Last week 130 of you joined us for a talk by Michael and Nicky Dyer on "Lion Conservation - a View from the Sharp End". Mark Coreth exhibited sculptures, Jeremy Hammick paintings and we all thoroughly enjoyed wine from Yapp Brothers and fish and chips.
Michael's objective was to shine a light on a subject which has remained worryingly below the radar for many people who travel to Africa. Most people who go on safari to places such as the Serengeti see lions, but the continent's lion population is in free fall. 50 years ago there were 450,000 lion in Africa, today there are fewer than 20,000. Conservationists now project that by 2020 (yes you read that right...) there may be no lion left outside the national parks. To put that in context, just 15 years ago as much of 50% of East Africa's wildlife lived outside the national parks.
Borana is leading the way in a grass roots project that puts tourism at it's heart. It's simple stuff, but effective. Tourism not only raises awreness, but it is also a contributor to Living WIth Lions - a project that collars, monitors and protects lion across Laikipia and in the most fundamental way it (tourism) creates a force for preservation of this wild and exceptional corner of Africa.
Working with Michael Dyer we are now putting together a small number of one-off trips to allow a few people to become actively involved in the project; lion are constantly monitored and new lion frequently need to be collared and at the same time thoroughly checked for health and other valuable metrics. This is a chance to see beneath the skin of a highly effective grass roots project. If you'd like to know more give us a call or email us to find out more.
The woodsmoke, the canvas, the night sky above and the night sounds all around. Whatever it is that brings out the inner scout in all of us there are few holidays that beat proper camping and there are few places on earth that beat our top five tented camps. Our favourite, all perfectly pitched in the most stunning locations, are about comfort, style and the outdoors. What we love is the intense (sorry) experience that only sleeping under canvas can bring. And when it's combined with some exceptional wildlife, it can be life changing.
Camping can be desperate rummaging for the last dry match box when the only thing to look forward to is the cold trek to the even colder showers. Or it can be breathlessly waiting for tigers to appear in Nagarhole National Park or finding yourself the only human among thousands of buffalo in Katavi, knowing that there's a hot shower and a delicious breakfast waiting for you when you get back to camp. Guess which we prefer. The combination of frontier living, freedom from monotonous reality with the added frisson of wild life only inches away is what gives it the edge over everything else.
So here are our top 5:
OK, so it's not our normal stamping ground, but a friend of ours, author, travel writer and television presenter Richard Grant, who I travelled with in Morocco last year (see The Telegraph) is opening the doors of his historic plantation house in the Mississippi Delta to a couple or small group who want to explore the rich culture and natural history of the area.
The house, Gum Grove, sits on the banks of the Yazoo River amid 6,000 acres of cotton fields, swamps and hardwood forests teeming with deer, wild turkey, beaver, otter, coyotes, and other wildlife. The river and nearby Bee Lake offer unparalleled fishing for bass, crappie, bream and catfish, and the area is a birdwatcher’s paradise, being directly under the Mississippi Flyway migration route. Other activities available on the property include boating, a spring-fed swimming pool, and sipping wine and mint juleps on the seven-columned front porch. Meals include fruits and vegetables from the organic garden behind the house.
Using Gum Grove as a base, day or overnight trips can be taken to visit the last of the rural juke joints, where the raw Delta blues is still played by elderly musicians, to the historic river towns of Vicksburg and Greenville, to barbecue restaurants, hot tamale shacks, blues museums, civil rights sites, and various local characters and storytellers of Richard’s acquaintance.
Trips are available in April/May and October, for 5 days or 7 days. Bed and breakfast is $120 per person per night, plus car hire for self-guided tours. To get picked up and dropped off at the airport in Jackson, Mississippi, driven and guided by Richard, with all meals and alcohol provided, is $280 per person per night. Flights not included. Potential visitors should be aware that there are mosquitoes, poisonous snakes and alligators in the area...if you're interested, give drop Richard an email
After a three month ban on visitors to its national parks, India's tiger reserves are open again. In July 2012 the Supreme Court of India ordered a ban on tourism activities in the core areas of the country’s national parks after allegations that some states had permitted development within the reserves and tourism was negatively impacting on their tiger populations. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that in the last 100 years we have lost 97% of the world's wild tigers. The Indian Subcontinent remains one of the last refuges, but even here numbers are precarious - thre are estimated to be around only 1700 remaining in India.
The ruling provoked a diverse range of opinions to be aired by travellers, safari companies, environmentalists and local inhabitants alike. In common with many conservationists we believe that well-managed tourism helps to protect the tiger and other wildlife. Where there are visitors, there are tigers, where there are none the tigers have disappeared - poaching and habitat destruction continue to be huge threats.
Working with small lodges and camps owned or run by passionate wildlife enthusiasts and ardent conservationists we share their desire to shift the focus away from the tiger on wildlife trips to India. While understanding that a tiger sighting is on every visitor’s wish list, at camps like Shergarh in Kanha, Forsyth Lodge and Reni Pani in Satpura they are eager to suggest that such an experience should be regarded as a privilege rather than a right and showcase the huge variety of flora and fauna that India has to offer.
The heated debates have helped to raise further awareness of the plight of the tiger whose numbers in the world have dwindled to dangerously low levels and create some new ideas for their protection. We expect there to be changes in the parks as each state works towards running in accordance with the National Tiger Conservation Authority’s new guidelines and prepares a conservation plan for “regulated, low-impact tourism”. Such plans are well overdue but our view is that ultimately the lifting of the ban is in the best interests of the tiger.
I think you can trace the point the human race started to go off the rails, to the moment when someone decided that life as a nomadic pastoralist life could be improved upon. Actually I think you can draw a straight line between this moment and the existence of people like Alan (sorry I mean Lord) Sugar, the behaviour of premier league footballers and the current havoc in the financial markets. It all came down to the moment that someone decided that acquiring more stuff should take precedence over any other endeavour.
Having spent a week in the company of a family from the nomadic Ait Atta clan in Southern Morocco, gently migrating some 80 miles on foot between the Jebel Saghro and the High Atlas, the pace of the journey dictated by the location of water and grazing for the flocks (they feed almost exclusively on a aromatic wild thyme here), I can tell you that there is no better way to recalibrate your value system and in particular to remind yourself of the value of time.
As a cultural experience it felt entirely uncontrived; it was a pilgrimage more than anything else and we joined a Chaucer-esque cast; a family of 5, their 200 odd sheep and (disarmingly engaging and intelligent) goats, 3 dogs and 5 camels. I was accompanied by travel writer Richard Grant (who will be writing about this in the Telegraph soon) and we also had a crew of 4 muleteers and their mules and a single saint of a donkey, for whom nothing seemed too much trouble as it tottered along mountain tracks under gargantuan loads.
In short I returned having had one of the most rewarding safaris I've done in many years. Beginning in the Dades Valley in the Jebel Saghro, we walked at a gentle civilized pace over 6 days up over the snow line at 11,000 ft and into the summer pastures in the High Atlas.
To actively luxuriate in the passing of time, walking along soaring mountain passes, or over a glass of mint tea, or high up on a rock overlooking hundreds of miles of unpeopled wilderness, brought a deep sense of contentedness that built over the course of the week. A life divorced from anything with a screen and that revolves entirely around livestock rather than a craving for material wealth, does seem to be one that brings an unassailable independence – history is littered with governments frustrated by their inability to control people who don’t want any more than they’ve got. No wonder nomads the world over believe resolutely that their way of life is the best – it’s not just dewy eyed western romantics it seems.
The Rufiji River in front at Kiba Point in the Selous Game Reserve. Even with my rather shaky iphone filming not a view to tire of quickly. This river is stiff with life of all kinds, from tens of thousands of hippos and crocs, to countless species of fish; tigers and cats and even the odd bull shark, despite the fact that this is more than 100 miles from the sea.
Sat at this point during el nino in '98 when the entire river rose by 20ft despite being a mile wide here.
Cracking place to flycamp too...
The Victorians didn’t believe in Gorillas. This is a fact and it’s just one of the many amusing facts about a group of people whose hubris apparently knew few bounds. At one point they also famously decided that there was nothing left to invent, so closed the patent office (although it soon needed re-opening when someone invented yet another device for covering the sexually provocative legs of pianos.)
Anyway, back to Gorillas because ridiculous as it seems to us now, it is of course a default position for most of us to at least question the existence of something that isn’t there for us to see. Put another way, there’s a chance we only find what we look for.
A story caught my eye this week on the BBC website showcasing a study conducted on Rock Hyraxes, the thrust of which was to question whether all the extensive snorting and whistling noises that they make add up to anything more than..well, snorts and whistles. At first glance, the conclusion, like most scientific papers seemed to lie somewhere between “definitely’ and “probably not.”
But one of the things that caught my eye was the suggestion that “The hyrax is one of only a few mammals which have syntax.” And this is where I’m reminded Victorians and Gorillas. Because I wonder which is more likely – that God singled out a few animals (people, dolphins, hyraxes and the odd parrot) to be able to talk, then got bored and left the rest out, saying “Let Them Make Only Meaningless Squeaks All the Days of Their Lives”? Or that those are some of the few animals we’ve got round to paying attention to? I think it’s also known as observer bias.
Most of the many mammals that I’ve spent time watching in Africa, whether elephant, lion, or the countless smaller species (including the hyrax) or the Gerbils, Hamster (RIP) or Guinea pigs that my sons now keep, seem to make pretty significant use of vocal communication (roughly on a par with that of my sons). I wouldn’t mind betting that the overwhelming majority are pretty good conversationalists…if only someone will listen.
Of course none of this would really add up to a hill of beans if it didn’t illustrate quite so clearly the contrast between our collective position as custodians of the planet and our total lack of qualification for the job. The Victorian refusal to believe in Gorillas is pure comedy, but today’s misunderstandings – from climate change to how to stop rhino poaching (another thought provoking article) - are far less funny.
While working in a Maasai area in Southern Kenya in the late 90s, we witnessed another conjunction of Venus and Jupiter rather like the one that's been in the news and our skies this past few weeks. It was March 1998 and Venus passed within 2.2 degrees of Jupiter. It happened at a time when that part of Kenya was in a state of serious drought – the Maasai cattle were dropping like flies and overgrazing was causing severe damage to the fragile volcanic soil. Dust hung permanently in the air. At the time, despite the seriousness of the drought, I remember the Maasai seemed to have confidence in two things – the first was that the rains would be good that year, the second, that no rain would come until the two planets actually crossed. As it turned out they were correct on both counts.
So I find myself wondering – in a rather unscientific way – if perhaps there’s a connection between the heat wave we’ve just enjoyed in the UK, the fact that Jupiter and Venus recently crossed, and the fact that our heat wave has since been replaced by winter storms. Not enough for a thesis perhaps - or to avert a hosepipe ban, but enough to make me wonder what else the Maasai know that we don’t.
I took this photo through the window of my cessna 206 (hence the misty quality of the shot) a few years ago while flying between Katavi and Mahale - the image isnt great, but it does tell a story; each year as the dry season sets in, water in Katavi's seasonal rivers dwindles, until many years by the end of September, there's almost no water. Life gets tough for most, but my sympathy lies mainly with the hippopotami who huddle together in groups of several hundred with little or no respite from the relentless heat. The little white specs that look like maggots are actually several thousand tonnes of not very gruntled hippo.
Interested in seeing it for yourself? Read more about Katavi
Surely one of the remotest locations in the world for a museum - Jack's Camp on the edge of Botswana's Makgadikgadi Pans is a registered Museum and therefore permited to collect and display archeological finds. If you havent been to Makgadikgadi, then put it on the bucket list - 16,000 km2 of white emptiness, an almost impossibly elemental place where it is no exaggeration to say that the silence is defeaning, but an unforgettable experience of one of the world's most unusual habitats. In certain areas on the pans, things resembling autumn leaves litter the surface of the dried lake bed - on closer inspection, the "leaves" turn out to be immaculate stone tools