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In some countries, riding around a city in a horse and carriage is something done mostly by tourists. Who else would brave the onslaught of cars, trucks, motor bikes and scooters armed only with cameras and a guide book? In Morocco though, the horse (or mule) and carriage is another way of saying taxi – not literally, it's caleches and taxi – but if you want to go anywhere, you hail a horse.
The carriages vary, some are nothing more than a flat bed on wheels piled high with sacks of chick peas or bales of grass still with butterflies attached, the driver perched up on top of the load. Others, especially in towns, are incredibly ornate, with bells, tassels and fringes that wouldn't look out of place in Oklahoma!. Comfort levels vary too, even the most decorated might not have much in the way of suspension or cushions to sit on – but what are those thick guide books for anyway?
Sitting in our carriage in Taroudant the pace is slow and companionable. Things completely missed from a car or bus are part of the ride - the heady smell of onions, cumin and paprika from tagines cooking in pavement cafes, the scent of a hidden orchard thick with blossom. The sound of a football match from a barber shop radio, the shout of small boys as they rush home from school.
It's easy to get lost, both in the narrow streets and in time. The speed of a trot transports you back centuries. The driver points out ancient crenellated walls, once the gruesome scene of many an execution, now the home of thousands of swifts. We lean back, looking at the first stars high above the flat roofs, thinking how good this would be at home. Then we remember the size of the garage and promise instead to come back and do it again.
Our drive to the aptly named Serenity in Kerala was a kaleidoscope of colourful interest both on and off the road. Not least we passed a highly over-laden lorry - a great mountain of palm leaves on wheels - which was heading two hours up the twisting road to Serenity to feed its resident elephant.
The following morning after breakfast Lakshmi, said pachyderm, arrived alongside her attentive mahout to spend the morning with us. She works afternoons in the surrounding rubber plantations that cover the hills as far as the eye can see. All the Serenity staff came out from the plantation bungalow to greet her as elephants are much revered here. During festivals they’re painted in patterns of shocking pinks and bright yellows and taken into the local Hindu temple. Lakshmi is the name for the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity and the embodiment of beauty so she’s always in demand and the absolute star of the show.
It seems that the way to an elephant’s heart is through her stomach and we were given an assortment of food to offer her. Bananas proved to be very popular as were crushed coconut, (crushed, that is, underfoot by Lakshmi), mangoes and jack fruit. It’s very strange feeding an elephant, as the trunk approaches your hand it resembles a snake weaving its way through the air before curling itself around the fruit and deftly swooshing it back to its mouth. The elephant’s twinkling eyes suggest she’s enjoying every mouthful and everyone watching can’t but smile. When one jack fruit failed to pass muster, either it was bad or unripe, it was thrown to the ground and then stamped on hard in utter disgust!
Having very slowly and gently knelt down to allow the children to clamber on top Lakshmi’s meal continued with delivery now from above and behind. Her trunk stretched gracefully over her back in a wide arc to delicately search for food offered from those onboard and now out of sight. Breakfast over, for the moment, Lakshmi then proceeded to set off down the track, complete with her passengers and amble down to the river for her morning bath.
If I were looking for a simple answer to the question, “What’s Namibia like?” I’d begin by directing you to a satellite image of Sub Saharan Africa and suggest you looked at the bottom left hand corner. And I‘d expect that the first thing you’d notice, was that in contrast to the lush green of the rest of Sub Saharan Africa, the southwestern tip of the continent is bright orange, and looks as if it’s been dipped in a pot of sepia ink.
And simplistic as it sounds, this ought to give you a clue what to expect when you get to Namibia; a country dominated by a staggering sense of space, an overwhelming intensity of light and colour…and quite a lot of sand.
With its immense deserts and elaborate rock formations, epic clear blue skies and incredible colours, (most of which sit between blue and orange in the spectrum), this must be one of the most photogenic places in the world. When you see your photos from Namibia, you too will feel like a National Geographic photographer.
Surprisingly for a country that is roughly 90% desert, Namibia lends itself well to a self-drive exploration. You can easily head off for a couple of weeks driving your self between one remote gem of a camp and the next, but If you’re looking for a truly exceptional way in which you see it - to experience it close up as well as from afar; examining minerals in a remote desert floor on your hands and knees, or viewing radiantly coloured desert landscapes like huge expressionist works of art, then it doesn’t get better than from a small light aircraft piloted, and guided, by someone who’s experience of the country is born of a lifetime of exploring it.
This is how I was lucky enough to experience it last November, when, having organized a flying safari for Richard Grant from The Telegraph (due to be published 8th Feb 2014), we set off for three extraordinary days that felt about as far from the daily routine as it’s possible to imagine.
Picked up in Swakopmund by the highly charismatic Henk Schoeman, youngest of the four Schoeman brothers, we were whisked away at what would have been treetop height if there had been any. Over three days we flew over massive seal colonies, skimmed over impossibly beautiful dune fields that stretched as far as the eye could see.
We landed on beaches in the middle of nowhere, touched down in remote desert canyons that felt like they’d never seen a human, flew in intense evening light over magical landscapes populated with magnificently marked oryx, drove and ran down monstrous dunes and crawled into caves to discover bushman rock art.
By night we slept in the Schoeman’s wonderfully old-school camps, ate like kings, drank plenty and laughed a great deal, which isn’t hard to do in the relaxed company of Henk.
The danger these days, with too much information too readily available, is that you might - if you’re unlucky - discover too much about this trip before you get there. All I can say is that this would be a real shame. Resist the urge to over research this, trust to more than 40 years of Schoeman know-how and you’ll most likely be letting yourself in for a treat that you’ll never forget.
In 20 years of running and organizing safaris, including many years flying as a bush-pilot in some of East Africa’s most stunning and wild locations, I honestly thought I’d lost the capacity to be that blown away by an experience. Thank goodness I was wrong.
Surely it's no coincidence that it’s so close to the French mélange – a “set of diverse elements”? or even “Melee” meaning a "confused or agitated scramble"?
I’m pulled from my reverie when the crowd in front of me parts to reveal a wild-eyed horseman, on an even wilder-eyed horse, approaching at what feels a lot like a gallop. One arm held aloft like the lone ranger he utters a loud yell as he bears down on me. Just as I’m beginning to wonder if this is personal he brings his horse to a stop in a cloud of dust about 10 yards away, with the equestrian version of a handbrake turn, before disappearing headlong into the crowds again.
This, it turns out is a fairly representative example of what Sonepur is like; loud, intensely colourful and brimming with spectacle; like the Bath and West show on speed. But despite the intensity of the sensory assault, I’m struck by the sense of order that prevails within the chaos.
There’s no feeling of threat or panic here, despite the sheer weight of people who walk shoulder to shoulder through the narrow streets. As any first time visitor to India notices, the concept of personal space has little traction here, but even as a 6ft 5 giant I’m amazed that I don’t feel more uncomfortable - perhaps in the setting of the fair with its elephants, snake charmers, bull, bird and dog markets, I blend in as just one more oddity among many.
Sonepur Mela, in the state of Bihar is a remarkably ancient institution; far less known than fairs like the Pushkar camel fair in Rajasthan, but it’s both larger and older. Visited by Chandragupta Maurya in the 3rd Century BC who came to buy elephants across the Ganges, the fair has drawn countless generations of others who came – and still some - to trade animals from elephants to bulls to horses, birds and dogs.
Today the elephants are no longer officially for sale, but they are still here in the haathi bazaar and deals these days are allegedly are done behind closed doors. The bull, horse, dog and bird markets still thrive.
To the outside world, despite being the home of unified India and the birth-place of Buddhism, Bihar is one of India’s lesser known states. A victim of poor economic policy in the 60s and 70s that some suggest robbed it of the birthright of its natural mineral wealth.
In recent decades Bihar has been plagued by dissident activists and suffered a lack of tourists as a result. To date tourism infrastructure remains minimal so Sonepur Mela has remained steadfastly off the radar for all but the most determined of visitors. Of course this feels like a real privilege and I’m aware of being one of a very small number who are walking around with cameras; this is still a place where people watch things that they find interesting with the naked eye, rather than through the frame of an Iphone.
Staying aboard the stunning river boat, the MV Sukahpa, owned by the wonderfully named Assam Bengal Navigation Company, we travel by village boat to the fair and spend two full days exploring. We witness elephants being made-up with colourful paints by their mahouts, spend time chatting to their owners who sit in deckchairs beside their beasts (just out of trunk range) basking in their reflected glory.
We accompany a huge bull elephant as he walks through the tightly-pressed crowds, somehow avoiding squashing anyone, to the banks of the Ganges, and we share his palpable joy at being allowed to roll over into the cooling water to have every inch washed by his mahout.
I’m powerfully reminded of bath-time with my sons when they were little, with even the same commands issued in a tone somewhere between a request and a threat “leg up please…leg UP!” “turn over… please turn over” all the while the elephant much absorbed in the blowing of bubbles and the all pervading joy of feeling weightless.
And there’s another side to the fair that interests me – as a traveller culture is a fascinating allure, but it’s easy to subconsciously apply an authenticity filter and miss things. For all the horsemen, snake-charmers and decorated cattle, there’s a brash and indescribably noisy side to this event, but a side that is no less valid as a cultural experience. Its icon must surely be the Tannoy public address system.
Albeit hand painted and decorated, it blares almost nonstop through the tight streets by the Hariharnat temple and the rows of commercial stalls selling mostly the same blankets, bangles, vermillion and small brass pots for placing offerings in the temples. There’s a harder commercial edge to this side of the fair – the pots these days aren’t hand-beaten brass, but all bear the stamp of a single company in Gujurat. It’s an undeniably modern aspect to the mela, but of course still a resoundingly valid cultural experience.
At the far end of the rows of stalls I find the apotheosis of the modern cultural experience. A tall structure made of cast iron and wooden floorboards towers above me. Rickety staircases climb the sides going up not one, but three shaky stories to a set of balconies that look down, like a steampunk version of Shakespeare’s Globe, into a deep, sheer-sided well.
This is a Wall of Death, India style. While Tannoys outside blast their sales pitch in competition with the un-silenced roar of the motorcycles warming up, we wait while almost three hundred people climb to the balconies to witness the spectacle. 20 minutes later we’re off and within minutes the wall is – incredibly – populated by what looks like a vertical rush-hour.
Four motorcycles, the first driven by a girl of no more than twelve in a gold shalwar kameez, compete for wall space with 2 small Maruti family cars whose drivers sit not inside, but outside on the doors, even reaching across to shake hands. At speed. While hurtling round and round the wall vertically.
It is instantly and unforgettably outrageous - a mixture of comedy and reckless jackass-ery. There must be a word to describe this chaos, this disorderly scramble. There is, what I’m looking at is a melee.
If you're interested in visiting India we can help - you can download an itinerary for this trip here. Andrea has more than 10 years of experience travelling in the Indian Subcontinent and organising spectacular trips there. Drop her an email if you'd like to find out more
Here the mineral world prevails over the animal and vegetable. It’s hard not to feel like a spec of organic plankton adrift in a sea of sand.
For two days I’ve been camping in the dunes behind Sandwich Bay, in the company of Bruno Nebe, a highly experienced guide who after a lifetime in this area knows it like the back of his hand. Carrying a small simple camp we’ve explored Sandwich Bay itself, the Kuiseb River Delta and the extensive dune system that surrounds it.
The dunes are mesmerizing on many levels; their extent and beauty are beguiling and there’s a fascination that comes with the latent threat the desert exudes; like staring at the patterns of a venomous snake. Without Bruno, just how long would it take to lose my bearings in such a place?
But perhaps most striking are the shifting patterns and colours that the dunes throw up as the light shifts, which it constantly does. The picture is rarely still and the immense blond dunes create abstract patterns with their shadows.
Ridges and intricate ripples are etched into the surface of the sand, crisp and immaculate, constantly refreshed by the wind. In places the sand has a vivid purple patina that glows in the sunlight.
Approaching one such area we get down on our hands and knees to take a closer look. What we see are distinct patches of purple sand, lying in the troughs between ripples.
Using our reversed binoculars as magnifying glasses, we zoom in to see individual grains of sand. And at this point we realize it’s not simply sand that we’re holding in our hands, but gemstones.
The purple colour is a haze of garnets. And as any prospector worth his sand will tell you, garnets are one of the better indicators that you’re in diamond country.
To walk along the skeleton coast is a tantalizing experience; Namibia is the richest diamond producing region in the world, with almost 20% of the world’s gem quality diamonds coming from the forbidden region, a short distance to the south of where I’m standing at Sperrgebiet.
It is entirely possible that amongst the trillions of anonymous pebbles that I crunch blindly beneath my boots, lies a diamond, created 3 billion years ago, washed out of the diamond pipes in the Kimberley region of South Africa, down the Orange river into the South Atlantic and thrown up on to the shore by the ocean’s gigantic sorting machine for me to find.
Its tempting to keep staring at my feet, but I’m keen not to lose sight of Bruno…
We organise safaris throughout Namibia, including trips into the Namib Desert, which can be easily combined with a visits to the rest of the country
There was a steady stream of people walking along the roadside, babies hitched on women’s hips or with legs dangling from home-fashioned slings, men on bicycles or crowded into trailers pulled by tractors and we were all heading in the same direction.
By early afternoon we'd reached an open levelled area dotted with a few trees next to a hamlet. The air is buzzing with the sounds of gossip, bargaining, laughter, banter and the occasional shout from vendors struggling through the crowds with enormous sacks of goods balanced on their heads, a dangerously overloaded moped or a rickety trolley desperate to break free.
The weekly haat is one of the best places to meet the people of Chhattisgarh at their best, mingle with the locals and get a glimpse into tribal cultures. It’s a market but so much more than that; apart from all manner of goods being bought and sold, it’s a great social occasion too. Different ethnic groups put on their best and pour in from miles around to catch up with friends and family, local administrators and social workers come to convey their messages and hold meetings, disputes are settled and marriage negotiations carried out.
Under a patchwork of coloured tarpaulins goods are laid out on the ground: pots and baskets, foods such as dried fish, meat and mahua flowers at wholesale rates, toys, bangles, clothing and silver jewellery sold by merchants, farmers and weavers. Village and forest produce heaped in baskets is bartered for basic essentials like salt, tobacco and cloth. And of course, there's the local delicacy to savour - live red ants!
Away from the main centre there may be an outdoor film showing, the services of a palmist or astrologer to employ or opportunity to get an all-important tattoo before heading to the ‘bar area’ to sample the local firewater – rice toddy or mahua hooch made from jungle flowers stored in hollowed out gourds or plastic jerry cans. Sufficiently lubricated, before the light fades, you’ll find the gambling-loving shoppers betting on a cockfight, mediated by village shamans.
For more grass roots culture encounters take a look at our website, or get in touch to book your tailor-made trip to India.
If it all sounds a little too scary then here's our potted guide to how you can avoid it all:
LOCK YOURSELF AWAY IN A MONASTERY in Bhutan. Many people overlook Bhutan at this time of year, but it's a great time to visit; crisp, dry, clear air, wood burning stoves, hot stone baths. Visit Bhutan’s most famous dzong Taktsang and discover a place where phallic symbols aren't rude (or funny)
HEAD FOR THE HILLS in Morocco. Disappear for a few days, with your own private tented camp in the High Atlas and a camels to carry the kit. Then kick back in a Kasbah afterwards for a night or two.
PULL UP THE DRAWBRIDGE in India. Take the chance to explore Rajasthan and the stunning hill forts of Amber, Chittorgarh, Gangron, Jaisalmer, Kumbhalgarh and Ranthamborethat which make up UNESCO's first ever serial cultural property listing
SPEND YOUR MONEY ON CONSERVATION NOT CRACKERS - in Laikipia by visiting Borana or Lewa Downs and supporting their Lion and Rhino conservation efforts
BURY YOUR HEAD IN THE SAND in Namibia. If you're looking for total solitude then head into the thousands of square miles of stunning dunes above Sandwich Bay and discover gemstones beneath your feet and sleep on bedrolls beneath the stars
They were there, waiting patiently for us under a clump of trees, our leathery steeds already saddled with cradle-like howdahs and bare-footed mahouts sporting neatly groomed moustaches. While the mahout effortlessly shimmied onto the neck of our wrinkly vehicle I was glad of the rustic wooden ladder provided. Once on board, as we lurched off into the grassland I began to wonder at the wisdom of this expedition - it’s only when you’re on top of an elephant you realise quite how enormous they are. Although the Indian pachyderm is smaller than its African cousin they can still reach up to 3.5m high at the shoulder and weigh 5000kg. Quite impressive for a vegetarian.
It’s hardly Mark Shand’s epic 600 mile journey across India on his elephant Tara but even an hour or so of travelling this way gives you a completely different perspective of the jungle on a wildlife safari. While you can cover more ground by jeep the elephant is without doubt the best all-terrain vehicle there is; gullies and streams present no barrier and are effortlessly crossed in just a stride or two, sturdy branches are dexterously pushed aside, and dense tangles of greenery seem to magically open as if someone had whispered ‘open sesame’. Just hold on to your hat and get ready to duck on your mahout’s command.
We plodded close to deer, monkeys, a variety of birds and an incredible abundance of butterflies none of which seemed to even notice we were there, our placid 22 year old elephant Pawan, born in Kanha, the perfect mobile hide. Pug marks in the dust set our hearts racing and though we didn’t spot a tiger this time, I’m sure he wouldn’t have blinked an eye if we’d ambled by.
For more India safari ideas take a look at our website or get in touch to plan and book your trip.
I looked uncertainly at the steep swoop down, like the neck of a brontosaurus, but the children needed no further encouragement, shoes discarded they ran with abandon to the broad base which hung over the glossy green pools of the seasonal river. They peered over the edge looking for catfish and pirouetted with joy at the setting and the moment of being. They then ran back up and down again until they collapsed at the top, exhausted. The bond with Tony, first met at 6.30 that morning, was now firmly established and the children’s enthusiasm for all that he said and told them was unquenchable.
This was a bush breakfast on our first morning out from Kwihala Tented Camp deep in southern Tanzania’s Ruaha National Park. Mangoes, papaya, pineapple, boiled eggs, bacon and sausages, cereals, toast, passionfruit jam, and coffee were laid out on the bonnet of our open-topped Land Cruiser. Piling plates high, we returned to sit on the top of the rock and scanned the river. Herds of elephant, with many young, were making their way down the river bed towards us, to places where they knew they could dig for fresh water. Male impala sparred with each other among their herds and suddenly a cacophony of noise erupted with their snorting and blowing as other males locked horns and chased off pretenders. Beyond the river bed, we could see giraffe and birdlife abounded. We soaked in the scene for nearly an hour.
The scenery of Ruaha is breathtaking; improbably shaped Baobabs punctuate the landscape, tall golden grasses give way to salt bush and groves of sweet smelling wild lavender. The wide sand Mwagusi River, which flows fast and wide in the wet season, attracts the wildlife each morning and evening to drink from the pools the elephant dig. The wildlife is prolific but it’s the elephant that steal the show. Indeed, there was seldom a scene in which large herds of elephant, frequently with their young, were not visible and they had a cool disregard for us, allowing eyelash-counting closeness.
It seems ridiculous to travel all the way to Delhi just for the shopping - and this is the only place that I'll ever admit to it - but if you find yourself in India and happen to be passing through Delhi, pile into a rickshaw, squeeze onto the metro, hail an Ambassador - just get to the Dilli Haat.
Haat, the name for markets held in most rural areas, are usually weekly affairs. The one in Dehli is permanent, on a 6 acre site, with each stall devoted to a specific area of India. With 62 stalls, a 15 day change-over so that different sellers get a chance to showcase their wares and, although some looked rather more established and there was talk of a pashmina stranglehold on the western edge, there's enough rotation and more than enough variety to feel everything that's good and authentic to buy in India has come to you.
Sequinned slippers, silver bangles, palmleaf fish, embroidered shirts, chilli chutney, saris, terracotta hooks, lamp shades, hand bags, table cloths, masala tea, sandalwood elephants, cushion covers, bile cures, pyramids of spices – everything dazzling in fantastic blues, pinks, oranges, greens and reds. Chilled coconut water after the first 3 acres makes all the difference for the next 3 and the smells and sizzles rising in clouds of corriander, chilli, fenugreek, cardamom from the food stalls is reward at the end.
We stayed for hours and could easily have stayed for days, only our driver was keen that we see the Red Fort. Apparently there's more to Delhi than shopping.