From Erica Elliott’s Blog

Africa—Okavango Delta

Our Africa adventure began with a late start due to vagaries of the weather over Atlanta where we had to spend the night and get on another plane for Johannesburg the following day. We made good use of our unwelcome delay and visited the impressive Martin Luther King Jr. National Park and listened to his inspiring speeches and sermons as we wandered around the grounds.


MLK’s family home growing up in Atlanta



Ebenezer Baptist Church where MLK and his father preached.


It’s June 12th. By luck and perseverance all seven of use were able to get a seat on board Delta Airlines’ once daily 16 hour flight to Johannesburg. Ellen had found us lovely lodging 20 minutes from the airport. We stayed in thatched roof cabins surrounded by lush vegetation.  For dinner I ate ostrich meat and vegetables, both surprisingly delicious.

It’s June 14th. At last we’re on the final leg to our destination—Maun, Botswana, where our safari begins. I turned 70 today. Hard to believe. I never imagined I’d make it this far, given my history.

Did you know that there are 57 countries in Africa?


We joined the rest of our small group in time for a celebratory dinner. I ate kudu for the first time, a large antelope, along with many delicious vegetables. We went around the table introducing ourselves—all thirteen participants, plus Deborah Stephens, our trip leader.


I managed to give away the huge slice of birthday cake in my right hand that Deborah thoughtfully arranged for.


Lodging in Maun. Joanie and Gordie helped me to hunt for a room at the lodge that didn’t have air permeated with pesticides and air freshener. I felt fortunate I was able to get a good night of sleep.


My dear friends, Joan Borysenko and Gordie Dveirin.


Our lovely trip leader, Deborah Stephens, Co-Owner of Timeless Baja who resides in Baja, Mexico, leads trips to Africa, as well as to remote places in Mexico for viewing whales, cave paintings, and exotic plants and animals.


We will be spending much of our days inside one of the two safari vehicles.

June 15th, our much anticipated departure day into the bush in the northern part of Botswana called The Okavango Delta where there is a heavy concentration of wildlife, including over 450 species of birds. The Okavango is the largest inland delta in the world. We will be camped on the eastern border of the Moremi Game Reserve.

Let me introduce you to Peace Shakuma on the left, hailing from Botswana, and David C. from Zimbabwe on the right. Both men are extremely accomplished trackers and guides, having gone through four years of intensive training when they were young men. Their knowledge is vast and mind-blowing. They know how to think like the animal they are tracking.

Our first three nights we will stay on the Khwai River, part of the immense Okavango Delta, a pristine wilderness that offers an abundance of food and water for wildlife—even in the dry season. We will get to see the animals in their own natural environment.



This scene of the River Khwai is what we see right outside our tents for the next three days. We are in the dry season of winter. As water sources dry up, animals congregate around the remaining water holes, making the animals easy to spot. The wet season comes during the summer months around November and December.


These canvas tents will be our homes for the next 10 days. They hold two narrow cots with mattress and bedding.

We had to make sure we kept out zippers closed at all times to keep out the mosquitoes, monkeys, spiders, and snakes. One of the group saw a puff adder snake lying right next to Joanie and Gordie’s tent door—fortunately zippered tightly.

Ken Hughes and Ellen Kemper, my neighbors at my community, The Commons in Santa Fe, New Mexico.


Each tent has a canvas attachment to the back of the tent, accessed through the zippered flap, that serves as the “bathroom” with a hole dug in the ground over which stands a precarious toilet. On the other side of the roofless enclosure is a pole with a canvas bucket that can be filled with warm water for a camping-style shower.


In the middle of the night when I went through the zippered back of the tent to pee, the wind was gusting forcefully. As I sat on the toilet, the wind blew the structure down on top of me, toppling me and the toilet onto the ground, with the canvas on top of the pile. I called my roommate, Tina, for help. We couldn’t stop laughing at the comical scene.


My tent mate, Tina, from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. We’re having a good time together. Tina is taking a year to travel the world. Africa is her starting point.

Another “bathroom” adventure occurred when the two men, Paul and Jim, who shared a tent, came back from an outing and found monkey poop on the “floor” of their “bathroom.” The monkeys obviously dropped down from the tree branches to check out the structure

We spent the first afternoon looking at the wild dogs, aka painted dogs, found only in the southern part of Africa. The coloring on their bodies is beautiful. All the animals I see look extremely healthy.


The painted dogs lie together and den, until they are rested enough to go off hunting again as a pack.


In practically every tree there is an eagle or a vulture waiting for some action, with eyes scanning the horizon at every moment. Peace and David carefully watched the activity of these birds of prey to get a sense of what was happening and where. This eagle looks pretty scary.—photo courtesy Ken Hughes, along with the next two.


This Marabou stork looks less threatening.


African Fish Eagle, waiting for some action.


The impala are ubiquitous in this area. They are one of many types of antelopes found here and are the source of food for the large predators, like the lions, leopards, wild dogs and hyenas


This large antelope is called a Tsessebe.

Surely you must be wondering how we can get so close to the animals without them becoming fearful. These wild animals are so used to the safari vehicles that they don’t view them as a danger. We are not allowed to get out of the vehicles without the supervision of Peace or David so that we don’t appear like predators—or potential prey.


Sometimes it’s hard to know if a tree is dead or simply lost it’s leaves for the winter months. Many dead trees are scattered around the savannah from the floods several years ago.


This tree is dead from the elephants stripping the bark in search of its nutrients. When the tree is “rimmed” and the bark stripped in a circle, the tree will surely die because it’s “circulation” has been disrupted and it cannot pull up nutrients from the soil.


The first of many giraffes that we spotted. Many of these photos (certainly not all) I’ve taken with my iPhone camera, which tells you how close the animals let us get to them.


Can you see the leopard lying on the tree branch, waiting for supper to pass by?


The dinners in the open air dining tent are delicious and elegant. Every dietary need is accommodated—somehow. The staff is friendly and gracious and never short on smiles.

The light is starting to dim. It’s time to return to camp and get ready for dinner, made by our fantastic staff of 8 helpers who do the cooking, washing the dishes, washing and ironing our dirty clothes, setting up and taking down camp every three nights, making our beds and putting hot water bottles between the sheets just before we go to bed each night.

Night comes to the Delta. We crawl into our tents and listen to the animals making their unique and sometimes scary sounds in the night—sometimes too near for comfort.

Before and after dinner we sit around the campfire and tell stories. David assures us that we’re in for some more excitement tomorrow with the leopard and lion tracking.

Our routine involves being woken up by the staff at 5:30 in the cold and dark morning. The wake up person pours warm water into our little canvas basins suspended from poles in front of our tents. We put on our headlamps and quickly wash up, get dressed and prepare our gear for the day and then grab a cup of coffee and head to the fire to talk about the sounds we heard in the night—including snoring sounds made by two-legged creatures—and our plans for the day.

David is keen on tracking the same leopardess that we saw last night. I am amazed that he thinks he can find her again. I soon discover that David and Peace have such an intimate understanding of the wildlife here that they know how to think like the animals that they are tracking and can find them no matter how well they are camouflaged.

Sure enough! David found the leopardess well camouflaged in the tall grasses, slinking around trying to get a decent meal.


She must be really starving because she’s stalking a squirrel—a mere hors d’oeuvre for such a big animal.


Now it’s time for her to go all out to find a filling meal. Squirrels are like eating candy. Intent on her mission, she completely ignores our safari vehicle only a few yards from her.
The leopardess is right next to our vehicle, up close and personal. As long as we stay in the vehicle, we are of absolutely no significance to her.


David says he knows the leopardess well since she was a small cub. He tracked the mother for years. Whilst all the leopards look roughly the same to me, David and Peace recognize each one of them by the markings on their bodies, along with any scars or other signs of injury.


After David temporarily took his focus off the leopardess, we spotted a cluster of zebra.


June 17th we get a special surprise, a ride in a mokoro, formerly a dugout canoe, now made of fiberglass to save the trees, propelled forward by a long pole that reaches the floor of the Khwai River.



The mokoro men poled our canoes silently around the watery marsh land. The experience was mystical as we floated past the wildlife—including a python snake in the rushes.



Female version of Ernest Hemingway—without the rifle—standing next to a hippopotamus with a telltale hole in his skull where he had most likely been gored by a competing male to win the favor of the females.


Joanie and Gordie are under the spell of the primordial scene surrounding us.


As we silently moved through the water a very large family of elephants appeared for their morning drink.


After the bull elephant walked out into the water to look us over, he saw that we were not a threat and then ignored us and watched over his family as they drank. After drinking, a big commotion ensued when a baby elephant walked off with the wrong family and then freaked out and started racing around frantically  looking for her mommy. The bull elephant responded to the commotion by raising his trunk and loudly trumpeting.


Hippopotamus eating grass. It’s surprising to find them openly eating in full view. They like to hide when they’re on land and feel most comfortable in the water.


We won’t be going into these waters with crocodiles and hippos waiting in the water. All the little faces you see in the picture with the frog-like eyes are enormous hippos.


Do you think this hippo is roaring for joy? Or is he simply letting the other males know that he its the boss?

June 18th. Today we move our camp to Savuti, part of the vast Chobe reserve where we’ll remain for the next three nights. Stay tuned for amazing close up views of some very impressive animals, like wart hogs, cape buffalo, wildebeests, kudu, baboons, monkeys, lots of lions, giraffes, zebras, and elephants. Some of the photos will be taken with real cameras by fellow travelers who have generously offered to take some shots for me. Here’s a preview of what you’ll see—in the case below they are simply tracks:

Tracks of a large male lion in our camping area.


This male lion gorged himself into a stupor from eating much of a large antelope called an Eland. The rest of his family is passed out as well. The all have abdomens that look like they will burst.

I hope you will continue to travel with me. It makes me happy thinking that I’m bringing this once-in-a-lifetime trip to you virtually.


Erica Elliott is a physician in Santa Fe, New Mexico,
with a private practice specializing in family and environmental medicine.
You can visit her Blog on  Musings, Memoir and Medicine from Erica Elliott

Jane Elizabeth Baxter contacted me early this year and told me she had always dreamed of going to Botswana….I had been thinking of taking a small group of people to Botswana in June of 2018. I used to live in a small town there, and part of my heart still remains. Jane was the first person to sign up for my trip although it was over a year away. And, she seemed like the perfect person to be part of the group.

As the months went by, I learned a little about Jane: she lived in Centerville, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, on the water. Her family owned a company that repaired cranes and she had just retired and was excitedly planning to do more of the things she loved. Travel was one of them: off-the-beaten-path. She did not enjoy being a tourist, rather she spent time getting to know local people and how their lives were. She loved developing community and suggested that I start a special Facebook page so the 14 of us going on the trip could all get to know each other beforehand.

Two months ago, Jane had some surgery on her wrist. There was an unexpected complication afterwards and she died.

We thought there might be something we could do in Botswana to remember Jane and my colleague, Adriano, said perhaps we might support a local community doing sustainable farming practices, or something like that.

I contacted Adrian Dandridge, a native of Botswana, because I knew he had a non-profit organization doing just that: he and his wife own Tshilli Farm outside of Maun, the town where I used to live. They train the local community in conservation techniques to reduce the conflict between the farmers and the elephants. One of the crops they grow is chilies – something the elephants do not find tasty. And, they are putting Maun on the map – not just for safari’s, but for their wildly popular hot chile sauce!

Jane’s son and her parents have agreed to apply the deposit Jane paid for her safari to support the non-profit community Chile Project, headed up by Adrian Dandridge at Tshilli Farm.

Adrian has hired a community carpenter to build a bench with Jane’s name engraved on it and install it in the experimental shaded vegetable garden where the visiting farmers from the Botswana Ministry of Agriculture are trained.

A beautiful place to stop and rest from the heat.

The balance of Jane’s deposit will be used to train local farmers in elephant conflict management, purchase seeds for the garden, shade cloth, and install irrigation in the Shade Garden. Finally, Adrian will facilitate a Ministry of Agriculture conservation workshop for 20+ farmers that wish to be educated in non-conflict crop techniques.

In June, I’ll be there, and I’ll take photos of the farm and Jane’s bench. A part of Jane will be there with me, I’m sure.


Deborah Stephens

Timeless Baja is excited to introduce Heather Gulliver, and a collaboration that we hope will grow into workshops and more adventures, as she has captured the light, color, and texture of Baja, in ways we have never seen before, except here! Here is what she has to say about her work:



Heather Gulliver


I was born in Zimbabwe, and my youth was spent looking at Africa – illuminating and awe inspiring. My paintings are part of my journey of discovery and expression, and much of it is influenced by the magic of Africa. I love the idea of bringing the atmospheres and values of the wild bush into everyday homes and galleries whose character and surroundings are vastly different.


Interview by Jeremy Broun


My work is mostly oil paint on canvas; I find the mixture of toughness and subtly that comes with this medium suits me well, not to mention the gorgeous smell of linseed oil. After many years of experimenting with abstract the content of  that brought me back to Africa and it’s light.



Much of my work centres around the succulent flora of southern Africa because formative years stay with you and I find that bush really excites me. I just love the beautiful rhythms of aloes, euphorbia and many more; the ways in which strong light plays upon them and the surrounding geology making atmospheric magic! Comparison with the plants that fill similar survival niches on the American continent has to be fascinating like the marked visual similarities between agave and aloe. It has long interested me how quite different species on different continents manage to look very similar through their techniques of coping with their environment. Burseraceae in all their glory occur in both places, yippee I love the wondrous textures of those papery barks.





Nature’s superb juxtapositions have provided great inspiration. Atmosphere is elusive and yet it influences our lives considerably. Continents mould people.

Life is not complete until nights have been spent in the open air under a starlit sky; even if the distraction means you forget to go to sleep.  After admiring the wonderful flowers of my husband’s cactus collection for many years I am very pleased to be able to see them in their native haunts. To my mind the natural garden as Mother Nature made it over shadows any man made effort every time. However that is not to say that I haven’t spent hundreds of hours of my life endeavouring to encourage exotic plants to grow in my various gardens, conservatories and green houses in the UK. When my family moved a separate lorry for the plants was required.; plant freak status is established.



I am excited to be spending time in Baja on Cactus Adventure Tour in November 2018, discovering more wild places that will inspire and delight me!






Heather Gulliver



Growing up in the suburban neighborhoods of Illinois, I became aware of an inexplicable hunger for the natural world that no one had ever spoken to me about. When I learned how to write, at a very early age I began to secretly create poems devoted to Spirit, about which there had also never been any spoken reference in my world. To enter more deeply into this magical journey and cultivate an even stronger connection to what was showing itself to me, I created a private space in my neighborhood backyard beneath a picnic table covered by my grandmother’s discarded tablecloth where I would lie, move and breathe for hours on the ground, feel the earth beneath me and open my little being to the messages she was sharing with me.

Fast forward as the years went by, this deep connection rode sometimes with, but often without, my awareness through the many different manifestations of my life. Corporate careers, two marriages, and oh-so-much-more, the earth kept drawing me back in between. Like so many of us, I realize now how deeply and unconsciously I was obsessed with trying to fulfill what had been assigned to me throughout my whole life: the American dream…growing a substantial savings account, buying homes, devoting my life to family, planning for retirement — a destination-oriented perspective where I remember very little true appreciation for the actual moments of my life and much more memory of the angst about how I would achieve what would accomplish these seemingly essential goals.

After yet another carrot-dangling promotion to Vice President and Branch Manager of a bank in Beverly Hills, my responsibilities were expanded to include overseeing another office in La Jolla, California.  I learned many important lessons in my banking phase, and one day I received an offer I couldn’t refuse. My clients who had become friends had sold their business and bought a boat and invited me to dinner before they headed south for an adventure to Mexico. I met them and also onboard was the man who would teach them how to sail their new boat. He and I had an immediate and deep connection, the idea of the journey enticed me wholeheartedly, and three days later I jumped on board the boat, left my company car parked in the marina, and disengaged from my previous life in one fell swoop.

After much travel in the natural world and much transition for the next two years, yoga found me.

I learned quickly that what I was reawakening within myself had  nothing to do with standing on my head or touching my toes. I needed to learn how to stand on my own two feet in my own natural way. It was about experiencing life in the moment, just as it was, without a destination driving the journey. Each teacher and teaching opened up another world to me that has turned out to be a world without end. I have watched my practice and my sharing of this amazing world of yoga shift, change, expand and morph over the past thirty plus years beyond my imagining. And now, it all seems to have reconnected with where it all began. The word itself means union. And I am back, just like the little girl under the picnic table, in love and joy and deep connection with Mother Earth and the spirit world that inhabits each of us.

I now share yoga whenever I can in a form that is without walls, ceilings, imaginary destinations, and any idea of limitation. At 68 years old with yoga in my conscious life for over half of my time on earth, I now see the practice primarily as a joyous reclamation of space within the body and the mind where various traumas big and small have locked us up and tightened us down to varying degrees.  Erasing the boundaries and experiencing the expansiveness of our beautiful earth plane is deeply supportive in the opening of our hearts, bodies and minds to what is possible and already available in this amazing life we have been given.

Since the early 90’s, I’ve resided and shared yoga in Santa Fe, New Mexico, my beloved home, and during the winter months I have offered retreats, group and private classes in Mexico, Bali, Costa Rica, and Peru. Whenever and wherever possible, these adventures include nature hikes and practicing in sacred outdoor spaces where we can all feel the heartbeat of Gaia together in whatever way she touches each of us. Again and again, people tell me that their experience is a returning to the child within…a sense of opening, curiosity, and a heightened awareness of what is always within and around us.  Wild Yoga invites us to sense what it’s like to be right here right now…fully present in the moment where our life is actually happening.

The spectacular natural beauty of Baja (often called “the last frontier) lends itself perfectly to the Wild Yoga retreats I’ve done the last few years, and Timeless Baja and I will be working together to create small group experiences for people who would like to connect to Nature in these beautiful places.







Barbara Powell
“Yoga Ma”


It’s hard to believe, but there still is a place where you really can go back in time. High in the Sierra San Francisco mountains, in the center of the Baja peninsula there exists a place where a quaint culture still exists, isolated from the rest of the world. Where no one wears a watch, there is a deep sense of belonging and community, almost everything you use is made by hand by you or your family, where no one hurries, yet you know that what you do is important, so you put your heart into it.

The people who live in these mountains are descendants of the soldiers and artisans who accompanied the early European missionaries to Baja California in the 1600s. They live and work on ranches started a dozen generations ago by their ancestors, the original cowboys in the Californias.

Today, the inhabitants of these mountain villages are the keepers of a little-visited UNESCO World Heritage site comprised of hundreds of prehistoric cave paintings buried deep in the canyons. Remarkably well-preserved because of the dry climate and inaccessibility of the sites, and estimated to be at least 10,800 years old, these murals are considered to be the most distinctive trove of rock art in the Western Hemisphere, and rival those of Lascaux, and Altamira in Europe.

Visiting the cave paintings is not for the faint-hearted, one of the reasons they remain largely unknown outside Mexico. It takes quite a bit of planning and effort to get there. For one thing, you can’t drive to these sites. You must leave your vehicle at a tiny village high in the mountains, get on a mule, and use burros to carry all of your supplies and water. You are going to a place that is really off-the-beaten-path!

Because these sites are protected, all visitors must be registered, pay a small fee for a permit, and are required to have a guide. There are 115 licensed guides in the area, and their names are all on a list; when you visit, you are designated the next guide on that list, so there is no competition, and they are all trained and evaluated for their knowledge and expertise, before being allowed to work with visitors.

All of the guides are men. In this culture everyone has an important role. One day, I asked a vaquero,  “if a girl wanted to be a guide, could she do that”?  It really wasn’t a sexist comment when I was told “no”, rather it was that the work women do is so extremely important that without that infrastructure, they could not exist. And, being a guide is hard, physical work. I know it is something I certainly could not do.

There are ancient animal and Amerindian paths leading from the village; if you grow up in the mountains, you know them like the back of your hand – they are your lifeline to your friends and family, and ultimately, the outside world.

From the village, we followed one of those well-worn paths to an escarpment where we rested the mules for a short time while the little burros, loaded with our precious cargo, dashed down the rocks like  a pack of greyhounds, to the canyon floor, far, far below.

We followed for almost three hours, winding down the steep canyons until we saw signs of human habitation amongst a profusion of flowers, fruit trees, date palms, and a crystal clear stream – an oasis on the floor of the canyon. An old ranch rests there, hours from any road, and yet it once thrived because of the hard work of the vaquero and his family who established it years ago. Now, just an elderly widow, her son, and her sister remain – allowing us travel-weary riders to camp for the night.

The next morning, we loaded up the burros once again, and rode a few hours down the boulder-strewn arroyo, and then along a precipitous mountain trail to another stream, where we set up camp. Fortified by lunch, we hiked over the boulders along the stream to explore one of the most awe-inspiring sites: 500 ft. x 33 ft. Cueva Pintada. The mural shows overlapping images of men and women, deer, bighorn sheep, rabbits, and birds. The figures are huge and we felt the frenetic action of the animals during the hunt drawing us in.

Immediately across the arroyo we climbed to another site showing tall human figures impaled by arrows, Cueva de las Flechas. This is unusual among the paintings, many of which show animals with arrows, but rarely humans. And, some of the human figures wore head dresses – their bodies painted bi-color, with the left half of the body painted red, and the right side in black.

We spent the next day hiking from our campsite to other nearby rock art sites, one called Musica for its painted human figures on what appears to be a musical scale, and a completely new discovery in the canyons over the last few years, a huge boulder covered with carved petroglyphs considered over 15,000 years old.

Who left these huge murals and petroglyphs thousands of years ago?  Not much is known about the painters, other than they were migratory people leaving no permanent dwellings or any pottery remnants. Like all early Amerindian cultures in Baja, they moved with the migrations of game and seasonal changes. The Cochimi Indians who lived in central Baja when the Jesuit missionaries first arrived, said the paintings were the work of a race of giants who inhabited the region well before the time of their ancestors.  I find this intriguing because the human figures are all depicted as tall, unlike any humans who have been known to reside in Baja.

Part of the fascination for me is the fact that these spectacular murals have been hidden for so many years. Although the Spanish missionaries were aware of them, no one seriously studied them until Leon Diguet in 1893-1894. He was a French naturalist who worked with Boleo copper mine in Santa Rosalia on the east coast of the Baja Peninsula. But, he missed the most extensive sites in the Sierra San Francisco.

And then no one visited until Erle Stanley Gardner, the American mystery writer (author of Perry Mason)  became captivated by the murals in the 1940’s.  20 years later, Gardner met a Baja bush pilot, Francisco Munoz, and hired him to fly into many of the sites he studied. Described by Gardner as having “uncanny skill as well as an encyclopedic knowledge of the country over which he is flying”, Munoz flew his friend into cave painting sites throughout Baja for 10 years, and these sites inspired Gardner to write six nonfiction books bringing these spectacular works of art to public attention.

In 1972, Harry Crosby succeeded Gardner in the search for undiscovered sites, publishing “Cave Paintings Of Baja California: Discovering the Great Murals of an Unknown People” in 1998, now considered the “bible” for information about rock art on the peninsula.


There are hundreds of cave painting sites throughout the canyons; we spent just three days exploring, and only saw a few, but we will keep returning, not just to find more of the rock art, but also to get to know the wonderful people who live there. They are warm and welcoming and enthusiastically showed us their handmade and hand-cured leather saddles and polainas – (strap-on leg protectors), described their traditional medicines derived from plants, and told us how they live, removed from our chaotic world. It’s something I want to learn more about before it’s no longer possible to do so. The young people often leave for the cities for education and work, and many times do not return, and I know that the beautiful oasis ranch we first visited will not have people there much longer. It is a hard life being a vaquero in this harsh environment and being a keeper of sites that are not often visited by many people.

As well as an incredible journey into the Sierras, it was also a sojourn into the hearts and minds of people whose simple ways owe more to the traditions of 17th century Spain than that of 21st century America. When we returned home, we felt as if we had been transported to another time and place – and what we experienced stayed with us as a gentle reminder of a way we can live our lives, too – with more heart.








Deborah Stephens

I dreamed of going to Africa most of my life, but the first time I went, I was very scared. Afraid of the violence I had read about; the movies I had seen had shown me the worst. The extreme poverty, racism, language barrier, getting lost, everything. My great desire to see animals in their own environment overrode all of that, and I went with three friends to see the total eclipse of the sun and to spend a couple weeks in Botswana.

There are 58 countries on the African continent, each unique and can never be generalized as “Africa”. Many people are not even aware that Botswana is the huge, landlocked country immediately north of the country of South Africa, although it is the size of France (twice the size of the state of New Mexico), with only 2.4M people, and the model for democracy in Africa. In fact, Seretse Khama (from a long lineage of royal chiefs in Botswana), the country’s first President, promoted democracy and went to law school in Oxford – and married an English woman during apartheid in South Africa; very controversial!

The best-selling book “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” by Alexander McCall Smith, was first published in 1998, and there were sequels following it, and later a BBC series, bringing Botswana to public attention. Although fiction, it is an epic story about Botswana, and an authentic portrayal of the culture, which is intrinsically good. It gave me courage to overcome my fear of Africa, step out of my comfort zone, and literally change my life forever.

When I first arrived, one of my friends became very ill with a sinus infection, and I found a doctor (an English cardiologist) to help her. Over the weeks we were there, I fell in love with him, and stayed in the little town of Maun, on the edge of the Okavango Delta to live with him and to work in the local hospital. I discovered a place that is wild, pristine, and expansive. It has become, for me, a place and a people that I cannot get out of my blood.

We lived in a little white house on the banks of the Thamalakane River, and often saw hippos and crocodiles as we drank our tea after work on the back patio. This is where I first began my great love affair with birds, as each morning the haunting cry of the African Fish Eagle woke me, and later thousands of red-billed quelea would fly down the river in search of food for the day. In the evening, the chestnut-colored Senegal coucal would hop around our yard searching for berries, and the lilac-breasted roller (the national bird), and the yellow-billed Hornbills would act almost tame, wanting to be part of our family.

Maun is a strange little town, one that most visitors never really see, as they immediately get into a bush plane and leave for the expensive safari lodges to the north. Yet, it is fascinating, if you look below the surface. For instance, the traditional Herero people who fled genocide in Namibia in the early 1900’s still live in mud huts around town. You can identify them by the women’s long Victorian gowns (with eight petticoats underneath) and hats with horizontal “horns” on them, commemorating their heritage as cattle herders. And, you may find San Bushmen in the most unlikely places, as I did, living in a neighbor’s back yard. They were once painters, and we can still see some of their work in Savuti, the western edge of Chobe. They depict eland, elephant, sable, giraffe, a puffadder, and a hippo, and thought to be 4,000 years old.

The Batswana people themselves, are very proud, conservative, and respectful. Formal greetings always come before a conversation, no matter how short it may be. There is never any hurry; things are done at a leisurely pace. And, we would be thought rude to try to rush or speed things up. I love the colorful clothes the women wear and to see them often striding down the street with a huge load of something balanced on the top of their heads.

Every weekend and all vacations, we spent in the Bush – an area comprising 40% of the country of Botswana and which is completely dedicated to animals in their own environment. I loved exploring the Kalahari Desert to the south of Maun, but the vast expanses of Moremi and the huge reserves north of there – Chobe (4500 square miles), Savuti (the western edge of Chobe), and into Zimbabwe to Victoria Falls, still remains my one of my favorite places on earth.

I learned that Botswana is the place to go in the world to see lion, leopards, elephants, cheetahs, wild dogs (also called painted dogs – the most efficient killers on earth), over 400 species of birds, and so much more. Tourism is limited. I grew to love camping in spectacularly beautiful places, with no one else around, and listen to the sound of lions roaring in the deep silence at night.

In 2014, the Okavango Delta was recognized as the 1,000th UNESCO World Heritage Site on Earth! The Moremi Game Reserve in the northeastern portion of the Okavango, is an exquisite wetland of permanent marshlands, and seasonally flooded plains. It is the largest inland delta in the world and does not flow into the sea or an ocean. The river I lived next to in Maun, was a perfect example, and an extension of the Delta – it flows south from Angola every year, and for three or four of those months, Maun is completely dry. The hippos and crocodiles follow the water.

Something magical happens when I drive into this spectacular area. It has a way of ensuring that you are in the present moment, because you never really know what you are going to see or experience, and you want to be alert and notice things. Camping, to me, is the ideal way to do it. Then, you are in the animals’ own environment, and actually a part of it. The sounds, smells, little details, the earth, different signs you learn to notice….I often wish I could stop time, as nothing could be more beautiful than that moment. Here is a short story I wrote about a New Year’s eve camping trip we did in the Okavango Delta, to give you an idea of what I mean: link to the story 

I have to admit, there was something very special about the Hemingway-style of safari: the old Colonial way of taking creature comforts into a camping experience in the middle of nowhere really was an art. That is something that needs to be done with a guides. And, I love that – the way we are in sleeping bags in a tent, but get up to a beautifully cooked meal, hot water, and English tea – it lends a sense of formality that extends to how we treat each other with manners, respect, and acceptance. We extend that to the environment and the animals – remembering that we are in their home, now – and how fortunate we are to be able to be there!

There is really nothing like it, it will change your life forever.



Deborah Stephens

Baja – The Last Frontier

Baja California is often referred to as the “last frontier”.  As I travel throughout the peninsula, I have often thought of why that may be true, and realized it must be quite like that moment in time before manifest destiny in the U.S. – the belief that expansion was both justified and inevitable. But, at this moment, right now, we have this spectacular frontier at our fingertips to explore. Who can say how long it will be until it is developed like the rest of the western world?

Frontier represents uncharted territory. It could be a remote piece of land or a new field of study, but if someone calls it “the frontier,” you are challenged to explore it.

This definition of a frontier very much applies to the “real” Baja I know – often referred to as the “last frontier” of the West!

It’s amazing to realize that immediately south of the enormous cities of Los Angeles, and San Diego, California, this 747-mile long peninsula, the second longest peninsula in the world, exists and is an explorers’ paradise, with still largely uncharted mountains, isolated beaches, and deserts to discover. Yet most people are surprised to find that Baja California is not part of the U.S., you do need a passport to visit, and there is much, much more to it than Cabo San Lucas!

Baja means “lower” in Spanish and what is now the State of California was originally called “Alta California”, or “upper”. The Baja peninsula was the first place the Spanish landed in the early 1500’s (in what is now La Paz), later making their way north.

There is one main road from Tijuana in the north to the tip of the peninsula in the south: Carretera Peninsular Benito Juarez, but we call it Highway 1. The road was completed in 1973, and is 1,059 miles of hard road, mostly two-lane blacktop. All goods and services, and everyone who drives any distance in Baja, take the same road – it is the lifeline of the peninsula.

I first visited Baja in 1983 when Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo, the towns at the very tip of the peninsula, were just two small villages on one of the world’s most spectacular coasts. Now, they resemble Miami, with high-rise hotels blocking the beaches, yet most of the peninsula to the north remains sparsely populated and a true frontier.

One of the surprising things about Baja is it still retains its ranch culture which started with the Californios – the original cowboys who were descendants of the Spanish who first visited Baja in the 1500’s (bringing cows with them). These descendants still live in tiny villages in the Sierra de San Francisco mountains in the middle of the peninsula and in the Sierra de la Giganta mountains next to Loreto. Their lifestyle is almost completely sustainable – they grow or make their own food, and all of their leather saddles, ropes, bridles, polinas (lower leg coverings to protect from cactus), and shoes, often engraving them very artistically, and live in tight-knit communities where it is essential to rely on each other.

The Californios who live in the Sierra de San Francisco mountains are the keepers of a World Heritage site that contains hundreds of cave paintings over 10,000 years old. No one knows who the prolific painters were who created these sometimes huge murals, but it is considered one of the most important rock art sites in the world, rivaling that of Lascaux, France. The paintings are difficult to get to, requiring days of travel on mules with burros carrying supplies, and Californios as your guides. Visitors often remark that this rare glimpse of a culture that is rapidly disappearing is just as exciting as seeing the paintings.

Baja California

Baja has eight major mountain ranges down the center of the peninsula, and one of them, the Sierra San Pedro Martir, contains a vast 250 square mile National Park that I have never seen more than five people in at one time, and two of them were friends of mine!  The tallest mountain in Baja, Picacho del Diablo, is in this park and is over 10,000 ft. tall, often with snow on it! There is an observatory on the dirt road through the park, at 9,280 feet. It is located here because it is one of the clearest places on Earth, with low humidity, low light pollution, and low levels of radio interference.

baja california

In the foothills of all of these mountain ranges you will often find little isolated ranchos as many of the local Mexican families who may now reside in towns all over Baja first settled on property at a higher elevation. So, the ranch culture pervades all over the peninsula, either with descendants of the Californios, or with more recent ranch families. The children often had to come to town to go to school and stayed for work as they got older. But, it is very common to see older people from the mountain ranches in town, purchasing supplies, sometimes working at jobs in the city, or visiting families in town on Sunday.

Deep in the Sierra de la Laguna, the mountain range just north of Cabo San Lucas, live a few people that practice the art of pottery making. They make “ranchware”, a type of pottery made from the local clay and used for cooking on top of the stove, in ovens, and even in microwaves. It is rustic looking, but very functional and beautiful.  They are difficult to find, but buying from them directly and being invited into their homes for coffee and to learn about their lifestyle “off the grid” is really something to remember, and they don’t often get many opportunities to hear about the “outside” world.

This mountain range was named “mountains of the lakes” because at one time there were lakes at the top – from which you can still see both the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez. The lakes no longer exist, but in their place are year-round streams and waterfalls, and a wonderland of pine forests. The highest point is a little over 7,000 ft. and it is easy to get lost in the mountains – there are no signs on the trails, as we have in the U.S. – and the trail to the top climbs 4,500 ft. before there is a place to camp. These mountains are mysterious and beautiful, and on the east side contain hot springs and more waterfalls to discover!

You really never know what you will find when exploring any of the mountains in Baja! When the missionaries arrived in the 1600’s there were three Amerindian tribes living on the peninsula: the Pericu’, Guaycura, and Cochimi, all of which are now extinct. In 1994, on my very first foray with some seasoned Baja explorers into the Sierra Juarez, the mountain range in northern Baja, we hiked through what must have been an Indian gathering place as we found lots of pictographs on the rocks and many, many metate’s, or grinding stones. Crawling around the rocks we discovered some little caves and inside one was an ancient long bow and some arrows. Together, we wrapped them very carefully and transported them back to the museum in Ensenada. There, they categorized them and created an exhibit around them!

The mountains of Baja are sparsely populated, majestic, and enticing to explore, and the deserts are even more so!  About 65% of Baja’s total land area is desert, and considered part of the Sonoran Desert, however, because of it’s unique location between the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean, and it’s many mountains, there are a great many endemic species of plants and animals, making it different from the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, or in mainland Mexico.

The first real glimpse most people have of the desert in Baja is about 8 hours south of Tijuana at a wide spot in the road called Catavina. It’s a place that makes you stop and stare because you don’t really know what you are seeing. The plants here remind you of something in a Dr. Seuss book, and one of them, the boojum tree was actually named that by an Arizona botanist after the imaginary character in Lewis Carrol’s “Hunting of the Snark”. It looks like an huge upside down carrot and is one of the slowest growing plants on Earth, growing only a foot every 10 years. So, a 50 ft. plant is over 500 years old, and there are many of them here.

Baja California Catavina

There are also huge elephant trees (Torote Colorado) with peeling bark and trunks that look like elephant hide, ocotillos with lots of red flowers, and the world’s largest cactus, the Cardon, much taller than its smaller cousin the Saguaro – and hundreds more, a great many that are endemic to this area.

The other thing you’ll notice in Catavina is the boulder fields – boulders scattered everywhere, sometimes in huge piles, from the size of marbles to large buildings. I used to think it looked as if the gods had been bowling…but these boulders were all formed by the winds over millions of years.

The desert may look dry and uninviting, but I challenge you to just walk the distance of a couple blocks into it here and tell me that it isn’t alive. If you are like me, the silence will capture you. And, if you are ever there after a rain (10 inches a year is all the desert receives) you will not believe the wildflowers!!!  The desert explodes!

The glimpse of the desert in Catavina may lead you to visit some of the harder to reach deserts in Baja, and they are even more spectacular and contain surprises just like the mountains do in Baja. You’ve never seen stars until you sleep in the desert in Baja.

I’ve hiked many times in Baja deserts and have discovered caves, rock art in the middle of nowhere, and tinajas (depressions below what used to be a waterfall, now filled with water and often deep enough to swim in). And, the wildlife!

Some of the deserts in Baja are protected and this includes the Vizcaino, and Valle de los Cirios.  Traveling in either of these hard-to-get-to places is well worth it, but you will see few people if any, no gas stations, and no stores to buy water or anything else you might need. But, if you can equip yourself well beforehand, you will encounter incredible things!

Vizcaino desert

Is Baja the last frontier?  Many people think the entire peninsula is so unique that is should be declared a National Park. I am sure development will never allow that. But, right now, we have what probably is the last frontier in the west right in our own back yard and many people don’t even realize it. And, the perfect place to unplug from what has become a chaotic world, something that is increasingly difficult to find. It is a miraculous place and well-worth exploring, not only the mountains and deserts, but the spectacular, empty beaches you’ll also find if you just get off the beaten path!

Deborah Stephens


Guess what science has proven in the last few years is one of the very best things you can do for your health? It’s something most people spend a lot of time day-dreaming about, yet often think of it as an extravagance that comes after almost everything else in their lives:  TRAVEL!!  One of the recent articles about this research was in the Los Angeles Times, and refers to the results of a study linking travel with decreased risks of heart attacks and depression, and promotion of brain health:

Why do we so often resist following up on our dreams of feeling the white sand between our toes in the Seychelles, or hearing a lion roaring in the distance as we lay safe in our tent in the African bush?

There are a great many reasons: time, money, work (many people are afraid they will miss out on something at work while they are away – but they find out that everything gets handled without them – another fear!), children, health….another reason is that travel takes us out of our comfort zone, and because of that, it makes us grow. It changes our perspective and we don’t return home the same. It’s a way of surrendering to the unknown, and that can be very frightening, and also exhilarating.

I started traveling in my mid-forties. Before that, I never thought I had the time or money, and so, of course, I didn’t.  Or, maybe I was afraid it would change my life, and it did. Now, the person I used to be seems like a character in a book I read a long, long time ago.

I didn’t think I had the opportunity to travel much while climbing the corporate ladder, and going to graduate school at night. Getting “down-sized” unexpectedly, after years at the same company, changed my perspective about life, and suddenly I wanted to experience some of those almost forgotten dreams. But, it was intimidating for me to travel alone, so I took one small baby step and went camping in the Guadalupe mountains of northern Baja with some folks I had met who were Baja aficionados.

On that trip, I saw more stars than I had ever seen at night, and experienced such deep silence, and vast expanses of empty land. I lived in southern California, and had become used to a constant roar of traffic and people in the background of everything I did. The quiet made me soften, and when I returned home, I couldn’t forget it. I wanted more.

Many of the places we long to travel include being somewhere in Nature, something we don’t often do, if we live in the city. And, increasingly non-existent in the lives of children. Yet, the feeling I experienced on my first trip to Baja was something that scientists like Qing Li, Ph.D., thinks is of great importance to our health, and better than any anti-depressant. “It’s like a miracle drug!”, he says, in this article that had a big impact on me and was published in Outside Magazine a few years ago:

In it, the author mentions that the science proving the beneficial effects of nature on our health is so convincing that many other countries are following Japan’s lead in studying and promoting nature as a cure. Interestingly, the U.S. has not followed suit, regardless of the extremely high costs of health care in the country.  But, here is something we can do, individually, to strengthen our immune systems, lower our stress levels, and so much more.

Wherever we long to travel, whether it’s to see the Northern lights in Iceland, or simply to take a day off and go to a nearby beach, the benefits to our health and well-being are enormous.  And, if you don’t believe me, here are 17 compelling (and exciting!) reasons that will get you packing!

Maybe it’s time to put travel at the top of our To Do list, instead of last, because if enhances everything else in our lives, and most importantly our health!



Deborah Stephens

Something incredible happened a little over 40 years ago in San Ignacio Lagoon, the lagoon that cuts into the desert for 16 miles from the Pacific Ocean, in the middle of Baja California.

Early one morning, a pangero by the name of Francisco “Pachico” Mayoral, launched his little 18’ boat into the lagoon to fish, as he had almost every day of his life. He turned off the motor for a short time because it was Spring and there were some Grey Whales (Eschrichtius robustus) in the Lagoon. He, as well as the other fishermen, were always wary of their behavior because just 100 years before, this Lagoon ran red with their blood. Whalers started slaughtering the whales in San Ignacio Lagoon for their oil  in 1860 and had given them the name “Devil Fish” because they often attacked the whaler’s boats to protect their young. San Ignacio Lagoon was the last Grey Whale breeding ground to be found by Charles Scammon,, and he, among others, was instrumental in bringing them to near extinction in the world by 1934.


Gray whales baja california sur
Francisco “Pachico” Mayoral

Today, something was different. To Pachico’s complete amazement, the Grey Whale he had stopped his motor to avoid, swam directly to his boat and leaned its head on the side, looking Pachico straight in the eye. When he returned to his village that evening, Pachico told his friends and family that he was sure the whale wanted to be friends – the first recorded incident of this kind in the world.

Grey Whales grow up to 45 feet and weigh up to 40 tons, and considering their past behavior, no one believed Pachico when he said that a mammal that huge wanted to be “friendly”. But, that was the beginning of what we now call the “Gentle Giants” of San Ignacio Lagoon.

Pachico passed away recently, and will be remembered by a great many people as the “whale whisperer” of the Lagoon.

Grey Whales Baja California


Each year, the Grey Whales begin the longest migration of any mammal on earth, from their feeding grounds in the Arctic to the birthing lagoons in Baja, 12,000 miles roundtrip. And, their numbers have increased steadily. Since that first friendly interaction, the adult females have trained their newborns to come up to the boats, often seeking to be petted, scratched, and to play with humans who are happy to participate.


Gray whales Baja California
Grey Whales Baja California

In 1936, Grey Whales became protected in the U.S., but they still are at risk worldwide, as other countries continue whaling. And, although the lagoons in Baja that are considered whale nurseries are protected by the Mexican government, in the 1990’s Mexico, in collaboration with Mitsubishi Corporation of Japan, proposed a 116-square mile industrial salt plant in San Ignacio Lagoon. This plan was officially abandoned in March, 2000 due to efforts by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) which spearheaded millions of people worldwide to oppose industrial development in an area that is a World Heritage site, a Mexican biosphere reserve, a whale sanctuary, and a migratory bird refuge.

What can you expect if you decide to visit San Ignacio Lagoon and experience the Grey Whales?

The lagoon remains pristine (some say desolate) and is one of the only places in the world I have ever visited over a 25 year period that is still pretty much the same as when I first visited. It is about a one hour drive on a bad road from the oasis town of San Ignacio to the Lagoon, where there are few places to stay, so many people just come for the day. And, the places you can spend the night are built to be environmentally conscious, meaning there will be composting toilets, wind-powered generators, solar-powered lights, and everything you use will have been trucked in from great distances, so there is not much waste.

It is a quiet place, and other than seeing the whales, there is not much to do. If you are a bird- watcher, there are 225 species of birds around the lagoon, many of whom live in the mangroves at water’s edge. Some of my favorites are osprey (which are very numerous – you will see nests everywhere), loons, Cape Pygmy Owls, peregrine falcons, and vermillion flycatchers.

Grey Whales come to the lagoon for two reasons: to mate and to bear their young. They begin arriving in December and January, and people generally visit from January until April. This is a windy time on the Pacific and can often be quite cold. Morning is the best time to go out on the water, as the winds are not as strong as they can be later in the day. And, since the whales are protected, an authorized guide is required. There are many, most of whom are fishermen during the remainder of the year, and you can easily find a guia to take you.


Grey Whales Baja California
Grey Whales Baja California

There are several rules concerning the whales that are non-negotiable. One is that the whales cannot be harassed; they come to your boat – you do not pursue them. Another, is that you cannot physically get into the water. And, the time that we are allowed into the viewing area of the lagoon is strictly limited to 1-1/2 hours per boat. As you get close to the entrance of the designated area in your little panga (the same types of boats that Pachico used 35 years ago, are still used by the guides) you will pass a marine captain who monitors activity.

Last year, when I visited, I met a woman marine biologist who was traveling to various whale watching sites around the world to see how they were regulated, if they were. She told our group that San Ignacio Lagoon was not only the model for the sites in Baja, but the best of any she had visited, worldwide. Other places often allow the boat captains to follow the whales at high speeds, and pursue them for photos (and tips to the boat captains), and it would be easy to have an accident. And, if harassed, the whales could decide to discontinue coming there. We are fortunate to have such beautiful interaction with these “friendlies” in San Ignacio Lagoon – as one person once told me: “I kissed a whale, and it was her idea”!


Grey Whales Baja California
Grey Whales Baja California

Timeless Baja provides several adventures that include experiencing the Grey Whales of San Ignacio Lagoon, for further information please contact us at


Deborah Stephens

The Copper Canyon is really a labyrinth of massive canyons, four of which are deeper than the Grand Canyon in Arizona. They were formed by six different rivers that eventually empty into the Sea of Cortez, draining four times the volume of the Grand Canyon. It is an immense area covering 25,096 square miles in the states of Chihuahua, Sinaloa, and Sonora in northwest Mexico, yet it has remained isolated and remote, partially due to its vast size, non-existence of adequate roads, and difficulty in penetrating the rugged country.

In 1900, an American, Arthur Stillwell, began construction of a railway through the canyon, but because of financial difficulties due to the cost of construction through such rough country, it was not finished until 1961. Now, it is known as the most scenic railway in North America, passing over 37 bridges and through 86 tunnels, going from sea level at Los Mochis in the west and reaching an elevation of 8,000 ft. during its 418 mile route to Chihuahua. Its tracks actually pass over themselves to gain elevation to the highest point in Divisadero – the Continental Divide.



Because of its inaccessibility, isolation and remoteness, the Copper Canyon has developed a kind of mystery, compounded by the fact its inhabitants, the indigenous Tarahumara, about 60,000 of whom live in the canyons, are a reticent and very private people. Originally inhabitants of what is now the state of Chihuahua, they retreated to the high sierra and deep canyons over 500 years ago on the arrival of the Spanish explorers in the 16th century. They are considered to be part of the Mogollon culture which flourished from 200 CE until the Spanish arrived.

The Tarahumara’s name for themselves is Raramuri, which means “runners on foot”, or “those who run fast” in their native language which is still widely spoken. Their ability to routinely run 200 miles in one session (both men and women, and children), and up to 435 miles which is the tribe record (16 times the distance of a marathon) has given them a reputation throughout the world as “super athletes”. Living far from each other and in the steep mountains, often in caves, or small adobe homes without electricity, long-distance foot travel has developed as a means of communication, transportation, hunting, and actual survival. This ability for seemingly effortless high endurance running, has irritated ultra marathoners in the outside world by beating them while wearing deerskin sandals or running barefoot, and stopping now and then for a smoke.



Endurance running is also part of ceremonies, and games – one of which is with two different teams chasing a wooden ball with long sticks. The game can last from several hours up to two days, non-stop, up and down the steep canyon walls.

Nutritionists have been trying to determine why the Tarahumara have this “super-human” ability and some are even attributing it to the homemade fermented corn beer they consume in large quantities, which is low in alcohol content and high in carbohydrates.

But, sports scientists think the Tarahumara have developed this incredible endurance because they still retain what was our evolutionary history as persistence hunters, something most of the world has forgotten. And, they run without shoes, eliminating the high impact on their feet and bodies that our running culture, in reality, has developed due to our high tech shoes.

Whatever the reason, this undisputed ability contributes to the mystery the canyons evoke. The tribe has been able to keep their ancient and unique culture basically intact hidden in the Copper Canyon – a miraculous feat in today’s world.


Deborah Stephens