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Below Spioenkop, a battlefield notorious for courage and defeat in equal measure, is a valley so peaceful, so timeless that despite it's backdrop it is hard not to think of other gardens, biblical ones, where grazing antelope lived harmoniously with raging lion. A lake covers the valley floor, early morning sun makes diamonds of the dew on the ridiculously green grass.
The crenellated Drakensbergs are purple in the distance. Ancient cattle kraals, built by the first Zulus in the area from rust coloured rocks, crumble among flat topped acacias. Antelope do graze, not with raging lion - a relief for those of us walking - but with warthog, eland, giraffe, hundreds of birds and possibly the most prehistoric creature still clinging to earth. The White Rhino.
There are an estimated 17,000 White Rhino left in the world. Their name comes from the Dutch wijd meaning wide, misinterpreted by the British in their Victorian hubris to mean white. Twenty seven live in Spioenkop Game Reserve, last year there were thirty; this is a creature clinging on for dear life. But cling they do, fenced into the reserve and monitored by guards who risk their own lives to protect them.
A hundred and fifteen years ago this area was rather different. Not only were there thousands more rhino with no-one giving a thought to their preservation - except possibly in jars of formaldehyde in museums - there was also no lake, far fewer trees and the valley was filled with troops negotiating the Tugela, a river that became a dangerous torrent in the rains.
The Second Boer War was being fought all around these low hills, the relief of Ladysmith proving a logistical impossibility for the British, and as we walk among zebras and reed buck that barely blink, let alone run, we scour the ground for buckles or bullet cases that might have been exposed by recent rain.
In the 1960's the Tugela was dammed in a scheme that was meant to provide water for the farms around Uppington, nearly 1000 kms away. Among the tracts of requisitioned land was a farm called Rhino Springs. The engineering measurements were slightly off, the water didn't quite slip over the mountains as it should, so the action moved over towards two other dams at Woodstock and Sterkfontein. From this happy accident came Spioenkop Lake and the surrounding reserve
On the way back to the lodge, we spot three boulders in varying sizes, that move slowly and quietly under and around the thorn bushes. A male, female and a four month old calf. They're not white, but they've got horns, really wide mouths and they look very prehistoric.
At 4071 metres, Jebel Mgoun is the fourth highest mountain in Morocco. Attached to its lower slopes are mud walled villages that are surrounded by stone terraces full of of barley and wheat. It can take five painstaking years to build the terraces, they need constant maintenance after the heavy winter rain and some have had crops growing in them for over 300 years.
In late March they are vivid emerald, completely free of weeds and are watered by a complicated irrigation system which, it turns out, doubles up as the ultimate Pooh Stick course.
Above one of these villages, high up in clumps of cumin coloured grass, is another terrace, much bigger than the rest. At first it's hard to work out what could possibly be planted here – no water channels bubble along the path and there's nothing in the way of fertile earth, just dust and small stones.
The terrace is completely flat and framed with rocks with a gap at either end. It would have taken a great deal of time and effort, and must be tremendously important.
The mountain peaks stretch long shadows in the evening light and the boys who've followed us up from the village rush onto the terrace, running in and out of the sun. As one of them kicks an imaginary ball towards the gap in the rocks and throws his arms over his head in celebration, it becomes clear what this terrace is.
There might not be much in the way of hallowed turf this high up in the Atlas Mountains but season tickets are probably easy to come by and the transfer fees are non existent. In Morocco at least, football's still a beautiful game.
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.
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
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.
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