just published: an evolutionary journey

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Is it me or are we a culture obsessed with our own personal evolution? My local bookstore is bursting with floor-to-ceiling shelves devoted to inner growth and spiritual fulfillment; a whole cadre of television shows barrages me daily with the tantalizing promise of ‘breaking through’ and attaining the next, stronger, higher level of my potential. And don’t even get me started on the Internet and the flurry of suspect emails that continually flood my inbox.

I blame Charles Darwin.

READ MORE (pdf download).

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turtles in the ancient agora

turtles in the ancient agora

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in search of sea eagles

I enjoy the sight of a pretty bird in flight as much as the next person, but I’m not what you would call a twitcher, one of those sad people who spend their days in the back of a caravan checking names of birds off a list, ever on the lookout for a golden-winged Warbler or some such avian rarity. Though I’ve been known to get excited in Central Park at the sight of a heron or a hawk, when it comes to birds I am strictly a dilettante. Yet my friend suggested that while we were on Mull there was one bird in particular we needed to search out: Haliaeetus albicilla, the great sea eagle. Also called the White-tailed Eagle, it is the UK’s largest bird of prey and once a common sight all over Scotland in the 19th century before they were persecuted to extinction across the British isles. Thanks to the efforts of the RSPB, Europe’s largest wildlife conservation society, the eagle has successfully been reintroduced over the past ten years via Norwegian birds transplanted to the western Scottish islands of Rum and Mull. In partnership with the Forestry Commission, Mull Sea Eagle Hide was created in Glen Seilisdeir to allow the birds to be viewed from a safe distance without any human interference. As fate would have it a nesting pair of eagles hatched two chicks not six weeks before my arrival. Even stranger, prior to arriving at the hide we spotted an eagle from the road but had no idea what it was doing sitting in a tree. We were soon to discover how it was watching over a pair of jet black, fluffy-feathered eaglets. While fascinating to safely observe the birds through a telescope under cover in the hide, it was even more impressive to see the mother bird take flight in search of food: sea eagles are massive; twice the size of buzzards with a wingspan of 8ft. (You suddenly realize why 18th century farmers might have legitimately feared the eagles would make off with their livestock – or children.) Booking a visit to the hide is essential and well worth the time and effort spent in finding it.  The 6 pound admission fee not only gets you the guidance of a well-informed naturalist to tell you everything you never really needed to know about sea eagles, but also a singular view of these rare, majestic birds returned from the brick of extinction.

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ode to a giraffe

Giraffe, how do you still exist in the world?  Like some prehistoric throwback, it doesn’t seem possible that you’ve survived the millennia without falling prey to extinction. I take it as some kind of omen that on my last day in the bush I’m greeted by a parade of you, poking through the Acacia with that curious, quizzical look on your faces before galloping across the field en masse. I’m told you’ve got quite the kick, yet ever since Toys “R” Us marketed Geoffrey Giraffe as its cuddly, docile mascot, I’ve had to suppress the urge to squeeze you like a favored stuffed animal.

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scat fact of the day

Hyena poop is white.  The only scavenger in Africa that goes so far as to eat the bones of other animals, hyena build up an excess of calcium in their system which finds a way out through the back door, as it were. It is a most curious sight. Then again, the sound of the wolf-like hyena chomping on bone is something else you won’t soon forget.

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on the prowl

Lions are fascinating creatures. One minute they’re lazing in the grass and the next they’re off on the prowl – before deciding a nap is time better spent. We followed this pair of females for almost an hour today. It seemed at the time that they might be hot on the trail of something edible. (I won’t lie: I was hoping for a high-speed pursuit followed by a view to a kill.) Turns out “the hunt” was just a search for a better patch of shade: after a burst of acutely measured activity these two lady lions cooled their paws in the grass and settled in for a snooze.

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eggs to order

Even with expectations of a Spartan culinary spread, the bush breakfast promised during this morning’s game drive sounded too cool to pass up – and well worth the extra-early rise. A thermos of coffee arrived at my tent with the sunrise and next thing you know we were off in search of wildebeest. “In search” might be a bit of a misnomer, however. Across the river from Sala’s Camp a mega-herd had come to graze, which made the whole enterprise less White Hunter, Black Heart and more Jeeves and Wooster as we, in effect, toured the great herd. Nevertheless, driving in a hundred thousand-strong herd of animals brings is its own thrills and sense of adventure. Alighting on a large rock in the middle of the herd, the driver and tracker set up a proper table, chairs, a wash basin and I breakfasted on fresh fruit salad, yogurt, muffins and good, strong coffee amidst the most unbelievable surroundings. When the driver asked me how I liked my eggs I thought he was joking – until I noticed the sweet smell of bacon and sausage coming from the direction of the Land Rover, where they had hooked up a small gas stove. Who was I to argue? I went for two: sunny-side up, please.

 

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picked clean

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cheetah vs leopard

Can you guess the difference between a leopard and a cheetah? Well, aside from them both being rather elusive –  and reclusive – animals, it’s a bit difficult.  That is until you finally chance upon one – or even two, if you’re me and you’re lucky today.  The cheetah – above – is the fastest land animal on the planet, having been clocked at a cool 75MPH in full gallop. The only big cat with non-retractable claws, it cannot grip or climb, which is why the need for speed evolved to be paramount. Yet it’s defining characteristics are spots, which are true spots and not the rosettes which are the hallmark of the leopard – even though a leopard is commonly referred to as spotted, which it is not. The stealthy leopard can’t run half as fast but it can gracefully climb the heck out of a tree – and walk back down head first, too. Despite being the smallest of the big cats, it can also drag a kill up a branch and hang it there. You don’t want to mess with either of these cats, yet there’s a thrill that comes from watching one in all its feline glory. Plus all those spots are transfixing, if not downright hypnotic.

 

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video: soft landing

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video: better than lion king

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perspectives: above africa

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in the distance

If you think going on safari is pricey – and trust me, it is – you should tack on a balloon ride, too. (In for a penny, in for a pound, no?) While I wouldn’t call it extortionate, it’s definitely an extravagance. And an exorbitant one at that. Yet it’s also … extraordinary. If forced to pick one place on the planet where the thought of dumping a month’s rent for a balloon ride would be money well spent, this would be that place. On the ground the Mara is fascinating. From the vantage point of a wicker basket tethered to a giant balloon it’s positively epic.

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by dawn’s early light

 

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at the hippo pond

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