Mouse House Gazette

Monday, November 1, 2010

Horses to the power of ten

Words and photographs by Evalyn Bemis


For sixteen days all anyone talked about was horse, horse, horse. The Alltech 2010 FEI World Equestrian Games had come to town.

Even picking up a carton of milk could get you into a conversation about horses. This is not unusual in Lexington, Kentucky, where the person passing the collection plate in church will lean down and whisper, “Congratulations on your win at Keeneland”. From September 25 to October 10, 2010, the self-proclaimed Horse Capital of the World was inundated with horse enthusiasts from around the world, come to watch 632 athletes and 752 horses from 58 nations vie for championships in 8 equestrian sports.

You could be seated in one of the many competition arenas at the Kentucky Horse Park or taking in a demonstration by equestrian luminaries such as Pat Parelli, Stacey Westfall or the California Cowgirls. You could be visiting Molly the three-legged pony in the Equine Village and if you were young and sweet she’d let you stroke her face and you might even get to see the smiley-face on the bottom of her prosthetic. Everywhere you went you surrounded by horse-lovers.

Of course there were pony rides - 10-year old Macey said that was the best thing about her visit to the World Equestrian Games. You could try a Reining spin on a real horse during daily NRHA exhibitions in the trade fair or try Cutting aboard a mechanical version. Little girls got their Breyer model horses autographed by famous athletes such as Steffen Peters and McLain Ward.

If you were a guy dragged to the show-grounds by your horse-crazy wife you could still talk horses, horsepower that is, at the Land Rover test site. Or check out the latest in horse transport, a Theault Morpheus horse van. Built on a Mercedes chassis and with a turbocharged diesel engine that gets 18 mpg, the $125,000 2-horse van is scarcely larger than a delivery truck for ease of getting around and as the literature says, has “various options and embellishments” to insure the safety and comfort of your equine pals.

If you didn’t have to be at the Games every minute you could venture to Claiborne Farm to visit Secretariat’s grave – so many people did that guests had to be turned away. Ashford Stud was a popular place to tour, with its fabulous stone barns modeled after the famous Coolmore Stud in Ireland. So international was the scene there that Beatrice Mertens, the Belgian breeder and owner of British Jumping team member Michael Whitaker’s horse Gig Amai, stopped by during a break in the WEG to discuss racing bloodlines with Ashford’s Irish-born stud manager. Visitors admired leading sire Giants Causeway and marveled to learn that until recently, his breeding fee was $300,000 and he bred 200+ mares, live-cover, 4 times a day. Now you can send your race-bred mares to him for a mere $100,000.

Lexington had won the right to host the Games with the support of locally-based title sponsor Alltech. This was the first time the Games were held outside of Europe since 1990 when the FEI had the idea of holding multiple world championships in one location. Something like 550 horses were flown in from around the globe – reported to be the largest-ever airlift of horses. Lexington spent the better part of four years getting ready for WEG, transforming the Kentucky Horse Park into a spectacular venue.

Numbers aside, the Games were successful in the most important way – good sport and sportsmanship. There were surprise outcomes, odds-on-favorite winners, heartbreaking stories and runs of bad luck, but the medal winners were the best of class on the day. Through it all shone many class acts of horsemanship and camaraderie.

The whole Dutch dressage team was in tears for Adelinde Cornelissen when her horse Jerich Parzival was eliminated in the middle of their test for blood in his mouth. Apparently the horse bit the tip of his tongue during a rein-back. Stephen Clarke said it was possibly the worst moment of his judging career to ring the bell but the rule was unequivocal and based on the welfare of the horse.

“Adelinde was obviously unaware, but as soon as I stopped her, she turned her horse’s head, saw what I had seen and that was the end of the discussion. She was completely gracious about it, no arguing, despite what must have been a devastating moment,” said Clarke.

Back at the stables the horse was examined and it was quickly established that it was the tiniest of cuts and he was fine. With the elimination at this stage of a team member in the Grand Prix, the already considerable pressure on Edward Gal and his renowned partner Moorlands Totilas to do well for the Netherlands was even more intense.

            Edward Gal and Totilas performing their freestyle

Despite the pressure and the huge excitement of the spectators to see a horse they had heard so much about it, Edward and “Toto” focused on each other and made believers of everybody. All five international judges placed them first with a score of 84.043%. Edward said with a smile afterwards, “I was very happy with such a test. It wouldn’t be good if I wasn’t happy with this kind of result, because every time it’s amazing to ride him.”

The top three in dressage were unanimous among the judges, as were the lowest-ranked rides. However there were some notable discrepancies with a few tests, and with a goal that there be no more than a 5% degree of variation in scores, the judges met after the team grand prix to review their judging sheets and to watch videos of particular rides.

The judges were in sync by the time the top 15 riders presented their individuals freestyles to a sold out stadium on Friday night. Judge Mary Seefried of Australia commented that the best three rides were obvious, given the harmony of riding. “All the horses were so well-trained and responsive, able to generate their own energy. The precision of riding was remarkable. It was goose-bump territory for all of us watching,” she said. Edward Gal received 10s across the board for his rider marks, as a reflection on the quality of the test and how the rider influences the horse.

The judges might have been in agreement over the medal winners but spectators had a different opinion on the fifth-placed pair. Juan Manuel Munoz Diaz of Spain on the PRE stallion Fuego XII put on a thrilling performance, and thunderous applause saluted them before the final halt. When their scores were posted there was audible disapproval. Asked later if there is a prejudice against Baroque horses, Seefried responded that the Spanish horses can sometimes be “over-expressive”. Watch the video at Fuego XII Freestyle and see what you think. There also is a wonderful story about  Juan Mauel Munoz Diaz and Fuego XII at

Laura Bechtolsheimer won the silver medal in dressage for Great Britain, a remarkable achievement for the 25-year old. “It’s exciting to be a part of the sport when it’s developing so much and so fast,” said Bechtolsheimer. “To be competing and constantly having your game pushed up by the guys around you who are also getting better and better makes it really exciting. It used to be a given that Isabel or Anky would win; it was just a matter of which one took the top place. Now we can really fight for it and feel like we have a chance. That’s made the sport more exciting and a lot more friendly.”

That friendliness was evident throughout the Games. There were handshakes, pecks on the cheeks and hugs all-round on the medal podiums. The winner of the endurance race, Maria Alvarez Ponton of Spain, said she wanted Sheikh Mohammed [bin Rashid Al Maktuom] to be the World Champion. “I think he deserves it,” said Ponton. “He’s the person doing more for this sport in the world.” Ponton won despite being sleep-deprived as the mother of a 7-week old daughter. Sheikh Mo, as he is affectionately called in Kentucky where he is a major racehorse owner, finished in 2nd place a mere 55 seconds behind Ponton. He had to skip the awards ceremony to attend to state business as Ruler of Dubai.

The Final Four in Jumping promised to keep no secrets from each other about their horses. Having already come through five rounds of jumping over four days with the least number of faults out of 121 entries, the top four riders now had to ride each of the others’ horses with only three minutes to get to know them and allowed only a practice jump over a vertical and an oxer. All this took place under the lights in full view of the sold-out stadium. This unusual format is only used at the World Championship.

Phillipe Le Jeune said he was looking forward to riding the other horses and thought it would be fun. “We are all fair play competitors,” said Rodrigo Pessoa, “We won’t try to hide anything.” Eric Lamaze, reigning Olympic champion, expressed it best, saying, “I think it is all for the welfare of the horses. These are all great professionals here.” And the fourth and youngest rider, 28-year old Abdullah Al Sharbatly, wished the best for all the riders and predicted a surprise.

Since his victory at the 1998 WEG in Rome, Pessoa quipped that what was different about him was, “A couple of kilos more, one divorce, one child, and some new owners. I still have the same desire to compete. To be in the final four again is a great opportunity.” His plan for Saturday night? - “Even if you ride perfectly you need a little luck.”

Pessoa may have used up all his luck in the saddling enclosure when he had to dance quickly to avoid being kicked by Al Sharbatly’s feisty mare, Seldana di Campalto. She did not like the idea of a strange saddle being placed on her back. Once Pessoa was abroad, however, the mare settled down to business and put in a fault-free performance for him. However, Pessoa had already incurred 4 faults abroad his own HH Rebozo in the first round over the course of ten jumps and he had two more rails on Le Jeune’s mount, Vigo d’Arsouilles, in the final round. This dropped him out of the medals.

Eric Lamaze lost the silver medal to Abdullah Al Sharbatly by the difference of one time fault but he did not seem disappointed to settle for bronze, judging by the huge smile on his face on the medal podium. A broken foot had abbreviated his preparations for the Games so perhaps any medal was better than he had imagined possible. Or maybe it was because his horse, Hickstead, had earned the Best Horse award by jumping 44 fences without a single knockdown.

            Phillipe Le Jeune and Eric Lamaze applaud Hickstead

Phillipe Le Jeune won the gold as the only rider with four clear rounds. As he dismounted from Hickstead, the horse he had said he was most looking forward to riding, he threw his arms around the stallion’s neck for a long hug. Then he went over and hugged his own horse, Vigo, and only after that did he start hugging people. At the airport the next day on his way back to Belgium, Le Jeune said he was looking forward to getting home to share his achievement with his family and only then would it seem real.

Nightmarish must have been the feeling for Isjbrand Chardon when he discovered his carriage had been vandalized. The Four-In-Hand Dutch driver pulled the cover off the carriage shortly before he was due to start the marathon phase to find the seats slashed, oil poured over the back of the carriage, and brake fluid on the ground underneath. These carriages are like mini-Mercedes in quality and cost (think $40,000), yet another driver immediately offered his to Chardon. All the team managers agreed to let Chardon move his start time to the end. With that extra 20 minutes he was able to determine that he could still use his own equipment, obviously his preference. Only when he had completed the five gates of the first obstacle in the fastest time of the day was he able to approach the entire course with confidence and concentration. He finished with the overall best time in the marathon.

At the press conference, Chardon thanked his colleagues and all the other teams for their support and said he had no hard feelings. “It must be a crazy person who did this,” said Chardon. “Tonight I’ll sleep well and enjoy the good time I had today on the marathon. Tomorrow my goal is to give Boyd [Exel, leading driver after dressage and marathon phases] a good fight in the cones.”

           Tucker Johnson driving his team through the Third Obstacle on the marathon course

Eventing was not without its’ share of drama. Simone Dieterman (GER) was in third place after dressage and she made it all the way to the last fence on cross-country before an uncharacteristic stop by her horse Free Easy NRW deposited Simone on top of the jump, in full view of the finish line. She suffered humiliation more than anything else but was automatically eliminated for the fall. Italian rider Marco Biasia was stopped on course at fence 23 so that his horse Gandalf the Grey could be checked and although they were cleared to continue, Marco misunderstood due to the language difference and thought he was eliminated. Becky Holder of the US was in third place following a brilliant cross-country effort but sadly had to withdraw Courageous Comet before show-jumping as a precaution due to some heat in a front leg.

         Becky Holder and Courageous Comet at fence 7c

On the good news front, three members of the gold-medal-winning British team remarkably finished on their dressage scores, as did 6 other competitors, and Canada’s team stood atop the medals podium for the first time since 1978, crediting coach David O’Connor for their surprise success.

Reining sold-out the 6,000 seats in the newly-built Alltech indoor arena. The US Reining team won gold, as they were expected to do, and suddenly cowboy hats sprouted everywhere. The Boot Shop in the trade fair did a bang-up business in western boots and glittery belts with huge buckles. German fans were visible everywhere in their Stetsons dyed in the national colors of red-yellow-black. Lyle Lovett and Team USA competitor Tim McQuay co-owned Italian Marco Ricotta’s horse Smart and Shiny, claiming the reason they let an Italian ride the horse was that the Italians throw the best parties. Certainly the Reining horses had the best bling and the best hair at the Games.

Vaulting also attracted sold-out audiences to the Alltech Arena, where they cheered for acrobatic feats of strength and derring-do. Gorgeous horses that would have fit right in with the elite athletes of Jumping and Dressage patiently and smoothly cantered in circles while young men and women showed their skills in the compulsory, technical and freestyle tests.

Para-Dressage featured athletes that had to overcome physical challenges to be able to ride. Riders competing with disabilities ranging from Grade 4 (a deformed hand; small loss of motor control) to Grade 1a (no legs; cerebral palsy, blind) are allowed modified equipment such as custom-fitted saddles or using two whips.

It was important to these athletes to be included in the Games for the first time. The riders showed they could cope with their horses reacting to throngs of spectators and with the busy stabling area. They performed complex patterns in an arena decorated with flowers, and joyously gave interviews and greeted well-wishers. They demonstrated to the world the unique grace and freedom that can come from partnering with a horse.

Anne Cecilie Ore, one of the Para-Dressage riders from Norway, has been blind since the age of 14. When WEG board member Becky Jordan learned that Ore was interested in trying reining before leaving America, she arranged for her daughter Lyndsey Jordan, a two-time world champion, to give Ore a riding lesson.

Within 15 minutes of sitting in a western saddle for the first time, Ore was cantering around the ring aboard Blazin, a 10-year-old quarter horse. With Jordan calling out cues, Ore was soon taking Blazin through spins and sliding stops.

When it was time to dismount, Ore was all smiles. “It was like a dream since I was 11,” she said. “The really fun stuff was the sliding and the spins. When the spins are slow you get really dizzy, but when you go faster you are not so dizzy. Not like I had imagined it”.

And probably not like most people would have imagined a blind person could ride. That sums up what could be said about the Games in general – exceeding expectations, demonstrating the courage and ability of the human-horse connection, going for the gold.



Laura Kraut – “I could pick out George [Morris, Chef d’Equipe of the US Jumping team] yelling ‘Gallop, Gallop’ from all the way across the arena”. Laura and her horse Cedric had the only fault-free round for the US on the final day of team competition, a day of ignominy for the US team ending in 10th of 10.

Jumpers had nothing but praise for Conrad Homfeld’s course designs. Kevin Staut of France, the #1 rider in the Rolex FEI world rankings, described the courses as being really fair. “The speed class had faults everywhere; the next course was a little bigger; and the final round of the team competition was much harder given the tension with the team standings being so close. Tonight we had a good fight,” said Kevin. The French earned the silver medal behind Germany in first place and Belgium in bronze.

Janne-Friederike Meyer, youngest and newest member of the gold-medal German Jumping team – “I have the feeling I should drink a lot of wine and beer now. If I wake up tomorrow and feel bad at least I’ll have a good excuse.”

Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum – “My daughter [7-month old Brianne] has been a good luck charm for me and the team.”

There were complaints of jacked-up hotel prices in the Lexington area. Grand Prix Jumper Margie Engles often has horses on pasture in Lexington and her groom stays at the Knights Inn for $40/night. With prices doubled during WEG the groom was relegated to the living quarters of Margie’s horse trailer.

Michael Jung of Germany, in first place after the cross country phase of Eventing, over a course that most riders described as daunting – “I would put the saddle on right now and ride it again, I enjoyed it so much.” He and his horse La Biosthetique-Sam FBW show-jumped clear to end on their dressage score and won by 9 points, an almost unheard-of margin of victory.

William Fox-Pitt of Great Britain was surprised to move up from 12th place after dressage to 3rd after cross-country in Eventing. His horse Cool Mountain won the Rolex Kentucky **** in April, 2010 but the Games represented a much tougher field of competitors. Speaking after cross country, Fox-Pitt said he was going to spend a quiet evening in the company of his owners and wife and parents. “Enjoying the moment is very important, since who knows what tomorrow will bring,” said Fox-Pitt. What it brought was the individual silver medal for Fox-Pitt and team gold for Great Britain, whose members Fox-Pitt, Mary King and Nicola Wilson finished with their dressage scores.

Phillipe Le Jeune won the individual gold-medal in Jumping for Belgium. His horse, 12-year old Vigo D’Arsouilles, was sired by Nabab de Reve, on whom Phillipe won the team bronze medal in 2002. As is often the case, after that victory owner and breeder Joris de Brabander was offered a lot of money for Nabab and sold him. He told Phillipe he would send Vigo to him and did so when the horse was 7. As the horse began to be successful Brabander got a big offer for the horse but told Phillippe, ‘I don’t care about the money, I want you to have the horse for the next Games’.

Laura Kraut has an 8-year old gelding by Vigo, Tortola, who is showing great promise. She stables her horses in Belgium, just down the road from Le Jeune, who often schools his horses with Nelson Pessoa, father of Rodrigo. Eric Lamaze’s horses also reside in Belgium when he is in Europe competing at the indoor shows. Abdullah Al-Sharbatly is moving his horses from Saudi Arabia to now be based in Belgium with his trainer in the lead up to the 2012 Olympics in London. Belgium looks like the place to be.

Rumor has it that Saudi Equestrian put up $20 million Euros to buy horses for WEG and the Olympics. Al Sharbatly had only ridden in two shows with Seldana di Campalto prior to WEG yet was the only rider to have five clear rounds coming into the Final Four. Khaled Al Eid’s horse, Presley Boy, was supposedly purchased by Saudi Equestrian for $6+ million Euros just three weeks prior to WEG.

Emmett Ross, discipline manager for Endurance, was asked if he would take the position again. He replied, “Coordinating 26 private farm owners, 256 gates? No way!”

Anky Van Grunsven, many times World and Olympic gold medalist in dressage, on riding for the first time as a member of the Dutch Reining team – “I’m really pleased – I scored my personal best this morning.”

Lyle Lovett, singer, Closing Ceremony performer, Reiner, and owner of Smart and Shiny, ridden by Marco Ricotta for the Italian Reining team – “Horses connect us to our own humanity. The better person you are in the round pen or on the ground training a young horse, the better the horse will progress.”

Lee Pearson, Para-Dressage individual and team gold medalist for Great Britain – “We’re heroes back home now. We’re respected as horsemen and women. We’ve brought medals home, and they see us as winners. We’ve changed our message. We’re not a sympathy sport any longer. We’re winners, and do you want to be a part of that? We have people calling us to ride their horses. It’s the respect we’ve earned. We have structure, competition, and finances – and a lot of lady luck.”

Peter Atkins wore a small video-cam strapped to his helmet as he and his partner Henry Jota Hampton tackled the arduous cross country course in Eventing. It is quite amazing to look between “Henny’s” ears as he gallops down the lanes and soars over one huge fence after the next. It is the closest thing to being horseback yourself. Watch “Run, Henny, Run” at


For complete results, visit To see more of Evalyn Bemis’s photos, go to

Monday, June 21, 2010

A Horse of Another Stripe

Can you have too many pictures of Zebras? Yes. Did that stop me from taking photographs every time we came upon a new group of zebras during a recent trip to Namibia? Of course not. How can you resist trying to get the one image that best captures the insanity of all those stripes in their infinite variety?

We saw zebras almost everywhere we went in Namibia. They are well-adapted to the grassvelds and dry climate that we found surprisingly similar to New Mexico. Picture New Mexico with striped horses and taller grass.

Namibia has roughly 6 people per square mile (second only to Mongolia in lack of population). Rainfall varies from an annual average of less than 50 mm in the Namib Desert to 600 mm in the northeastern Caprivi Strip. Namibia lies between Angola on the north, Botswana on the east, South Africa to the south, and the Atlantic Ocean on the west. Etosha National Park is a World Heritage Site and the newly-declared Namib-Skeleton Coast National Park will extend 1570 km down the entire coastline. The Namib-Skeleton Coast National Park will be the 8th largest park in the world, the biggest in Africa and the sixth largest terrestrial park globally. In other words, there is still room for lots of wild things in Namibia.

David and I were eager to return to the African continent after our first visit in 2007. We wanted to go to a country that we could explore on our own and where we could make impromptu decisions to go left or right, or in my case, to stop for another zebra. It was easy to get around in a Toyota Corolla, although in hindsight we should have rented the higher clearance 4x4. Three flat tires and some tricky driving to avoid scraping off the bottom of the car or getting buried in sand were the consequence. They have a saying in Namibia – rental cars can go anywhere.

Ours took us 2600 miles in three weeks around the northern half of the country. Our first stop was Okonjima to visit the Africat Foundation, which is dedicated to protecting cheetahs and leopards - We went out with a guide to find one of the radio-collared leopards. Even with the radio-collar (which the leopards wear for their protection) it was no sure thing that we could find the one we were looking for within 10,000 acres. We found Nkoshi at dusk, alerted to his presence by the scent of a recent kill. After watching him resting in the deepening shadows, we left him in peace. Africat has rescued more than 900 cheetahs and leopards since the early 90’s and over 85% have been released back into the wild. Nkoshi was born at Okonjima and is used to being around people who don’t point a gun at him, so he will always remain at Okonjima.

At Huab we walked along an ephemeral river which still had a small flow of water with fish, dragonflies and turtles. We loved coming upon small groups of mountain zebras (the ones with the Adam’s apple) in the thickets of acacias, leadwoods and camelthorn trees. The Oryx seemed almost tame as they grazed along the sandy edges of the river. The peace and quiet of the lodge, and the vivid stars at night were just the ticket.

Our visit to Hobatere got off to a great start when we rounded a corner on the drive in and saw a leopard standing in a spot of shade. We stayed in a treehouse our first night there. We ate our picnic dinner on the deck while zebra and oryx came to drink at the waterhole. In the middle of the night we heard the huff-huff of a lion and in the morning found her footprints in the sand beneath the treehouse. An owl flew from the branches as we climbed down the ladder.

Etosha National Park was the land of the Plains zebras (the ones with the shadow stripes). There were zebras on the salt pan, nervously approaching a waterhole near a large scattering of bones where predators had obviously had previous success. Zebras by the dozens walked down the middle of the gravel roads. There were lots of newborns and more on the way. There were zebras trekking single file to their favorite springs and there were zebras just hanging out, resting their heads on each other’s back. They say every zebra can be identified by its individual stripes, like fingerprints, but you either have to be a very dedicated scientist or a hungry foal to do so.

There are currently only three places where you can stay within the park, run by the government agency Namibia Wildlife Resorts. A fourth is under construction on the western side of the park and there are plans to extend the park all the way out to the coast. It is worth staying at these NWR places because you have to be in camp by sunset or have left the park by then. This translates into at least ½ hour more time in the park at the best animal-viewing hours of early morning and early evening.

One of the facets of the NWR camps that I thought I would not like were the flood-lit waterholes – it sounded too intrusive and unnatural. Yet one of our most memorable sights was walking up to the camp-side of the waterhole at Okaukuejo around 7:30pm to see 4 adult rhinos and 1 baby drinking deeply at water’s edge. It was truly breath-taking. We sat on benches behind a low stone wall with other guests from the camp, everyone totally quiet in the dark, all eyes searching the gloom beyond the edge of the waterhole to see who might be out there.

         Other notable sights were the mother Red-billed Teal marching down the side of the road near Fischer’s Pan followed by 10 ducklings; the Banded Mongooses splayed out in the road and atop rocks, soaking up the reflected heat before moving off in a big troop; the Black-faced Impala at a waterhole staring down some lions that were lying in wait under a tree; the wasps and moths using bits of leaves as rafts to float across the top of the water on a pool.

Perhaps the luckiest moment came just as we were leaving Etosha at the end of our fourth day there. Everyone we had talked to at the camps had mentioned the elephants they had seen but we had not yet come upon the largest and most iconic of Namibia’s animals. I said half-jokingly, “We’ll see one just before the exit gate”. And that is the way it happened, when I had given up on trying to see into the dense brush, and David said, “Heads up Scout, there’s your guy”. We watched an old bull elephant, with two broken tusks and caked with clay, step out from the trees and cross the road. Just as quickly as he had appeared he was gone.

We got to see one more elephant on our trip. This time we weren’t even looking for it. We were just following along behind four San hunters as they probed tree-holes for honey, dug up roots from which they squeezed a bitter liquid, and showed us how to make string from a sharply-pointed plant called mother-in-law’s tongue. The men were chatting happily in the odd clicks and pops of their native Juhoansi, which guide Kaece translated into English for us. All of a sudden everybody got very quiet and then quickly changed direction. We hurried after them, hoping the 12,000 pound bull had not seen or smelled us yet.

When an elephant is only 75 feet away and you are on foot, you notice in a hurry that the trees and shrubs of the bushland do not provide much protection. I decided it was smarter to go with the hunters than to try to get that incredible National Geographic photo that I so badly wanted. Poison arrows are fine for catching a warthog or steenbok but from the look on the guys’ faces they did not intend to mess with an elephant.

After he went his way and we went ours, we came to the waterhole where the elephant had just been drinking. One of the men pulled a plastic bottle from his shoulder bag and filled it with muddy water – ostrich eggs no longer serving as the water jug of choice – and we admired all the tracks that told the story of who had recently been there. We continued our walk with an appreciation for the skills and knowledge of the San, a way of life that is rapidly vanishing.

The men who took us into the bush were all in their thirties as best they could count. None of the young boys in their community were interested in learning the traditional skills of hunting and gathering food. Tourist visits provide income that in turn supplies food, clothing, tobacco and other goods. Nhoma Lodge owners Arno and Estelle Oosthuysen drilled a well for the community so the women wouldn't have to walk miles to find water. A tented school up the road provides basic education for the kids. Despite these improvements to their quality of life, the future is uncertain.

          What we appreciated most about our visit to Nhoma and the San was the opportunity to meet people one-on-one. We also met people by sharing our car. The funniest part was trying to explain there was only room for two in the backseat while four people with their sacks piled in. It all worked out since they were slender people and didn’t mind squishing. Plus Bob Marley on the CD helped and so did sharing a pack of gum.

David and I met other people that touched our hearts during the course of our three-week visit to Namibia. One was tiny Victoria who said she was 7 years old. She had a few baskets to sell and spoke impeccable English. Lariska was a young girl whose handmade sign compelled us to stop at her roadside stand near Spitzkoppe. We shared some food with her and bought a few crystals from the Erongo Mountains. I hope she gets the photograph that I am mailing to her.

We thoroughly enjoyed the guides and staff at all the places we stayed but none more so than Bruno Nebe. Bruno grew up in Namibia, the son of a professional hunter, and learned tracking skills from a Bushman. He started his working life as a hunting guide and then created Turnstone Tours to show people the unique desert environments around the Skeleton Coast and the Namib-Naukloft Park. Over the years he got involved in conservation and saw the threats to wildlife from over-hunting and poaching. Nine years ago Bruno and his wife Kate purchased a 13,000+ acre former cattle farm in north-central Namibia. They named it Mundulea and vowed that no wild animal within the perimeter of the farm would ever know a gun again.

We booked our stay at Mundulea for our second-to-last stop because we figured by then we would have seen a ton of animals and we would enjoy walking with Bruno just to see what we could see outside the confines of a vehicle. We learned about many different types of thorny acacia, all designed to snag and trip, and how to tell one dung pile from another. Whenever Bruno saw some poop he put it into his pocket until he had 6 samples and then laid them side-by-side under the shade of a marula tree – his outdoor classroom. He showed us how to ID the rhino’s dung by the bits of twigs nipped off at a 45 degree angle that it contained and how another one’s insects parts revealed it to be from a badger.

               By the end of 2 ½ days we felt like we had walked a lot of the 13ooo acres. We never saw Hooker, the last male Black Rhino of the subspecies Bicornis chobensis, nor any of his gal friends. We did see scuff marks where some eland bulls had tussled and we watched a warthog watching us back before he trotted away with his tail pointing skyward. We dodged a swarm of wild honey bees in the mini-Grand Canyon we climbed through and passed by a pile of bones from a Kudu that had probably fallen to his demise. We were informed and enchanted by Bruno’s knowledge of this special place.

One of his many stories illustrated his concern for the entire spectrum of life on the farm. One day he was by himself in a remote corner, looking for the endangered Black-faced Impala that he reintroduced at Mundulea. He was suddenly attacked from behind by a huge python, who sank her teeth into his calf and then coiled herself around and began to squeeze. The only thing that saved him from being crushed to death was the fact that every time she started to squeeze, she was squeezing her own head as well. She loosened her jaw in order to reposition her hold on Bruno and in that instant he was able to get his leg free and then extricate himself while the python continued to bite him.

Once he was out of her reach he stopped to admire her healthy condition and estimated the python to be about 40 years old and 18’ long. He had a pistol in his backpack but never thought of using it. Instead, he drove back to the farmhouse and soaked in a bathtub full of antiseptic liquid, then greeted guests that afternoon and took them out on a walk. One of the guests wondered why he was moving so stiffly.

When we were making our travel plans at home we thought it would be great to end our trip at the ocean. Namibia is the only country that has made its entire coastline into a national park and the towering dunes along much of that coast are world-famous. We booked an excursion with Turnstone Tours, Bruno’s company, and were delighted when Bruno himself met us at our hotel in Walvis Bay to take us to Sandwich Harbor.

To get to Sandwich Harbor you must have a substantial 4x4. You begin by letting some air out of the tires to have more grip in the sand. You travel along the sloped shoreline while trying to avoid being pulled into the ocean by the surge of the tide. You must know exactly where to cross some open stretches so you don’t disappear in quicksand. To climb over the dunes you need the gear-shifting skills of Mad Max. This is not a trip to try on your own in the rental car.

We reached the fresh water lagoons at Sandwich Harbor and had it all to ourselves. The lagoons are a sanctuary for pelicans and flamingos and there was plenty of birdlife to watch. Jackals trotted around the edges of the ponds sniffing for a meal. We hiked to the top of an enormous dune to enjoy the view over the lagoons and ocean. We could see a pod of dolphins playing in the surf. We went down to stick our toes in the ocean and a seal popped his head and neck out of a wave to see what we were doing.

By the time we headed home we felt we had just scratched the surface of all there is to learn about Namibia. We appreciated the easy, welcoming attitude of everyone we met, the beauty of the landscapes, and most importantly to us, the efforts being made to balance the well-being of wildlife with that of people. I recommend a visit to Namibia if you value these same things. And especially if you want to photograph striped horses.

Go to to view more images from our trip


Sunday, April 25, 2010

Chuilla Badlands

New Mexico has some great public lands. The area around Cuba, NM is especially interesting, filled with mesas, washes, hoo doos and whatcha-macallits. After several postponements due to weather and injuries, 15 intrepid walkers enjoyed a terrific Sierra Club-sponsered hike led by Norma McCallan and Michael Richie on April 18 2010.

We carpooled from Taos, Santa Fe and Albuquerque and turned west off Highway 550 at Cuba, travelling about 8 miles along State Road 197. After surmising that the initial hike location looked too soggy from the 1.5 inches of rain that fell two days prior, we went on another 5 miles or so and turned onto a dirt road used by an energy company to reach their gas wells. Federal BLM managers like to use the slogan Land of Many Uses and this is certainly true in this corner of the world. Chuilla is used for cattle-grazing, energy development, firewood-harvesting, target practice, and by aging eco-hikers who love discovering petrified trees, fossils, curious rock formations, and great vistas.

Michael Richie has been exploring this country for many years now. He has a website dedicated to promoting and protecting the badlands - visit for much information, maps and photos. One of his current passions is to see the badlands gain status as a Wildnerness Study Area (WSA) in a step to being permanently protected as Wilderness. Nearby Ojito is as an example of BLM land that has gained such status.

We hiked for about four hours and in that time saw a variety of geologic formations. We crossed a huge section of petrified tree about 40' in length, lying half exposed along a sandy ridge. There were large boulders perched on top of eroding sedimentary columns. There was a tube of rock that looked like an enormous extruded doric capital. And the best surprize awaited us on top of a mesa. After picking our way up the rocky slope, we hiked out to the end of the mesa to find some fantastically hued stones and a view for many miles.

The Ponderosa, Juniper, and Pinon trees in this area deal with the challenge of a harsh climate and conditions on top of the mesas by growing as best they can, wherever they can find a little toehold in the rocks. We saw several that would have made a Bonsai master proud. Sadly, many large and healthy trees on the valley floor had suffered a different sort of fate. We saw evidence of their removal by illegal woodcutters, with needle-covered branches scattered on the ground and freshly-chopped tree stumps all that remained.

The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance is involved with the effort to create a WSA for these special lands. Keep up with the news at

Petrified Tree - Look, Enjoy and Leave for the next visitor

Monday, April 5, 2010

Road Trip in southern New Mexico

March Madness - New Mexico Style

My mother and I decided to hit the road in New Mexico for a few days, looking for warmer weather than we had been enjoying (?) in Santa Fe. My mom Lisa Bemis is a watercolorist, so she was eager to find old cars, old houses, young or old sheep, sleeping dogs, horses on the hillsides and other bits of interesting scenery to paint.

I am a photographer and I love unpopulated places, horses of any sort, great light, and a few birds thrown into the mix.

We thought southern New Mexico would hold all of the above and we were right, except for the warmer weather part. It turned out to be a little early for sitting outside painting and migratory species were not in abundance but the beauty of a road trip is that if you don't like what you are seeing you can get in the car and go somewhere else. Or to quote one of my favorite Yogi Berrism, if you don't know where you're going you might not get there.

Our first day took us to the little bumps along State Road 52 that constitute Cuchillo, Winston and Chloride. I especially liked the sense of humor displayed in the former mining town of Chloride, as evidenced by this image:

We spent that night in Truth or Consequences. When our first pick of lodging proved to be full (on a Monday night! in TorC!) we discovered the Birch Street Retreat run by Roger and Ann Swanson. They were very welcoming and we knew we were in good hands once we met their two dogs. They gave us a recommendation for dining, supplied a pass for a hot springs pool, and even whipped up blueberry smoothies for breakfast. To make a reservation, visit

We had a great pizza and shared a bottle of Stella Artois at BellaLuca Cafe, set in a converted warehouse. You can tell the food is going to be good by the number of cars in the parking lot. Following dinner, I headed down to the Riverbend Hot Springs. I had my own private pool alongside the bank of the Rio Grande. It was utterly serene and quiet, with the 108-degree water flowing over the edge of the pool down into the river below. I floated around looking up at the moon and stars. All this for $12/hr.

I was up at first light, wondering what birds I might see near the rio. There were Turkey Vultures in the cottonwoods, waiting for sunlight to warm their backs. A big flock of Cedar Waxwings flew in and out of a globe willow. Ring-necked Ducks, Mallard pairs and Coots paddled at water's edge. Western Bluebirds abounded, already bright in breeding plumage.


                  We lit out for Silver City, turning off I-25 onto Highway 152. Our first point-of-interest was Hillsboro, another in a series of old mining towns. We met Jim and Molly (man's best friend) and wandered around the side streets. We got a cup of coffee from the grumpy waitress at the one small cafe. My brother David would love the array of old vehicles falling to pieces in people's backyards.

The bird life was pretty quiet on a March day that threatened rain. The best thing I saw was a Curved Bill Thrasher making a nest in a cholla cactus.

We were excited to come upon a small flock of Southwestern Turkeys as we continued towards Silver City. There were six of them, climbing the slope into a stand of Ponderosas. We also found lots of ducks at Bear Lake near Mimbres, including Buffleheads, Common Mergansers, Cinnamon and Green-winged Teal. At least one Roadrunner crossed our path, faster than a speeding bullet. A mule deer stood and watched us before turning tail and bounding away.

Highway 152 becomes the National Scenic Byway 180. Not so scenic but fascinating nonetheless is the Santa Rita mine, the source of much of Silver City's wealth in past years and still being operated today.

We opted for the Palace Hotel in downtown Silver City for our rest stop the second night. It is quaint, with creaky floors and old bathroom fixtures, but clean, quiet, and with free Wifi. The price was right at $65 for two. Silver City has a thriving arts community, with lots of galleries, restaurants (Shevek's for dinner ****) and a museum. Be sure to stock up on knitting supplies at Yada Yada Yarns or buy a hat made with alpaca wool by former Santa Fean Suzi Calhoun.

We had not found quite what we were looking for in Silver City so we rambled on in the morning, heading for the Gila River and its well-known birding country. I saw a Vermillion Flycatcher in almost the identical spot as I had last seen one 15 years ago there. Mom found something suitable to paint so we were both happy.

There was still snow on the peaks of the Mogollon Mountains. This made a nice backdrop to the hint of color beginning to come into the trees and pastures and there was high water in the rivers and creeks.

In tiny Glenwood we found lodging at Polly Tipton's Double T Homestead. We loved seeing the horses and mini burros in Polly's corral but had a hard time with the dead mouse smell coming from somewhere in our cabin. Oh well, part of the "charm" of being out in the country, right.?

               The dodgey smell was made up for by the presence of an Acorn Woodpecker just outside the cabin door and the fact that we were a short walk from both the Blue Front Bar + Cafe and the Glenwood Trout Hatchery. The first provided sustenance in the form of green chile enchiladas and the second provided birds, including a Cardinal, a Kingfisher, Widgeons, Grebes and more.

We struck out in the morning for the ghost town of Mogollon. It is about a nine mile climb up into the mountains to get to the former mining town. A few brave souls still live there on a full-time basis in fixed up cabins and homes. Somebody was even living in an old school bus that had been retrofitted with solar panels. Tufted-earred squirrels zipped up and down the pine trees and Stellar Jays sqawked loudly at a feeder.
Two miles after leaving Mogollon to head back to Highway 180, we turned through a gate and drove down a bumpy road to the home of Super Salve. All sorts of wonderful natural salves, creams and lotions are made by Denise Cowan, a trained Clinical Herbologist. We slathered on several samples and left with a great goody bag of magical potions. Check out their website:
View from 159 coming down from Mogollon
We turned north on 180, driving through the Blue Range Wilderness where the Mexican Gray Wolf is struggling to be re-gain a foothold in its original habitat. We would have given anything to see wolves or hear them howl but all we saw which made us howling mad were a bunch of anti-wolf billboards. Catron County is not wolf-friendly, to say the least, and we didn't linger long there. But we were thrilled to come upon a more sympathetic feeling once we reached Magdalena, in the form of a hand-painted sign on someone's backyard fence.
We spent the night in Socorro, choosing the plain but predictable Motel 6 - no burros but no dead mice either. The Socooro Springs Brewery was a great place for dinner ( and we topped off two tasty salads with locally-brewed Pale Ale.
We found the usual suspects in the way of birds but also saw Ring-billed Gulls in the newly-irrigated fields, Say's Phoebes returned from their winter haunts, and Bank Swallows flitting along the Rio Grande.
The next day we made the last excursion of our trip, detouring west from I-25 to Highway 6 to I-40 and then about 20 miles to the exit for Acoma. I had never been to Acoma but unfortunately the wind came up and made our tour of the ancient mesa-top pueblo a gritty one.

We found useful information at for our trip and also picked up a publication called Forever Frontier put out by the Glenwood Gazette. It has maps galore. The website has a calendar of events worth checking out - sadly we missed the Dutch Oven Bake-off by not planning ahead!

To view a slideshow with more images, visit my website and click on Silver City and Beyond.

To check out Lisa Bemis's watercolors, go to and click on her name.