Spring in the New Jersey Pine Barrens

Redbuds

Spring has arrived in New Jersey and, with it, a renewed interest in all things outdoors.   Around this time last  year, my wife and I were touring through South Africa on our trip of a lifetime.   We had an amazing adventure and, a year later, I find myself thinking often of the places we visited and people we met along the way.  Unfortunately, I developed a Morton’s neuroma in my right foot shortly after returning home and, along with it, burning and shooting pain that made hiking and bird watching (two of my favorite activities) nearly impossible.  After several months of treatments, though, the pain has lessened and I am eagerly returning to my outdoor pursuits.  A walk though the New Jersey Pine Barrens feels like a visit with a dear old friend – you don’t really know how much you love something until it is taken away.

A few month’s ago I picked up a copy of Howard P. Boyd’s Wildflowers of the Pine Barrens of New Jersey.  Over the last few years I have been slowly developing an interest in improving my plant indentification skills and figured that starting with flowers is as good a place as any to start.  Boyd’s book arranges flowering plants by season, so a newbie like me has some idea of what to expect as I venture out.  The weather forecast was not promising yesterday, so I opted to visit a couple places I had gone to before as part of field trips.

A field of flowers

My first stop was a place I blogged about back in April, 2010 for another look at Conrad’s Broom-Crowberry (Corema conradii).  First up in Boyd’s book, this low-growing shrub produces small flowers at the tips its gnarled branches.  Plants produce either male or female flowers and photographing them means lying flat on the ground and straining to get a good look through the camera’s eyepiece.

And there they are – beautiful tiny purple-red flowers at the tips of each branch.  Broom-crowberry is listed as an endangered plant in New Jersey, growing only in a small, restricted area of the pine plains.

New Jersey's Pygmy Forest

My next stop was the Pygmy Forest, a globally rare stunted forest ecosystem.  At maturity, this pine and oak forest reaches heights of only 4 to 5 feet –  I am standing in front of a mature, fully grown forest in this photo.  Amazing New Jersey.

Walking back to the car, I noticed rustling in the leaves just off the trail.  Hoping that it wasn’t a snake (though it would have made a good photo), I carefully approached the rustling sound and discovered a pair of eastern fence lizards locked in a passionate embrace.  When mating, the male fence lizard grasps his mate’s neck with his mouth (you can see him biting and holding onto her neck in this photo).  If their mating is successful, she will lay about 15 eggs which will hatch this fall.

I visited a few other places before the rains came and I heading home.   It felt great to get out and about and to enjoy the sights and sounds of the Pine Barrens again.  I can’t wait to do more!

Our African Adventure – Final Destination – Cape Town

After nearly two weeks on the road, our once-in-a-lifetime adventure was coming to an end as we approached the trip’s final destination, Cape Town.  At breakfast, our tour guides polled the group and laid out the options for that day’s activities.  The original interary called for several miles of bike riding through through the wine country of Stellenbosch, an activity that most of the group simple wasn’t prepared to accomplished.  After a quick vote, we decided on seeing the sights around Cape Town.  We drove along the famous False Bay coast, a beautiful area bounded on the east by Cape Hangklip and the Cape of Good Hope on the west.

False Bay was featured during recent TV episodes of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, because of the large populations of Great White Sharks which over-winter here and feed on the local seal population.

The views as we traveled around False Bay were breaktaking.  We stopped here and there, snapping photos and marveling at the scenery while our guides explained that the Bay contained several wrecks of early sailing ships which had mistaken it for the deeper and safer Table Bay.  After several stops, we arrived at our first destination, Boulders Beach, and its colony of African Penguins.

As an avid birder, I had been looking forward to this sight the entire trip.  Also known as “Jackass” Penguins, due to their donkey-like bray, these remain the only species of penguin that I have seen in the wild.  The penguin colony enjoys protection as a national park, though the area is becoming more developed as home builders take advantage of the incredible views around Boulders Beach.

Here is a photograph of the small group of penguins shown above that shows just how close human habitation has approached their home.  The penguins seem undisturbed by all the activity, though, as hundreds of visitors also walk along a boardwalk built through their colony every day.

Our next stop was the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point.  We started with lunch in Two Oceans Restaurant, followed by a ride on the Funicular up to Cape Point Lighthouse.  The day was clear, breezing, and beautiful as we drank in the stunning panoramic views offered by the Point.  The sights and sounds of two great oceans lay before us as we talked with other members of our group about the experience.  Here I was, a kid who grew up in the last house on a dirt road in a small West Virginia coal camp, standing in a place that I had read about in grade school but had never dreamed that I would actually visit.

After a couple hours of exploring, we left Cape Point for our hotel.  On the way, we passed near replicas of the Cross of Vasco de Gama and the Cross of Diaz, two navigational beacons erected by the Portuguese government to commemorate Vasco da Gama and Bartholomeu Dias as explorers. When lined up, the crosses point to Whittle Rock,  a large, permanently submerged shipping hazard in False Bay.

After a long, adventure-filled day we arrive at our final hotel destination – the Tudor Hotel in Cape Town.  We spent the following day shopping, exploring Cape Town, and making final preparations for our long flight home.

Several months have passed since our trip, but the sights and sounds of South Africa and Lesotho are as real for me today as when I was there.   Any mention of my trip brings numerous questions from friends and colleagues, all intrigued by the thought of visiting places Americans rarely venture to.  Certain, my wife and I were extraordinarily lucky to have this opportunity and to experience a culture so different, and at times so familiar, to our own.   I can only hope that good fortune allows us to return some day.

Our African Adventure – Wine Tasting and Stellenbosch

Graham Beck

Our adventure continued with a leisurely day spent traveling to Stellenbosch with several stops for wine tasting along the way.  Stellenbosch is located one of the finest, and perhaps most beautiful, wine regions in the world.   We had meant to start the day with a swim at a local water fall. But it was a grey, cool day and swimming didn’t seem as much fun as visiting several vineyards.

We drove through several small towns along our route and it seemed everyone had a vineyard.  Some large, others small – but grape growing dominated the area.  Even with the clouds, the mountains made for incredible scenery.

I can say honestly that we tasted amazing wines at every stop.   Graham Beck, however, had the very best sparkling wine (champagne) that we tasted on our trip.  You can find several of Graham Beck wines here in the States, at least here in New Jersey.

We purchased several bottles of Arabella wines, another beautiful location with great wines.  The vineyard was surrounded by pastures filled with horses.  We’ve searched and searched for Arabella wines here in New Jersey, but with no luck.  We managed to bring home a couple bottles, carefully packed in our suitcases, and have held onto one – saving it for a special occasion.

The clouds never relinquished their hold as we finished our drive to Stellenbosch.  The scenery was still amazing, but I would have loved to see these mountains against a blue sky!

We arrived at our destination, the Stellenbosch Hotel,  late in the afternoon.   Stellenbosch is a college town, not unlike many other quaint college towns found here in the States, with plenty of shops to explore.  We spent most of the following morning shopping for gifts for making our final drive to Cape Town.

Reminiscing about Ginger Beer

Earlier this year, I ran out of steam while posting about my amazing trip to South Africa.  For those interested in our final stops,  I’ll add a few more posts and photos of our final stops over the next few days.  In some respects, this was a lost summer for me – or it feels that way.  I was busy, but not with the things I normally do.  No hiking, or birding, and very little photography.   Things are turning around though and a recent post on another blogger’s site reminded me of a really good day in South Africa when I enjoyed, for the first time, ginger beer.

Homemade ginger beer is an easy to make and special treat.  Like rootbeer, ginger beer can be produced as a soft drink and served to children and adults alike.  Shortly after returning from South Africa, I started searching the web for recipes.  I found a few, here and there.  And then I read this post on Jackie Hill’s The Slowvelder blog and could resist the urge any longer.  Jackie’s recipe is simple and easy to make and the results are amazing!

Start by grating about 2 – 3 inches of fresh ginger root into a container large enough to accommodate about 5 quarts (or 5 liters) of water.  As with all of the best homemade recipes, the exact amount of ginger to use will vary by your taste.  Experiment with more or less until you get the result you’re looking for – I enjoy the ginger beer that mildly sweet with a slight spicy finish, and this amount of ginger root does the trick for me.

Next, add the zest of a lemon.  Careful not to add too much of the white pith, which can be bitter.  After zesting the lemon, squeeze the juice into the mix.

Three cups of sugar are added to the grated ginger root, lemon zest, and juice.  Once again, you can experiment with the total amount of sugar – add a little more or less depending on your taste.  Toss in a handful of raisins with the sugar.

Add 5 quarts (or liters) of water.  The first quart of water should be boiling, which will help quickly dissolve the sugar and begin releasing all the wonderful aromas of ginger and lemon – your kitchen is going to smell amazing!

After the liquid has cooled to slightly warmer than room temperature, add a packet of yeast, cover, and allow the mixture to sit in a warm place for 8 – 12 hours.  I elected to leave mine overnight.

The mixture should begin to bubble during the fermentation process.  If your batch doesn’t bubble, throw it away and start over!  This was mine after a night in a warm room.  Next, scoop out the biggest chunks, and then pour the liquid through cheesecloth or a clean washcloth.  I use clean 2-litter soda bottles, filled to leave about 3 inches of head room, to continue fermentation.  Store them in a warm place, away from direct sunlight, slowly releasing the pressure once or twice a day.  Open the bottles very, very slowly or, alternatively, be prepared to clean ginger beer from all nearby surfaces and change your clothing – you need to trust me on this step!  The longer you allow the fermentation to proceed, the stronger (higher alcohol content) the beer will become.  Again, experiment until you get the taste you want.  I start tasting small amounts of my ginger beer after 24 hours in the bottle and refrigerate when I get the taste I’m looking for – refreshing, slightly sweet with a mildly spicy finish.  Refrigeration all but stops the fermentation process.

Now comes the best part – enjoy your chilled ginger beer over ice.  Add a slice of lemon or lime, or nothing at all.  Ginger beer should keep for about a week once refrigerated.  For me, this is a little piece of South Africa I brought back to New Jersey – for good!  The taste takes me back immediately to that incredible country.  Now, I need to find an authentic peri-peri sauce recipe!!

And, finally, thank you Jackie for sharing your ginger beer recipe. Some day I would like to share a glass with you after a day exploring the bushveld around your game reserve!

Our African Adventure – Klein Karoo and Outshoorn

Let me begin with a giant “THANK YOU” to WordPress for featuring my Tsitsikamma post on Freshly Pressed.  This is my second time – my first Freshly Pressed page featured my photos of the 2010 winter soltice lunar eclipse – and I am thrilled to have been selected again.  And thank you to everyone for your kind comments – it really makes my day to read each and every one of them.

We left Tsitsikamma early the next morning and made our first stop at an overlook for the Knysna estuary.  Knysna is home to the most endangered seahorse in the world, the Knysna seahorse.   On this particular morning, fog and mist shouded the area – hiding most of the majestic cliffs overlooking the ocean.

After a while, the fog lifted and we got our first unobstructed views of the estuary.  It was a beautiful sight looking down from our perch onto the town below.

Before continuing our trip, we stopped at the East Head Cafe for breakfast and to enjoy the views from sea level.  

Knysna was just a beautiful from the Cafe as it was from the overlook.  We could have spent the entire day exploring, but we had a full day of travel ahead and the road was calling.   We were traveling through Klein Karoo, or Little Karoo – a semi-desert area of South Africa.  Our destination was Outshoorn, the ostrich capital of the world!

We made several stops along the way – as their were plenty of overlooks and rest areas along our route.  The region offered many amazing mountain views and, if you were lucky enough to look down, some lovely flowers too.  I don’t know the name of this flower – it grew in several areas along our route – and was unlike anything I had ever seen at home.

Our next stop was Cango Caves.  We took the tour, which was very interesting as much for the interesting rock formations as for the language we heard all around us.  This was the first area of our visit to South Africa where Afrikaans was widely spoken.  Afrikaans is, for the most part, Dutch mixed with a variety of other languages and is the first language for nearly 15% of South Africans.

Our next stop was an ostrich farm.  Outshoorn is the ostrich capital of the world – because there are numerous ostrich farms in the area.  We toured the farm, learned about the history and techiques of ostrich farming, and watched as other tourist participated in an ostrich race.

We finished our day at Housemartin Guest Lodge in De Rust – enjoying an amazing dinner prepared by the Lodge’s staff and then retiring to some of the very best accomodations we enjoyed on the entire trip.

The owners of Housemartin seemed to have antcipated every detail to increase their guest’s comfort including this pleasant little surprise, a small carafe of muscatel we found in our room.   The night was warm and a light rain was falling.  We sat outdoors on our room’s small porch, talking away the hours with our fellow travelers and enjoying the scent of limes growing on the nearby trees.

Our African Adventure – Tsitsikamma National Park

I took a few days away from blogging to compete in the New Jersey Audubon’s World Series of Birding.  My team finished a respectable 25th in a field of almost 60 birding teams and, most importantly, had a great time.    Now, though, I would like to return you to our African Adventure. 

Our next stop was Tsitsikamma National Park, a stunning coastal park found on South Africa’s Garden Route .  We arrived in the early afternoon and, lottery style, picked our room keys out of a brown paper bag.  This was the view we enjoyed from our cabin!

The coast at Tsitsikamma was very rugged and consisted primarilyof large rock outcrops.  This created some spectacular waves, as the Indian Ocean battered against the coast.  If you look closely, you can see two people exploring on the rocks – gives you a sense of how large the waves are that came crashing against the shore.

This was the view as we relaxed and enjoyed a few drinks at an outdoor bar.  We hoped to take a boat ride up the river, but rides were canceled due to troubles with the boat’s engine.  So, we sat and enjoyed the view.

The next morning we were surprised to find baboons walking around our cabin.  They were exploring garbage cans, trying to break into cars, and generally making a nuisance of themselves.  A group of rangers came along in a truck and attempted to run the baboon back into the woods, with only limited success.  This young fellow watched the fun from a safe perch.

Later than morning we took a hike to the river’s mouth.  We had heard that there were suspension bridges that gave amazing views of the river and ocean.  This was our first view as the trail emerged from the bush.

There were three bridges all together, suspended across the river and along the rocky shore.  We spent an hour or so exploring and hiking along the shore before heading back to our cabin.

We encountered this fellow on our way back through the bush.  This is a Rock Hydrax, a close cousin to the elephant.  These little fellows were usually found in large packs, appeared to be very social with each other, and would stare (unblinking) at us as we walked by.

After our morning hike, a group of us headed out for some lunch and shopping.  We picked a small outdoor cafe and enjoyed our first taste of ginger beer.  This homemade drink was cold and refreshing – really hit the spot.  We wandered from shop to shop and eventually ended up back at our cabin, tired and happy from our wonderful day at Tsitsikamma.

Our African Adventure – Addo Elephant National Park

Our next stop was Addo Elephant National Park, established in 1931 when only 16 elephants remained in the area.  There are now over 550 elephants living in this protected habitat, along with lions, buffalo, rhino, hyena, and a variety of antelope and zebra.  We arrived in the early afternoon and took a ride through the park.

Our first ride through the Park was very successful – we found ostrich, zebra, and elephants – lots and lots of elephants.  We remained safely in our vehicle as the majestic creatures walked right by our windows.  Apparently, the animals don’t associate people with vehicles, or visa versa, and we were able to get amazing views.

We took a night-time ride through the park and got our only looks at hyena.   It was very dark and this was our best photo of them as they ran back and forth by our vehicle.

We were up early the next morning for an sunrise ride through the park.  We didn’t know what to expect, but the Park did not disappoint.

Lions were just finishing a nighttime meal and were relaxing right next to the road.  Yes, we were really this close!  As we looked around the vehicle, we also found several jackals circling the kill.  They were waiting patiently for the lions to retreat to the bush so that they could rush in for a quick bite.

Addo was an incredible experience – lots of animals and beautiful landscape.   The South African national park system can be proud of their efforts here to not only save the elephants, but also create a protected habitat for several other species of animals.