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July honeymoon in Kruger, maybe it won't be once in a lifetime


anthracosaur
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From the age I was old enough to think and dream about my future I’d always imagined that I would go on a safari one day. I vividly recall tearing through my parents’ National Geographic each month hoping there would be articles on wildlife, specifically from Africa. Any month that did not include photographs of lions, elephants, cheetah etc. seemed like a wasted publication. Little me did not understand why anyone would be interested in any of the other articles. My earliest memories of television involve lying on the floor of our family room staring in wonder at Marlon Perkins’ Wild Kingdom. In high school, my friends and I would cut school on each on my birthdays and drive to the Bronx Zoo for the day. During graduate school I rented a house that was two blocks from the Cincinnati Zoo, on quiet nights we could actually hear the lions roar if our windows were open.

 

So it was no surprise when my wife and I decided that we would go to Africa on our honeymoon. While she worked on planning the wedding I did the necessary research on safaris, finally deciding that South Africa, specifically the greater Kruger area, made the most sense for our trip. We debated the idea of doing a self-drive through the park so that we could save money and extend the amount of time on our honeymoon, but decided instead to stay at lodges in the private concessions next to the park. We decided against the self-drive option because we thought this might be our only trip to Africa and were afraid our inexperience would lead to an inability to spot wildlife. Also, we figured it was our honeymoon and we thought it might be nice to be comfortable.

 

In the end we picked two lodges in two different concessions and stays of 4 nights at each in July 2013. Our first stay was at Shindzela Tented Camp in the Timbavati. We loved the idea of sleeping under a canvas tent and the additional option of sleeping overnight in their hide was too good to pass up. After Shindzela we stayed at Elephant Plains in Sabi Sands. Most of the lodges in the Sabi Sands area gave us a bit of sticker shock, but the reviews of Elephant Plains were fantastic and their low season rates were doable; plus, we felt that if we were going to Africa only once we wanted the best chance to see leopard and in Kruger that means Sabi Sands.

 

Our trip was more than we could have hoped for, each day was better than the one before and like many who have traveled to Africa we can’t imagine not going back. Over the next few days I’d like to share our experience with you all. You’ll have to excuse some of the photography, particularly in the early part of the time. I didn’t practice enough with my camera beforehand and I needed to do some learning on the job.

 

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Male leopard at Elephant Plains

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Zebra at Shindzela

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Giraffe at Shindzela

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Hyena, fat and happy, at Elephant Plains

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Any month that did not include photographs of lions, elephants, cheetah etc. seemed like a wasted publication.

Still true for me. :)

 

Great start, looks like you were bitten badly by the safari bug. Looking forward to more.

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Great idea to have the first photo be your avatar. You were hooked from little on.

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I'm heading to Shindzela in a few weeks so eagerly looking forward to hearing more.

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Thanks for the replies.

 

@michael-ibk I'm the same way. We likely won't get back to Africa till 2016, but I've already planned itineraries to Zambia, Tanzania, and Botswana.

 

@Atravelynn I was hooked early. I thought I would be, but didn't realize how deeply I'd be hit.

 

@@Super LEEDS I'll have some Shindzela stuff up in the next couple days. We loved the camp, matched what we thought a safari should be. We saw more animals at Elephant Plains, but Shindzela felt like being on safari to us. I hope you love it as much as we did.

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@@anthracosaur , a great start of a trip report! I am looking forward to seeing the next installment. I and my wife are off to Timbavati and Sabi Sand (Elephant Plains) in less than a month and I am curious about your experience at this lodge and also at Shindzela. I was thinking of it and chose Motswari only because of the extremely low price that I was able to secure back in September. Will miss the atmosphere of a tented camp, though... Thanks for sharing!

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Flying from the States to South Africa is a fairly significant trip, certainly a longer flight than either my wife or I had done before, so we decided to spend a couple of nights in Johannesburg to recharge and adjust to the time change before heading to camp. We thought we might have trouble getting up at 5:30 each morning if we were fighting jet lag. This turned out to be a good decision because the flight from DC to Johannesburg was miserable. The air conditioning in our section of the plane was out, so for the first time in my life I was hot on a plane, for 19 hours. To make matters worse, the flight crew was decidedly unhelpful, my wife’s headphones were broken and it took the crew 2 hours to get here another pair, a par that was broken. We were then told the flight had no additional headphones. This turned out to be untrue, on a trip to the bathroom my wife found an entire basket of them.

 

Needless to say we were a bit grumpy when we landed in SA. Things changed immediately upon landing. Customs was quick, our luggage was out in minutes, and the car from our hotel was waiting for us. We stayed at the MiPiChi Hotel in Melville, a nice little hotel of 6 rooms that is walking distance from most of the bars, restaurants, and shops in the small area of Melville. It was around 7:30 PM when we checked in and even though we were exhausted from our flight we needed to eat and wanted to keep regular hours to fight jet lag. We walked toward the main strip based upon directions and a couple of restaurant recommendations from the hotel receptionist. After a few blocks we came upon a restaurant that wasn’t on our map and had not been recommended to us, but upon seeing the name we knew that we must eat there. So our first night in South Africa we ate at “The Leopard”, a name that would provide some wonderful foreshadowing for our trip.

 

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Shame about the flight. I hate issues with headphones, but always seem to have them, too. Last year we had the perfect entertainment programm - but the head-phones and the plug-in were not compatible. :angry:

 

But it seems very clear you quickly forgot your anger. Safari is a good medicine against bad feelings. :)

 

Beautiful leopard.

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Congratulations on your wedding and honeymoon! Your pictures are lovely so far. I stayed at Elephant Plains a few years ago and always enjoy seeing what others think of it, too.

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Congratulations!

 

Enjoying the TR so far!

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After two days in Johannesburg, spent visiting the Apartheid Museum and Constitution Hill, we flew north to Hoedspruit. The flight was quite enjoyable and the views out the window fantastic, particularly the lovely Drakensburg Mountains as we approached Drakensburg. I was a bit disappointed to not see any animals as we approached the airport, but upon landing we saw one of these.

 

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We met with our driver and he whisked us off toward Timbavati. The drive to the reserve was quite productive, more so than I was expecting. Our first African sighting was a small herd of elephants that crossed the road in front of us followed by some giraffe and a poor zebra that our driver explained was stuck behind the fences in a hunting block.

 

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Things got even more interesting when we left the paved roads and turned onto the sandy dirt roads of the concession. After passing a few small herds of impala our driver pointed out something off in the distance to our left. Unfortunately they were quite a ways off, but still a fun sighting. There were five of them together, the other three were out of sight by the time I got my camera out. The guides at camp told us they had seem the group around quite a bit lately and a few days prior had witnessed them killing and eating a monkey.

 

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Later on the drive a family of three mongooses darted across the road in front of the vehicle, too quick for my slow camera skills. They had raced out of the kitchen area of the Ngala Lodge, likely raiding whatever stores they could find.

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..................and the elephant posed so nicely for you. :)

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Congrats on your marriage and honeymoon! Africa is such a special place for a honeymoon and the bug will take you back over and over. (And I tell my dh every trip is a honeymoon; he does't get just one!)

 

Flying from the states is one of the less exciting part of the trip for sure. I can't imagine that 19 hr trip with no a/c or entertainment. I carry a safari guide to garner even more excitement while flying.

 

We started our own "Once in a Lifetime" in South Africa, though it as the elies swimming across the river in Chobe on that same safari that brought us back.....and back....and back....and again this September, back again! :D

Not looking forward to the air...I imagine it was South African air from Dulles? aaggh....dread it.

 

Enjoying your adventure....

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Sorry for the delay in the next installment of this trip report. Work got a bit ahead of me. To make up for it I’ll try to get two installments out tonight.

 

We arrived at Shindzela in the early afternoon, just in time to settle in and have a look about before lunch. Our guide, Sam, introduced himself and gave us the camp safety talk, outlining where we could walk in camp (don’t go out of sight) and that we were not to walk around after dark without a guide. He then showed us to our tent and let us look around before lunch. The room was a canvas tent with a partition dividing the bathroom from the main room, everything was rather cozy and just what we were hoping for. Two sturdy camp chairs sat on the tent’s small deck and faced across the sand river that defines one of the camp’s boundaries.

 

At lunch we met most of the other guests and were updated about recent sightings. Particularly impressive was what one vehicle had seen that morning, a honey badger in a bush munching on a mamba. It was with this in mind that we set out for our afternoon/evening game drive.

 

We piled into our vehicle and pulled onto the sand road from camp and pulled to a quick stop roughly 30 meters past the gate, "Jackal to the left" said Sam.

 

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From there Sam drove us straight out to this large herd of Buffalo, he thought there might be as many as 400.

 

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We spent about 30-40 minutes with this herd before moving off. Shortly after we came upon these folks.

 

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We watched this herd for a good bit of time as they did a good job of decimating the trees in this area. One particular male pushed over three different trees while we watched.

 

We moved on and ran across a few herds of impala and stopped to watch a particularly large one.

 

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While we were looking at the impala Sam was looking for something more interesting. Pointing to a tree in the opposite direction from the impala he said, "Oh look, a Secretary bird."

 

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From here is was a stop for sundowners and a bit of unproductive driving in the dark. We were about to head back to camp for the evening when the other camp vehicle called Sam on the radio. They had spotted a pair of lions, brothers that had a range within Shindzela's property. Sam told us to hold on because we had to race nearly all the way across the concession before the lions moved past the camp's boundaries. After an exciting 20 minute drive we arrived at the following scene, two lions drinking from a small pool of water. Apologies for some crummy night photos. I didn't practice in the dark enough before we left, so I had to learn on the job.

 

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The lions drank for 10 or so minutes while we watched, then one turned and walked down the road. Sam turned to follow him. His brother then turned to follow us and the other vehicle from camp followed him. We proceeded like this for probably 1-2 km, our little convoy of Toyotas and lions. As we approached the concession boundary Sam pulled over and let the lion behind us pass. I was fortunate enough to be on the side he walked by and he past within five feet of the vehicle, giving a bit of a grunt as he passed and joined his brother.

 

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More than I ever could have hoped for on my first safari drive!

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I've been looking forward to this update. Like the eles and the secretary bird. Looks like a great day overall. And I've certainly taken worse night pictures than those!

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The talk at dinner was, of course, focused on the lions. The camp staff had set up tables for dinner out under the open sky since the night was clear with no chance of rain. Small solar powered lanterns had been set up around the tables making for a wonderful ambiance to dinner. As we were preparing to sit down to eat the camp honey badger even made an appearance, trudging across the open grass through the center of camp. After dinner everyone turned in for bed. As my wife fell asleep I stayed up to read and just as I was turning in I heard elephants trumpeting. The sound felt like it was coming right outside our tent and I had trouble sleeping because I was so excited to possibly see an elephant peering into our tent in the night.

 

The next morning we set out hoping to find rhino. Sam and Johan, the head guide had found tracks over the past few days, but the rhino was proving to be elusive. Instead we found some other beasts.

 

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We saw some fantastic birds as well, a Martial Eagle and and African Hawk Eagle, but I couldn't manage any photos.

 

Upon returning to camp we were greeted by one of Shindzela's non-staff residents.

 

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At lunch camp had a different visitor.

 

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The camp has a water hole just past the sand river that the dinning area faces. This fellow had been coming by frequently when we were there. Johan thought that this was the same elie that had pulled out one of the camp's water pipes about a week before this.

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@@wilddog - Yup, right off the bat we had some good luck. If only all of the animals posed so nicely. The later half of the trip has some nicely posing critters including, spoiler alter, your namesake.

 

@@graceland - Thank you! Yes, the flight was SA from Dulles. It was tough, mainly because I have trouble sitting still for that long, but I can put up with it for Africa. Worse than the time in the air is the high cost of the flight. Flying to South Africa in July cost us almost as much as the rest of the trip.

 

@@Marks - Glad you are enjoying. The Secretary bird was quite exciting for me. It was one of those animals that I really wanted to see but didn't expect to. Seeing it the first day was a real high.

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That afternoon Sam returned to the area he had found the rhino tracks hoping for better luck, unfortunately there was no luck on that front, however we did have some very nice giraffe and hippo.

 

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This was a pretty good sized journey of giraffe with two pairs of youngsters going at it while we watched. After that we headed over to the dam to see if there was anything looking for water. We were surprised to find the resident hippo male and his ladies up on land.

 

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Apparently they were embarrassed to be seen out of the water and headed back in shortly after we arrived. Overlooking the dam area is this camp's overnight hide which you can rent out for the night.

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Then we saw this little guy, one of quite a few steenboks we ran across.

 

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Overall a good, but quiet afternoon/evening drive, but well worth it. We headed back to camp and had a lovely dinner under one of the clearest skies I have ever seen. Once again the honey badger made an appearance at dinner, and once again my camera was in our tent.

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Very nice little steenbok. I wonder how expensive overnighting in that hide would be.

I'm also hoping you photographed that honey badger eventually!

Edited by Marks
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@Marks - In the grand scheme of safari costs the over night hide isn't that bad. We spent a night out there, but didn't have much luck, only saw the hippos in my earlier post. It was fascinating listening to them though. The male spent much of the night calling in an attempt to attract more ladies to his home. Never did get a picture of the honey badger. The only time we saw him when I had my camera was at the end of one night drive and I was on the opposite side of the vehicle and he scampered away before I could get a shot.

Edited by anthracosaur
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The next morning broke slightly overcast, it would be our only remotely poor weather day on our two-week trip, but by mid-afternoon the sky was blue and everything was sunny again. For our morning drive Sam had some help in the form of John the tracker. During our stay the camp’s other tracker was on leave and Sam was doing two jobs on our vehicle. This morning a number of guests had left early and since replacements weren’t coming till the afternoon only one vehicle went out. Once again Sam went looking for rhino, but we found other things.

 

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Our morning tea break was earlier than usual as we picked up a flat that Sam and John changed. We stopped at a spot with lots of tracks in the sand and after the tire was changed Sam gave us a bit of a lesson in identifying tracks, then I did something to make my wife question her decision to marry me.

 

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Mrs. Anthracosaur could not believe that I carry a scale (two actually) in my camera case, she clearly did not understand what she was getting into when she agreed to marry a geologist. The rest of the vehicle thought it was quite funny too.

 

We returned to camp still without the elusive rhino that Sam was trying to get us. During lunch we said goodbye to some folks who were leaving and greeted the new arrivals. After lunch I spent most of my free time at the bar talking about guide training with Mike, whom was doing a training internship with the camp. We were also visited again by the camp's resident warthog and her clan.

 

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That afternoon drive saw us without Sam again and with new additions to our vehicle. Within the new arrivals was a British family who were traveling across South Africa. They were lovely companions to share our vehicle with and their arrival picked up our luck somewhat. One of the things that amazed me about our stay at Shindzela was the sheer number of elephants we saw. I don't think we had a drive without seeing at least one group and this afternoon and the next day were full of them.

 

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Some of them were fairly short encounters like the two above. Both were quick sightings in which the eles pretty much ignored us and passed in front of the vehicle. Others were longer, like this one below involving a mother and calf.

 

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The calf was quite interested in us and kept trying to step out in front of mom to get closer, but mom kept either stepping in front of the calf or, in one case, pushing the calf behind her with her trunk. She was fairly calm the whole time, just flaring her ears occasionally, and after about 15 or 20 minutes Sam decided to keep going to keep mom's stress down.

 

We also ran into this crew that afternoon,

 

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Crummy picture below!

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And that was the end of our second full day on safari. That night we had another visitor at dinner. The bull elephant from lunch the day before came down into the sand river in camp just as we were sitting down outside. Since he was actually inside camp the guides when off to persuade him to move along, he was too close to the water pipes for their comfort!

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Great photos and funny story about the scale.

Can't wait to see your thoughts on EP.

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@Marks - Thanks. We had some great sightings at Elephant Plains, including a run of 3 consecutive drives in which we saw at least one leopard, usually more than one, and wild dogs. The game viewing was fantastic and being able to access Sabi Sands for that price is unbeatable, but I'm still not sure about how I feel about the lodge. It felt very much like a hotel, a nice one, but a hotel, and at times it was hard to remember that I was on safari. I'll have more to say when I get to that point, but suffice to say I'm conflicted about EP.

 

 

That night my wife and I stayed overnight at Shindzela's hide. The hide is actually a rather comfortable place, it has 4 queen-sized beds with rather comfortable mattresses. Our guide Sam drove us out to the hide, it was rather nice to have a vehicle to ourselves for the drive and even though Sam didn't use the spotlight while we drove we managed to see our only hyena of our time at Shindzela. It was laying in the road and as we slowed down on approach it got up and began running down the road. Once it was out of sight Sam started the vehicle down the road only to find the hyena standing in the road about 100 meters further. This game of chase proceeded for about 20 minutes before the hyena turned off the road and into the bushes.

 

Once at the hide Sam had us settle in, gave us the thermal bag with tea and coffee and went to set up his tent. Before he left he showed us the spotlight and explained how to use it and told us that if we needed to use the bathroom during the night that we were to call out to wake him up. We were not to leave the hide without waking him.

 

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Each of those windows on the hide has hinges and a latch so you can swing them open and keep them open if you see anything. My wife and I agreed to sleep in shifts because we didn't think we'd both be able to stay awake all night. Unfortunately we didn't see anything other than the hippos that frequent the pond. We did get serenaded most of the evening by the male hippo calling to females and occasionally by a giant eagle owl that lives in the area.

 

Our last full day at Shindzela opened with clear and bright skies and a beautiful sunrise in the vehicle. My wife and I had chatted extensively the night before with the British family we were sharing our drives with and were looking forward to spending the entire day with them. Once again Sam was determined to show us a rhino, they had not seen one in a while at the camp and I think the guides were a bit frustrated that they had one clearly moving around on their plot without being able to find it. While on the trail of the elusive rhino we ran across the large buffalo herd again, since our British friends hadn't yet seen the buffs we stayed for a while.

 

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After the buffs we had a really wonderful encounter with a family of elephants. As we rounded a corner Sam saw three elephants, a mother, a juvenille and a baby, just off the road to our left. He stopped and backed up a bit as to not scare the mother. The mother clearly saw us a a nuisance that she didn't want around her baby and they quickly crossed the road in front of us and moved off into the bush to our right.

 

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The juvenile was initially reluctant to cross the road, perhaps unsure what the vehicle was, maybe she had never see a car? And for a bit she hid in the bushes to our left. She needs a bit of practice though because she was easy to spot.

 

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Finally she crossed the road, but then turned around and instead of following her mother she stood on the side of the road, perhaps 7-8 meters from the vehicle and ate the roots of small trees and staring at us.

 

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She stayed that way for nearly half an hour. During that time the roots she wanted to get to were in front of that downed tree trunk and she clearly didn't want to get any closer to the vehicle. This lead to some interesting elephant gymnastics as she balanced herself around the log and reached for the roots. At one point she was kneeling on the log with her trunk reaching forward on the ground as far as possible. She alternated between eating and sniffing the air for us. After a while her mother trumpeted and she turned and walked away. But it was an amazing 30 minutes.

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Wouldn't you love to know what that ele calf was thinking? Wouldn't you love to know what your vehicle mates were thinking when you whipped out the scale. You probably don't have to wonder about your wife was thinking because she likely shared her thoughts.

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@@Atravelynn I'd love to know what was going through its mind, as well as mum's. I was shocked that she showed no concern for her daughter being that close to us. The juvenile was clearly curious about us, kept her eyes on us at all times and was sniffing away. Occasionally she would pop her ears if someone in the Cruiser made a sound, but generally she was pretty calm. Why wife just rolled her eyes and laughed at me, it is what she gets for marrying a geologist. I'm used to taking pictures of things that no one can spatially relate to. Sam said it was a first in his 18 years of guiding!

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