Category Archives: nature

Fire and Ice-Land 3 (Dancing Lights)


Day 3 in Iceland and the weather was still occasionally sunny but mostly snow stormy.  Any hope of catching a glimpse of the fabled northern lights seemed to be all but lost as all northern light tours had been cancelled for 7 consecutive days on account of poor visibility and driving snow.

We consoled ourselves by hiring a Superjeep  tour up to Langjökull glacier to do snowmobiling and to visit a man made ice cave.  Along the way, there were stops to look at some of Iceland’s thermal pools, a rather pretty though small waterfall and a pit stop for lunch.

hraunfoss - 1
Mrs. Squirrel obscuring the view of the pretty Hraunfossar waterfall.

Along the way, there were a few cars that had got stuck in the snow and we stopped to render some assistance.  We were very glad to be in a Superjeep with huge tyres and retractable spikes which carried us steadily through the worst of the snow and weather.

And when we reached on top of the glacier, it was time to switch to the snowmobile.

snowmobile 2
Our two snow conquering chariots!
snowmobile 1
We had to bundle up in special snow suits, wear helmet, visors and get instructions.

Well, getting dressed up for the snowmobile ride was a thorough workout in itself and we were sweating from the exertion and glad to be out in the cold so that we could cool down.  There were 14 of us and we paired up to drive 7 snowmobiles.  Of the 7 drivers, only one had driven a snowmobile before.

Let me just say that it was not easy to drive.  I certainly found it hard to control, requiring a lot more strength and throwing around the body weight to get the machine to turn.  And when I managed to turn it, it would over extend in that direction and I would have to compensate in the other direction.  We were told to follow behind the guide in the lead snowmobile but we were all struggling to do that.

We were also facing driving snow and bitter cold, poor visibility and fresh loosely packed snow which made it easy to capsize the machine if we strayed too much to the edge of the packed trail.  The journey was supposed to take about 15 minutes to the cave entrance but it took us more than 30 minutes.  During that time, one snowmobile sunk about 2 feet into the soft snow and had to be dug out.  Except for two snowmobiles, the rest all had exciting moments when the machine tipped over trapping driver and passenger underneath.

It happened to me and Mrs. Squirrel.  I wandered too much to the side and the machine toppled over and slid down a small slope.  Both my wife and I were pinned down by the 350 kg machine.  From our prone position, we could see nothing at all and could only hope that the guides would notice we were missing and could here our feeble cries for help.  Eventually, they showed up and got us out of there.

Finally, we made it to the ice cave and I took out my camera from my backpack only to find that it had not fared well from the snowmobile ride.   The cold had completely caused my camera battery to be drained out.  So all the photos in this post is courtesy of my traveling companions.

We were joined by another group that had come up by monster wheeled buses.  “You mean we could have done the trip in comfort?”  One of my group tried to trade our return snowmobile ride for a spot  on the bus but there were no takers.

During the tour of the cave, we were shown the “chapel”.  The guide explained that the acoustics were particularly good here and asked for a volunteer to test it out.  The rest of the cowards nominated me to do it.  And so I found myself giving a rendition of “Amazing Grace” inside a glacier.

glacier cave chapel - 1
Singing “Amazing Grace” in the ice cave chapel.

When we got back to the base camp on the glacier to put away the snowmobiles and to get out of the snow suits, I asked my driver how I could get a refund for the northern light tour that I had previously booked with Superjeep for my first night in Iceland.  Now Superjeep and some other tours allow clients to go on a second tour at no extra charge if the first trip was cancelled or the northern lights were not seen.  However, the weather had been so bad and the forecast was for more of the same, that I had given up hope.

To my surprise, our driver, Loji, thought there was a chance that the tour would go ahead that night.  He called his office, consulted with them and then proposed to take us out that same night.  I really was skeptical given the weather conditions but decided I would regret not trying and so our whole group agreed to go northern light hunting.

Loji said that despite the snow and blustery wind, we just needed to look for breaks in the cloud cover where we can see the stars and we would have a good chance to see the northern lights.

star wars snow
This is not the Millennium Falcon jumping to light speed but the view of the driving snow from the windscreen of the jeep and the reason why I did remained skeptical of our chances of seeing any northern lights.

And so we left Reykjavik at about 8.00 pm and we drove and drove and we drove.  Around and around,  Chasing perceived clearer skies.  We made a few stops when it was not snowing as bad and strained to see stars but most of the time, the sightings were brief before the clouds and snow returned.

To warm us up and to dull the sense of disappointment, Loji gave out generous servings of hot chocolate fortified with vodka.  That certainly made us more cheerful and a little sleepy too – it had been a long day.  Then at about 12.30 in the morning, Loji delivered!

We managed to see the lights!  It appeared like a light green ribbon across the sky. It wasn’t the brightest but we enjoyed it, taking pictures and just taking in the sight.  But after maybe 10 minutes the clouds came in and the show was over.

We were reasonably satisfied and we settled down in the jeep for the long drive back to Reykjavik.  But Iceland had not finished giving us a show.  30 minutes later, we saw an even better display as we were driving back.  We pulled over and enjoyed this spectacle for about 20 minutes, thanking God for blessing us with this experience.

aurora 1

aurora 2
Hallelujah!

Next post:- Around Reykjavik.

Advertisements

Fire and Ice-Land 2 (Vik & South Coast)


We arrived after dark on the first day in Iceland and had taken the Flybus from the airport to downtown Reykjavik.  For future travelers, this is a lot cheaper than taking a taxi but there is the inconvenience of having to change from the airport bus to a smaller shuttle bus which then takes you to a bus stop near your hotel.  In our case, the bus stop was about 200 m from the hotel which would not be a problem if it weren’t for the driving snow and the slush on the roads making it unpleasant to be dragging luggage in the streets.

But bad weather is part of the nature of Iceland which one must accept. Still, it immediately spoiled our plans as the tour I had booked to go out that night to seek out the northern lights was cancelled on account of the weather.  Although disappointed by that, I immediately activated plan B which was to get a good night sleep and take off early the next morning on a long bus ride out along the southern coast as far as the small town of Vik.

Here are some highlights from Day 2;

Iceland south - 2
Icelandic Horses – these tough guys spend the winter out in the elements.  Descended from ponies brought over by Vikings in the 12th century, they are used in sheep herding and more recently for “tourist herding”.
Iceland south - 1
A short stop at the LAVA Centre and there was this interactive model of Iceland showing all the earthquakes and tremors that occurred in the last 24 hours.
Iceland south - 3
The impressive Skógafoss waterfall
Iceland south - 4
The black volcanic sand beach at Vik
Iceland south - 5
It was a wild and windy day!
Iceland south - 6
You could actually lean backwards into the wind and the wind would be able to hold you up.
Iceland south - 7
But the wind was also pelting us with tiny bits of hail which was quite painful.  The round ice spheres can be seen clearly in contrast to the black sand.
Iceland south - 8.jpg
These are the basalt columns at the famous Reynisfjara beach near Vik.  Oh, and the sun came out briefly.
Iceland south - 10
They told me that seabirds nest on these rock stacks but all I saw were @#!$%#* tourists!
Iceland south - 12
The beach can be dangerous as the waves are violent and rogue waves are known to occur which can drag you into the cold North Atlantic.  The last fatality was in 2017.  We were told not to go too near the waves and also not to turn your back to the waves.
Version 2
But, it could also be very romantic!
Iceland south - 13
The ends of the basalt columns in the cave.
Iceland south - 14
Another view.  Notice the icicle at the top?
Iceland south - 15
A good place to roost after a long day on a tour bus.
Iceland south - 18
We also visited part of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier.
Iceland south - 17
These guys were returning from hiking on the glacier.
Iceland south - 21
Another beautiful waterfall – Seljalandsfoss Waterfall.  In warmer times, it is possible to walk behind the falling water.
Iceland south - 23
Wait a while and you might get the place to yourself.
Iceland south - 24
This little excursion along the south coast gets my thumbs up!

Next installment will be about snowmobiling and an ice cave in a glacier.  See you then.

(All photos by LGS; please ask permission before using).

Annnd….we’re off!


Well, my 2018 is already galloping like a runaway horse.  In this first week, there’s been a birth, a wedding and a death – three major milestones of life crammed into the first 7 days.

First, the birth.  It involves the bride from the wedding.  No..no…no….it’s not her baby! Let me finish before you jump to all kinds of wrong impressions. Good grief.

You see, the bride’s cousin couldn’t attend the wedding cause she just gave birth to a baby girl on New Year’s Day and wasn’t feeling up to a long distance journey.  Now for those who like to follow Chinese numerology, a birth on 1/1/18 (d/m/y) is extremely auspicious because in Chinese it sounds similar to the proclamation “definitely will be prosperous”.  The fact that the baby girl entered the world 2 weeks ahead of schedule only adds to the mystique of being fated to be born on that auspicious date.  The really superstitious ones might even be tempted to buy lottery tickets.

Secondly, the wedding.  It was today and it was a great joy for me to have witnessed it.  I have known the bride for many years starting when she was a teenager.  So it was a pleasure to see her embark on this next chapter of her life and wishing her and her new husband that God grant them a long and happy life journey together.  You know how they say long distance relationships are difficult?  Well they made a 16,000 km courtship work. Amazing.

They also did a studio photography session where they get all dressed up and have soft-focus, romantic photos taken.  A very common practice in Asia.  Less common is to have a picture of the newlyweds in their finery but armed to the teeth with swords and bows and arrows, fending off a ravenous T. Rex.  Certainly an experience to remember.

Finally, there was the death of an old gentleman. I attended his wake and funeral.  More about this in a later post cause I had a few thoughts on him that I would like to elaborate.

But these three life milestones just reinforced for me the thoughts I had when the clock went past midnight and into 2018.  I was thinking how time is marching on and for all of us, time will come to an end one day.  We don’t know if that is distant or near.  All the more reason to stop wasting our lives and truly live life to the full.  Also reason to give some thought about facing eternity ; how will we face that.

And, finally, finally, a little comment about the bomb cyclone event in USA and Canada that is causing widespread extreme cold, flooding, freezing, deep, deep snowdrifts and howling winds.  Sorry that you are experiencing all that and sorry for the loss of life.  But once again, wake up to the new reality of increasingly extreme weather events due to global warming.  Here to the clock is ticking.

But finally, finally, the most final of all, I also realise that in the midst of gloom, there is still beauty to be seen.  Hope this video will bring some cheer.  May this really be a Happy New Year for you.

Bear Necessities -Revisited (Unburied Nuts)


Squirrels love to bury their precious nuts so as to uncover them later to enjoy at leisure. In the same way, this blog, from time to time, brings an old post back for another short period in the sun.  But this time, it is EXTRA SPECIAL.  The following post was about a sun bear rescue and rehabilitation centre and when I posted it back in January 2011, it was a very new work and the assistant keeper that I mentioned was still a graduate student.  Well, he is now Dr. Wong Siew Te and this month he was named as a CNN Hero.  Congratulations!

BEAR NECESSITIES (January 2011)

Recently I posted about the Orang Utan at the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre on Borneo island.  However, I was privileged to have had a peek on he new conservation effort being carried out there – sun bears. Sun bears (Ursus malayanus), also known as honey bears, are found only in South-east Asia and are the smallest bear in the world.  adult bears stand only at about 1.2 metres.  Like the Orang Utan, many sun bears are displaced by forest clearing for development, orphaned by poachers or were kept as pet and later abandoned when they got too big.

I met Mr. X who was the assistant keeper who enthusiastically explained how they were trying to rehabilitate the bears so that they could be successfully returned to the wild.  Before they can be released, the young bears must be re-accustomised to the forest environment, must learn how to dig for food, climb trees and make nests to sleep in.   Mr. X also fondly explained the varied and fascinating character of his charges.

The bears are kept in cages either in small groups or singly.  Those in the cages by themselves are basically too grumpy to share a cage with other bears – there would be fighting.  I suppose it is no surprise that these loners were all male.   There was one cage with 4 young girls who all got on well with each other but even here there was a range of  personalities.  There was one girl who could be called the femme fatale cause she will appear friendly but go too close and she finds delight in ripping your trouser leg with her claws (too bad if you don’t wear trousers).  Mr. X had various scars to demonstrate that he learned all this the hard way.  On the other hand, there is Miss-Happy-go-lucky who seems to have a dumb smile for you in any situation.

Then I was introduced to two males who shared a cage.  These two get long together like best of pals but it is like the Odd Couple.  There is Mas who is quite bold where as Ah Chong is very timid.  Each cage has a door that opens outside into a fenced enclosure.  The door is opened for a few hours each day to encourage the bears to re-acquaint with the outdoors and forest.  Ah Chong was probably abused badly so he feels safe only in his cage.  Mas however, happily goes out as soon as the door opens and digs around for bugs to eat.  When Mas is gone, Ah Chong gets very anxious and hovers near the door to keep an eye out for his cage mate.  Later when Mas returns, Ah Chong gives him a bear hug and pushes Mas away fro the door and tries to keep Mas from going out again.  Interesting, no?

This work is in its infancy.  Hopefully the work will succeed though.  This squirrel would like to thank everyone who works hard to rehabilitate traumatized animals, including squirrels.

Bear Climbing – See the Characteristic White Marking and Those Long Claws
The Teenage Girls
Snooze Time

Bamboo Forest (Arashiyama)


What can you say about bamboo?  Bamboo is just a wonder.  Despite being relatively light weight, it has a greater tensile strength than steel and withstands compression better than concrete!  Not bad at all for something that is considered to be a primitive grass! In China, it is used as scaffolding for building construction.  It is also used as water containers and piping, creating chopsticks, building material, creating activated carbon etc.

But, you know, bamboo is beautiful too.  There is something magical, spiritual almost watching the bamboo sway in the breeze and listening to the sound of the leaves.  All the more so when you find yourself in the middle of an old age bamboo grove.

Welcome to the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.  Located to the west of Kyoto, it is one of the top destinations for tourists and locals alike.  Beautiful.  I would easily included it in my Squirrel’s Secret Spot series except for the @#%*!@  crowd of people there!  Definitely recommend visiting off-season, during weekdays and as early as possible.  I went in early December.

Kyoto (Dec 2016)
Kyoto (Dec 2016) Arashiyama – Photo by LGS
Kyoto (Dec 2016)
Kyoto (Dec 2016) Arashiyama – Photo by LGS
Kyoto (Dec 2016)
Often said to look like the bamboo forest in the movie, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. (Photo by LGS)

It’s not all bamboo though.  There is also a UNESCO World Heritage Temple (Tenryuji), the scenic Hozu River gorge (go on a boat ride or a scenic train ride or combine the two), a monkey park and other attractions.

Kyoto (Dec 2016)
It’s not all bamboo!  View of the Hozu River (Photo by LGS)

And then, it gets even more excellent!  For about  a week in December, the forest is illuminated and it turns into a wonderland (Arashiyama Hanatoro event).

Kyoto (Dec 2016)
Magical Forest (Photo by LGS)
Kyoto (Dec 2016)
Only distraction is the light of everyone’s handphones! (Photo by LGS)
Kyoto (Dec 2016)
Another world. (Photo by LGS)
Kyoto (Dec 2016)
Slow walk to Hozu River (Photo by LGS)
Kyoto (Dec 2016)
Hozu River near Togetsukyo or ‘Moon Crossing’ bridge. (Photo by LGS)

All that wandering around and gazing at the wonderful sights will leave you famished.  Make a pit stop and refuel at one of the many restaurants, tea houses, food kiosks found all along the access to the forest from the railway station.  I am sure that its all good but I want to make a mention about this stall that makes yuba donuts from scratch.  Familiar yet different and tummy warming.

Kyoto (Dec 2016)
Yuba (skimmed soyabean skin) – Photo by LGS
Kyoto (Dec 2016)
Yuba made into donuts. Delicious. (Photo by LGS)

I loved this place so much.  I will be back!

 

 

Remembering Kaikoura


More than 6 years ago, my wife and I had the opportunity to visit Kaikoura in New Zealand’s South Island.  The town is part of a small peninsular that juts into the ocean and it has the majestic Kaikoura mountain ranges as a background.  It is blessed with abundant marine life and a great place for going out to watch Sperm Whales, the kin of Moby Dick.  Although when I went, it was decidedly choppy and photos taken were handicapped by my advanced state of seasickness.  Nevertheless, it is a beautiful place and I thought that it must be wonderful to wake up each morning to live in a place like this.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

So I am sorry to learn that it has been badly hit by the earthquake a couple of days ago and that the town has been evacuated and there were a couple of deaths.  My deepest condolences.  I hope that Kaikoura will recover from this before too long.

(all photos by LGS)

Chew


His name is Chew Keng Lin.   When I think of Chew, I think of a man of simple tastes and a happy disposition; more contented and at ease in the depths of the rainforest than enjoying creature comforts of city dwelling.  He loved nature and being out in nature. In fact, he made protecting nature his life’s work.

chew

I first got to know him at this place – Endau Rompin.

endau rompin

We were on the same team; I was team leader.  Together we contributed to the building of a field centre for scientific research and nature education in a relative pristine forest are. Today, it is part of the National Parks of Johor or “Taman Negara Johor”.

Chew continued on and became a senior officer in the Parks Corporation.

Tomorrow is Chew’s funeral.  He was only in his forty’s.  I don’t know much but was told he had some kidney problem; sudden and unexpected.

Although I have not met up with him for some years, I feel a bond to everyone who worked together on that team.  We accomplished something important and we all did a lot of growing up together.  That means something.

I am sad that he is no longer with us. I am sad that he passed on so young. I am sad that I will not be able to be there at his funeral to honor and remember him.  I pray that he is in a better place.