Posted in update

Where to visit in the Philippines?

Way back in 2008, not long after I first arrived in Asia, I took a trip to the Philippines. At that time I was working for a crooked hagwon in Daegu, South Korea, and I was physically and mentally exhausted. I needed a break and so when a group of very new friends I met in a bar suggested all travelling to the Philippines together, I jumped at the opportunity.

Soon we were in Moalboal, a beautiful little village which is popular for scuba diving. I was too exhausted from work to bother with the diving, and so instead I sat on my balcony and watched the fish and sharks in the water below, sometimes tearing myself away from a bottle of rum long enough to join them.

Here are some photos from that trip. (Keep in mind I was a terrible photographer back then and using a terrible little point-and-shoot camera).

This year, I have some time off in the summer and I would like to get back to the Philippines. One of the reasons is that it costs less than $200 for me to fly almost anywhere there from China.

As I’ve not seen much more than Cebu (and even then I mostly sat on my balcony with a bottle of rum for a week), I would like to explore further.

My ideas thus far are:

My main concern is time. I will be travelling with my girlfriend and she only has 10 days off work. We can get to almost any of these places pretty quickly, but travelling around would be very limited. Instead, we need to find a place that would be good for a little over a week’s stay, and which would require very minimal travelling from the nearest airport.

Please type your suggestions below. Any advice is very much appreciated.

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Posted in Photography, travel

Komodo National Park

After a long, pleasant boat ride across a large chunk of the Indonesian archipelago, our little gulet boat arrived at the island of Komodo, tucked between Sumbawa and Flores. Komodo National Park is comprised of Komodo, Rinca, Padar, and perhaps 26 smaller islands, and is home to a tremendous diversity of wildlife both on land and below the water. It was established in 1980 to protect the Komodo dragon – the world’s largest lizard – but has since expanded to offer protection over the magnificent surrounding seas and their bountiful life.

It was early in the morning, after a night bobbing on the tranquil seas nearby, when our vessel made its move for the port at Komodo Island. While the other passengers were asleep, I stood on the bow, as usual, and watched dolphins jump from the still waters as we moved closer to what seemed a deserted island except for a tiny, mist-enveloped cluster of buildings. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but at this point in the journey it almost didn’t matter. The dragons had been the main lure of the trip. They were something I’d always wanted to see, and really for me the whole point of getting on the boat in the first place. Yet, after four days at sea, I was so happy with the experiences I’d had, the people I’d met, and the photos I’d taken, that I almost didn’t mind if we saw a Komodo dragon… The manta rays alone had made the journey worthwhile.

When we got to the dock, I jumped off and waited anxiously for the others to get ready. I paced back and forward, talking to the fishermen and watching the sea snakes dart among their boats, not allowed yet to enter the park. At the end of the long pier there was a large gate, and I felt like I was standing outside Jurassic Park… In a way, I was. It’s certainly as close to Jurassic Park as you’ll find anywhere on earth. But perhaps that’s my personal bias. I always loved that movie. A better comparison is King Kong, which was actually inspired by the first Western voyage to Komodo.

After what seemed like an eternity standing on the pier, looking at the vast island, we were on our way and soon being introduced to three guides who would take us to look for these incredible animals and, of course, protect us from them. We were warned not to expect to see many of the great lizards because, although they are a very well-protected species, they are naturally quite sparsely populated due to their cannibalistic tendencies. These bizarre, atavistic monsters – essentially just living dinosaurs – are not only vicious killers of any other animal stupid enough to get in their way, but they’ll actually feast on each other quite regularly, ensuring a very steady population. (It’s been at around 3,000 for a while now.) They also have a taste for human flesh, but thankfully they mostly save their appetite for Swiss tourists.

Despite the warnings of their rarity, we saw six dragons on Komodo during a short walk, and later, on Rinca, another eight. Of course, the first sighting was the most exciting. I stuck by the guide and managed to get within ten feet of the animal, snapping numerous photos of his phenomenal, ancient-seeming head and claws. Despite the guide’s warning that they could explode into action with a terrible speed and ferocity, it mostly just sat in view of the tourist group, seeming perhaps a little irritated but mostly uninterested by our presence. When he eventually got up and moved on his way, the lumbering giant did move faster than one would imagine, and the guides were quick to insert themselves between the animal and their tour group.

As we continued on, we saw more dragons. Mostly they were male, but there were a few females. You can tell only by the width and length of the neck – females have longer, more slender necks. Or, as the guide said, “They have very sexy bodies.” Sexy or not, they certainly were a sight to behold. Near the shore on Komodo and near the staff huts on Rinca, the Komodos clustered in small groups of giant males. They lay about, completely disinterested in the people because of the heat. Surprisingly, the also seemed not to acknowledge each other. The guides explained that Komodos are completely solitary. That’s probably not a bad idea when you’re a cannibal species. The young spend the first five years in the trees, venturing down only to grab a quick drink, or else they’d be dinner for the elders.

Although I’m not a fan of group travel, and the National Park portion of the trip was a little too organized for my tastes, it was incredible to see these wonderful creatures as they lumbered about with the dinosaur gait they’ve had since before humans even learned to stand up straight. I find it an incredible privilege to get up close to any large animal in this overcrowded modern world. Although the Komodo treks did not take me back in time to a world of distant memory as I’d hoped, they nonetheless capped off an incredible trip through a stunningly beautiful part of the world. By the time our boat was pulling into port at Labuan Bajo, I felt a great affinity for Indonesia. Moreover, I was very impressed with how the government of this great nation had kept the Exxons and BPs of the world at bay and managed to preserve a large chunk of the country, maintaining its fabulous eco-diversity in a world that has little tolerance for natural beauty.

Posted in travel

How to Travel Southern Africa on a Budget

If you’ve ever looked into travelling around Southern Africa, you’ve probably found it’s a bit expensive. Everyone wants to go on safari, but who can afford to pay $1,000 per day? There are, however, ways to see this part of the world on a budget, and without sacrificing too much in the way of comfort, adventure, or experience.

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Pick your locations carefully

Botswana is a notoriously expensive place. It’s hard to complain about it, because they do a great job of using tourist money to protect their wildlife. However, it’s one of the hardest countries to see on a shoestring. Zimbabwe is also pretty pricey, especially around the Victoria Falls area, which gets a lot of tourists.

Right now almost all of South Africa is cheap to visit because the economy is doing so poorly. Changing foreign currency will buy you huge amounts of rand. It’s cheap to sleep, to eat, or to rent a car. Even Kruger National Park – one of the greatest tourist destinations on earth – is cheap to visit.

If you’re planning a long visit, you might want to spend more time in South Africa and Swaziland, and less time in Botswana and Zimbabwe.

Hostel all the way

Even in the more expensive parts of Southern Africa, hostels are affordable. Moreover, Africa has some of the greatest hostels in the world. Whereas in other places they’re often rundown and dingy, throughout most of Southern Africa you’ll find absolutely brilliant hostels. In South Africa in particular they rank really highly – with many of them featuring swimming pools!

Remember to check online before to see prices and ratings. Despite all the great hostels, there are obviously a number of ones to avoid. In places like Cape Town you’re really spoiled for choice. Because of the competition, every hostel goes out of its way to impress its guests. Out in the sticks, however, you might need to look a little harder, and prices might be higher.

Go off-season

The same rules apply as elsewhere in the world – peak season in the most expensive time to visit. In Southern Africa, summer (that’s winter in the northern hemisphere, so think January-February) is considered a bit of an off-season. At this time, hostels are quiet and the national parks are empty of visitors. If you’re looking for vibrant nightlife, this really isn’t the time to go, but if you’re looking for peace, quiet, and budget travel, it’s perfect.

At this time of year, most backpackers are heading to Southeast Asia, which is going through its peak season in Jan-Feb. Southern Africa, on the other hand, is largely ignored at this time. I got great deals on safaris, accommodation, and transport because there was simply no one else around. What’s more, even flights to and around the area are cheaper than at other times.

Use public transport

In South Africa, renting a car is very cheap, but elsewhere it’s neither cheap nor particularly safe. There are long-distance luxury buses that will cart you around the area, or grossly overpriced trains, but these don’t go everywhere and they miss out on the important experiences.

Through Southern Africa the mode of transport most people use is the combi bus – that’s a small minivan that is crammed full of people. You can go anywhere if you ask in advance, and it’s dirt cheap. I travelled all over the place in these vans and met the friendliest people on the way. I seldom paid more than a dollar or two for long rides, and even though sometimes it was crammed and slow, I always enjoyed the journey.

Personally, I hitch-hiked a lot around South Africa and Botswana, although I’m reluctant to recommend it to others. I never felt in danger but of course it is always a risk. In certain places, however, hitch-hiking is quite common and a great way to get where buses won’t go.

Eat local

For my first money in Southern Africa I never spent more than $3 per day on food because wherever I went there was a small kitchen to prepare. I’d just find the local supermarket and buy the basics. If I came upon a restaurant I’d eat the local food, whatever that was. It was always cheap and it’s great to try new things.

When I first arrived in Zimbabwe I ended up in a steakhouse in Bulawayo. It was a western restaurant – the first I’d eaten at in a month – and they had the most amazing steaks I’ve ever eaten in my life. My bill, though, was $25. Now in the West that’s not a bad total, but when you’re used to paying $3 per day for all your food combined, $25 for a steak and a beer suddenly seems a bit steep. Still, one has to spoil oneself sometimes.

 

Finally, be flexible, open-minded, and always travelling intelligently. Make sure that you’re insured, do your research ahead of time, don’t be afraid to try new things. This is one of the greatest places on earth and right now you can see it on a shoestring if you really want.

Posted in travel

Climbing Table Mountain

After an amazing five weeks touring Southern Africa I found myself in Cape Town with one day left before my flight back to China. What would I do? There were so many things from which to choose – touring the wine lands, paragliding, surfing… or climbing Table Mountain.

I love to hike, and throughout my African adventure I averaged 12.5km per day. That’s an average of 12.5km per day for about 40 days. I had bought a new pair of hiking boots before arriving and worn them nearly into the ground over some 500km of walking across some of the most amazing landscapes on earth. In Swaziland in one single day I hiked 53km. I genuinely believe it’s the best way to see a new place, in spite of any potential dangers.

So really it was a no-brainer when Table Mountain stacked up against the other options. I’d already seen the sharks and the penguins. Besides, it was visible from my hostel, from the road from the airport, from the train to Simon’s Town… everywhere I went I could see this behemoth looming large and inviting me, nay, daring me to climb it. I couldn’t resist the challenge.

I set off from my hostel on Kloof Street and headed towards the mountain with only the GPS program on my iPhone and the intention of getting to the top. I’d tried to Google hiking trails and failed due to a lack of wifi. Oh well. Exploring is more fun.

At the bottom of the mountain, in the pass between Table Mountain and the Lion’s Head, I took a small path leading along the bottom of the mountain, on the east side. I didn’t want to trudge along busy paths or take the cableway. I sauntered along quietly for almost an hour, seeing not a single person, just enjoying the views out over the Atlantic as I slowly wound up the side of the mountain, following a gentle incline.

Things turned from pleasant to difficult when the path came to an abrupt end. I looked about and couldn’t see where it led, and then I realized that I was meant to climb. There was a small sheer cliff face of maybe two and a half meters. I couldn’t see that the path continued above, but there appeared to be a gap in the vegetation, so I assume that it did. I tossed my bag up and climbed to the next level.

I’m not great with heights. I love climbing, ironically, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve found it harder to cope with heights and so I don’t really climb any more. I find that my balance is now poor and I fear falling. Thus, climbing that small cliff posed a real challenge, and when I got to the top and continued on the path, I was elated. I’d conquered that small obstacle.

As I continued along, it dawned on me that I really needed the path to continue in its present state, with no more cliffs. If I came to one that I couldn’t climb, I’d be in trouble. At the top of the previous one I realized I wouldn’t be able to get back down without real difficulty, and maybe a broken ankle.

Unfortunately, I soon came to another small but tricky climb. Hoping it was the last one, I climbed it and persevered. Then there was another. And another. With each climb I realized the chances of me going back were slimmer and slimmer. I didn’t want to risk climbing down because it seemed so much more difficult and dangerous than climbing up, and also it would take so long that I’d likely never reach the summit.

Pretty soon my hike ceased to be a hike interspersed with little rocky faces to climb, and became a serious climb up a seriously difficult rocky escarpment. Every fifteen meters or so my knees buckled from vertigo and my head spun. I was, for the first time on the whole trip, terrified. I became certain I would die on that cliff face.

And that’s when it started to rain.

I continued on slowly, on the slick wet rock. I kept taking my backpack off and throwing it up to the next level, then climbing up myself, leaning in as closely as possible, aware that any slip by my hands or feet, or any loose rock, would result in me falling not just a few feet and breaking an ankle. Now the stakes were higher – I’d surely go a few hundred meters to my death.

Finally I could see the top. The path, however, branched in two. One way was steep and the other gentle. I chose the gentle path. I followed it as best I could, but it wound its way around the side of the mountain, on thin, worn paths above giant drops, to yet another stupidly difficult climb. Time and again I stopped to get my head together. I was so dizzy that even standing still I felt I’d likely topple over the edge, and each climb became harder and harder.

It was only when I saw the lip at the top of the mountain and knew finally that I’d made it that I got my act together and climbed harder and faster. When I finally reached the summit I was exhausted, having done hundreds of meters on my hands and feet.

I staggered around the top of Table Mountain and then headed down Skeleton Gorge to the Kirstenbosch Gardens. I tried to walk home but by that point I’d walked 20km on a completely empty stomach, had long since run out of water, and ended up finding a taxi back to town.

Posted in travel

Breakfast with Werner Herzog on a Volcano in North Korea

Last year I visited North Korea to run a half marathon on Mount Paekdu, in the remote north of the country. Most people correctly think of North Korea itself as a “remote” destination, so just imagine how far into the middle of nowhere you are in the north of the country, miles from Pyongyang.

To get to Mount Paekdu required a flight from Pyongyang’s wonderful new airport to the less impressive Samjiyon airport, which was an airstrip with a shed beside it. The tiny, ancient airplane made a very bumpy landing, barely skipping over the tree tops of the endless forest around us.

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Then came a long, bumpy drive through the mountains to Paekdusan. The roads in North Korea, it probably won’t surprise you, are far from smooth. They are in awful disrepair, and driving along we could feel every pothole.

At Mount Paedku we were unfortunately not able to see the spectacular views due to being in the clouds. It was freezing, too. I hadn’t anticipated the cold and wore only shorts and t-shirt, as in Pyongyang it was very hot and humid. The altitude was causing problems, and people – myself included – struggled to breathe.

After a heavy lunch (not well-prepared considering we were about to run 21km), we drove down to 2,000 meters and began the half marathon. I was caught off guard and didn’t realize the race was about to start, and sprinted the first 500 meters to get near the front. After 1km I was in 6th place, and stayed there for the next 20km. I finished well behind the 5th place runner and well ahead of the 7th.

What amazed me about this race – my first ever half marathon – was that I was totally alone in North Korea. There were no guides, no observers, no police. Just the runners, and even they were too far ahead or behind me. I was free to enjoy the clean air, the beautiful countryside, and the amazingly friendly locals waving from fields. I passed a troop of soldiers who all said “hello” and groups of farmers who cheers and shouted friendly greetings. I even danced with some old ladies. I was glad to be doing the marathon, but I would have loved to stop and spend longer with these people. It is so incredibly rare to spend time with normal North Korean people.

After the race we were taken to Kim Jong-il’s supposed birthplace, Paekdusan Secret Camp, which was beautiful, but no one was in the mood for tourist stuff. We were all nursing blisters and aching muscles. Here, we met kids on school trips, and other random people from around North Korea who’d made the pilgrimage – a real privilege in their eyes – to such an important historic location.

Then we went to the Pegaebang Hotel. We’d been warned in advance to bring flashlights and expect little in the way of water or electricity, and indeed, when we arrived, there was neither. The electricity would come on periodically throughout the evening, but mostly we were in darkness.

Dinner was less than impressive, but who can complain about quality of food in a country where people routinely starve to death? The locals I’d seen from the road and from the bus were painfully thin. We drank North Korean beer (excellent) and soju (not so excellent). The night ended very drunkenly with one of our tour guides. When drunk, they spoke candidly – one moreso than the other – and I won’t repeat facts that I learned here in case they could be traced back and the guides punished.

In the morning, breakfast was as unappetizing as the previous night’s dinner. In fact, it was a potato. As I sat looking over my sad, lonely potato, prodding it and wondering if it was even possible to eat such a depressing-looking thing, I noticed another man at the opposite side of the room. His face was familiar, but that didn’t strike me as unusual. In North Korea, there are few tourists and few tour companies, and we are all taken to several of the most important locations, so you start recognizing people, even if you never speak to them.

Still, though, he looked more than familiar… He, too, was sitting alone, staring at a boiled potato, rolling it around his plate. He seemed melancholy.

I left my potato on the plate and checked out, had a walk around the hotel, and then our tour bus took us to Rimyongsu Waterfalls. They were spectacularly beautiful. Not spectacular like the Victoria Falls, but in subtle, gentle, way. Again, we met more North Korean people travelling around their country on special permission from the government. They were so happy and playful, and seemed amazed that there were foreigners here. When my friend and I took a photo together, a large group ran over to get in the photo with us. Just as in rural China, everyone wanted a photo with the foreigners. One man, sadly, broke my toe as he jumped enthusiastically into the shot.

Passing the through the countryside, we saw the real beauty of this country, but also the deprivation. People looked very emaciated. The homes and businesses were simple, yet looked comfortable. All the trees had calculus written on them so that children could study as they walked to school (or, perhaps, went to work in the fields).

We saw a few more tourist spots and met lots more North Korean tour groups, then flew back to Pyongyang to watch a football game. On the way to the “airport” at Samjiyon, our English tour group leader, who was usually off with other groups, said, “This is been a great day. I got to meet one of my heroes.” We asked who, and he said, “Didn’t you see him in the restaurant this morning? It was Werner Herzog.”

Werner Herzog! Of course! I was furious with myself. I’ve always loved his movies and actually spent two years trying to get an interview with him for Beatdom. I couldn’t believe I’d sat and watched the man muse over his breakfast potato, knowing his face was familiar, and not realized.

The guide showed me an hilarious selfie he’d taken with Herzog. “He was so nice! He told me he’s here shooting a film about the volcano nearby.”

I’d had a great trip to Mount Paekdu and the surrounding regions, but I was heartbroken to realize that I hadn’t gotten a chance to speak with one of my heroes. If I’d been anywhere else in the world I would’ve canceled the flight back and stayed another few days to hopefully run into the man and speak with him about his movies (apparently he’d been incredibly friendly and spoke at length about his movies). Alas, this was North Korea, and you did what you were told.

Posted in travel

Shark Cage Diving in Cape Town

If you’ve been following this blog then you’ll have read about my adventures in Mozambique, Swaziland, South Africa (at Kruger, and around St. Lucia), Zimbabwe, and Botswana. It was, to say the least, a hell of a trip. Starting in Mozambique, I mostly hitch-hiked or travelled by combi through thousands of miles of the greatest scenery on earth, seeing the most incredible wildlife up close. I couldn’t have been happier with the journey.

Yet, one thing was missing… The reason I’d gone to Southern Africa was to see a Great White Shark. I love sharks, and I’ve always wanted to see a Great White up close. I decided to go to Cape Town to go cage diving and the rest of the holiday unfolded as I did research into killing time between shark dives… I had no idea it would turn out to be such a brilliant part of the world.

Unfortunately, upon arriving in Africa, I found that the sharks had disappeared, and it had been a long time since anyone had spotted one. Someone said that a pod of orca had come into the area and chased them away. I never did find out the real reason. I even went to Durban, where they always have sharks, but visibility was zero because of the weather. It seemed I was doomed not to see any sharks.

But I’d come all the way to Africa for this one purpose, and even if it was going to be a waste of time and money, I’d give it a shot. So I booked a trip with SharkDiving.co. I was repeatedly warned that they never see sharks any more, and I got the impression that they’d put up with a huge number of pissed off tourists. But I was willing to take the risk.

The trip started very early because, apparently, the boats launch not from Cape Town, but from Gaansbai, which is several hours away from downtown Cape Town by bus. It was a long journey, and everyone seemed a bit down at the prospect of not seeing any sharks.

We arrived in lovely Gaansbai – a town that seems to exist due to the shark diving companies that operate from there. At least when we arrived the only people in the streets were either waiting to go dive, or working for the dive companies.

In the office, we signed release forms and were told over and over about the no refund policy for when we inevitably would go home disappointed. The guide was friendly enough, but had obviously gotten fed up with the lack of sharks lately. He joked: “Gaansbai is the only place in South Africa where the Whites still have power.” There were some awkward laughs.

Soon we were waiting on the dock for our boat. People came and went, and the boat before us brought good news: a shark had been spotted! Or maybe it wasn’t good news… Did they see our shark? Were they the one boat that day which would get to see a shark? By now I was nervous. It had been a long journey just to see a shark, and I wouldn’t get another chance.

The boat ride out was choppy. I used to get seasick and I could feel it coming on a little, but thankfully it never set in. About half of the people on the boat, though, soon became violently sick and were vomiting over the side into the sea.We had been warned to bring medication but I hadn’t brought anything. I just stared out towards the horizon, hoping to see something.

When the boat anchored at the dive site the choppiness worsened. The boat was positioned to block the waves from hitting the diving cage, and it rocked tremendously. We were told to suit up, which was difficult while rocking back and forth so violently. The crew chummed the water and tossed a large tuna head on a rope out as bait.

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When they asked who wanted to get in the cage first, I didn’t say anything. I assumed that it would be a few long hours of waiting, and that whoever got in first would see nothing, then stand around cold. There was a rotation system – four or five people in the cage at any given time. I went to the top deck to look down…

And there it was. A Great White Shark. The call came just seconds earlier. One of the crew spotted him and he exploded out of the water, crashed into the cage, and swam off back into the deep. I saw him clearly but couldn’t get a photo. My camera was too slow and wouldn’t even take an unfocused shot. A few minutes later he came back again, and again I got no photos, except one of his tail as he returned to the deep. What should have been a happy moment was one of frustration.

I was annoyed that a) I wasn’t in the water to see the shark, and b) I had no good photos of the shark. Given that it was incredibly unlikely to see one, I should’ve just been happy to see the damn thing, but I felt robbed, because I couldn’t imagine the shark would come back again.

I went to the lower deck to stand by the cage. I wanted to get in the water, but I was too late, and the next group got in. From here, though, I did manage to shoot some photos of the shark with my iPhone, which was far faster to focus than my camera.

Eventually it was my turn and I was certain I wouldn’t see the shark from the water. Maybe it was because my luck in spotting wildlife over the trip had been too great. Anyway, by now I was happy because I’d seen the shark several times and gotten some reasonable photos on my phone.The captain had already warned us that from under the water it’s pretty difficult to see anything.

I jumped into the cage and was immediately left winded by the cold. It was the coldest I’d ever been. Even the waters off Scotland aren’t that bad. The wetsuit helped a bit, but it was nonetheless an incredible and painful sensation. I tried dunking my head under the water to see, but it would take only a seconds to get a splitting headache from the cold.

By now, the people who’d been in the water didn’t want to get back in, so the cage wasn’t so crowded. I tried to look around above and under the water, but occasionally got a lungful of seawater when a wave hit me, and I was in a great deal of discomfort from the biting cold – particularly in my hands.

Then the shark came back. And again. And again. And again.

I could see it far better from the boat – under water it was mostly a grey blur – but that’s not the point. The raw power was what struck me. While I was in the cage the shark managed to move so fast that it ripped the bait from the line, as the crew hadn’t seen it in time. It was just a massive explosion of pure prehistoric violence – a predator so perfect it has remained unchanged since before humans came into existence. To be in the water with it, even protected by a solid steel cage, was a privilege.

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As we sailed back to the harbor, I tried to reflect upon my luck, but the cold was too much. I had stayed in the water for about an hour and it had been too long. But when I finally got back and warmed up in the sun, I was able to appreciate our fortune. It had been a long day and we’d been warned that we wouldn’t see anything. Indeed, no one on the other boats had seen a shark while we were out.

Fortunately, since then the sharks have returned. Our shark – a young male – was one of the first to reenter the area. Hopefully they continue to thrive off the coast of South Africa and elsewhere. Truly the are among the most amazing creatures on this planet.

Of course, they’re probably not such majestic creatures from the perspective of these guys, who thoroughly enjoyed the Great Whites’ absence.

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