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India: Tigers, tigers burning bright!

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India: Tigers, tigers burning bright

With having led well over 30 trips to India over the years we maintained our impressive record of 100% of our clients all seeing tigers! Many have left the subcontinent after repeated tiger safaris without ever having set eyes on the world’s largest and arguably the most beautiful cat.

This year we creamed it and got to see an impressive 8 individuals, over 9 sightings, from a single park. Not only that but we were often able to spend extended quality time with them. Half of the sightings we found the tiger and luxuriated in being alone with it way before others arrived. Perhaps the cherry on the top was a lovely female who we accompanied a long distance with her two adolescent cubs in tow!

Indian wildlife is, however, about so much more than just tigers. We heard leopards mating. Saw sambar and spotted deer, chinkara gazelle, blackbuck, wild board, a sloth bear, nilgai, striped hyena, Hannuman langurs, rhesus macaques, flying foxes, crocodiles, jungle cats and a plethora of exotic birds including thousands of demoiselle cranes, painted storks, woolly necked storks, kingfishers, thick knees, parakeets and the omnipresent ‘trash’ birds the unlikely peacock!

Our trip included a large dose of Rajasthani culture, ancient forts, markets and the amazing people living close to the ground in the country side. We could not have been better received or more welcome and posed with locals for selfies too numerous to mention. I just love full immersion into a culture of strangers, always remembering that when we travel to far flung destinations we are the foreigners not they. We laughed hard, gelled as a group and maintained a high level of ‘warm and fuzzy’ feeling as we breezed through each day marveling at daily life and the cows that were everywhere.

The timing of the trip was centered around the amazing Pushkar camel fair, said to be the largest camel fair in the world. A true exhubarence of India condensed into a single venue. An assault on every sense from a riot of color, blaring music, Holy men, pilgrims, a longest moustache competition, Yogis, exotic flavors and pungent odors to the rough texture of a camel herders handshake. There is something about camels. They are always taller than you think and can be somewhat imposing. Yet, despite many kilos of decorations adorning necks, heads, backs and feet or the intricate patterns that cover their bodies or intricate shaved designs in their pelage they always seem to remain aloof. They crave no affection and stoically perform their duties where the reward of a full bag of fodder at the end of the day justifies their effort.

City smog was bad, terrible actually and an industrial agricultural revolution seems to be advancing fiercely. Of course, it’s always good to be home but no sooner had we landed back in South Africa than we were ready to go back. Incredible India – we miss you already!

*Keep checking our website for our next India itinerary.

Pantanal

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Pantanal

Once again we had an incredible time in Brazil’s Pantanal this year. Jaguars of course are the main target species and I always marvel at how it is possible to virtually guarantee exceptional jaguar sightings. I remember when our tour operator first started the jaguar tourism in the northern Pantanal. He called me in, as a photographer, to see if it was even possible to see (and photograph) these cats in the wild. We camped (there were no luxury floating hotels) and a driver and I plied the rivers, about a 1000 kms in a ten-day period. The results were exceptional and I saw 7 jaguars, two of them a mating pair and one in particular that lay on its back and watched us from a few meters for half an hour or so.

It was amazing. I had previously worked and lived in the Amazon rainforest and to see a jaguar – or even fresh tracks – was rare indeed. Once processed I took the images to the National Geographic Magazine in DC and showed them to the chief editor who was running a jaguar corridor story. They did not believe that my shots were of wild jaguars, let alone non-camera trapped, direct one-on-one images of the cats. Most previous jaguar images that the public had seen were taken in captive situations in the Belize zoo, or the military zoo in Manaus, Brazil. Finally convinced, after much back and forth, they published a suite of images in the article. Of course those shots have all been bettered but it remains a testament as to how well jaguars have been protected and valued by the locals in the Pantanal. I feel proud to have been there from the beginning and delight in seeing many of the same individuals from one year to the next.

This year was a personal record, not likely one that I will repeat, with 16 individual jaguars sighted on our trip. We watched, two cats interacting, one steal a fish from a heron, twice chasing caiman, swimming, stalking, relaxing, posing on logs and a host of antics from true quality sightings. Our largest feline in South America, it is, as Alan Rabinowitz said, truly an ‘indomitable beast’.

More personal records were set for one of our trips with an unprecedented 6 tapirs sighted and two giant anteaters! Giant river otters were often seen, hunting fish, scent marking and socializing, we were even present when a family of otters met two jaguars (just out of sight but very close by). The vocalizations were extreme and blood curdling!

Birds were of course as exceptional as ever and there were a host of other animals such as crab eating foxes, ocelot, peccaries, capybara, coatis, agoutis, caimen and anaconda.

Without doubt oil and gas revenues will be a blessing or a curse and need to be carefully applied and distributed for the sake of the wellbeing of the peoples and biodiversity. We remain attentive.

Quite simply the Pantanal is an outstanding wildlife destination! We have two trips in 2020 – one full and the other almost full plus a full trip in 2021 but might consider adding another. Please watch our website for updates. You may also like to read the many reviews on our website to see what others have said so far.

Ultimate Guyana Adventure

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Better late than never!

We have been a little reticent about posting blogs due to our major move from Ecuador to South Africa. Finally our container arrived and most things are now installed. We love it. Quite simply it is spectacular here in Betty’s Bay in the Western cape.

Earlier in the year we took two groups, once again to Guyana – that seldom talked about, English speaking country nestled in the north-east corner of South America between Brazil, Suriname and Venezuela. Why it is so often overlooked on people’s lists of a fabulous tropical/wildlife destination remains a mystery to us. The two trips were different, the first a more tried and tested Pete Oxford Expeditions trip and the second (a closed trip) was a hard hitting, short, intense look at key areas with some very important conservationists from the world stage.

Once again the country did not disappoint and wildlife was all we hoped it would be ranging from spectacular looks at giant anteaters, giant river otters, myriad birds, huge black caiman, a plethora of tree boas and the world’s largest spider, the Goliath bird eater.

Change is afoot in the country with massive oil and gas reserves recently discovered offshore. With production soon to begin Guyana is hailed by some as becoming the richest country per capita in the near future.

Today Guyana stands proud as one of the most pristine countries in the world with a massive tract of intact primary rainforest cover still standing. The FAO estimates 71% of total land area is forest with a further 17% cover of ‘other wooded land!”

Without doubt oil and gas revenues will be a blessing or a curse and need to be carefully applied and distributed for the sake of the wellbeing of the peoples and biodiversity. We remain attentive.

In the meantime, in April of 2020 we again have two trips planned. We have chosen to deviate from the norm and highlights will include actually staying overnight at the super-impressive Kaieteur Falls, which believe me is stunning and quite a privilege.

Apart from the savannas. We also plan a 4 night stay, in hammocks, under a permanent roof with good food in one of the very best wildlife areas. It is remote and very seldom visited. We hope to see harpy eagle close to camp as well as snorkel in the clear-water river! It is an adventure and not for the feint hearted. My best memories of the country have come from these areas!

Have a look at the two links:

https://www.peteoxfordexpeditions.com/guyana-adventure-2-13-april-2020/

https://www.peteoxfordexpeditions.com/guyana-adventure-16-27-april-2020/

Join us, if you dare!!

Borneo

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Borneo, it was top of my bucket list of places left to go for as long as I can remember. The second largest island in the world Borneo is divvied up politically into Brunei, Sarawak (Malaysia) Sabah (Malaysia) and the bulk to the south, Kalimantan (Indonesia).

I had made a quick foray into the southern end of Kalimantan once before and from a house boat had waded waist deep though a swamp in a tropical downpour to finally get to see my first wild orangutans – a mother and a baby. A special moment indeed, more Zen-like and I took no images. This trip was to be different. A group of California friends, knowing I had never been asked me to set up and lead them on a wildlife trip to Sabah in the north east of the island. I was thrilled with the opportunity. It was to be an expedition for all of us!

Arriving at Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu, or simply KK it was surprisingly modern and ordered. Our high-rise hotel gave us a spectacular vantage point overlooking the South China Sea and the frenetic activity of boats plying to and from the market docks.

Out trip was to take us in a more or less circular route hitting the primary highlights on the way.

Sacred Mount Kinabalu – Sabah’s highest summit – put us in the realm of a wealth of montane species not to be found at lower elevations. The scenery was spectacular as Mt. Kinabalu changed its mood throughout. Everything was new to me, despite having travelled widely, birds were omnipresent and included Sunda and chestnut-hooded laughing thrushes, chestnut crested yuhinas, a Whitehead’s broadbill and the spectacular Bornean crested fireback. Mammals were mostly diminutive, the big stuff was yet to come but included giant squirrel, mountain tree shrews and Jentink’s squirrel. Eventually we headed south past the Poring hot springs to look at my first Rafflesia flowers, a totally incredible flower but a truly tacky ‘pay-to-see’ set up. 

We threw ourselves at the place investing inordinate time and effort to maximize on possible sightings. Certainly, it became my highest diversity of mammals ever seen in such a short-time. Twenty-five species in a mere four days? Highlights were too numerous to mention but number one was a clouded leopard that walked for more than a kilometer in our company making an approach to 5 meters from our vehicle! 

Then there were the eerily haunting calls of northern Bornean gibbon, leopard cats, four civet species including the rare and spectacular banded civet, a small-clawed otter, slow Loris, Borneo pygmy elephants and on and on.

Rhinoceros hornbills were spectacular, tiny Borneo falconets, the world’s smallest bird of prey hung around camp as did blue-throated bee-eaters. It was overwhelming. Another cherry on top was a magnificent look at a Borneo keeled viper – a big tick in my book! Thanks, Mike for your expert guiding.

Mentally and physically exhausted we moved out, heading to Sepilok. Renown for the orangutan sanctuary we spent our time also with a behind-the-scenes tour of the sun bear rehabilitation center which captivated us both in the proximity of these beautiful animals and of learning of their plight in the wild. We each donated $100.00 to the cause. Apart from stunning looks at bushy-crested hornbills the highlight had to have been our spectacularly lucky view of a western tarsier. – So much more impressive ‘in person’ than the countless photos I had already seen.

Experiences began to merge as sensory overload kicked in and we were only half way through. The wide and lazy Kinabatangan River filled in more gaps with silver leaf monkeys, and the hugely anticipated proboscis monkeys, the males with that unbelievable long and swollen nose. We saw scores of them, plus big crocs, fish eagles, kingfishers, some great snakes, bizarre pitcher plants of several species and great looks at more elephants feeding peacefully on the riverbank.

Darum Valley – our last stop was indeed a gem of a place to end. Such a pleasure to see my second ever binturong, flying squirrels and more of those enigmatic colugo – wow! We came for orangutans, we saw them in Deramakot, Kinabalangan and again in Danum. There was no way however that I expected to see them so well and so close as we saw them here. They were giving us a full show – lots of them at different sightings. It was just so humbling, the sense of privilege I felt at being so close to something for so long that was suffering so badly at the hand of man. Will they be around for the next few generations? Not if we do not act together now! 

All said and done a personal goal that I really, really wanted to see was a bearded pig. Boy did I get a good look at one of those! Borneo, I fell in love with you – thank you!

Svalbard – Of Ice and Polar Bears

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Longyearbyen 78º13′ north, the town lying farthest north in the world.

As our plane came in to land the small collection of buildings lay off on our port side set in a classic ice-cut valley, still with snow-covered peaks all around. The nursery school teacher sitting next to us on the plane pointed out where she worked, a cluster of ice-strengthened vessels lay at anchor in the calm waters of the fjord and we touched down. It was May, springtime in the Arctic and adrenaline coursed our veins as we contemplated the adventure that lay ahead.

Once our group was all settled in to our trappers-style, Basecamp Hotel we held our first briefing for the dog-sledding day in the morning!

Being on a sled, pulled by a team of six huskies across pristine snow is an adventure unto itself. Our experience however was so much more. It was all about the dogs, handling them, petting them, harnessing them up and bringing them to the snow. So keen were the dogs to pull that they could only be walked on their back two feet. The harnesses were designed to lift the dogs while walking them. They hopped. Woe betide anyone letting all four paws touch the ground or the dog would run – pulling you with it!

Before the afternoon of boarding our vessel, we explored the area, as far as the limited road network allowed, picking up on myriad seabirds, eider ducks, arctic foxes, barnacle and pink-footed geese, Svalbard reindeer and even a super rare close-encounter with a vagrant short-eared owl!

Finally, the time had come and our newly refurbished expedition vessel, the M/S Freya, was eagerly awaiting our presence. We were a baker’s dozen, plus two bear guides / expedition leaders (Jens and Vide), captain and crew. Immediately we felt at home. We headed out of the fjord to the west before turning north into the Arctic Ocean. Our very first day out, in stunning scenery we had already bagged our first polar bear, a walrus on pack ice and a pod of beluga whales! Our karma was good. With 24 hours of daylight everything was one long day and we used the light to keep looking as we travelled. The weather was sublime and on our first Zodiac tour Jens announced he had spotted another polar bear – this one closer. As we approached we realized that the ‘one’ bear lying in a snow hole was in fact two – a mother and one year old cub. Approaching further they both got up, walked down to the shoreline, now a few meters from our boats and began gnawing on an old whale jaw bone that had, according to Jens, been there several years already. We watched, incredulous as the two hungry bears tried to glean sustenance from the old bone. An outstanding sighting tinged with a large dose of sadness as we realized that if she could not catch a seal soon, made harder by the global-warming related receding ice conditions, they both may not make it.

We revisited the couple twice more throughout the day until they finally walked up from the beach and slept in a tight huddle.

Things just got better and better. The weather was excellent and the bird cliffs of Alkefiellet were stuffed to the gills with Brunnich’s guillemots and black-legged kittiwakes. Anything even resembling a perch on the dramatic, basaltic cliffs was now occupied by a bird preparing to nest. The scene was spectacular and even the bergy-bits of floating ice were crammed with guillemots looking, for all the world, like groups of penguins in the south.

Our next bear sighting was another mother but with two young cubs. We stayed with them at the edge of the fast ice where we watched at some distance as she stood, stoically, without moving a muscle, over a seal breathing hole, for eight hours, while the cubs played further away. After suckling her cubs she walked off into the distance and we continued on our journey.

Another intimate polar bear experience was with a large male, fat and healthy looking, after having eaten a seal. We stayed in his company a full 18 hours as he dug snow hole after snow hole trying to get comfortable. He sat, squirmed, yawned and came down to the shoreline to pose as we clicked away hundreds of images between us.

Soon it was time for some intimate walrus encounters and after having spied a large male on the pack ice we edged closer in the Freya. Apart from the odd glace in our direction the huge pinniped was unperturbed. After some great shots including its reflection in the still waters we decided to drop the Zodiacs for a fresh angle. The rewards were worth it and we had some stunning opportunities from virtually under the animal. Happily, the walrus population in Svalbard seems to be on the increase and we look forward to many more such encounters in the future. Another fabulous walrus experience was after we landed at one of the beach haulouts. Making our way in stages, slowly, slowly to the colony we sat unobtrusively close enough for some portrait photography and just simply to watch in awe at their comings and goings.

Another polar bear was spotted in front of a glacier – now totaling 8 individuals. We could not approach due to fast ice but loved seeing him in the majesty of his environment. To finish off, after what had been fabulous bear sightings so far, we decided to revisit the area where we had seen the mother and cub. Incredibly she was still there and gave us some more awesome viewing. From posing in front of a glacier to climbing rocks and walking the shoreline in front of us, to stalking harbor seals – nothing short of spectacular!

We eventually left them and began wending our way home to Longyearbyen. We were rewarded by a very rare sighting of a Steller’s eider duck and a mother and calf blue whale as we were almost home! This time Svalbard really delivered. We are never after quantity but always look at the quality of the sighting as the indicator of a successful trip. Add to the mix an unbeatably fun group (members of the Rare Bird Club of Bird Life International), guides and crew. This trip would be hard to top. Karma was indeed with us.

The Undiscovered Jewel – Guyana

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I have lived in Ecuador, South America for 32 years and have travelled the continent extensively. One destination that retains an inexplicable calling is Guyana.
Having published arguably the two most important coffee-table books on the country I have been privileged to have traveled its length and breadth by road, boat and helicopter. The continent’s only English-speaking country, Guyana is virtually pristine and rich in biodiversity including a ‘full house’ of the South American giants. An undiscovered jewel it is, with good reason, a firm favorite in our suite of expeditions.

Pete Oxford Expeditions is proud to jointly lead many trips with the Oceanic Society a USA based conservation NGO, the first in the states to be dedicated to ocean conservation. This was no exception and after assembling the group at Georgetown’s colonial Cara Lodge we headed out the following morning in our privately charted Cessna caravan aircraft to land at Guyana’s most iconic destination – Kaieteur Falls. This stunning waterfall, set in the wilds of a pristine forest is the world’s highest single-drop waterfall, several times higher than Niagara at 741 feet. With a choice of spectacular lookout points and no barriers whatsoever the experience transports the visitor back to an ageless time when Nature was still in charge. As if that was not enough, in the falls we absorbed ourselves in finding the endemic golden frogs at the base of the leaves of the humongous and omnipresent giant bromeliads.

Before returning to the aircraft we ducked into the forest to the well-known lek of one of the country’s most flamboyant birds. We easily spotted the gaudy, bright orange male Guyana Cock-of-the-Rock on his favorite perch. Obligingly he let each of us photograph him in his element offering various poses as we did so.

Taking off from the dirt strip at the falls the pilot offered both port and starboard sides an intimate aerial view of the Potaro River thundering over the escarpment as we turned north to Fairview and the Iwokrama forest. Checking in to the Iwokrama Lodge on the bank of the mighty Essequibo River our first call was to Sankar – a huge black caiman that has been hanging around the dock for many years. Portrait photography of this living dinosaur was spectacular as his prehistoric gaze stared down the barrel of the lens to be immortalized in an image.

Iwokrama has been well studied scientifically and is well known for its huge biodiversity. Many species are endemic to the Guyanan shield on which the lodge sits and are different from the main Amazon rainforest. This is of particular note to birdwatchers who ‘flock’ to the area for new ticks on their list.
On our boat ride on the river, using a spotlight we found many more caimen, some roosting birds including the very attractive capped heron and two tree boas hunting for food.
From Iwokrama we had elected to leave to our next destination – Atta Lodge and the Canopy walkway – via open truck at night along the ‘main road’. Although the dirt track is indeed the main artery connecting the coast to the interior and the Rupununi Savannas it travels in a virtual straight line through primary rain forest. It has become the best spot in Guyana to see jaguars. We had a good spotlight, drove slowly and had our eyes peeled. Although I’ve seen quite a few on this road before, this time we were not so lucky and the jags remained elusive.

At first light, we hiked the 500 meters from our lodge to the canopy walkway – a series of 3 platforms some 30 meters in the canopy. We spent the morning looking at the birds that came through and listened to the unmistakable, megaphonic, sounds of howler monkeys.
From Atta we were preparing to drive to a spot from where we could hike into the forest to hopefully find a harpy eagle – the most powerful eagle in the world. Camera packs were already loaded in the vehicle when, unbelievably, an adult harpy flew right into camp! A harpy in the hand, was definitely worth one in the bush so we stayed and marveled at the one that had come to us.
Our next stop was Rewa – an Amerindian owned and operated eco-lodge. Rewa is known for its healthy population of arapaima, another South American giant and one of the largest fresh water fish in the world. It was not always so, but once the community realized that the population of arapaima was dwindling they initiated a self-imposed moratorium on fishing these fish for 5 years until the population was seen to increase. Arapaima are territorial and obligate air-breathers, meaning that they periodically break the surface to gulp air. Individual fish can therefore be identified by size and sex to the trained eye. Hunting with bow and arrow the fishermen can then selectively take individual fish in a sustainable manner. Their entire project has been heralded as a conservation success and numbers are once again at a high level. We spent an afternoon at one of the well-known arapaima lakes, surrounded by giant water-lilies and waiting for the huge fish to break the surface, gulp and roll.

Boat trips on the river from Rewa also showed us several troops of monkeys, a plethora of herons, large-billed terns and black skimmers. Night walks produced many smaller animals and birds not least of which were a dozen or so pink-toed tarantulas!
Our last stop was to be the famed Karanambu lodge – home of the ‘otter lady’ the late Diane McTurk. A legend in her own lifetime Diane had dedicated the latter part of her life to rehabilitating giant otter orphans back to the wild. Steeped in tradition and the true spirit of pioneers Karanambu is a delight and worthy finale. Through a combination of walks and boat rides, we could secure great views of many bird species and of course giant otters. These, the longest otter species in the world, are highly endangered throughout most of their range with Guyana being one of the last strongholds of the species. Highly social animals they are very efficient predators and seem to be able to catch a good-sized fish any time they put their mind to it.
Perhaps the highlight of Karanambu however was our early morning sojourns by 4×4 out into the Rupununi savannas. With a local vaquero (cowboy) on horseback to guide us we always managed to get excellent views of one of the animal kingdom’s most bizarre denizens – the giant anteater. A strange animal indeed, somewhat laterally flattened the shaggy beast walks awkwardly on large claws that it uses to break open hard termite mounds whereupon it squats on its haunches to lap up the teeming insect with its long sticky tongue.

The camaraderie of a great group, lively meal time conversations and the wonder of new life-time experiences our 2018 Guyana trip lived up to expectations. I miss it already!

Bettys Bay

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Welcome to our new home in South Africa!!
We are now ‘officially’ based in Bettys Bay in the Western Cape, living 40 meters from the ocean, within a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and the ocean in front of the house designated a Marine Protected Area!
Life is good!

We have a host of wildlife in the ‘garden’ which is an area of protected Fynbos vegetation, part of the smallest Floral Kingdom on earth, between us and the sea. With no fences to define our property wildlife moves freely to and fro. Angulate tortoises wander through, mongooses, striped mice, dassies and rare, endemic grysbok antelope. Even a leopard has been spotted close to the house!

Ten minutes walk away is the largest mainland colony of African penguins, while fur seals sit on the rocks at low tide just offshore. We have even seen Cape clawless otters on the coastal path not 100 meters as the crow flies!
The coastline is stunning, dominated by a series of white sandy beaches, coastal dunes and gorgeous rocks all fringed by a swath of thick kelp forest – a naturalist/marine biologist’s dream!
Just the other day we went out in our neighbor’s boat for a look around directly in front of the house. We saw 2 Bryde’s whales, fur seals, many rafts of 80+ penguins, gannets, shearwaters, skuas and gulls and were surrounded by a large pod of more than 100 common dolphins. Getting into the water in the kelp forest we saw several of the small, bottom-living puff adder sharks, tons of rock lobsters and were swimming with a beautiful 7-gill cow-nosed shark!

There was a storm that came through 3 days ago and, never having found a nautilus shell, decided that it might be a good time to look for one. We found 4!! One broken, but three of these extremely delicate cephalopod shells in perfect condition. Like I said, life is good!

A gift from Rocket

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Cassidy, the 9 year old on our recent Galapagos trip, named this sealion Rocket. She stayed with us in the water for almost an hour, shooting past each of us in turn and showing off her acrobatic prowess. She was obviously having a lot of fun with us.

In this case I was the last out of the water and she still would not leave me alone. It was as if she was worried that I might get out too, leaving her without a playmate. Apparently, according to her, the only way to keep me there was to offer me a present.

She grabbed a puffer fish, shook it up enough so that it inflated in self-defense, making it much more of a fun play thing and then dropped it in front of me.