Fill in the form for a tailored package from our specialists
Thanks for getting in touch.We'll get right back to you shortly.
Sorry there was an error, please try again.
Call us: UK + 44 1741 898104
US +1 415 906 5264
Email us: email@example.com
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. 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
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
As we launch our competition to win a Kindle Paperwhite we thought we'd provide a little inspiration for books to take on your travels (and no doubt a bit of cotraversy too - how can we have the temerity to narrow "great travel books" just 6??) So here goes, in no particular order:
In 1956 Eric Newby sent a telegram to his friend, Hugh Carless - CAN YOU TRAVEL NURISTAN JUNE - and with some advice from a Welsh waitress on what to take, the two of them set off to one of the most remote and beautiful places on earth. Adventurers with more experience & sense may never have gone. Fortunately Newby had little of either. His iconic account of their journey and is responsible for pushing many young would-be travellers out into the world.
Published in 1979, this is a memoir by one of the last great adventurers. From a tense week with dissidents in Moscow to a laid back sojourn in a water tank with hippies in Eilat, Gellhorn's world is described with exceptional insight and razor sharp humour. The unnamed other is her husband, Ernest Hemingway, who was enraptured by Gellhorn's courage as they dodged shell fire together.
The ultimate philosopher pilot, Antoine de Exupery's memoirs about his days flying treacherous mail routes across the African Sahara and the South American Andes. It's a book about the dangers of being a pioneer pilot but also about death, heroism and humanity - all in written in lyrical prose and exciting realism.
In 1978 & 1986 Peter Matthiessen travelled through Senegal, Gambia, Zaire and the Central African Republic to examine the fate of African wildlife. High adrenalin flights over the savanna and slow river journeys to track rare and endangered animals, and also to find the biologists who study them - it's a sobering journey but one written by a skilled naturalist writer.
Ryszard Kapuscinksi has been the definitive voice of Africa for more than forty years and in this collection it's easy to see why. He avoids official routes and high level politics, getting to the margins of the continent. He says , "This is not a book about Africa, rather about some people from there, " and in his descriptions we finally meet the African Africa.
In 1933 Hemingway and his wife, Pauline, went on safari in northern Tanzania. The Green Hills is his account of the month long trip, a story of big game hunting, the pleasures of travel and the beauty of wilderness that even then was being constantly threatened by man.
And one for luck...
Mark Tully, the authority on all things Indian, toured his beloved homeland to see how much had changed in the twenty years since he wrote No Full Stops In India. In interviews with farmers, captains of industry, bandits, spiritual leaders, untouchables and politicians he captures the voices of the vast and diverse country. With sympathetic insights into it's vibrant history and it's extraordinary potential, the book is a must for anyone who is thinking of travelling to India.
If you'd like to enter the competition to win a Kindle Paperwhite, it's dead easy - just visit our facebook page and "like" it and you'll find the entry form. We'll be giving away one. Click here to find out more
Rajasthan and its history are inextricably linked with the Rajputs - the “Sons of Kings” - directly descended from the sun or moon who modelled themselves on Rama, hero of the great Hindu epic the Ramayana.
Rajput history is a litany of bloody battles - often internecine or else repelling Mughal invaders - in which whole armies chose to die fighting rather than face the shame of surrender. In such cases the women burnt themselves to death as happened not once, but three times at Chittorgarh.
In the 20th century valour and honour were all too often replaced by spectacular decadence and eccentricity; the Maharaja of Alwar bought 10 Rolls Royces during his visit to England for the coronation of Edward VII (and later cut off their tops and used them for collecting waste).
The Maharaja of Jaipur travelled to Britain with two huge vessels made from 14,000 melted silver coins filled with 4,000 litres of Ganges water as a precaution against British water. After independence princes saw their way of life radically transformed and now, more than 60 years later, some have converted their forts and palaces into magnificent hotels.
Stay in a palace and take in the oversized portraits of these elaborate individuals and you’ll quickly sense the scale of the personality cult that surrounded the warrior Rajputs.
The plane door opens into thin air and a very barren landscape – mostly browns, lots of rocks and the occasional spear of a poplar. Ladakh looks tough and dry, the Ladakhis – small, nutbrown and wiry behind the customs desk - are tough and dry too, until they thump an official stamp down on the arrival form and smile.
Driving through town and out towards the villages that cling to the lower slopes of the Ladakh range, there seems to be nothing but dry which explains the need for toughness and the apparent lack of vibrance. Gradually though, as the eye gets used to the landscape, small pockets of colour poke out of the drab. There is the Indus of course, glacial blue, snaking through the valley.
The pure white of the snow along the piles and piles of mountains. The deep indigo of the sky. Closer to the villages, more trees appear – bright green leaves of the poplars and willows – and in the orchards there's the subtle pink of apple and apricot blossom. In May it's a bit early for the barley and wheat but by June the terraced fields are blankets of emerald.
Then there are the prayer flags. Blue, white, red, green and yellow – they're tied to every rooftop, every bridge, every TV aerial. They are strung up between rocks on high mountain passes, attached to remote shepherds huts and decorate every temple whether it's the ornate Hemis monastery or a tiny stone-built ghompa in the middle of a mountain stream. They flutter in the winds, spreading good will and compassion across the earth until their colours fade almost to grey, fraying and tatty where they've been battered by the elements.
On a walk up to Stok Kangri, the highest mountain in the Zanskar range, Pujan our guide, hands us a bundle of prayer flags to tie between a stick of willow and a jagged rock edge. Below is a fast flowing river, full of melted snow. Warm winds whistle through the narrow mountain passes, taking the prayers with them over the peaks and down to the distant plains. Each colour represents a certain element – blue is the sky, white is the wind, red is fire, green is water and yellow the earth.
For us, breathless and lightheaded, watching the small rectangles hanging far above the rest of the world, they represent dreams, faith and longing. They are hung in answer to adversity, floods, famine, the hardship of life in the harsh environment. They are the colours of hope.
Read more about the travel experiences we offer in India
Rose products overwhelmed us in the small rose distillery and co-operative we found ourselves in at the end of our four days trekking in the Southern Atlas mountains. Shelves were stocked with lurid pink bottles, creams, tonics, perfumes, scented waters - the elixirs of youth.
The room beyond was awash with roses; tiny stalkless rose buds were packed into brimming baskets and blowsy Damask roses lay wilting on huge aluminium trays. The scent was redolent of childhood, of potions never to be touched on a dressing table, a sweet, heady smell.
Not one of us in the shop could leave empty handed, the simple appeal of the garishly packaged products so removed from the billion dollar industry of western cosmetics.
Yet, this remote region of Morocco is where the perfumiers of the world come each year to buy the distilled oil of roses, a teaspoon of which costs over two hundred Dollars.
The Valley of the Roses lies about 5 hours drive south east of Marrakech and is the starting point for some of the country’s most spectacular treks. Second only to Bulgaria in the production of rose oil, the climate of this region is perfect for the delicate single flowering of the ‘rosa damascena’ .
Only a gentle temperature and humid air at the time of flowering will produce a good yield of oil. The altitude in the Dades Gorge , between 300-1200m is ideal and the rose hedges grow in wild profusion, bordering streams, dividing fields – anything but in cultivated rows.
The Berber population of this remote valley are subsistence farmers, cultivating small strips of land planted with wheat and fruit trees. Their plots are surrounded by the wild Damask rose trees, offering protection against browsing sheep and goats.
By early April the harvest starts and women pick thousands of roses in the early morning before the intense scent of the roses is dispersed by the heat of the sun. In May the usually quiet village of El Kelaa M’Gouna is transformed into a carnival – this is the Festival of the Roses.
Children line the roads into town selling garlands of rosebuds and in the town stalls sell coloured babouche slippers, jewellery, ice creams in coloured pots and displays of traditional Berber singing and dancing and sword fights take place in a chaotic kaleidoscope of colour.
Of course the precious oil, the by product of the distillation process, is not for the likes of the casual visitor, this the Moroccan purveyors of roses do not sell. Huge copper stills are set up in the fields where thousands of tons of roses are picked by hand each morning. The oil, ‘attar or roses’ is shipped directly to the French perfume houses.
At home, my rose water and bubble gum pink hand cream sit humbly next to Channel but it is their evocative smell that takes me back to the Berber valleys.
Read more about the experiences we offer in Morocco
Where the roads peter out, yak trails begin and here semi-nomadic Brokpas depend on the yak for their livelihoods. From the animal comes transport, food and clothing, and in an age when young Bhutanese in the west of Bhutan have discovered baseball caps and T-shirts worn with pride under their traditional gho, Brokpa fashion remains steadfastly traditional.
Men’s black shamo hats have five fringes hanging from the rim, spun from yak hair. The result is both distinctive and practical, working as a gutter and drainpipe when it rains, or head cushion when carrying heavy loads.
In small groups dotted across the remote hills between Trashigang and the porous border with Assam and Arunachal Pradesh in India, the Brokpas move seasonally with their animals between fresh pastures while keeping their eyes open for the revered yeti, or migoi, an animal so important in this part of the world that Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary was created to protect it – as well as other inhabitants including Himalayan black bear, fox and squirrel.
In the autumn Brokpa men on horseback race to the sacred mountain Jomo Kukhar to honour their protective deity, the mountain goddess Jomo Kuengkhar. Racing is followed by rounds of home-brewed ara, prayers, songs and dances offered in return for blessings for prosperity.
As frost begins to cover the high pastures at the onset of winter some of the herders descend to the lowlands with the animals on their ‘grain journey’. Yak produce; butter, cheese and dried meat, is bartered for corn and grains, all the while enjoying the hospitality of a Nepo host who, though entirely unrelated, takes them in and treats them as members of his own family. The favour is returned when the Nepo people in turn head to the hills in the summer months.
The immense privilege of trekking in this remote wilderness is to find a people whose culture seems frozen in time as they continue to live and practice age old customs and traditions in much the same way as their ancestors did. The intrepid travellers who make it here though the deep valleys and over the 4153m Nachungla Pass might even be lucky and be treated to Ache-Lhamo nomadic opera or a Yak Cham – the dance of the yaks.
The valley is steep sided, made up of purple rocks, great slabs of grey slate and mud banks filled with rounded stones that were forced up from the sea bed 40 million years ago.
Rock falls happen daily and the Border Road Organisation are responsible for clearing it – often with shovels and brooms, with the occasional digger for the heavier stuff. The BRO are also responsible for the road signs – when there's not an inch of room either side of the road, they'll paint it on the steep rockface.
Chilling means the place of the Muslims – Chi being Muslim, Ling being place – and is a tiny village whose population of 30 are all involved in metal working, apart from the 4 who are the noisy voices in the two-room school. The village is no more than a cluster of houses reached by a narrow path winding up from the road; some buildings have been here since the first Muslim arrived in the 14th century and cling to the rocks like limpets.
These days, everyone is Buddhist, have been for hundreds of years if the pile of stones on the Mani is anything to go by.Metal working sounds much more industrial that it's meant to. The metal here is copper, brass or tin and small sheets of it are gently knocked into submission with minature hammers and heated on outside grates - no more than 2 foot long - in the apple orchard, with a fire made from a couple of bits of coal and bellows which turn out to be an entire sheep skin.
A blanket over his knees, his lined walnut face low over the flame, the metal worker sits on the floor and taps out intricate patterns on teapots, copper spoons and cooking vessels which line the walls of his kitchen and also those in the King's Palace at Stok. As we leave he reaches into his pocket and hands over a spoon, a lotus flower embossed on the handle and tiny hammer marks in the bowl.
It is not polished, the edges aren't straight but it's one of the most beautiful things I've ever been given.
"Three people: me, my wife and our 12 year old son George. We have a slot from 15th April for 1 week to get away somewhere and, currently, southern Africa is on the radar. Could you let me know how practical it would be to travel to Namibia in the middle of April? Also, we have a weird and probably unhealthy obsession with moths.
We have given serious consideration to a Serengeti trip...However, our plans ground to a halt when we realised that Tanzania seems to be extraordinarily expensive...I would be delighted to be corrected but our impression is that it’s outside our budget.
Also - we need you to check that it will be ok to run a moth light each evening from the 4x4. This involves taping a white sheet to the side of the vehicle and hanging a special uv light on it for a couple of hours each evening. It’s a 12V light that runs from a cigarette lighter or battery."
Catherine and Mark soon agreed that Namibia wasn’t feasible in the time available. So, despite Mark’s concerns about budget and his fear that East Africa was ruined by too many tourists, we persuaded them to head off for seven nights into the wild edges of the Serengeti with a private vehicle and guide throughout. Four of the nights were in their own private tented camp. We arranged for there to be an independent power source to run the moth light.
"The sheer concentration of larger mammals in northern Tanzania has to be seen. I cannot believe that there is another country that could rival the numbers and diversity of higher order animal life. I was very pleasantly surprised to have my somewhat jaundiced views of East Africa corrected. It really was like going back to the Kenya of my childhood and so much the better for it.
That being said, it is clear that without expert guidance, the unwary traveller/nature lover could get it all horribly wrong. Seronera is to be avoided like schistosomiasis...Your advice was spot on. The kopjes were another world away, just us and miles of undisturbed nature. Your advice was spot on. thanks for organising such an excellent trip”
Take a look at some of the things we offer in Tanzania