A long look back…

MUNICH, GERMANY — Four years. Three continents. 20 countries. Countless memories. As the last dispatch of this era comes to an end, the only thing you can do is look back, remember and relive.

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What a run we’ve had. Over the past four crazy, busy, challenging and amazing years, we been blessed to see and experience more things than some people see in a lifetime.

Before we left for Munich, if you’d told us what was about to unfold — that one year testing the waters abroad would turn into two, three, four — we would have never believed it. Through new challenges and promotions, engagement and enlightenment, old friends and new ones — this has been the adventure of a lifetime.

So to all those that gave us a shot, or supported us at home or abroad, or simply joined in on the festivities, a very heartfelt Vielen Dank from Molly, Addie and me.

So as we step into a new chapter of our lives, we just wanted to take a minute to share one again some of the most wonderful memories from a life well lived abroad.

Exploring Gaudi’s canvas

BARCELONA, SPAIN — Barcelona is known for two things: one fleeting, the other timeless. So after the tapas plates and vermouth glasses were cleared, it was time to seek out the beauty that is Gaudi’s Barcelona.

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I’ve always loved architecture. Put into the world’s most world-renown art museums, I might spend as much time studying the beams and porticoes as much as the oil paintings.

But the first time I visited Barcelona and saw Gaudi’s masterpieces up close, it opened a completely new world for me. Whimsical, sometimes dark and haunting, but always head-scratchingly precise — Gaudi was a true artist at work. And his canvas was one of the world’s most beautiful cities.

IMG_2077So upon our return, I had to show Molly the Gaudi greats. Most notably his masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia cathedral. The last time I was here, nearly 10 years ago now, scaffolding covered much of the inner nave. Now, largely completed and free of cover, this space was even more amazing than the first time. We spent nearly two hours exploring its depths, shadows and flowing light patterns.

At the same time timeless and modern, this crown jewel of the city still has some ten years before completion. I can’t wait to return to see the final product — although in some way part of the beauty in the building is the fact that it is seemingly never finished.

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From the sacred to the whimsical. The next stop was the Dr. Suess-esque Park Guell. A kind of fantasy land styled urban project that was supposed to house thousands of Barca’s most wealthy citizens. When the residential project fell through due to logistical challenges, Gaudi finished the park anyway — going bankrupt in the processs — and the city eventually purchased it as a public space.

These days, the city actually needs to limit the number of visitors that pour into the park. We spent an afternoon in the bohemian neighborhood of Gracia before hiking up the hill to explore the park’s tunnels and balustrades, amazing tilework and the breathtaking view over the city, La Sagrada Familia and the Mediterranean below.

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Barcelona — a feast for the eyes, a feast for the belly and a feast for the heart. As a final destination on this amazing continent, we couldn’t have been happier. Salud, Spain. Muchas gracias once again.

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Bon profit, Barca!

BARCELONA, SPAIN — Just the thought of this country is enough to turn memories into senses. But mention the Catalan capital to an old traveler — and watch their mouth, and sometimes eyes, begin to water. We wanted our taste.

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As our last day as European residents grew ever closer, we realized there was a gaping hole in our travel book.

Despite a quick rendezvous in the Canary Islands, which somehow seem more like Africa than their political motherland, we never set foot in Espana proper once over our four years in Europe. That might seem like a blatant traveler’s sin, but I had dreams of several sun-drenched weeks exploring the Iberian peninsula as a final farewell tour of Europe. Then… life got in the way.

Little did we realize the amount of work was in store for our imminent departure, so what started as a lazy exploration in my mind turned into five action-packed September days in Catalonia. Because, after all, if you can only do one thing in Spain, Barcelona is hard to beat.

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IMG_2352And arriving on the day of Catalonian National Pride made it all the more magical. As we made our way through the city streets to our rented apartment, residents draped in Catalan flags, drinking from wine jugs flowed everywhere. That night from the balcony of our El Raval flat, you could see fireworks lighting up the sky well into the morning hours.

We’d arrived — and promptly joined the celebration over tapas and wine (and one or two absinthe) at an infamous Hemingway dive in the heart of this colorful, if rough-around-the-edges barri (city district).

Little did we know that our taste buds were just stretching out.

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The next day was a somewhat special one — my birthday. So we decided to start off our trip with a culinary bang by visiting the famous El Boqueria market — a massive conglomeration of fish, fruit and meat stalls (plus some of the city’s best tapas bars) located right on the edge of our El Raval barri.

Kilos of fresh monkfish, shrimp, clams, mussels and more in hand, we made our way back along the Rambla to our flat. But not before sampling the epic local paella from one of those most famous bars. Later that night, our fresh haul from the market turned into an amazing Romescada — a take on Catalan fish stew. An epic meal, and one made by the sea and our own two hands!

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Culinary travels in Barcelona deliver some expected delights (sangria and paella on the edge of a baking city plaza, fresh Iberico ham from a market stall) — and also some surprises. On one afternoon to meet a travel friend on the beaches of Barceloneta, we stopped in for lunch in a little cafe in the tiny streets of this harbor district.

Jai-Ca, we came to find out, was an infamous drinking hole for salty beach goers heading home — and one hell of a delicious find. Over ice cold Estrella beers, we helped ourselves to heaping plates of grilled octopus, ham croquets, Bacala (cod) fritters — and something called La Bomba — a massive ball of fried potatoes, meat and spices that was insane. Somehow we still made it to the beach, but it was a close call.

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It’s no secret that one of our greatest pleasures of travel is exploring each culture through its food. So, when Barcelona was decided as our final European destination as expats, one question came up: how can we close our travels with one of the most epic meals of our lives?

In Spain, chefs are like rock stars. And their is no bigger name on the marquee (sometimes literally) than the Adria brothers, Ferran and Alberto. Ferran opened the now-shuttered El Bulli restaurant, some hours up the coast from Barcelona — long considered the best restaurant in the world until it closed five years ago.

But the world’s loss was Barcelona’s gain, as the brothers set off to open four new restaurants within a single city block in Barca. The most famous of these is Tickets, a literal carnival of culinary delights, very heavy on avantgarde molecular gastronomy. Unfortunately for us, the next possible reservation was over two months out. But luck has a way of finding us in these journeys — as the more-traditional, but no less amazing tapas cousin, Bodega 1900, had room for us right across the street.

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IMG_3739Promptly at 5pm, we walked into this immaculately designed tapas den. Everything from the light bulbs to the colorful subway tile to custom made cutlery (Ferran’s name stamped on the back) screamed amazing taste. And then came the food.

We sat down among the El Bulli memorabilia dotting every wall and opened the menu like an ancient tome. Not knowing how to start beyond cold glasses of their house-made Vermouth and infamous “liquefied olives”, we asked our server to just bring us whatever she and the chef recommended.

IMG_3702What unfolded was 16 courses to blow the mind.

The journey took us from the most simple delights — house-cured beef carpaccio that melts on your tongue, Catalan traditional tomato bread and razor thin Iberico ham, whole grilled squid with bursting ink sacks — to unbelievably elegant creations — the fried sea anemone, smoked salmon with greek yogurt and molasses, and a length of perfectly grilled foie gras the size of your forearm.

Everything was simple, clean flavored and insanely delicious. Course after course, our eyes rolled back into our heads and the glasses of vermouth and Cava piled up. When it came to the final lemon sorbet — more luscious and smooth than you could ever believe — we knew we had experienced a meal of a lifetime.

We will never make it to El Bulli. But for now, we can leave Barcelona and Europe knowing that we’ve tasted the best flavors this unforgettable place has to offer.

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Sardo un’altra volta

SANTA MARIA DI NAVARESSE, SARDINIA, ITALY — Back. Back again. And the water was just as clear, the wine just as sharp and the smell of the mountains like freshly ground pepper. It was Sardo all over again.

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When brother Nathan and fiancee Kelly floated the idea of coming over to Europe this summer, they asked where we could go for some good food, beaches and relaxation. There was only one answer in our mind.

Armed with all our experiences from a fast-paced week exploring the entire island a couple years ago, we put a much more manageable plan together for our four-day venture. We touched down in Cagliari and headed immediately southeast, cutting through the scrub and dust of the Sarrabus and out into the bright sunshine of the Costa Rei. We couldn’t wait any longer. We navigated down to one of our favorite beaches, cold beers in hand and splashed directly into the sparkling water.

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The goal was to reach the tiny port village of Santa Maria di Navaresse on the edge of the Golfo di Orosei where we rented a little villa on the edge of the mountain overlooking the sea.

From this little perch, we set about exploring one of the most beautiful corners of this amazing island.

View from the villaDonkey view New friendsIMG_3382[1]Overlooking BauneiViewIMG_1572First it was off to the infamous bandit town of Jerzu, clinging on the cliffs above the central valleys.

Jerzu is also famous for its vineyards of Cannonau — and at Antichi Poderi di Jerzu, the town’s main cantina, you can fill up on the red potion directly from a converted gas pump for the grand price of 2 euros a liter.

After that, it was time to introduce Nate and Kelly to the mostSardinian of all traditions: the agriturismo.

We found a little joint owned by the non-official mayor of Santa Maria (he also owned the boat rental and several other small businesses in the sleepy town) in the outskirts of town. We sat down to a feast of house-made cheeses, pasta, salads and suckling pig as the sun flared out behind the mountains.

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IMG_1566IMG_1646The next day, we set off again to explore the mountains and sea. First stop was Gola Su Gorropu. Known as Europe’s Grand Canyon, this deep gorge snakes its way through the interior of the great mountain range that runs perpendicular to the Golfo.

Properly dusty and sweaty, we headed over the range and down into the capital of the Golfo, Cala Gonone.

This lively tourist town is the port of call for more boaters exploring the coast. We stopped in for a dip and a bite to eat — but avoided the hawkers selling day trips. We had our own plans for conquering the coast.

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The next day we were up early with the sun and packed up for a day on the water. We rented a 12-foot Zodiac from the quasi-mayor in the port and took off just as the heat began to rise.

The Golfo stretches for some 40 kilometers in a wide arc known locally as the “blue crescent”. Every kilometer or so IMG_1740you find dazzling beaches tucked between 100-meter cliffs — beaches so remote, you can only access them via boat or a half-day hike over the mountains from the main road.

So we set about on the serious business of racing from one beach to the next, dropping anchor, diving in and exploring the caves and corals of the coast. We bobbed our way along the Golfo until the early afternoon sun started edging behind those tall cliffs — by 4pm the sun is safely on the other side of the range. Then we raced back over a fairly heavy chop, making it back to Santa Maria just in time for cool white wine and dinner in the shade.

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DCIM100MEDIAIMG_1717 IMG_1713The next morning it is was already get-away day, so we packed up and made our way back to Cagliari for the evening, exploring the Castello neighborhood high above the sea before sampling the famous ricci pizza from our favorite local pizzeria, Il Fantasma.

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It was a quick retreat, but an amazing one. Like an evening at the Agriturismo, Sardinia cannot be enjoyed with a quick bite, but savored over many festive courses.

For Nate and Kelly, it was just a first taste of this beautiful land and we wished we could have shown them more. For us, it was a nostalgic experience, like getting the flavor of some never-forgotten dish. We savored it as much as we could, but to be honest, we’ll never get our fill. So as the plane took off from Cagliari, we looked down on the mountains and turquoise sea with the distinct feeling that there would be another course coming somewhere down the line. No diets here.

Flashback: Somewhere between it all in Alsace

COLMAR, ALSACE, FRANCE — Cross the Rhine from Germany and you step into a world between worlds. Not German, but not really French; Alsace is a place all its own. And for a long weekend in spring, it was ours as well.

AlsaceThis May, we were lucky enough to join yet another Heigert Hochzeit — this time Christoph and Verena exchanged vows in the wine country outside of Freiburg, Germany on the edge of the Black Forest. Not only was it a beautiful wedding with friends and family, but it put us within striking distance of Alsace, a location still on our Europe bucket list.

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IMG_0925 IMG_0917 IMG_0942So for a long weekend in May, Jakob, Darcy and Jonathan joined us in exploring this historic and completely mesmerizing area between two countries.

We set up our HQ in the little canal town of Colmar, at the far southern end of the Route des Vins d’Alsace, a windy two lane route that takes you though the low valleys and vine-laced hills of one of France’s most important wine regions.

Colmar is famous for its half-timbered houses and canals that are sort of a mix of Bretagne and Venice. In fact, we stayed in the small area of town called Petit Venisse, due to the number of canals and boats toting wide-eyed tourists. In fact our apartment rental sat right on one of the main canals, meaning evenings were spent sipping wine and chatting canal-side on our own private dock (where the oldest outhouse toilet in town notoriously sat).

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IMG_1129IMG_1038 It turned out that we arrived in time just for one of the many wine festivals.

Rieslings and Gewurztraminers dominate the rocky terroir and cool, wet climate here and Alsatians are quick to pair these crisp dry wines with their famous version of the German Flammkuchen, or Tarte Flambee in French.

So we winded our way through town, munching and sipping to our hearts’ content.

IMG_1055 IMG_1035 IMG_1033IMG_1034IMG_0961 IMG_0966 IMG_0973IMG_0959IMG_1198The next day it was off to explore the Route des Vins itself.

We stopped first in the town of Riquewihr, an unbelievably picturesque collection of pastel-colored houses, cobblestone streets and fairy tale ramparts.

At the heart of the Route des Vins, its home to some of the most acclaimed wine makers in Europe.IMG_1239

IMG_1202 IMG_1217 IMG_1222 IMG_1219 IMG_1204 IMG_1231 IMG_1232 IMG_1235 IMG_1240IMG_1238 IMG_1236We walked through town and then up into the woods and vineyards that covered the hillside, giving us an amazing overview of the region from a bird’s eye view.

Walking through the vines made us understandably thirsty, so we dipped in to the Domaine Dopff winery for tastes and a few cases for the road.

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Afterwards it was further north to the impressive structure of the Ch ateau Haut-Koenig sburg. This massive fortress was the centerpiece of the region as it exchanged hands between the revolving owners of German, French and Austrian conquerors.

If only we had more time to explore this magical place, we would have continued up the route and unlocked its many treasures. But like the best of the Alsatian Rieslings, sometimes just a taste is all you get and maybe all you need, before leaving the wonderland between worlds and heading home.

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Tasting Haarlem

HAARLEM, THE NETHERLANDS — Before there was Uptown Funk, there was old town charm. The original Haarlem has more than just an extra ‘A’ to offer.

HaarlemBow wowExistential discussions of home aside, we did borrow a real home for our visit to Amsterdam: a little rental flat in the heart of the Jordaan. Our friends Carl and Lisa joined us for the first time, so of course we needed to showcase some of Amsterdam’s gems — the Bulldog, the Reichsmuseum, Brouwerij T’ij.

But we also found new things to fall in love with.

Top of the list was renting a couple town bikes and pedaling out to Haarlem, Amsterdam’s quieter older brother, some twenty kilometers away. There we floated along country canals and through the multicolored tulip fields that make this town world famous.

On either side, flowers every color of the rainbow grew quietly. Unfortunately it seems we missed peak season by a week or two, but still as a slight breeze picked up, it smelled and felt like heaven.

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IMG_0843Some 20 kilometers of pedaling — even on the flat plains of the Netherlands — builds up a mighty thirst. So we made our way back to the heart of the old town and sought out one of the most unique breweries in the world.

Brouwerij Jopen harkens back to Haarlem’s heyday as a brewing centerpiece, some five centuries ago. Reestablished in 1990 after two centuries of shuttered door, the new brewery set up shop a couple years ago in an old protestant church — aptly named Jopenkerk. The beautiful combination of stained glass, greystone and copper kettles gives you one of the most unique drinking experiences anywhere. Oh and the bier was good too.

So we sip, we savor, we wonder and we wait. Is this the last time? Maybe. But probably not. After all, every day is a homecoming if your home always the place at the end of the road.

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Home is everywhere

AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS — No matter how many times I find myself leaving this place, I seem to always find my way back again sooner than I thought. As if there is a part of me I left there and just can’t ever seem to find.

Canal by nightIMG_0553So while we may position this as our last trip to the ‘dam during our expat days, I’m not willing to put all my chips on that call.

You read it right: our days are numbered. At least as expats. At least this time around. In September, we’ll pack up, tuck our tails between our legs (literally for Addie) and make our way home. “Dahoam is’ dahoam,” as the Bayerisch people say. Nothing beats it. Nothing except leaving for a while and finding your way back.

But where is this “home” really?

In my heart, there are many places I feel home, spread across the world.

DamChicago is HQ, my heart, my rock of course. Munich and St. Louis split the pot for second-home status. But there are little parts of me I can’t seem to collect from places like Paris, like Istanbul, like Sardinia, like Amsterdam.

So be it. If being home means returning to Chicago, it can also mean returning to these other places that my soul feels comfy.

And while I know this won’t be the last time here, it may be just enough time for that “kleines Heimweh” to set in again.

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Botswana and back

GABORONE, BOTSWANA — With the animals, the adventure, the action behind us, it was time for the whole impetus of the trip: a German-Batswanan (yes, that’s the correct spelling) union in this beautiful African land.

BotswanaFrom Kruger, we rolled back south to Johannesburg, stopping off at one of the continent’s most amazing natural wonders. Blyde River Canyon, known as Africa’s Grand Canyon, cuts a deep gash into the otherwise flat South African grasslands.

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AfricaIn Johannesburg, we grabbed a car and headed northwest, bouncing down two-way roads that cut through the gorgeous South African countryside. The toasty sun and lazy clouds made for an amazing five hour drive to the northern border.

PhakaloneThe border crossing was… interesting. It was our first experience with the infamous African bureaucracy. It took several lines, a handful of forms and having to “sneak” back across the South African border for a missing stamp, but somehow we figured it out in the end.

After crossing over, we made our way to Gaborone, the capital and only large city in Botswana, one of the least population dense countries in the entire world. Gaborone is Poolsideclean, organized, if lacking a bit of character.

Long strip malls line six-lane highways. Middle class residents shop and sip coffee. At first glance, it was the suburbs of Africa.

We stayed in a decidedly upper class enclave: a five star golf resort on the outskirts of Gaborone. It was here that we joined Thomas and Louise’s families in celebrating a union that was official over four years ago. Not only was the ceremony beautiful — neither the bride nor the groom could help themselves from crying — but it was truly a meeting of cultures. Guests decked out in Tracht watched on as traditional African dancers played music and did a cool mix of traditional slap and break dancing that strangely reminded everyone of a Bavarian Schuhplattler.

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African dancers SingingAfrican skies After the wedding, many of the guests moved on to the northeast of the country, to the Okavango Delta, one of the most amazing natural scenes in the world. Unfortunately for us, our adventures were behind us and we slowly made our way back to Johannesburg, wishing we had another two weeks to explore the delta, the Calihari, the Zambezi and Victoria Falls.

African skiesBut there’s no greater tragedy for adventurers than checking everything off your lists — after all, what would be left to explore the next time around? Cruising down an empty road, a massive African rain cloud floating on the horizon, we just quietly sat and soaked the untold beauty of this continent that we had only scratched the surface of.

The warm sun, the cool fragrant air and day dreams of the next time we put our feet on the soil of Africa.

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Up close and personal — touching Africa

MOHOLOHOLO REHAB CENTER, HOEDSPRUIT, SOUTH AFRICA — On our last day on safari, it was time to get out of the jeep and up close. Closer than we ever thought.

MountainviewIMG_9832Moholoholo Rehabilitation Center is an unfortunately busy place.

With the traditional ranges of Africa’s wildlife continuously shrinking, more and more these amazing animals come in contact with malicious humans. From horrid snare traps and poison to poaching and simple habitat Cloudyoverlap, the impact that the growing human population has on the native animals is horrendous.

The goal of Moholoholo is to lessen this impact by rehabilitating and, in some cases, returning these endangered animals to places that they are happy and safe — such as Kruger National Park and the outlying game reserves.

We spent the morning touring the center, which was home from every type of creature from the big cats (lions, cheetahs, leopards, lynx) to a pack of the extremely endangered African wild dogs, smaller creatures such as the infamous honey badger, and a host of truly regal eagles, hawks and buzzards.

We arrived on a very special day. One of the newest residents of the center, a five year-old cheetah, was being trained and socialized to human contact. They showed off her amazing speed with a special training device and then we took turns petting the amazing creature.

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LionessAfter that, it was a tour of the grounds, meeting all the animals, including surprisingly friendly hyenas, a naughty honey badger, Houdini, that they could just not keep in his pen — and the beautiful wild dogs, leopards and lions.

All these animals were now accustomed to human contact, so were no longer fit to be re-released into the wild. This was their home now and it was a special way to educate people on how important it is to keep these animals safe and thriving for generations to come. It brought us closer to understanding the challenges that face today’s wildlife.

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Sleepy girlRedBut there were ways to get even closer. Moholoholo is especially known for i ts raptors: eagles, hornbills, hakws and especially the vultures. We were able to step literally into their home — our guide taking us in to the raptor pen to meet these incredible birds. An especially “friendly” eagle named Chicken nipped at my feet as we walked around his enclosure, a constant reminder of how “human” these animals can be.

The vultures were an experience unto themselves. We’re trained to see them as dirty, nasty, even evil. But in reality, they play a very important role in the bush, cleaning up the scraps that pickier predators leave behind. And up close, they are truly powerful animals. We were able to step into their enclosure and — one by one — allow them to land on our protected arms and feed them fresh beef. Your heartbeat never quite picks up more than when a 40 lb. vulture sits just inches away from your face. Incredible. And beautiful in their own way.

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IMG_9991Touch downAfter Moholoholo, it was off to Tshukudu Game Reserve forour final game drive of the trip. This high-end private reserve is one of the premier locations for visiting white rhinos — the only of the big five we hadn’t yet sighted.

And we were not disappointed. After rumbling past a waterhole chock full of lazy buffalo, we came across a pair of large male rhinos munching on dried grass. These are the largest rhinos in the world, some two tons each. At Tshukudu, they purposefully remove the rhino horns in an attempt to avoid poachers. If there’s no horn to take, there’s no reason for poachers to risk prison or death to try to kill these animals. A sad, but brilliant, strategy.

Tschukudu gate Happy Sausage tree