Snorkelling with Seals in Cape Town

A few weeks ago, my best friend and I climbed aboard a boat and struck out for Duiker Island, a seal, seal pup, and seal poop covered collection of rocks tucked around the corner from The Sentinel Mountain in Hout Bay, Cape Town. Why would anyone endure the swells and smells for such an excursion? Aside from the staggering beauty of the Cape peninsula and the pleasure of watching seals in their natural habitat, we were here to go snorkelling with them!

For one blissful hour, we escaped reality to submerge ourselves in the moody greens and blues of the Atlantic Ocean, where prolific kelp forests swayed and swished in the swell and the playful seal pups were close enough to touch. Usually, I use my words to describe experiences. This time, we hired a Go Pro camera from the company who took us out – Animal Ocean – to document it all and so I present to you my first ever (shoddy) attempt at putting together a travel video!

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Wednesday Wildlife – The Leopard

We saw the leopard slinking low in the desiccated grasses of the Welgevonden Game Reserve in South Africa’s Limpopo region. I almost soiled myself, not out of fear but of excitement. I have been to almost every major game reserve in Southern Africa, yet never to have once spotted this dotty kitty. Until now – this was a huge moment for me and my underpants.

One solitary male on a discrete hunt for food. At first, I celebrated the sighting, treasuring every second that I could watch him sleekly moving through the dry bush. A sighting like this – a once in a lifetime – is too often over in seconds.

Leopard by Thea Beckman 1

But a hunting leopard makes use of lofty vantage points to spy potential prey and, in one fluid movement, our male launched himself up the bole of a tree and took up sentry. Leopards are shy animals and extremely unsociable, which likely explains his unimpressed expression with being watched and photographed.

Leopard by Thea Beckman 3

Legs (and litchis) dangling out all over the place, he remained in suspension for the better part of 20 minutes, while lazily surveying the surrounding bush and staring at us with piercing, tawny eyes. On average, leopards weigh between 60 and 70 kg and can live up to 15 years. What is most exceptional about these cats is that they can drag prey heavier than themselves up a tree, where it can hang safely out of the reach of other predators and scavengers, offering the leopard a consistent source of meat for several days.

Leopard by Thea Beckman 2

The heat, the altitude, and the lack of action took its toll and he let rip an enormous yawn, offering us a glimpse at teeth that could crack your neck like a cheese stick. Seeing this leopard quite honestly constitutes one of the high points of my life and if you’ve seen one, perhaps you’ll understand why. They are truly beautiful, extraordinary animals.

Introducing “Wine of the Week” AKA Thirsty Thursday

South African Winelands

Who doesn’t get thirsty on Thursdays? You’ve managed to crawl through the majority of the work week, nailed the meetings you were dreading, and survived the voluminous injection of caffeine into your bloodstream. The weekend is so close you can practically smell your sleep-soaked pyjamas and boozy breath!  Surely we’ve earned ourselves a glass of wine (or three)?

In the immortal words of Barack Obama: YES WE CAN!

Look no further for recommendations! Every week, I showcase a wine I’m absolutely loving, which may come with a little history/science lesson on the cultivar (grape varietal) used to make it, depending on my mood. I will be posting these on my Facebook page, Wander Woman Thea and on my Instagram account (@wander_woman_thea) so go ahead and like or follow. Let’s be friends!

I’ll also chat a little about the nose (aromas) and flavour profile of the wines, which may sound enormously pretentious to those of you who are yet to discover the wonderful world of wine, but isn’t, I assure you.

I know, I know… The first time I heard someone describe a wine as smelling of “green peppers, grapefruit, and pencil shavings” I mirthfully snorted in their face. You’re joking, right?

“Apparently not,” said their withering stare.

Here’s the simple logic behind the nose of the wine and I’m using the example of green peppers here. The chemical that causes a green pepper to smell the way it does – a sort of savoury, herbaceous, and vegetal smell – is called methoxypyrazine. That very same chemical compound is found in wine, particularly in the cultivars originating from the Bordeaux region of France: Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, and so on.

So while there is obviously no green pepper in your wine, you can detect this aroma because the wine contains methoxypyrazine. The same applies for a spectrum of other fruits, vegetables, substances, and inanimate objects. The chemicals or, in the case of fruits, sweet-smelling esters that give them their trademark smell are present in wine to varying degrees. This is what you’re smelling.

It takes time and repeated wine swilling, sniffing, and quaffing to begin to identify these aromas. With practice, your brain will tie up its hair, slap on a pair of reading glasses, and start cataloging these smells, building a useful library, which you can draw upon to sound really smart the next time you go wine tasting with friends.

With that brief lesson out of the way, I have but one final side note for you before I proceed to tell you about the absolutely lip-smacking, eye-closing, panty-dropping wine I’ve discovered.

Opinions are like a**holes

The selection I make each week is entirely my own and is most often based upon (1) my personal tastes, (2) the wine region I’m currently exploring, and (3) the wine I think is best suited to the season. With that said, I will do my best to present a fair variety of both red and white wines of various cultivars and blends.

You should also know that I live in South Africa so most of my recommendations will come from here. South Africa is one of the oldest “New World” winemaking regions in the world and a progenitor of wines that can and do compete with the most internationally recognised and acclaimed vintners out there. In other words, if you love wine, you’ve got to add South Africa, and particularly Cape Town, to your bucket list. The wine here is phenomenal.

Here are my weekly selections thus far:

Idiom Zinfandel (Primitivo) 2014

Wine of the Week 1

From the foothills of Sir Lowry’s Pass in the Helderberg valley comes a Zinfandel of such sexy, sultry delight, my relationship with it feels personal. This red wine bursts with ripe fruits and berries, is velvety in delivery, and has an incredible nose of fynbos and eucalyptus. Actually, this characteristic is present in most of Idiom’s wines and is a testament to the intimate relationship between the vines and a terroir dominated by fynbos and stands of Eucalyptus trees.

What I absolutely love about this Zinfandel is its exceptionally perfumed nose. If a sun-beaten bush of fynbos bonked a cherry tree and they made a baby, this is what that offspring hybrid fruit/flower would smell like. On the palate, these fynbossy, almost minty aromas unfurl into a beautiful, silky red wine that’s perfect on a cool spring evening and, in my opinion, with or without food.

Zinfandel is a moderate tannin, high acid red cultivar that’s mistakenly believed by many to originate from the United States. In fact, DNA fingerprinting has confirmed that Zinfandel is an ancient Croatian cultivar that is genetically identical to Primitivo, an Italian cultivar.

Excelsior Evanthuis Cabernet Sauvignon 2013

Wine of the week

Named after a race horse reared on the estate, the Excelsior “Evanthuis” Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 is a wine of exceptional weight and character. A deep inky red in colour, this wine, which hails from the Robertson Wine Valley (an approximate 2 hours’ drive from Cape Town) is big and seductive with syrupy black currants and violets on the nose, and dense fruit flavours supported by a strong tannic backbone. In other words, it’s bloody delicious and since we’re still waiting for the weather to get the memo that spring has arrived here in the Cape, it’s perfect to enjoy right now!

The cultivar itself requires little introduction. Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the world’s most widely recognized red wine grape varieties. And if you thought that Napa Valley was the only region that did a good job of producing “big Cabs” think again. Our warm climate combined with the tender, loving maritime sea breezes that flow off of the Atlantic Ocean create red wines of enormous flavour, elegance, and structure.

La Bri Barrel Select Chardonnay 2016

I began my career as a professional wine drinker with a heavy preference for dry red wines. It was only with my first sip of an obnoxiously wooded Chardonnay (rich, buttery, caramel flavours) that my eyes were opened to the possibility that, hey, I could actually like this stuff! And so I began trying every wooded Chardonnay I could get my paws on. My initial obsession with heavily wooded white wines has calmed down and now I seem to have achieved equilibrium, which explains why La Bri’s Barrel Select Chardonnay 2016 makes my heart quiver.

Chardonnay from Franschhoek South Africa

This rich and rounded Chardonnay from Franschhoek (South Africa) has been crafted from grapes growing on La Bri Wine Estate’s oldest vines, which were planted in 1991, making them older than Justin Bieber. Genteel, gracious, and multi-award-winning, this fabulous Chardonnay boasts flavours of oatmeal and shortbread with a vivacious undercurrent of tangerine. It’s absolutely delicious and well-suited to any weather.

Say hello to the other side

Here in South Africa, one of the most popular white wines is Sauvignon Blanc, which, unfortunately, the public seems to enjoy extremely young. Mere months after the year’s harvest has been pressed, fermented, and bottled,  the young Sauvignon Blancs are whisked to market and sold for a trifling R30 to R80 ($2 to $5).

Marketers describe them as “zesty, fresh, tart”.

I describe them as pissy.

In fairness, not all young Sauvignon Blancs will turn your face inside out, but when you consider what a bit of age does to these wines, it’s a travesty to consume them so young. Why not wait for them to age a little? You know:  open their eyes, develop a bit of character, and sprout a pair of boobs?

The saturation of bottle store shelves and restaurant menus with young wines is precisely why I felt an aversion to white wines for so long. It was thanks to an accidental tasting of a super rich, opulent, and golden Chardonnay that I actually stopped to take stock of “the other side”. In that moment, I realised that, hey, not all white wine has to taste like your flat mate forgot to tell you that he’s been storing clean pee in the refrigerator in case of a surprise drug test at work. In fact, the world of white wine is enormously diverse and bursting with fruit, fabulous flavours, and a damn good time!

So, if you align yourself with any side of the red wine / white wine divide, I urge you to try a beautiful Chardonnay like La Bri’s Barrel Select 2016 and let it open your eyes to the other side [*insert Adele soundtrack here*]. For red wine lover’s, it’ll open your eyes to the world of white wine and for white wine lovers, it’ll open your eyes to wines that aren’t super fresh, young, and pissy.

Get with it!

Funny thirsty Thursday picture

Today’s Thursday, which means that I shall be publishing another “Wine of the  Week” post. If you haven’t already done so, get your butts on Facebook and give my page a like (Wander Woman Thea) or follow me on Instagram (@wander_woman_thea) to see what indulgent tipple this week brings. I’m all about sharing the love so drop me a message if you want me to follow you back, especially if you’re as passionate about food, travel, and wine as I am.

Let me know what wine you’re drinking today!

Introducing “Wednesday Wildlife”

I may have shifted my attention to travel but a fascination with wildlife and birdwatching, in particular, remains a stubborn fixture on the landscape of my unorthodox personality. As a part of my new venture, therefore, I shall be posting a weekly picture of an animal or bird that I have taken on one of my adventures. I would like to introduce to you… *appropriately lengthy drumroll*… Wednesday Wildlife! Aren’t I original?

Hold on… I have a better one: Wander Woman’s Wednesday Wildlife! Isn’t the alliteration maddeningly satisfying?

Anyway, enough of that tomfoolery. Before I got around to repurposing this blog to travel, I let rip with the Facebook page, Wander Woman Thea, which I urge you all to like, follow, share, interact with, drool over, and even fondle yourself inappropriately to. What I don’t know can’t hurt me. Over the past few weeks that’s been going, I’ve posted three Wildlife Wednesday features – or, I should say, #WildlifeWednesday – so in an effort to bring you all up to speed, here are those posts.

The Cheetah

Wednesday Wildlife post 1

On a recent trip to Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, I had the incredible life joy of seeing my very first ever cheetah in the wild. We approached this male by foot and got within about 15 meters of him, where I swooned over his kitten-esque antics. Did you know that cheetahs purr? Also, they are the fastest land animal in the world, able to reach speeds of 80 to 120 km/hr in short bursts. I shit you not.

An excerpt from my article for Southern Vines magazine about the reserve:

“Sanbona Wildlife Reserve is a malaria-free, big five private game reserve located three hours’ drive from Cape Town in the Little Karoo. Believed to have originated from the Khoikhoi word for “desert”, the Karoo is a semi-desert region of unique and desolate beauty, marked by tough, low-lying shrubs, hellishly thorned acacia trees, otherworldly succulent plants, rocky koppies, and russet soils.”

Read full article here.

In other words, get your butts to South Africa and come explore our truly gifted natural heritage. Also, because I love to travel and will use any excuse to get out the house, especially to play tour guide to a foreign visitor, get in touch with me if you do make it to our fair shores. Just please don’t axe murder me.

The Owl

Wednesday Wildlife post 2

This absolutely gorgeous creature is a spotted eagle owl, which I photographed in the golden late afternoon light of a game drive that culminated in a glass of chardonnay overlooking a dry river bed.

Sunset chardonnay

There, just in case you didn’t believe life could get THAT good.

Spotted eagle owls are medium-sized, as far as owls go, yet are one of the smallest of the eagle owls. Interestingly, they are a big fan of bathing and so can often be seen around water or on exposed branches or on the ground with spread wings during summer thunderstorms.

Nestled into a thicket of rather nasty Karoo Acacia thorns, this guy glared smugly and somewhat angrily at us, confident that none of us would be stupid enough to breach his/her boma of razor sharp thorns. Of course, human nature is by definition a balance between high intelligence and sublime stupidity. Needless to say, we took our pictures and left the owl alone to its angry vigil.

The Baboons

Wednesday Wildlife post 3

If a picture could speak a thousand words, this one would be a “50 Shades of Grey” novel.

These are Chacma baboons AKA Cape baboons and they are one of the largest of all the monkeys. Indigenous to Southern Africa, they live a highly social life with a defined hierarchy, at the top of which is the alpha male, quite easily one of the most intimidating of all the African animals. Quite honestly, of all the sounds I have heard in the bush, I find the resounding, explosive bark of a baboon to be far more terrifying than a lion’s roar or the hollow clink of an empty wine bottle (and knowing that it’s the last one). An angry male baboon could easily give Chuck Norris a thorough bitch-slapping.

Baboons spend the vast majority of their days foraging and grooming each other as a way of strengthening social ties and, well, just feeling loved.

The Mousebirds

Wednesday Wildlife post 4

These three stooges, who are warming their undercarriage in the mid-morning sun in a coastal bush at De Hoop Nature Reserve (southwestern Cape coast of South Africa), are speckled mousebirds. Mousebirds are gregarious and enjoy the company of other mousebirds, as we can see from the amount of love biting going on in this picture.

Fruits, buds, and berry eaters, mousebirds are named after their appearance (small, greyish bodies and long tails) and foraging behaviour; scurrying around in the bush in search of food. They are the only bird order that is confined entirely to sub-Saharan Africa and – get this – could actually be considered “living fossils” because the 6 species that exist today are the only survivors of a lineage that was massively more diverse in the early Paleogene and Miocene (thanks, Wikipedia).

Another magazine excerpt from an article I wrote about the reserve:

“The seamless confluence of a variety of vegetation biomes and landscapes in De Hoop Nature Reserve has attracted an enormous diversity of birdlife, from iridescent sunbirds and large raptors to swooping aerial birds and gaily coloured flamingos. In a single day, in fact, you could quite easily rack up a bird list of over 100 species, so abundant and varied it is (over 260 species of birds have been recorded here).”

Read full article here.

Wednesday Wildlife with me

That, my friends, is all for today! I will be posting these pictures along with an explanatory blurb every Wednesday at 9am SAST. Of course, if you like my Facebook page, Wander Woman Thea, you can get all of this delicious intellectual goodness delivered right to your feed or inbox. You can also find me on Instagram at @wander_woman_thea.

Happy hump day!

Bird Watching: Making Your Safari Way More Awesome

Juvenile Bataleur Eagle
Picture: An immateur Bataleur Eagle taken at the Kruger National Park in South Africa. Thea Beckman (2015)

It can be said without a doubt that bringing a bird with you on your safari makes it way more awesome. Especially if said bird looks tight in a bikini. You can share in the joy of spotting that elusive leopard, watching cheetah chase ill-fated gazelle across the savannah and being stranded in a herd of elephant; desperately hoping that amorous-looking bull doesn’t take a fancy to your Jeep. But I’m not talking about THAT kind of bird. Birds, the feathered variety, are awesome. And the next time you drive home from Magaliesberg feeling short-changed because you didn’t see any lions AGAIN, perhaps you’d better start thinking about becoming a twitcher.

Bird-watching: A Definition

African Birds and safari 6
Green-spotted dove, Kruger National Park in South Africa.

I’ve harboured a deep interest in birds since I can remember. Some people are addicted to nicotine, amphetamines or Robert Pattinson. I love bird watching. I really do. And I’m pretty sure that, psychologically, it has something to do with a love of collecting meaningful things. Every time my family would go for a weekend, week’s or month’s vacation somewhere in southern Africa, I would make and keep a list of the different species of birds we identified during the course of that holiday.

Bird watching and safari
This trusty field book has travelled with me all over southern Africa and bears the dirty smudges, rugged braai (barbecue) smears and cheap brandy stains to prove it.

 You experienced a shudder of awe and excitement when you saw a lion on your African adventure. I experienced a shudder of awe and excitement when I saw a Violet-eared Waxbill at the Karoo National Park. Partly because, against the drab semi-arid landscape, it is one of the most beautifully coloured creatures you could ever imagine; something straight out of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. And partly because this particular species of waxbill didn’t appear on the Karoo National Park’s bird list, meaning that we were the first to report seeing it there. Essentially, we made history.

I See Your Lion and Raise You a Bataleur Eagle

Bataleur Eagle
Mature bataleur eagle, Kruger National Park in South Africa. Picture by Thea Beckman.

I experienced another shudder of awe and excitement when I saw a Drakensberg Prinia in Pilgrim’s Rest; a Pallid Harrier at the Blyde River Canyon; a Collared Sunbird at the Nelspruit Botanical Gardens; a Striped Cuckoo at the Pilansberg Nature Reserve outside Rustenberg and again when I saw a flock of Southern Bald Ibises in the Drakensberg. None of these are particularly striking birds – except perhaps the Bald Ibis, whose head resembles an unmentionable male body part. But they were all new! I had never seen them before! It’s like discovering the Mufasa marble in your Engen Garage lucky packet back in the day when the Lion King and marbles were all the rage.

For the record, the Lion King was, is and always will be awesome.

Identifying a brand new bird and ticking it off in your book may sound completely nerdy, inane and lame. But it actually makes you feel amazing; like you’ve accomplished something. It’s a tiny intellectual victory and one of those ingredients that makes life rich and exciting.

I saw a brand new species of bird!

You saw a lion.

I saw a Crowned Eagle!

You saw another lion.

I saw a Giant Eagle Owl!

You saw (oh wow!) another lion.

I saw a Carmine Bee-eater.

You saw (surprise) a lion!

Lion yawning 2

For every one species of awesome animal you see on safari. I see 10, maybe 20 different species of birds. This is no war, my friends. No competition. The point I’m trying to make here is that if you can culture and develop an appreciation and then a love of identifying birds, you can get so much more out of any holiday, any getaway and any safari experience. You’ll also totally impress your chick who, through your appreciation of soft feathered creatures, will see your softer and more vulnerable side.

And then you’ll get to show her your softer and more vulnerable body parts.

 Kgalagadi Case Study, August to September 2009

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African Ground squirrels (Xerus inauris) enjoy an eclectic diet of roots, seeds, insects, pods, fruits, grains, bird eggs, small vertebrates and pink marshmallows.

Many years ago, I went on a 10-day vacation to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, which straddles the three borders of Namibia, Botswana and the Northern Cape. The bird list I had kept for that holiday totalled 106 different species. The animal list I made totalled 12. Actually, it was more like 11. Animal #12, which we thought was a leopard prowling around the camp at night, turned out to be nothing more than my mother’s snoring. Or so we suspected after three consecutive nights of rhythmic zzzggghhhnnnnngggg, zzzggghhhnnnnngggg, zzzggghhhnnnnngggg-ing, which is actually quite similar to a leopard’s cough-like grunting.

We saw ONE lion that entire holiday. And it was a female so pregnant with zebra meat that she had hitched a leg up onto the bole of the acacia tree she was food coma-ing under in order to make more space for her distended gut. She didn’t so much as bat an eyelid at the rocks we were throwing at her to get her to move.

I am, of course, just kidding.

On that same trip, we spotted a beautiful Giant Eagle Owl in her nest in broad daylight; identified the tiny Pygmy Falcon killing machine; heard the haunting yelps of Pearl-Spotted Owls at night and kept the campsite company of the flamboyantly coloured Burchell’s starling.

African Birds and safari 5
The handsome Burchell’s starling, Kruger National Park in South Africa.

Class Dismissed: The Take-Home Message

African Birds and safari 7
Wahlberg’s Eagle? Malachite Kingfisher? Violet-eared Waxbill? Now that’s a handsome bird list…

I have always kept bird lists for the various holidays our family has been on. I also keep a list of animals on the occasions we go to wildlife reserves. Every single time, my list of different bird species, which has often stretched into the hundreds, dwarfs the list of different animal species. Nothing can be more exciting than actually spotting a leopard in a tree, seeing cheetah in action or watching a hippo emerge from the water (or doing that funny tail-thing when they poop.) But to go on safari and never notice the activity constantly going on around you, in the bushes, in the trees, on the ground, in the sky… well you are cheating yourself out of 90% of the fees you paid at the park entrance.

Open your eyes friends.

And whatever you do. Never, ever sit under a hornbill perched in a tree. They have impeccable aim.

African Birds and safari
Zazu, I mean, Yellow-billed hornbill, Kruger National Park in South Africa

15 Awesome Human Superpowers

Some people work hard, train hard, educate themselves and push themselves to the very limit to gain some kind of notoriety in life (and the money it tends comes hand-in-hand with). This video is proof that, in addition to being inherently gifted, there are other ways to become famous… be exceptionally stupid. Eating metal screws makes you an idiot. Just because you survive your diet of cars, wheelchairs and bad life choices doesn’t make you special.

Having said that, there are some incredible cases of human superpowers in this video, such as the “human calculator” and the man who learned conversational Icelandic in just one week. My only superpower is being able to make my one eye squint – actually I have two if you count the other one, but that’s far too lascivious to mention here – and so my concluding question to you is: what’s your superpower?

Video Source: “15 Real Life Human Superpowers” Uploaded by Planet Dolan to YouTube channel www.youtube.com/watch?v=dM3_s0rKBVc

Could This Be Evidence of Aliens and Other Unidentified Creatures?

This video is a compilation of some pretty spooky images and video footage of unidentified creatures, hybrid animals and perhaps even aliens. It certainly raises questions as to whether or not we really know of all the animals we share this planet with and whether – by necessity – some large creatures have actually adapted to go virtually undetected by us. It’s not hard to understand why secrecy could become a survival necessity given how destructive we are and how desperately we wish to control our environment.

I’ll let you decide for yourselves…

Video Source: “Real Hybrid Alien Creatures Caught on Tape” Uploaded by Daily Paranormal on YouTube channel http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qpUCTaRt070