a late morning tea break at Baines Baobabs, we started driving back and immediately started to encounter some wildlife, first a couple of nice groups of Oryx on the saltpans not far from the baobas. Then en route, Kathleen had a good, albeit brief sighting of a cheetah. That was followed by an equally brief sighting of a large elephant bull, who was trying to get to a small waterhole by the side of the road. We also had some dung beetle action, watching several of these large insect trying to process a huge mound of fresh elephant dung.

Some dung beetle action en route back from Baines' Baobabs

Once we got back to Nxai Pan, the area had undergone a transformation. There were dozens, actually more like hundreds of zebra to be seen everywhere. The same was true of giraffes; there were several large journeys, numbering upward of 30 in total. Very impressive.

Giraffe ahead...

Off they go at speed

The afternoon game drive was one of the best of the entire trip. It included a sighting of a cheetah lying up in shadows about 50 meters off the road, and then one followed by another excellent lion sighting. The first one was of a large maned Kalahari lion first lying down and then striding in the open plains, towards the middle of the pan. Just minutes later, we came across its brother, fairly close to the road, in good position for some very nice photographs of this particularly handsome male with its two-toned gold and almost black mane. Later on during the same drive we also came across ostrich, bat-eared fox, several jackals, scrub hares and earlier we saw several new bird species for the trip including doublebanded courser and blackwinged pratincole.

A couple of goofy zebras

A handsome Kalahari lion

December 13

Our game drive this morning started extremely slowly, it was as if someone had switched off the light on the pan and had let all the zebras, giraffes and springbok out. It was really quite empty. However things would liven up very quickly when we came upon a female cheetah with her cub. Initially they skirted the road, walking in and out of shrubs on the west side of the westernmost road, partially obscured from view. However soon after they crossed the road and went to a waterhole for some good photo ops of both them drinking, and also of the cub running around, clambering onto stumps, into trees and pouncing on its mother as she playfully tried to run away from it. All the while a group of about 12 or so giraffes were practically standing on tiptoe staring at the cheetah, keeping a safe distance. Quite an amazing experience for all of us.

The female cheetah and cub

The rest of the day was fairly uneventful, although we did have some good views of springbok, oryx and zebra in the afternoon. The evening drive included yet another sighting of the two cheetahs, this time in a different more open area, where she seemingly was in the process of hunting, probably hoping to get within striking distance of some springbok. We had to leave the cheetah behind as it was getting late, and we had to return to camp.

There were Kori Bustards all over the Nxai Pan area

Plenty of steenbok as well; this one appears to be agitated

The last two days at Nxai Pan were fairly quiet but quite enjoyable nonetheless. At times the plains would be seemingly bare of animals, only to be replete with scores of zebra, springbok and oryx the very next day. What is it that brings them out onto the plains one day and back into the woodland the next? Who knows. What I would suggest is that anyone intending to visit this area spend at least 3 nights so that if there’s a couple of slow game drives – and there’s bound to be some – it won’t spoilt the entire trip. Being inside a National Park, there is strictly no off-road driving at Nxai Pan. All the more reason to spend several days here; you need to give yourself enough time to find the wildlife close to the roads. And definitely take a good pair of binoculars: Nxai Pan is one place where they are absolutely essential! In fact a small telescope would come in extreme handy here. Initially, we were disappointed not to be able to get closer to the wildlife; on our fist afternoon all of them seemed to be very far from the road. However on the very next day we got quite close to most of the species in the area, including zebra, springbok and to a lesser degree, oryx. Eventually, after 4 days at Nxai Pan, we ended up with ample opportunities for photography including excellent views of lion and cheetah.

A male Black Korhaan; they were abundant at Nxai Pan

The same bird ruffling its feathers

A very young springbok

Some young Springbok kicking up their heels

A lilac-breasted roller taking off

Ready for my close-up

One last pic of what else - zebra...

Sunset at Nxai Pan

On our last full day at Nxai Pan we took an interesting walk out of camp to a nearby waterhole

The waterhole near camp, heavily frequented by elephant during the dry season

I have always had a soft spot for the Kalahari and this visit to Nxai Pan reminded me what I like and enjoy about the area. This is truly big sky country with 360 degree views of nothing but blue sky and sometimes fantastic cloud formations. The sunrises and especially the sunsets are near magical – with the sunsets sometimes improving for many minutes after the sun had disappeared below the western horizon.

The guys around the telescope at Nxai Pan

There is much here beyond just the usual mammals. It is not unusual to bump into less well known species such as bat-eared fox; jackals are very common as are various mongoose species. The birdlife is truly spectacular with several raptors to be seen including buzzards, bateleur eagles, snake eagles, chanting goshawk, yellowbilled kites in summer, various coursers, pratincoles, korhaans, thicknees, lapwings, rollers and the superb Crimsonbreasted Shrike. But it is much more than that. The Kalahari gets into your blood and it doesn’t take long. Three or four days there and you’ll know why this is such a special place. Crisp, clean air, warm days but glorious cool nights and the timeless appeal of wide open spaces. Remarkably, we saw only two other vehicles during our entire stay at Nxai Pan. On December 16 we bid farewell to the wonderful staff and guides at Nxai Pan Camp, braced ourselves for the hot and uncomfortable flight (35 minutes) to Maun in the old workhouse Islander and connected with the flight to Johannesburg. We spent the night at the Metcourt Suites at Caesar’s Palace and then boarded our SAA flight for the long and arduous flight back to the USA.

Nightfall at Nxai Pan

Once again, Botswana had exceeded our expectations. Fabulous camps, superb game-viewing with hardly any other vehicles to be seen and a very good array of habitats and activities, especially with the addition of a Kalahari camp which was our first ever visit to the area in the green season. This has been my fourth green season trip to Botswana and without exception, the experiences have been good. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the summer months are not unbearably hot, in fact the evenings can be quite cool and it is always a good idea to take a light sweater or fleece on any outing.

Highlights were many including the boat ride in the Okavango Delta at Kwara, the amazing lion roaring duet also at Kwara and a spellbinding cheetah sighting at Nxai Pan, with a female and youngster putting up an amazing performance for us. Of course the wild dogs take pride of place. I doubt that I will ever equal such prolific wild dog viewing: four different packs in two different areas over the extent of just ten days. Two packs of five at Kwara, six more at Lebala and then the cherry on the cake: 6 adults and 5 youngsters at a waterhole at Lebala. I’m a big elephant fan and there was more than enough ‘elephant action’ at Lebala to satisfy even the most ardent elephant aficionado.


We experienced a few hot days with temperatures in the 90's F but overall the temperatures were not exceedingly high. In fact the nights were mild to cool. Even if you travel to Botswana in midsummer, take a fleece for the early mornings and evening game drives. And take it with you on every outing!

Rainfall was not a big issue. While we were inconvenienced a couple of times due to thunderstorms, we only missed one (entire) morning activity at Lebala due to heavy rain.

Other than at Nxai Pan, insects were not a problem. We hardly saw any mosquitoes anywhere. However at Nxai Pan the onset of the rain brings out myriads of small beetles and various other flying bugs. They are a big nuisance in especially the dining room (the camp will have to screen off the open dining area in summer) and in the room at night if you want to read as the light attracts them by the dozens.

There were intermittent issues with electricity at all 3 camps, notably Lebala where we and other guests were without power in the rooms for sometimes several hours due to battery/inverter problems. Take a flashlight!

The Kwando game-drive vehicles have two rows of (guest) seats each with 3 'bucket' type seats. So if there are 6 guests in a vehicle, two of them would have to be in a 'middle' seat. This was not a problem in our instance as there were not many people in camp. However I can foresee that in the high season (June through Oct) this may very well be a problem.