Real Africa

Everyone goes on safari to see the amazing animals. And yesterday I showed some of the amazing animals we saw in just one four hour drive. Today, especially this morning, we saw a darker side of Africa. One that is inherent and necessary to the survival of many species.

Our plan when we left not long after our 5:30 am wake up call was to go looking for some leopards. Leopards are hard to see, partly because of their camouflage, partly because they are relatively rare (perhaps less than 11,000 in South Africa), and partly because they hunt at night. Before we could go too far, we got a call over the radio that a pride of lions had made a kill, so we hurried over to see it.

Kills are often thought of as the epitome of safari experiences, as they are not that frequently seen. When we got there, we found a pride of 14 lions feasting on a water buffalo they had killed earlier. It was pretty brutal. We watched for a while,and I took a bunch of great pictures which I won’t publish here. Then we left to continue our search for the leopard.

Along the way we found two lionesses sitting quietly along side the road. It’s pretty amazing how they ignore the trucks and the people in them. After watching them for a couple of minutes, they both got up, obviously alerted to something, and took off through the bush. Mark, our guide, followed them, crashing through brush and over small trees.

Attack, July 2017

They had smelled an injured water buffalo. We got to that site just as they attacked it, and watched as they took it down and ultimately killed it. It made what we saw earlier seem tame. Later, Mark and another guide described this kill as the most disturbing one they had seen.

Elephants coming by, July 2017

After this enlightening morning, we returned to the lodge for a late breakfast. Before we could even sit down, about 30 elephant came strolling down the river right in front of the deck. This was quite a sight, and included a number of young elephants.

We had lunch, then Sally went to look at our sister lodge, Singita Ebony (we’re at Singita Boulders). I stayed behind, cleaned up, did some camera and battery maintenance and generally rested.

African wild dogs and pups, July 2017

At 3:00 we went out for the afternoon drive. The highlight of this was visiting an African wild dog den, where there were a dozen pups along with the adults. Again, we spent quite some time watching them run around, feed the pups, and try to give them a few of the life lessons they’ll need to survive here. While they look cute, especially the pups, they are among the most successful predators in the area – their kill rate is very high, and the pack can take down pretty large animals.

Eagle looking for prey, hyena waiting for scraps, July 2017

Throughout the drive one always sees a multitude of birds. We saw an eagle perched on a tree, some vultures waiting for the lions to finish, and any number of other birds that I cannot identify. And a pack of at least nine hyena waiting in the grass for the lions to leave the carcass.

We all were sad to see the water buffalo die. But if they don’t kill, the lions and other predators – leopards, eagles, wild dogs, etc. – will die. This is life. Tomorrow we’ll again try to find the leopard.

Okay, we’re on safari

I’ve been boring you all with pictures and writing that has nothing to do with why we (and pretty much everyone else) visit Africa: to see wild animals on safari. After our trip in the 10-seater toy airplane (including two pilots) to Singita Boulders (which is amazing), we didn’t even make it the 200 yards from the private airstrip to the lodge before we saw a tree full of baboons. At lunch on the deck we saw an elephant, crocodile, a mongoose family, and some antelope of some sort. I will never keep all the species straight. Monkeys ran around the restaurant stealing people’s bread.

Young elephant by the Sand River, July 2017

Then we met our guide and group of two other couples and went for our first (of 18) game drives. You hop into a specially outfitted Land Rover with three rows of stadium seating, plus the diver/guide and a tracker sitting on a bench mounted on the front fender. Then you go off driving around the game preserve looking for stuff. I think we had an exceptionally productive afternoon.

Zebra looking at the sun, July 2017

To some extent, the drives are random: the guides and trackers won’t always know where any specific animals are, but they know where they may like to hang out. They also communicate with other guides who are out and about regarding the more difficult animals to locate.

Pretty bird, July 2017

My experience with zebras (in the zoo) is that they always turn their butts towards you. This one didn’t. He just looked west towards the sun, low in the sky.

Hippo in the water, July 2017

It turns out (who knew) that hippos spend much of their time mostly submerged because their thick skin gets sunburned.

Impala herd, July 2017

The only impala I had ever seen were the ones made by Chevrolet. When I was in sixth grade, my BFF’s parent bought a 1963 Impala which had the first seat belts I ever saw in a car. I though it was the nicest car I had ever been in. Frankly, these were much more beautiful. And notice that there’s one guy and his harem here.

Rhinoceros grazing in the grass, July 2017

We got right up to these rhinos. I mean, I could have spit and hit them. Not that I did. Although they are herbivores, they weigh upwards of 5,000 lbs. and have big horns. And they can move fast. Two of the rules on the games drives are:

1. Don’t stand up. The animals seem to ignore the trucks and their passengers, but you can change that equation by creating a new shape by standing.
2. Don’t get out of the truck, especially without the guide or tracker with you.

These drives are safe, but the animals are wild.

King of the jungle, July 2017

Mark, our guide got a call over the radio that a group of three lions, all brothers, had been spotted. The other guide gave him directions to where they were, which apparently weren’t quite clear. We wound up missing a turn (the “roads” are just dirt tracks, and there are no signposts). We eventually found them, but they were just sleeping in tall grass and not really easy to see. Apparently, lions sleep a good part of each day. We wound up sitting for a good hour, waiting for them to do something. Anything. One of them did stick his head up for a bit and I got a few nice shots..

Dinner was blah, blah, blah. There was entertainment blah blah blah. (1)

But really, today was all about seeing a bunch of animals.

We will get a wake up call at 5:30am tomorrow, and meet in the main building for coffee before heading out on our morning drive.

(1) Singita and the staff are amazing. More later on that.

Unscheduled Charter

This morning is our first flight on a charter. Actually, an Unscheduled Charter, Federal Airlines. This was also the flight I had the most baggage anxiety about. While the total weight limit per passenger is very sufficient, the cabin luggage limit is 11 lbs. per person. My camera bag clocks in at over 20 lbs., so this was concerning.

We were picked up at the hotel at 8:30 and made the 30 minute ride to the FedAir terminal at O.R. Tambo Airport. We checked in and our duffel bags were taken and weighed; they were about 55 lbs for the two of us, as expected. Then we found out what an Unscheduled Charter is: they take off when they get a slot from air traffic control, which is 11:30 rather than the 10:30 they had told us. So we get to sit here in a comfortable, small lounge for almost two hours.

FedAir lounge, July 2017

They also didn’t bother to weigh our cabin bags. Sally’s was about 13 lbs when we left NY, and might be a pound lighter now. My camera bag is still about 20 lbs. So this is a relief – I won’t have to stuff my pockets with lenses and whatnot.

Flight #2, July 2017

We’re Flight #2.


Today was our day seeing Johannesburg, or Joburg in local parlance. The Joburg metro area has about 8.5m people, and the population ranges from the richest people in South Africa to some of the poorest. And that mirrors our day, which started at our hotel in our rich suburb of Sandhurst (1) and proceeded through two of the townships, Alexandra and Soweto. The middle of the day was a visit to the Apartheid Museum, which tells the story of the increasingly formal and institutionalized racism in this country, thru the end of apartheid subsequent to Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1994.

South African police prepare to storm an ANC area (photo of photo in Apartheid Museum), July 2017

I will not bore you with this history; it is readily available from Wikipedia and other places if you are interested. However I will make one point: this country passed from an oppressive “democracy” run by the whites, who exploited the black and colored (2) populations from when the first Europeans arrived, to a flawed democracy with an elected government of blacks – and without an endless and devastating civil war. Yes, there were deaths – largely from the oppressive government, and also from the freedom fighters – but somehow the number of deaths in the struggle was measured in 10s of thousands, not millions.

Alexandra residents, July 2017

We spent a good part of the morning going though Alexandra, one of the black townships established during apartheid to isolate the black population. This is a place of appalling living conditions and abject poverty. Yet, as the pictures show, people don’t exhibit misery in their everyday lives. Unemployment is 40%; the schools are terrible or worse; drug use and AIDS are rampant. Yet somehow people manage to live each day.

Alexandra streets, July, 2017

Alexandra’s future, July 2017

After the museum, we went to Soweto (3), the largest and most famous of the townships. This was the locus of the struggle to end apartheid. Mandela and the other leaders lived here, when they weren’t in jail, exile or hiding from the authorities. We had a pleasant lunch in a buffet restaurant on the street where Tutu and Mandela “lived” (4).

Historical center of Soweto, July 2017

Soweto is large, with millions of residents. The housing ranges from tin roofed and sided shacks, to small but tidy bricked homes, to dormitories that would compete with any tenement in NYC or Chicago. There is a lot of crime here and in Alexandra. Robin, our guide, hired a crew to wash and watch his car while we had lunch in Soweto. In Alexandra, he hired two bodyguards with a gun to follow us in their car while we drove around (we never got out of the car there).

Robin’s crew, July 2017

The Alexandra crew were all quite friendly, and jostled for the dollar or so he gave each of them: the washer, the watcher, the crew chief, etc.

It was an interesting and tiring day.

Tonight we have dinner out at a nearby restaurant. Tomorrow we get on a small plane for a 90 minute flight to Singita, a camp outside of Kruger National Park. We’ll be touring in a private preserve. I expect there’s some level of Internet service there, but if you don’t hear from us, then I was wrong.
(1) Think Scarsdale, Short Hills or Saddle River with electric wire on stone walls
(2) “White”, “black” and “colored” have specific meanings in South Africa, different than in the US. Race is really a cultural concept and not a biological one.
(3) Soweto = SOuth WEst TErriTOries. It is southwest of Joburg proper.
(4) Mandela stayed in the house here for a couple of weeks in his life. Tutu did live here, and his family still owns the house. Winnie Mandela had a restaurant which is now empty.

Gear fail

I’ve written a number of incredibly long and boring posts about my photography gear for this trip. This won’t be long. You can decide if it’s boring,

One of the key factors in choosing what to bring was redundancy: two cameras, lenses that can partially offset another that has failed, lots of batteries and chargers, backup strategy for the pictures. One thing which doesn’t have a backup is my tripod, as it’s big and heavy. I almost didn’t bring it at all because of the weight.

So of course, it broke. Partially.

Looks healthy, but it’s not, July 2017

I had disassembled it into three pieces so that it would pack better into our constrained luggage. As I was trying to put it together this morning, the center shaft jammed in an unusable position. After about a half an hour, and at the cost of a skinned knuckle, I got it to the point where it is useable. But I brought this particular tripod because it converts to a monopod, which I can use in the game drive vehicles. Now I’m not sure I’ll be able to disassemble it anymore, or put it back together again if I do.


Inside a wall

We arrived in Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo Airport this morning after a long and uneventful flight. In at least one way, it was a throwback to the old days of air travel: someone met us at the gate.

I vaguely remember those days, before layers upon layers of security were added to air travel. You could walk your friend or family member to the gate, helping them with their hand luggage (there was no wheeled luggage in those days, either) and delaying the inevitable goodby to the last minute. And the reverse was true: people would crowd around the gates, waiting for their someone to walk down the ramp and emerge to smiles and hugs.

In our case, we were met by an escort waiting with our name on a sign – someone we paid for who guided us through the airport, helped us get our luggage at the carousel, and expedited our passage through passport control and customs. After a tip, he handed us off to our driver, also waiting with a sign, who took us to our hotel in the suburbs. Where he got his tip (1).

Guard at the gate to the Saxon, July 2017

The Saxon Hotel is quite lovely. It is also a fortress, completely surrounded by a high concrete wall. As are all of the other properties in this wealthy suburb. Many of the walls are topped with electrified wires.

Saxon Hotel, 2017

The staff here seems extremely attentive to the guests and are quite pleasant. When we approach one of them in the halls, they invariably stand to one side and wait there until we pass; this is a bit disconcerting to us, accustomed as we are to a less formal and more egalitarian relationship with people.

We kind of stumbled around the room for a bit, then stumbled around the hotel a bit looking for a place to eat, then decided on room service for lunch. A nap, some showers, and we felt better. We have dinner reservations in the hotel restaurant.

Tomorrow we leave at 9:00 for our full day “Soweto and Apartheid Tour with Robin Binckes as a guide”. Hope it’s interesting. It’s a full day.

(1) We received detailed instructions on tipping from our travel company: drivers, porters, guides, trackers, etc. Each has a price and a currency. In South Africa, where we are for nine nights, it’s the South African Rand, or ZAR.

Lounging around

Despite getting out of JFK late, we got into Heathrow about 30 minutes early. Which did nothing for our sleep. We stumbled off the plane and found our way to Terminal 1, where BA operates two Club lounges. And this has been our home for the last six hours, with another hour or so to go – assuming our flight remains on schedule.

Lots of loungers, lots of drinks, July 2017

Unlike the JFK lounge, which definitely needed a refresh, this lounge is both quite nice and quite busy. There’s lots of snacks around all day, including beverages, and they put out a buffet lunch which we skipped for all kind of reasons. They also have robust wifi, which I’m using right now.

Feeling fidgety? Have a bite, July 2017

We took a walk outside of our gated community to the terminal concourse. It’s really a shopping mall surrounded by security and airplanes. You can buy pretty much everything you might need for a trip here – clothing, toiletries, luggage, cameras, fidgets, etc. We just had lunch in a place called, fittingly, Giraffes.

On our way!

Well, we got everything packed. As far as I can tell, we weigh about 88 lbs. together, so we should be able to bring all of our stuff on some of the more restrictive flights that are coming later. In the meantime, we’ve checked in with British Airways at JFK. Uber was nearby and made a quick pickup, traffic was a bit lighter than usual, and there were about five people ahead of us at TSA. Our flight, scheduled for 10:55pm, is delayed about 25 mins. I checked it’s track record, and it seems to be delayed up to an hour and a half every night. And it seems to get into London Heathrow about on time, at 11:00am local time.

We have a very long layover in Heathrow – 8 hours. While that’s Sally’s longest, I’ve had longer ones in the past. And she actually had an overnight layover in San Francisco a couple of years ago, when she flew out to meet me there and we continued on to Hawaii.


Our bags are checked straight through to JNB (Johannesburg). In the past, when we’ve had a short-ish connection time, I’ve seen the bags tagged “short transfer” or some such thing to encourage the baggage crew to get them to the next flight. This time they were tagged “Transfer Long” to reflect our 8 hour scheduled layover. But because they’re also “Priority” because we’re flying Business Class, I guess the crew gives them priority to wait a long time.

You could shoot a shotgun and not hit anyone, July 2017

In any event, we’re in the BA lounge, which is capacious, has lots of food and snacks, and is pretty run down. And pretty empty. But it’s only for an hour or so.

We leave tomorrow

So today we tried packing absolutely everything. Since I’ve been obsessing over this for months, including a spreadsheet with every item I am taking and it’s weight, this should have been an academic exercise that proved how valuable planning is.


I was over-weight and Sally was over-volume. While it’s not actually a problem tomorrow (British Air gives us lots of capacity for luggage), it will be a problem on Sunday when we fly Federal Air on a scheduled charter (1). FedAir restricts your carry-on to 11 lbs. Sally’s carry-on is only a little overweight, but her checked bag is stuffed and she doesn’t have room to fit what she planned, let alone more stuff. My carry-on (aka my camera bag) is way overweight, and the gear in that bag can’t be checked in a hard sided suitcase, let alone our soft duffle bags. And later we will be on several flights where everything must be 44 lbs or less.

This stuff didn’t make the cut, July 2017

So today we both started pulling stuff out of our bags. I don’t really need those shorts, or the extra t-shirt. I won’t bring a small case for my camera cleaning supplies, they’ll go into a baggie. Same with a filter bag and a belt carrier for a monopod. Detachable shoulder straps for both our duffles and a fleece beanie got jettisoned. A bunch of stuff that had accumulated in my toiletry bag all disappeared, as did miscellaneous small cables and adaptors in my electronics bag. Sally took out some shirts, a sweater, half her mouth wash, a dress, and some underwear. As a result she was also able to eliminate two pack-it bags as well.

I already know that my 11 lb. carry-on was only going to happen by using my photographer’s vest and filling its capacious pockets with 8 lbs of fragile consumer electronics.

We both think we haven’t quite cracked the code here, yet. We’ll try again tomorrow to fit into the weight and space constraints for all the different flights.

(1) What exactly is a “scheduled charter”? It’s not a scheduled flight, as it has no flight number. But it flies a regular route at a regular time. I’m confused.

Strange stuff to pack

Years ago Sally and I would travel with suitcases filled with clothing and books.  If we were going to a resort or traveling by air, the books would cosume both a big part of my suitcase and my carry-on.  Technology and age have changed these priorities, especially for me.

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Keith and Kindle, July 2017

I haven’t actually carried a real physical book on an airplane in years.  The first practical e-reader, the Kindle, was released in late 2007, and I believe I purchase one shortly thereafter.  Since then, I’ve purchased and downloaded almost every book I’ve gotten as a Kindle book (1).  In 2011, I bought my first iPad (an iPad 2), and installed the Kindle app.  I never replaced my original Kindle device, and it is now long gone.  So my reading library – especially while traveling – is now my iPad or even my iPhone.  Since I carry those whenever I travel anyway, this is a 100% weight and space savings.

The iPad and iPhone are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to electronics, of course.  Sally does use a real Kindle device, which requires it’s own micro-USB cable.  All of these devices will charge using the same USB wall plug.  And I have my cameras, which use two different batteries, and thus require two different chargers.  The newest addition on this trip is the backup disk drive I bought, but this also charges using a USB wall plug, although again with a unique cable (USB 3).  Any I always take two of everything critical that could fail.

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Meds, eyeglasses and a lens, July 2017

Another class of item that’s been growing for us over the years is our medications.  The good news is that we’ve actually lived as long as we have, and that there are pills to help us feel better every day.  They also help us try to preserve our general health and fitness for the future.  In my case, I have a slew of pills I take everyday to treat my arthritis.  I put the pills into these daily organizer strips that help me ensure that I take all of them everyday.  And I need almost three weeks supply for the trip, plus extras in the event we’re delayed returning or I lose or damage some.  So I’m taking four weeks worth.

Related to the meds are eyeglasses.  Sally and I both wear eyeglasses, of course.  She uses progressives, while I have bifocals.  We each will take a backup pair, as it will be hard to see if we lose or break our primary ones.  We both will take presription sunglasses, as we hope to be in the bright sun a good part of every day, looking for wild animals.  We also both are taking sunglass clips, that attach to the frame of our primary glasses for casual or city use.

The image above shows most (but not all) of my meds and packed eyeglasses. All of this stuff has to be in my carry-on.  I’ve put my largest lens there for size comparison.  I’d rather be able to take another lens.



(1) The only hard cover text I’ve bought in years was Keith Richards’ memoir, “Life”.   I’ve also acquired a number of photography books in paper form, as it’s pretty hard to appreciate the photos in a Kindle book.

I didn’t write this. I just like it.

I received this from a very good friend.  He’s not a military guy.  He’s not a Republican. He’s not from a fly-over state.   He’s definitely not a Fundamental Christian.  But we can all can get behind the sentiment expressed in this email.
I’ve taken some small liberties with the formating. Everything below the line is what I received.
To: {everyone I know}
Subject: AN AIRLINE CAPTAIN’S REPORT . . . A must read!

“The American flag does not fly because the wind moves past it . . .
The American flag flies from the last breath of each military member who has
died serving it.”

AIRLINE CAPTAIN — You will not regret reading this one.

My lead flight attendant came to me and said, “We have an H.R. on this flight.” (H.R stands for Human Remains.)

“Are they military?” I asked.

‘Yes’, she said.

‘Is there an escort?’ I asked.

‘Yes, I’ve already assigned him a seat’.

‘Would you please tell him to come to the Flight Deck. You can board him early,” I said.

A short while later a young army sergeant entered the flight deck.  He was the image of the perfectly dressed soldier.  He introduced himself and I
asked him about his soldier.

The escorts of these fallen soldiers talk about them as if they are still alive and still with us.  ‘My soldier is on his way back to Virginia,’ he said.  He proceeded to answer my questions, but offered no words.

I asked him if there was anything I could do for him and he said no.  I told him that he had the toughest job in the military, and that appreciated the work that he does for the families of our fallen soldiers.  The first officer and I got up out of our seats to shake his hand.  He left the Flight
Deck to find his seat.

We completed our preflight checks, pushed back and performed an uneventful
departure.  About 30 minutes into our flight, I received a call from the lead flight attendant in the cabin.

‘I just found out the family of the soldier we are carrying, is also on board’, she said.  She then proceeded to tell me that the father, mother, wife and 2-year old daughter were escorting their son, husband, and father
home.  The family was upset because they were unable to see the container that the soldier was in before we left.

We were on our way to a major hub at which the family was going to wait four hours for the connecting flight home to Virginia.  The father of the soldier told the flight attendant that knowing his son was below him in the cargo compartment and being unable to see him was too much for him and the family
to bear.  He had asked the flight attendant if there was anything that could be done to allow them to see him upon our arrival.  The family wanted to be outside by the cargo door to watch the soldier being taken off the airplane.

I could hear the desperation in the flight attendants voice when she asked me if there was anything I could do. ‘I’m on it’, I said.  I told her that I would get back to her.

Airborne communication with my company normally occurs in the form of e-mail like messages.  I decided to bypass this system and contact my flight dispatcher directly on a secondary radio.  There is a radio operator in the
operations control center who connects you to the telephone of the dispatcher. I was in direct contact with the dispatcher.  I explained the situation I had on board with the family and what it was the family wanted. He said he understood and that he would get back to me.

Two hours went by and I had not heard from the dispatcher.  We were going to get busy soon and I needed to know what to tell the family.  I sent a text message asking for an update.  I saved the return message from the
dispatcher and the following is the text:

‘Captain, sorry it has taken so long to get back to you.  There is policy on this now, and I had to check on a few things.  Upon your arrival a dedicated escort team will meet the aircraft.  The team will escort the family to the
ramp and plane side.  A van will be used to load the remains with a secondary van for the family.

The family will be taken to their departure area and escorted into the terminal, where the remains can be seen on the ramp.  It is a private area for the family only.  When the connecting aircraft arrives, the family will be escorted onto the ramp and plane side to watch the remains being loaded for the final leg home.

Captain, most of us here in flight control are veterans.  Please pass our condolences on to the family.  Thanks.

I sent a message back, telling flight control thanks for a good job.  I printed out the message and gave it to the lead flight attendant to pass on to the father.  The lead flight attendant was very thankful and told me,
‘You have no idea how much this will mean to them.’

Things started getting busy for the descent, approach and after landing. we cleared the runway and taxied to the ramp area.  The ramp is huge with 15 gates on either side of the alleyway.  It is always a busy area with aircraft maneuvering every which way to enter and exit.  When we
entered the ramp and checked in with the ramp controller, we were told that all traffic was being held for us.

‘There is a team in place to meet the aircraft’, we were told.  It looked like it was all coming together, then I realized that once we turned the seat belt sign off, everyone would stand up at once and delay the family from getting off the airplane.  As we approached our gate, I asked the
copilot to tell the ramp controller, we were going to stop short of the gate to make an announcement to the passengers.  He did that and the ramp controller said, ‘Take your time.’

I stopped the aircraft and set the parking brake.  I pushed the public address button and said:  ‘Ladies and gentleman, this is your Captain speaking: I have stopped short of our gate to make a special announcement.
We have a passenger on board who deserves our honor and respect.  His name
is Private XXXXXX, a soldier who recently lost his life.  Private XXXXXX is under your feet in the cargo hold.  Escorting him today is Army Sergeant XXXXXX.  Also, on board are his father, mother, wife, and daughter.  Your entire flight crew is asking for all passengers to remain in their seats to allow the family to exit the aircraft first.  Thank you.’

We continued the turn to the gate, came to a stop and started our shutdown procedures.  A couple of minutes later I opened the cockpit door.  I found
the two forward flight attendants crying, something you just do not see.  I was told that after we came to a stop, every passenger on the aircraft stayed in their seats, waiting for the family to exit the aircraft.

When the family got up and gathered their things, a passenger slowly started
to clap his hands.  Moments later, more passengers joined in and soon the entire aircraft was clapping.  Words of ‘God Bless You’, I’m sorry, thank you, be proud, and other kind words were uttered to the family as they made their way down the aisle and out of the airplane.  They were escorted down
to the ramp to finally be with their loved one.

Many of the passengers disembarking thanked me for the announcement I had made.  They were just words, I told them, I could say them over and over again, but nothing I say will bring back that brave soldier.

I respectfully ask that all of you reflect on this event and the sacrifices that millions of our men and women have made to ensure our freedom and
safety in these United States of AMERICA.

Foot note:

I know everyone who reads this will have tears in their eyes, including me. Prayer chain for our Military.. Don’t break it!  Please send this on after a
short prayer for our service men and women.

Don’t break it!

They die for me and mine and you and yours and deserve our honor and respect.

Prayer Request:  When you receive this, please stop for a moment and say a prayer for our troops around the world.. There is nothing attached.  Just send this to people in your address book.  Do not let it stop with you.  Of all the gifts you could give a Marine, Soldier, Sailor, Airman, and others  deployed in harm’s way, prayer is the very best one.


Thank you all who have served, or are serving.

We will not forget!!!



Years ago, in the pre-mobile phone era, or even in the roaming-is-so-expensive-you-don’t-dare era, I used to do a lot of business travel.  And Sally and I used to take vacations.  For each of these, I would prepare a list of travel information and contacts for those left behind – Sally if I was on business, our kids or their babysitters if we were on vacation without them.  This would include flights, hotels and phone numbers, contacts at my offices if I was on business and their contacts, etc.  This would enable someone to get in touch with me / us in the event of an emergency.

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Where are we?, July 2017

With the dawn of mobile communications, global email and texting, this became a much less intensive and critical exercise.  Now when we travel for pleasure, we usually let the kids know what our flights are, and generally where we’ll be.  And of course, since I’ve been blogging our major trips, all of you are kept up to date with our location as we go along.

This all changes for Africa.  For one thing, we probably won’t have cell service most of the time.   When we’ve traveled to Europe recently, we were able to (one way or another) tap into the local cell networks either with a wifi hot spot or directly with our mobile phones, as AT&T (and Verizon) have made roaming affordable.  Neither one has any local partners in South Africa or Botswana that I can see.  We will have wifi in our city hotels, so we’ll be able to communicate when we are there.  But while out and about, we’ll be mostly non-communicating.

I will look into getting a local SIM card for my allegedly unlocked iPhone while we’re in Johannesberg and Capetown, but I’m skeptical that it will work.

In addition to the cities (Johannesberg, Cape Town and Victoria Falls) we’ll be in four different camps on this trip.  Two of them have no Internet connectivity whatsoever.  So for the first time in many years, we will be completely off the grid.  If I remember correctly, the most recent time we were even close to this was in Anguila about 12 years ago. There was no cell service, no wifi, and no phone in our room.  There was a phone near the front desk that you could use, and I recall having to make some business-related calls while we were there.

In addition to the two camps that are explicit about having no wifi, I’m expecting wifi to be limited at the other two camps.  While texts and emails might get through, I’m doubtful that I’ll be able to upload any pictures.  And we have been in many city hotels where the wifi was barely useful in recent years.  But maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

In any event, I have created a two page schedule of our flights and accomodations which I’ll leave with our kids before we go.  Not that I expect them to need it.  Unlike years past, this list doesn’t have phone numbers or addresses for our accomodations, nor the scheduled times for our flights.  Rather, I just give the web link for each and expect anyone who wants to get more information – and up-to-date information – will just hit the link.

Photographic gear for safari

Tuesday, July 11, T-15

Our upcoming trip to Africa was a birthday present to Sally from me: pick any place in the world you want to go, including a place that I’ve resisted in the past, and we will go there.   And I promise not to whine or complain.  After a bit of thought, she settled on an African Safari.   And I began planning for the photography gear I’d need to shoot (1) wild animals in the bush.

Here’s the thing about wild animal photography: the animals usually don’t cooperate.  They’re often far away, they move around unexpectedly, they hide in grass and brush, and they’re most active when the light is dim (dawn and dusk).  This drives you to want to have big heavy cameras that shoot fast and work well in low light, and big heavy lenses that have high magnification and work well in low light.  Every equipment decision therefore becomes a balancing act between how much weight you can bring and how much flexibility you want in the field.  Add to that the special requirements for an African safari: you travel on small airplanes with severe weight restrictions, you have limited (i.e. no) ability to repair or replace equipment that fails, and the dusty conditions mean you don’t want to be switching lenses while out and about.

I’ve never even owned the biggest and baddest cameras or lenses.   The most demanding thing I usually shoot from an equipment perspective is kids’ sports and shows.  I used to use medium sized equipment from Nikon (so-called “crop sensor”), but switched a few years ago to a class of camera called “micro 43” or m43, which uses a smaller sensor and therefore smaller lenses.  This enables one to save a lot of weight and space.   I estimate that my m43 kit, for similar capabilities, is about half the weight of my old Nikon kit.  And given the progress in digital camera technology, my current gear out-performs my old Nikon gear in most ways.   And the old stuff performed better than the photographer working the controls and was never the constraint on the quality of my images.

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Cruise cameras and lenses: 4.25 lbs., May 2017

For our trip to Europe this year, I took four lenses that weighed about 2.5 lbs. and encompassed an 11x zoom range from pretty wide (9mm) to moderately long (100mm) (2).  That maximum magnification is woefully inadequate for safari.   Serious wildlife photographers like a magnification ratio at least 2 or 3 times greater, or 300mm.  And sadly, the weight of a lens grows faster than the focal length.   So where the 35-100mm zoom I took to Europe weighs 12 oz., the 40-150mm zoom I’m taking to Africa weighs 31 oz.   And the 100-400mm zoom I’m taking weighs 35 oz (3).

I mentioned that replace or repair is also not an option, so one needs to think about what you would do if some piece of equipment fails.  This stuff is pretty reliable, but it does fail.   I had an old lens actually fall apart in my hand last winter.   I also had the shutter on one of my cameras fail last winter.  The camera has been repaired, while the lens was not repairable.  So I have a strategy for what I would do if any piece of gear I’m bringing fails while we’re in the bush.

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Safari cameras and lenses: 8.2 lbs, July 2017

I’m taking four zoom lenses which have some overlap in range: 9-18, 12-35, 40-150 (convertible to 56-210), and 100-400. I’ll also take a fixed 25mm lens.  So:

– if the 9-18 fails, I use the 12-35 and loose the 9-11 range

– if the 12-35 fails, I use the 9-18 anf the 25mm, and loose the 19-24 and 26-35 ranges

– if the 40-150 fails, I use the 100-400 and loose the 40-99 range

– if the 100-400 fails, I put the adaptor on the 40-150 so I can have 56-210, and loose everything over 210.

In the cities, loosing the 12-35 would be the worst case, as I typically take about 2/3 of my “keeper” pictures with that lens.  On safari, loosing either of the long lenses would be a problem.  In any case, the solution would be to use the next shorter lens and crop the resulting pictures as needed.  Or to take different pictures more suitable to the lenses I have.  But hopefully, I won’t have any problems.

The camera backup is simpler: I’m taking two similar cameras, an Olympus OM-D E-M1 and an OM-D E-M1 Mark 2 (3).  Assuming both are working, I’ll use them both with different magnification lenses on each one while we’re driving around in the bush looking for animals, which solves another problem: changing lenses while driving is risky because it’s extremely dusty, and you don’t want to let dust get into the camera or lens.  But if one fails, I’ll have the other.

But other critical gear needs backup as well.  Cameras without batteries are paperweights, and one might use more than one battery in a day. So I will take four batteries for each camera (of course, they use different batteries).  And two chargers for each camera, as they could fail as well.

Finally, I need to plan for how to backup the most important thing, namely all the pictures I shoot (5).  They’re stored on little chips called SD cards, which are pretty reliable, but can fail.  Many serious photographers carry a laptop with them and copy the images into it each day as they travel, and review the images as they go.  I don’t own a laptop, and don’t want to deal with the weight of one, and don’t want to spend my valuable time on the trip reviewing thousands of pictures.  So I have a special device that will simply copy the contents of an SD card onto its own storage, and weighs only 12 oz. It also replaces the USB battery pack I usually travel with, so the net weight increase is only a few ounces.  And as with the other gear, I won’t be able to buy more SD cards in the bush if I fill them up.

And remember, the fact that the kit itself is so much larger and heavier means that the bag is much larger and heavier.  After counting all the stuff I need to bring – what’s listed above, batteries, chargers, tripod, etc. – the safari kit totals about 24 lbs. while the cruise kit was only about 7 lbs. (6)  I can only hope the pictures are 3.4 times as interesting …


(1) “Shoot” is the easiest term to use when you’re talking about making a photographic image of something.  Unfortunately, it’s also what you do with a gun.  Rest assured that we will not be using any guns on this trip – the only shooting that takes place will be with a camera.

(2) Focal lengths determine magnification, but differently for different classes of cameras.  Compared to old-school 35mm film cameras, an m43 camera requires half the length for equivalent magnification.  So my 35-100mm zoom on an m43 would need to be 70-200mm long on a film or “full frame” digital camera.   For comparison, most phone cameras are equivalent to about 15mm on my m43 cameras, but are actually 2.65mm on the iPhone 6S.

(3) The 100-400mm only weighs a bit more that the 40-150mm because is is the same physical diameter, and therefore works less well in low light situations.  A 400mm lens that had the same light-gathering capability as my 40-150 would probably weigh over 8 lbs.; Nikon’s version, which doesn’t even zoom, weighs 8.4 lbs. and costs $11,000.

(4) I don’t make up these names, I only report them.  The Mark 2 camera is a new improved version of the other.

(5) My professional career in IT started as a database administrator, which instilled in me a lifelong need to make backups of anything digital.  Of course, back in the film days, no one worried about backup – just how many rolls of film they could carry, and how to get them through airport security without being x-rayed. I’m carrying the equivalent of more than 400 rolls of film, not counting the backup copies.

(6) 7 lbs. for just the core kit – it totaled somewhat more than that.

Okay, I’ve been remiss

Monday, July 10, T-16

Sally pointed out this evening that I’ve haven’t been keeping you all up to date on my/our planning and packing adventures for our upcoming trip to Africa.  To recap the ground rules, which represent the most restrictive policies of the three scheduled and several charter airlines we are traveling with:

1. We are allowed a total of 44 lbs. of luggage for both cabin luggage and checked luggage.

2. Our luggage must be softsided and without wheels.  Maximum size is 24″ x 16″ x 12″ (Federal Airways).

3. We are allowed a single piece of cabin luggage not to exceed 8kg or 17.6 lbs., plus “1 small handbag or small laptop” (South African Airways), or a single piece up to 5kg or 11 lbs. (Federal Airways).

FedAir Baggage Policy, July 2017

4. We can carry no more than four spare lithium batteries in cabin baggage (British Airways), and (of course) cannot pack any in checked luggage.

5. The unscheduled charters are apparently both more and less flexible.  They do insist on soft luggage with no wheels, but apparently will accept whatever they can shove into the luggage compartment of the plane.

These restrictions pose a challenge to many travelers, but especially those carrying a fair amount of sensitive electronic equipment.  Like my camera kit.

Let’s start with the overall weight restrictions.  On our last trip, the cruise with Matteo and Zelda, my checked bag checked in at 38 lbs.  I had a carry-on backpack with my camera gear and other essentials, like meds, iPad/iPhone, etc. that weighed about 15 lbs.  for that trip, as the camera kit was very modest – some lenses, a backup (and small) backup body, and a bunch of batteries.  No tripod.  I did have a suit and dress shoes, etc.   So about 9 lbs. overweight (38 + 15 = 53 vs. 44) in total when compared to the safari, and also 4 lbs. over for the carry-on.

This Africa trip will require clothing for two environments: we’ll be in the city for eight days, and in camps/lodges in the bush for nine days.   The city clothing is normal sightseeing stuff: very casual during the day for sightseeing, and some nicer casual stuff for dinners in the evening.   The bush clothing is basically hiking clothes: neutral or earthtones so as to not scare the animals (1), warm layers as it’s winter in Southern Africa, hats to block the sun, sturdy hiking shoes or boots, etc.  Unlike the cruise, no need for a suit and tie, fancy dresses, high heels, etc.   We will have complimentary laundry during our time in the camps, but also need to deal with four days in a hotel in Cape Town.  So it’s a balancing act: bring enough stuff to last the one long city stay, or stuff that can be hand-washed in the room (2).

Then there’s the big elephant in the room, so to speak: my camera gear.  The kit for the cruise totaled 12 lbs., and more than 3 lbs. went in my checked bag.  But that trip, while interesting photographically, was not focused on photography, was with three other non-photographers, and was mostly to places I’d been recently.  So I knew in advance that the photography I did would be opportunistic and not involve a lot of setup for any shot.   In particular, no tripod and a minimal set of lenses.  Some days I didn’t even bring a camera bag out, just a camera, an extra lens, and an extra battery.

For this trip, the current estimate for the camera kit is 24 lbs. – a full 12 lbs. more than last time.  I’ll talk some more about this in a future post.  But this leaves me needing to find 23 lbs. to take out of the other stuff I brought on the cruise.  I already have the suit and it’s accessories, which is about 5 lbs.  The other big save is the checked bag itself.   As we’re required to use a soft bag for our checked luggage on this trip, we don’t need our lightweight Tumi rolling luggage at 12.5 lbs.  instead, we’ll each be using a duffle bag supplied by our travel agent which weighs about 2.2 lbs.  Those two alone save me 15 lbs.

Duffle and camera bag, July 2017

The usual way that travel experts say to save weight is to bring easy to wash clothing, and wash it each night.  For the items that I’m bringing multiples ofs (socks, underwear, t-shirts, etc.) I already do this.   It’s been years since I’ve traveled with more than about four days worth of clothing; instead, I drive Sally crazy by always leaving wet clothes hanging around our room (3).  This strategy is constrained by two factors:

– travel days, when your wet laundry may not have time to dry (I’ve never liked to pack wet clothes, plus they just weigh more wet and I already have a weight problem)

– the need for different stuff for different situations.

– The inability to obtain new stuff for most of the trip.

On this trip, we’re in cosmopolitan cities and the bush; we’re in warm weather (high of 82F and bright sun) and cold (low 40s pre-dawn while on a game drive in an open vehicle).  So we need everything from t-shirts to long underwear, insulated jackets, gloves and warm hats.

We’re also in safari camps/lodges for as much as 6 consecutive days, followed by two days in the small town of Victoria, Zimbabwe.  We really can’t count on being able to buy anything that we might have forgotten, lost or broken.  This includes, of course, meds and toiletries.  Given this, we’re both carrying at least a four weeks supply of all of these critical consumables.  While this may not sound like much, my daily meds in the weekly cases add up to about a pound for four weeks.

Anyway, I’ve gotten my non-photography/electronics gear including the duffle bag down to about 18 lbs. or so.  With the camera kit at around 24 lbs., I’m currently just two pounds under my limit assuming I haven’t forgotten anything, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten something(s).


(1) One is universally advised to wear khaki-colored or other neutral colors while on game drives.   Yet I’ve been given to understand that many of the animals, including lions, are colorblind.  But maybe some can see colors.   In any event, we both have appropriately bland stuff.

(2) One could also pay for hotel laundry, but you’d spend less money discarding the soiled items and buying new ones.  I’m not particularly adverse to hand-washing myself, but Sally is less fond of it.

(3) It was no issue when I traveled alone for business, of course; then I didn’t care if I had wet stuff all over, and I was rarely in my hotel and awake.