Plants & Animals

A good park for beginners

That’s what Mr Nixon said about Lake Manyara National Park.

Our relationship with Mr Nixon was only a few hours old, so we were not yet sure what to think. By the end of the week we would trust him with our lives.

An “island” of pink flamingos on the bed of Lake Manyara. The lake is broad and shallow, growing in the rainy season and shrinking in the dry season.

An “island” of pink flamingos on the bed of Lake Manyara. The lake is broad and shallow, growing in the rainy season and shrinking in the dry season.

The sign at the entrance read “Home of Tree Climbing Lions.”

“They say that,” he commented, “but it is more likely that we’ll see them climbing in the Serengeti.”

I still thought it best to keep one eye skyward at all times. Having 400 pounds of tooth and claw fall on your head would be terrible surprise. It also would make an end to a lovely safari that Vicki and I and Mr Nixon had planned in the East African country of Tanzania.

The early Tarzan movies were filmed at Lake Manyara.

Ernest Hemingway came here as well. He called this region of alkali water and fig and mahogany forests, "the loveliest I have seen in Africa.”

The dirt road into Lake Manyara National Park. Lake Manyara sits in the Great Rift Valley and is one of Africa’s largest lakes. Like Israel’s Dead Sea, it has no outlet. Unlike Israel’s Dead Sea it is shallow and alkaline.

The dirt road into Lake Manyara National Park. Lake Manyara sits in the Great Rift Valley and is one of Africa’s largest lakes. Like Israel’s Dead Sea, it has no outlet. Unlike Israel’s Dead Sea it is shallow and alkaline.

Mr Nixon parked our Land Cruiser just outside the ranger station and pulled the brake. “Let me get the papers.”

A few minutes later he returned. “Come look at this.”

In the grass behind our vehicle were piles of poop. “Elephant droppins,’” he said. “About a day old.” He took a stick and stirred the gooey mass. “Look at the seeds. The elephants eat the fruit and spread the seeds. The birds come down and eat them from the droppins.’”

“That’s a pretty good strategy for the plant,” I said.

“Ugh,” said Vicki.

“Exactly.” said a grinning Nixon.

Lessons in wildlife from Mr Nixon.

Lessons in wildlife from Mr Nixon.

The elephant who had left the droppins’ was nowhere to be seen, but we hadn’t traveled far until monkeys appeared on both sides of the road. A bit later, Mr Nixon pulled the brake and a troop of no less than 200 baboons passed by our Cruiser.

It was impressive, but we drew back just a little. Their sheer number, weeping sores, and toothy dog-muzzles were intimidating.

A troop of baboons passed by. They are a little frightening.

A troop of baboons passed by. They are a little frightening.

Most of the afternoon we rode with the Cruiser’s top popped up. Vicki and I could stand between the seats for a 360-degree view. Mr Nixon navigated the car-swallowing potholes and taught us about the buffalo, impala, gnu, zebra, and warthog.

“But I really love the birds,” he said on many occasions.

Our Toyota Land Cruiser had a pop-up lid that allowed us to view the surroundings in the shade. It is a good thing there are no seat-belt laws in Tanzania.

Our Toyota Land Cruiser had a pop-up lid that allowed us to view the surroundings in the shade. It is a good thing there are no seat-belt laws in Tanzania.

As we discovered, Lake Manyara was not the place to witness tree-climbing lions or even herds of elephants (although we did see some, maybe even our pooper!), but instead it is the place for bird lovers. More than 400 species can be found in the park. Some migrate through on their way from distant corners of the earth. Others make this region their permanent home.

We took turns peering through Mt Nixon’s binoculars from our 4-wheeled canopy. We saw orange bellies, yellow beaks, purple wings, and bills and crests of every size and angle. Mr Nixon’s stories of their habits and eccentricities and legends was throughly entertaining.

Most memorable for me were the flamingos that gathered like an island of pink in the shallow waters of the lake. Bee-eaters, herons, ibises, storks, and, of course, the pelicans also caught our eye. Lake Manyara is a bird-watchers paradise, a perfect place to begin an African safari.

A yellow-billed stork comes in for a landing. His gear is slightly askew.

A yellow-billed stork comes in for a landing. His gear is slightly askew.


If you would like to read more about the area of Lake Manyara, check out our observations from a previous visit here.


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Our usual haunts are in Israel-Palestine, but our current experiences in East Africa excite the senses. Might other Bible Land Explorers be interested in a safari-style excursion? If so, let me hear from you. I may try to work this into the schedule on a regular basis. Contact me at markziese@gmail.com if you are serious.

For our more standard packages in the Middle East, see a list of future trips here.

Canyon Critters

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The sun was directly overhead when we arrived at the trailhead. The asphalt was gummy.

“Bring everything you need to survive for an hour and half,” I chirped. “Maybe two hours. Hat, sunglasses, sunscreen and an extra bottle of water.”

Our crew didn’t need my reminders. On the previous day we had hiked from Nazareth to Sepphoris, an accomplishment in any season. It is a notable one at the end of June with the temperatures scraping three digits.

We entered the canyon below Nabi Shu’ayb.

We entered the canyon below Nabi Shu’ayb.

Even in this season of scarcity I hoped to spot some wildlife on the trail. Today we aimed to follow a stream that trickled through the canyon (Arab. wadi) from the plain near Nabi Shuʿayb (the traditional burial place of Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses) to the moment where the canyon released its travelers on the edge of the Sea of Galilee.

The canyon is called Wadi Hamam or “Valley of the Doves.” It forms one leg of the ancient highway connecting the Sea of Galilee to the Mediterranean Sea. Jesus likely walked this path in Eastern Lower Galilee.

I don’t know what wildlife encounters an ancient traveler would have had, but five kinds of critters surprised us.

The trail runs through the tangle of brush at the edge of the stream.

The trail runs through the tangle of brush at the edge of the stream.

Our first critter appeared out of nowhere. I stepped through the thicket and almost ran into a cow. It was standing in the water, blocking our path. She raised her head. Menacing horns protruded from her brow.

City-boy Mike confessed: “I said ‘Holy _____! Look at those horns. It’s a bull. We’re all gonna die.’ Later I asked for forgiveness.”

“Yah! Git!” I coaxed. The cow moseyed on, yielding the road.

A few minutes later Thunder Bobby hollered, “What’s that?” Our second critter of the day, a pudgy hyrax, looked down from his overhead perch. Like everyone else under this sun, he was slow to move. He watched us carefully with beady black eyes. Finally he barked a warning to his hyraxian homies (see our previous post on these “Wise wee folk” of the Wadi Hamam here) and crawled out of sight.

Back in 2014 I spotted this hyrax in about the same place. He may have been a grandpa to our friend today.

Back in 2014 I spotted this hyrax in about the same place. He may have been a grandpa to our friend today.

Our third critter encounter came as a result of Lightning Seth’s keen eye. High above us, he spotted the movement of a Palestinian mountain gazelle. We all watched in amazement as the gazelle (unlike the cow and hyrax) sprinted and leaped with vigor across the steep slope. By the time I finally got my camera unholstered it was already gone.

This particular species is iconic to the region. For more on its endangered status, see here.

Lightning Seth was quick. He caught the gazelle on his phone. Watch the video below.

Later, we spotted two more on the opposite side of the canyon.

Our fourth critter encounter was also on the slope above us.

I turned back to see if the group had successfully crossed the stream. Movement caught my eye. It was a wild boar. A pumba. A big pig.

And he was not running downslope into the Sea of Galilee (!) but upslope and away from it. I caught the still image. City-boy Mike caught the video that follows.

The celebration of bacon was a part of our conversation for the rest of the day.

The only thing I managed to capture was his twitching tail disappearing into the brush.

The only thing I managed to capture was his twitching tail disappearing into the brush.

Caves appeared in the ancient limestone above our head as we approached the opening of the canyon. Here was our fifth critter sighting.

At first I thought it was school children. City-boy Mike saw the bit of color as well and hollered, “Hello!” “Hello!”

A couple of goats appeared at the mouth of one of the caves.

I’ll bet there was a shepherd dozing inside.

The goats came out to have a look.

The goats came out to have a look.

During our walk in Eastern Lower Galilee, I had hoped for some animal encounters. Cows from the nearby village were a given. Maybe goats. The other critters were a pleasant surprise.

Far from being a“valley of the shadow of death,” the Wadi Hamam with its stream and thicket turned out to be a veritable “valley of life.”


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Our current group of Bible Land Explorers are from Roanoke, Virginia. They are not content to “do” the usual tourist tour, but have specifically requested special engagements like hiking portions of the Jesus Trail.

If you are interested in experiencing the land of the Bible in a fresh way, consider joining one of our future trips. Our 2020 and 2021 tour schedule may be found here.

Required reading for explorers (part 3)

One week from now, God willing, I’ll be winging it back across the Big Pond. I’ll have a day to get my business in order before meeting a group of ministry residents at the Tel Aviv airport. We’ll take them on the loop-de-loop in the Heartland, cruising up the Mediterranean coast, across Galilee, down the Jordan Valley, and concluding in the highlands around Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Hopefully I can wear them down before they wear me out.

The only reason I bother you with such details is because it was on this exact trip one year ago that I had my little “animal encounter.” Should you have a strong constitution and care to read about it, you can find the story in a series titled “Rabies is not the way to go” beginning here.

The good news is that while I do gnash my teeth and foam at the mouth from time to time, it seems to be more related to my work as college administrator than something prompted by a stray Lyssavirus (the “fury” virus from the Greek λύσσα).

Nonetheless, to prepare for the journey, I thought it might be useful to study a book that my kids got me for Christmas. Aren’t they stinkin’ hilarious? Here’s the cover.

The book has been hanging around my table since Christmas. I’m reading it now with a chuckle.

The book has been hanging around my table since Christmas. I’m reading it now with a chuckle.

Rachel Levin’s first book, Look Big and Other Tips for Surviving Animal Encounters of All Kinds (New York: Ten Speed Press, 2018), offers an interesting take on our North American friends from the wild side. The author chooses 50 animal species and devotes a page or two to each of them. Some of her choices are expected: bears, jellyfish, rats, and ticks. Others are surprising: cockroaches, bison, whales, and woodpeckers.

In the case of each Levin offers tidbits on where these critters can be found, what size or shape they come in (black bears are “as big as a sofa” and rabbits are “the size of a pineapple, but softer”), sounds they make (the elephant seal “snorts and grunts, like a long and epic burp”), why they are dangerous (owls can “stab your head,” geese squeeze “out two to three pounds of poop every day,” donkeys “will bite your butt with their big-ass donkey teeth”) and what one could possibly do to avoid or survive an encounter.

All illustrations in the book come from the hand of Jeff Östberg. Even in the case of rats (p. 103), his art is mellow and creamy and delightful.

All illustrations in the book come from the hand of Jeff Östberg. Even in the case of rats (p. 103), his art is mellow and creamy and delightful.

It is this last category that sells the book. Levin wryly pitches it as a guide, but the volume is more entertainment and less reference. In the case of a black widow spider bite, don’t try to suck out the wound. Call the poison center. Attacked by a swarm of bees? Run! Tackled by a grizzly? Fight for your life. Confronted by a wild hog? Do what you must but don’t get knocked down.

For reasons already described, I took great interest in the section devoted to dogs. I found it surprising that “man’s best friend” kills more people than sharks, alligators, snakes, and bears put together (p. 55).

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Levin’s advice to “avoid eye contact or smiling” when encountering a stray seems reasonable. The same is true with her “don’t run” command. It is a “total trigger.” I do take issue with her wisdom that if you are bitten, “curl into a ball, wait for it to be over, and admit you might be more of a cat person” (p. 55). This tip is ludicrous for one clear reason: cats are of the devil.

If you haven’t figured it out already, the book is front-loaded with humor. Some of it hinges on the author’s neuroses about all things wild (Levin is a food critic in her other life); other bits of it are suspended from the stupidity of humanity “like the dad who smeared peanut butter on his toddler’s nose, then waited for bear to lick it off (p. 18).

Between the lines is a moralistic edge. Dangerous animal encounters seem to be more frequent today because the human population is increasing, animal habitats are shrinking, and social media rewards asininity.

The Florida turnpike. Looking big is of little help in these parts. You become a yummier target.

The Florida turnpike. Looking big is of little help in these parts. You become a yummier target.

Even if these trends are true, I suspect that the chances of being killed by one of your human neighbors is astronomically higher than the possibility of being killed by some foraging critter. This is especially true if you have lots of wind chimes, cats, or are the president of your HOA.

By the way, can you guess which wild animal is responsible for 200 deaths annually and is hands-down the most deadly in North America?

Big-eyed Bambi. Those dang deers.

Our greyhound, (Turbo High) Dutch, is fawn-colored, has big eyes, and at times resembles a deer. He may even contemplate danger between naps and meals.

Our greyhound, (Turbo High) Dutch, is fawn-colored, has big eyes, and at times resembles a deer. He may even contemplate danger between naps and meals.


Look Big lists for $14.99 in the U.S. You can find your copy on Amazon.com right here. You need to have it on your bookshelf for smile-value reasons.


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I’ll keep you posted on how our upcoming trip pans out. While I offer stories on this website irregularly, I try to post a picture-of-the-day almost daily. See the tab marked POTD at the top of our home page here.

For a complete list of upcoming travel opportunities in the Lands of the Bible in 2019, see our schedule here. Some seats are still available. Contact me at markziese@gmail.com if interested.

The grape farmer's story

The grape farmer's story

The grape farmer asked if we were pilgrims bound for Nájera. We affirmed the obvious.

"Do you know the story of the Camino?" His English was stained but it was clear enough.

Bob and I had notions, but we welcomed his company. We also welcomed the conversation that his question set in motion.

“No. Tell us.”

Rabies is not the way to go (part 6)

Rabies is not the way to go (part 6)

The treatment for rabies is not what it used to be. 

Not so long ago it consisted of twenty or more painful shots into the abdomen delivered by a needle the size of a fencepost. This treatment is now obsolete, as I have (thankfully) discovered.

Rabies is not the way to go (part 3)

Rabies is not the way to go (part 3)

I rinsed with water from a hose. The clear imprint of teeth on my thigh would have made a dentist proud. But the wounds were also deep so they took a while to stop bleeding. Red streaks mixed with the water and dribbled down my leg and forearms.

Stork swarm

Stork swarm

Swarms of giant storks were suddenly everywhere. They were beyond counting. In the hundreds? For sure. Thousands? Maybe. Some circled slowly overhead, great wings outstretched. Many more rested, nested, and clattered their bills from poo-spangled trees. 

Serengeti chicken

Serengeti chicken

Safari operators often speak of the "Big Five." This is a linger-longer from the blood-sport days. The phrase does not identify Africa's largest species, but rather the five most difficult/dangerous animals to hunt on foot.

Noah's ark (sortof)

Noah's ark (sortof)

In the story of Noah's Ark, a portion of the living world finds sanctuary in a pinch. I thought about that as our rig bounced down the steep track into Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.

Tarangire

Tarangire

Zebras and wildebeests drank the muddy water, flicked their tails, rolled in the dust, and fussed with each other. It may have just been in my head, but somewhere I could hear the soundtrack of "The Lion King" playing.

Valley of the giants

Valley of the giants

We knew that were no longer alone. Giants began to arise. Initially, they appeared as isolated figures with bad haircuts. Then they rallied and arrayed themselves on both sides of the trail.

A stone-cold cauldron

A stone-cold cauldron

At some point in the distant past, planetary nausea triggered a spew of subterranean chunder. The blow was horrific enough to empty a mountain of structural support, causing it to collapse into its own throat.

Jesus trail report, 2017

Jesus trail report, 2017

Thirteen explorers from five U.S. states met at the opening of 2017 to walk the Jesus Trail. The Trail is a blazed course that passes through urban and rural regions of northern Israel-Palestine. Many sites of significance were encountered by the group; these give testimony to the deep and diverse history of the area known as Galilee.