Cape Cross Seal Colony: If it smells like a dairy farm and sounds like a goat…

I expected it to be bad, but it was more intense than that. And louder. They sound like goats, but worse. And the smell? Ugh.

Cape Cross: The Current Colony

One of our stops on the Namibian coast was Cape Cross, named for the cross erected there in 1486 in honour of King John I of Portugal by Diego Cao, the first European to set foot there.

But what people really come to see at Cape Cross is the massive breeding colony of Cape Fur Seals. There are currently almost 100,000 seals at Cape Cross, making it one of the largest (and smelliest) colonies in all of Southern Africa.

Mass of cape fur seals, Cape Cross, Namibia - AnywhereBound
Just one sepia toned monochromatic mass.

The Breeding Cycle

The colony is made up of only adult females and their pups; the bulls only come around for the mating season. When the females are about three years old, they are mature enough to breed, which they do shortly after the arrival of the males.

The bulls will mate with each cow in their harem (5-25 females), and she will quickly become pregnant. The ova will start development after three months (ultimately giving those few months to rest). Most pups are born between late November and early December within a 34 day period . The bulls, on land at the time, will mate with each cow within a week of her giving birth.

Seal cub suckling, Cape Cross, Namibia - AnywhereBound
A cow and her cub. This cub must’ve been just under a year old.

Did you catch that timeline? The female gives birth in November, gets pregnant in December, the ova starts to develop in March, and then she gives birth again in November, ultimately making her pregnant almost all year for the rest of her life.

Risks and Dangers

(WARNING: If you don’t like the sight of dead animals, skip the photo below).

The Cape Cross seals are vulnerable to two main predators, the black-backed jackal and the brown hyena, who stalk at night. However, the mortality rate is partially high because of “trampling by other seals, drowning and abandonment.”

Alternatively, the mom and pup might be separated during a stampede, or she may be killed while at sea.  We couldn’t fathom all the little skulls lying around the area, until we realized that they were of the newborn pups, likely picked clean by the vulturous seagulls that were around.

Seagull picking at dead baby seal, Cape Cross, Namibia - AnywhereBound
So sad. So gross.

Life at Cape Cross

The seals at Cape Cross have the whole coastline there to themselves. Most lie around on the sand, sunbathing, quite a few right underneath the boardwalk designed to let visitors get a better view. Others sit on the rocks closer to the water, where they’re constantly drenched by the waves and more in the midst of the action, fighting and playing.

Seal establishing dominance
Seal establishing dominance

The third group is largely devoted to the water, frolicking in the giant waves. Besides sharks, which there aren’t many of here, the seals don’t have much to fear in the water, and are most agile and most protected there.

When the seals get out of the water, which is an art form in itself, they are immediately honking, calling, crying, looking for their mother, their group. It is a constant noise. Some of the seals sound like goats, others like fat men coughing up their lungs, others like menacing lions snarling and growling, all in a cacophony of horror movie sounds.

Cute little seal cub
Cute little seal cub resting under the walkway

Why you should visit

Visiting the colony at Cape Cross really presented an opportunity to watch the seals in their environment. Because of the sheer number of them, it was unlike anything possible at the zoo; here we were able to see their natural behaviours, the natural parts of the life cycle, play out.

It was actually remarkable to focus on a small group and watch them interact or ignore one another, decide to feed, or decide to walk away. We could’ve stayed there and watched them for hours.

Well, once we got over the smell.

Cape Cross Seal Colony, Namibia - AnywhereBound
Thousands and thousands of seals lining the coast

Favourite Places of 2014

Last week, we posted our most memorable moments of 2014. This week we wanted to take you to some of our favourite places. In order of travel:

Berlin, Germany

The Reichstag in Berlin

We only spent a few days in Berlin, mostly to visit a darling travel girlfriend of mine from southeast Asia, but our few days were the perfect balance of relaxing local-style and visiting all the tourist must-sees. Berlin was fantastic, and as it was also Moreno’s first time there, as a history nut, it was definitely a phenomenal learning experience.

Mesosaurus, Namibia

Crazy quiver trees at Mesosaurus bush camp
Crazy quiver trees at Mesosaurus bush camp

This wasn’t on our list of places to visit, and it’s not exactly a place we would drive out of our way to see, but the first time we laid eyes on the crazy quiver tree landscape at the Mesosaurus bush camp our first night in Namibia we were completely stunned and couldn’t get enough of how absolutely alien everything around us looked.

Fish River Canyon, Namibia

Moreno silhouette at Fish River Canyon, Namibia
Moreno standing on the edge of Devil’s Peak at Fish River Canyon

Fish River Canyon was breathtakingly stunning, and standing on the edge of it while the wind whipped the light rain back off our clothes was one of our favourite experiences of the trip.

Sossusvlei, Namibia

People on dune, Sossusvlei, Namibia - AnywhereBound
Tourists climbing one of the dunes at Sossusvlei

One of the most popular destinations in Namibia that still manages to feel deserted, the dunes of Sossusvlei are some of the highest in the world and are something to behold. Next time, we climb even higher.

Ngepi Camp, Caprivi Strip, Namibia

The bar and reception at Ngepi Camp
The bar and reception at Ngepi Camp

The only actual campsite on this list, Ngepi Camp on the Caprivi Strip honestly goes down as one of our favourite places in Africa. I swear! The atmosphere of this place, the wilderness, the sounds, the treehouse feel, the outdoor bathrooms, the hippos on the lake…and (bonus!) completely sustainable and eco-friendly. Heaven.

Lake Malawi

beach swings
Just another gorgeous sunset right outside our bungalow

We only saw a snippet of Malawi and unfortunately it wasn’t our favourite part of the trip due to various other circumstances. That said, the lake itself was beautiful and we know we want to go back and tour around more of it.

Tofo, Mozambique

Bench outside Casa Barry, Tofo, Mozambique - AnywhereBound
Bench outside our bungalow at Tofo beach

Small enough to get to know quickly, but with enough amenities (not to mention yoga, snorkelling and diving!) to spend a good couple of weeks, the little village of Tofo quickly earned a soft spot in our hearts and became the place we’d definitely return to ‘next time around.’

Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa

Moreno with Policeman's helmet, Drakensberg, South Africa
Moreno facing the Policeman’s Helmet at Drakensberg North

The Drakensberg Mountains weren’t the type of mountains we expected but were nonetheless beautiful. The hikes alone could easily justify spending at least a week or two in the area and doing just that is also on our ‘when we return’ list.

Oh, and the colours are that intense.

Tsitsikamma, Garden Route, South Africa

Storms River Mouth in the Tsitsikamma National Park…foggy but gorgeous

The weather was not in our favour when we visited the Garden Route but we could still tell (even through the dense fog) that the area was just gorgeous. We’d return to the Tsitsikamma Park in a heartbeat, but definitely want to visit the rest of the Garden Route as well.

The Cape Peninsula, South Africa

View from Chapman's Peak, Cape Peninsula, South Africa - AnywhereBound
Just one of the stunning views off Chapman’s Peak

Cape Town, Boulders Beach, Chapman’s Peak, the V&A Waterfront…I think I’m in love with this area. As I mentioned before, it’s the only place we agreed was actually more stunning than Vancouver (crazy, right?) and we could easily take our time exploring the area for more than the two days we had.

That sums up our 2014!

Next task: plan the year ahead. Stay tuned!

Top Ten Fun Facts About Toronto – The First Timer’s Special

Today I had my first pre-TBEX tour – The First Timer’s Special: All About Toronto, and it was a whirlwind!

From the entertainment district to St. Lawrence Market, the financial district to Queen’s Park, Forest Hill through to Chinatown – there was quite a lot of information to fit into three hours!

That said, since the tour was full of facts and figures about the city, I thought I’d share the top ten fun facts (some impressive, some geeky) that I learned.

Top Ten Fun Facts About Toronto

10. Toronto has approximately 200 cultures! 200!

9. Toronto’s PATH is the world’s largest underground complex. Linking offices, attractions and shopping arcades, it’s got to be big – it has 29 kilometers worth of walkways!

8. The hospitals concentrated on University Avenue are all actually linked by a tunnel 20ft underground in case a patient needs to be moved.

7. The new City Hall is designed by a fella from Sweden – when viewed from above, the Council Chamber is supposed to look like an eye between two sets of lashes.

6. Toronto’s Island Park is actually a 900-acre floating sandbag. It’s also where Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run.

5. Casa Loma’s original inhabitant was able to build the lavish castle because of the money he made providing electricity to the city. He started losing money when Sir Alex Beck’s generation system was set up on Niagara Falls.

4. Front Street is called as such because it used to be the front of the harbour. The few blocks between the current harbour and where the water used to come up to on Front Street are actually all landfill.

3. Toronto was originally established in 1793 as York by Governor John Graves Simcoe who thought the location was a less vulnerable than the previous capital of Newark to an attack by ‘evil Americans’.

2. Toronto has more condominium and high rise buildings than any other place in North America. And has many more permits for the upcoming years!

1. When the City Hall moved into what was called “The Ward” – the Jewish neighborhood between College, University, Queen and Yonge streets – the Jewish community moved to where employment could be found, specifically in the textile hub of Kensington Market. Times have changed – this is now better known as Chinatown.

Fake islands and harbours, underground passages and an intense turnover in cultures. Cool, huh?

Do you know any other cool facts about Toronto?? Add them in the comments!!

West Baray: Siem Reap’s Secret Beach

I’ve mentioned my extreme like for Siem Reap a couple of times now, but I know that there’s a lot of people that are simply turned off by its touristy hustle and bustle.

Well, let me fill you in on a hidden little beach getaway that’s close enough to touch yet well off the beaten tourist path of Angkor, so off the path in fact that it’s only through a friend with a local contact that I heard about it at all.

Hammocks at West Baray, Siem Reap, Cambodia - YourLocalKat
Boats, tubes, hammocks and baskets of yummies: Ahhh, Baray.

West Baray: Not Actually Hidden and Actually Quite Significant

Referred to locally as just Baray (and pronounced more like the first part of “pariah”), the beach is in fact part of a two kilometer-square reservoir hidden 12 kilometers from the center of Siem Reap.

But the reservoir isn’t really hidden at all, in fact, it’s quite blatantly there as a giant chunk of water when viewed on a map.

View Larger Map

It’s also remarkably close to the Angkor complex (see those square marks in the top right corner?), and, along with the East Baray, now dried up, was a phenomenal reservoir in the Angkor civilization, thought to have either spiritual or agricultural significance.

The reason that the reservoir is ‘hidden’ at all is simply because it is highly overshadowed by the glamour of Angkor, with tourists rarely following the main highway to the narrow road that leads to Baray.

En route to West Baray, Siem Reap, Cambodia - YourLocalKat
The narrow (but busy!) road that leads to Baray.

West Baray Today

Today, Baray is used by locals and very few tourists for swimming and occasional boating.

Boys play at West Baray, Siem Reap, Cambodia - YourLocalKat
Two local boys play on the beach. Their parents were there too, but were fully clothed.

When you arrive at the end of the narrow road, vendors to the right and left wait to greet you. There is fresh cut pineapples, durian, mango and papayas. Sugarcane juice, coconut juice and coca colas. Grilled birds and fish and raw meat. And all the overpriced patterned souvenir dresses, hippie pants, bracelets and purses you could want, in case you haven’t gotten enough in town.

From the bridge, you can see the reservoir:

West Baray from bridge, Siem Reap, Cambodia - YourLocalKat
West Baray from bridge.

The Beach at Baray

A set of narrow stairs takes you down to the sand where boats line the water and hammocks dot the shore. A lady will come up to collect money for the tented hammocks  – 1000 riel per person – $0.25 that’s more than worth your time watching the locals dip into the water fully clothed, the fishermen tidying up their boats, and families peeling and eating quail eggs next to you.

The women and children that come around with food baskets will provide a much deserved snack. Almost anything edible is available: pineapples and mangoes, boiled eggs, crickets, beetles and scorpions.

.Yummy crickets and bugs to eat. West Baray, Siem Reap, Cambodia - YourLocalKat
Yummies hawked at West Baray, Cambodia.
Personally, the bugs just didn’t look that refreshing for a hot day.

The water is warm and it is a welcome reward, but the tented hammocks beckon – they are low to the ground, and wrap you in their pleather fabric unconditionally. Without you noticing they will lull you into slumber and you’ll have no choice but to pass out in the 35°C shade.

And between snoozes all you’ll be able to think is that two hours here is simply not enough: so close from everything and yet away from it all.

Hammock. West Baray, Siem Reap, Cambodia - YourLocalKat
Bliss from inside a hammock at West Baray.

Fun fact: You can see where East Baray was very clearly on the terrain map above – it still shows up as a block of blue!

Siem Reap: More than just Angkor

Arriving at Siem Reap, the town at the foot of the Angkor temples made infamous by Tomb Raider, I expected a small, dusty town trampled by tourists as they did their token three days at Angkor Wat before they moved on to bigger and better things.

Walking among giants. Siem Reap, CambodiaI was wrong.

Siem Reap is a huge tourist destination (about 3 million visitors a year) but this means it’s actually quite expanded. On top of that, because of its history – Siem Reap means a “flat defeat” of the Thais for one thing – there is quite a lot of culture lurking beneath its touristic façade:

First, there’s the exquisite French Quarter which houses the fancy resorts, the National Museum, and a stunning park lined with tall imposing trees filled to the brim with bats.

Then there’s the lovely riverside for strolling along, dotted with colonial style houses and local restaurants, bars and coffee shops.

There’s an Old Market area where the locals shop for fruits, seafood and clothing, which is also filled with food stalls and souvenir stalls and almost any-trinket-you-can-imagine stalls.

There’s the Night Markets, where women weaving traditional Cambodian scarves blur with local entrepreneurs selling original printed teeshirts that blur with everyone in between hocking patterned dresses and souvenirs.

Walking towards the Night market. Siem Reap, CambodiaAnd of course, there’s the silk farm you can tour, the Artisan center, a floating village, a bird sanctuary and performances of the traditional Apsara dance that you can view.

And for some nightlife, there’s Pub Street, which, yes, has a large red neon sign that points to it, but is actually not that horrible, and has decent restaurants and bars including the Temple Club which features free (and good quality!) Apsara dances every night.

Angkor Wat...reconstructedThe reason most people visit Siem Reap is for the Angkor Archaeological Park, and the temples are well worth checking off the tourist to-do list.

But Siem Reap was an unexpected darling in Cambodia that offered not only temples fraught with history and religion, but also a steady dose of culture and nightlife that I just wanted to inhale.

I wish I stayed longer. And I definitely hope to come back.