When you’re commonly accepted to be one of the oldest ruling families in the world it is only to be expected that there are greater treasures than just a few silver spoons in the cupboard. The 76th incumbent of the House of Mewar has recently opened a magnificent silver gallery, adding yet another reason to visit the beautiful lake city of Udaipur in Rajasthan.
The collection in the City Palace contains priceless family heirlooms dating back to 743AD and includes a stunning elephant howdah (the preferred mode of royal transport for centuries) decorated with a lion just to make sure the passenger can be identified, and has room in the back for a friend or the odd bag of jewels.
The largest item on display is a 1939 horse-drawn buggy custom-made in shining solid silver in Birmingham. Commissioned by the maharaja of Bikaner it was a surprise gift for his daughter as part of her dowry and the start of her new married life in Udaipur. A smaller unusual exhibit is a little ornamental palanquin used to carry a deity. This one is for Shree Eklingji, the real ruler of Udaipur and Mewar - the maharana is merely a custodian.
Apart from eying up the family silver you need to leave plenty of time to explore the rest of the City Palace complex. There are splendid palaces (11 in all), courtyards, verandas and rooms of mirror-work, tiles, peacocks, dazzling crystal and intricate miniature paintings. Some of it’s a bit of maze – deliberately designed that way to confuse an enemy attack.
For lovers of culture, history and romance, or just the plain nosy there’s nothing better at the end of the day than to wander the palace grounds in absolute peace after the last visitors have left. Pass the shopping arcade closed up for the night (once elephant and horse stables), saunter past the restaurant (palanquin storage) cross the lawns (ceremonial procession square) and then unlock the door to your room – and stay in the palace.
So said Miles Kington. I wonder if he was ever in Nemo, a village in Ladakh that's built on the Indus flood plain, surrounded by some of the highest mountains in the world and cut off from everywhere during the winter. Or whether he was ever lucky enough to eat Gajar Ka Halva, a pudding made mostly from grated carrots.
Ladakh's closest neighbours are China so the Indian Army are well represented here: it's they who fly supplies into Leh airport – the second highest in the world after Lhasa – between December and end of March when the main Srinigar to Manali road is closed.
Dry goods, matches, fruit and vegetables, tomatoes and carrots, all come in this way so things get scarce in winter, the prices rocketing. Tomatoes, 120 rupees a kilo in the summer, can reach 1200 in January.
The Ladakhis are self reliant as a result – barley and wheat are grown in the short summer season, some south facing slopes of terraced fields can manage two crops in the year. All the food grown is stored below the village houses, trapdoors in the kitchen floor allow access to the basement when the temperature outside is -30 and the snow is too high to open the beautifully carved front doors.
Animals and people share the houses, sheep and yaks, donkeys and zos – a cross between a yak and a cow, prized for high yields of milk and looking like a Frank Oz creation – on the ground floor with the grain, families above. Small windows with wooden shutters try to keep out the worst of the weather, even in the Summer it's very cold once the sun goes down.
Severe winters govern everything in Ladakh. The terrain, the trees, the population. Western clothes have arrived, no question, plenty of school children wear bright pink Hello Kitty anoraks but they're worn over thick wool waistcoats and knee length tunics. Then there's the food. In a place where keeping warm is a full time task, fat is consumed in a way that we couldn't possibly imagine.
Yak butter tea is a strangely delicious staple, black tea is served with lots of milk and powdered barley – tsampa – and food is cooked in plenty of oil and butter. When choice is limited, cooks get inventive and one of the best things to eat in Ladakh is Gajar ka Halva – or Carrot pudding.
The carrot isn't a fruit – everyone knows that - but when it's served in a beaten copper dish, with slivers of roasted almonds and tiny sprigs of saffron, at over 3500 metres above sea level, no-one's going to question the wisdom of using it for one of the most delicious puddings ever made.
I checked the date today and was faintly astonished to realise that I've been living in Harare now for 2 years and 2 days. My, time has gone fast. I feel I’ve adapted remarkably well; I’ve done as the “Romans” do. My driving has become slightly more aggressive (the horn has no cobwebs) and I am adept at getting off the road when “Bob and the Wailers” hurtle past. I know that a traffic light is actually a “robot”, and a roundabout is a “circle”. I’m used to paying for stuff using money bearing the image of dead American presidents and no longer get flummoxed when a supermarket teller hands me three lollipops in lieu of 30 cents change. If I want to buy a broom to sweep my backyard, I obviously go to the nearest crossroads, or wait for the lady on a bike who quite literally pedals such things along residential roads in the early morning.
My house is filled with candles to deal with power-cuts that happen 3 or 4 times a week as a result of rationing. I’ve altered my diurnal cycle to that of the farmers: I get up at 5am and am usually in bed by 8.30pm. This allows me to enjoy a run on the quiet streets as the sun comes up under unfailingly blue skies. My weekends involve long bike rides into the rural areas where I meet small-holder farmers who are thrilled to greet me and pass the time of day...there’s never once been an angry word. I’ve learned how to evade buffalo when making my way from tent to toilet in Mana Pools, and how to walk within a few metres of lion. I’ve been initiated into the strange ritual of the "Braai", and divised a multitude of excuses for not eating five types of meat in one meal.
Two years on, there are more restaurants and coffee shops than you can shake a stick at, and everyone knows a dozen people who have returned from Europe or South Africa to live here. The place is buzzing with an energy and liveliness that was complete absent when I first came for a look-see in 2008. Long may it last.
A gentle Sunday afternoon spent wondering the streets of Inhambane, the sleepy little Mozambican coastal town.
The Castle was built during the 2nd World War by Italian prisoners of war. In the 1980s a new section was added by present owner, Alex Nunes. Occupying an austere location overlooking the Burma Valley in Zim's Eastern Highlands, The Castle is a small owner-run hotel. It is pretty quirky: heaps of antiquey bits, and some novel design features, including a toilet built into great boulders (allegedly "the throne" used by the Queen Mum on her visit to the area) and a dumb waiter which yields delicious meals from what appears to be a large dresser in the corner of the dining room. Many other high-profile bods, from politicians to movie-folk, have enjoyed g&ts on the battlements overlooking expansive views of forests and mountains.
During a three night stay at The Castle we enjoyed some lovely walks, runs and bike rides. The area is great for birds and there is a Botanical Garden which is a little past it’s prime but still pretty. There was one or two mandatory visits to the famous Tony's Coffee Shop for cake (it's not just cake...that doesn't do it justice at all...it is a culinary work of art, the memory of which lingers longer than the extra 3inches it will add to your waistline).
On the bright side, your husband may snore, but at least he doesn’t chew the cud (not regularly anyway). In the early hours of this morning, I woke to a sort of grinding, snorting and stomping and struggled to remember where I was. Through the tent flaps, the moon was reflected off the glassy surface of the Zambezi; a yellow glow from dust and the smoke of dry-season fires. Crawling out of my sleeping bag to gingerly open the zip, I peered outside and found myself at about gut-level with an old male buffalo, about 10 feet away.
I had been dying to spend a penny for about 2 hours, but the whoops of hyena and the sounds of buffalo and hippo grunting just a stone’s throw from my pillow, had counselled a near bed-wetting strategy of staying put and thinking of deserts. Finally, I slithered out of my tent and paused. The buffalo languidly turned to look at me, and in a semi ducked position, I kept my eyes on him as I side-stepped 3 steps right, and then a couple of steps back until I was just on the other side of the tent, though still peering round the corner and geared for flight. We both observed a respectful truce, and I executed an equally undignified return to the opening of the tent and flung myself through the gap, heart racing.
Apparently this is a fairly typical night in Mana Pools on the Lower Zambezi. Helping with a game count of the park, I have spent the last couple days walking through one of Zimbabwe’s best wildlife destinations, and can confirm that it lives up to expectations in every way. Watch this space for more.
One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about travelling is the liquorice allsorts of people I find myself rubbing elbows with. As a camp manager, where tourists came to look at the animals, I was often lodge-bound and ever so slightly crazy with cabin fever, so the variety of human life that passed through my patch provided no end of entertainment (I’m conscious that this little revelation is likely to spark mass paranoia amongst the holiday-makers, but really, look around...what d’you expect?). I’ve had high-flying New York types that tripped out of helicopters for a dirty weekend and recoiled from the visitor’s book in case they incriminated themselves (small world that it is). There have been mummy’s little darlings who refused anything to eat but fanta and bread, buried toothpicks in the sofas, and were rather light-fingered in the gift shop. Other camp managers tell stories of a “goth” woman who insisted on seeing her orange juice squeezed in front of her and required mineral water to wash her hair...and this on a remote beach in East Africa. I remember scratching my head over the menu for a diabetic, lactose and gluten-intolerant raw foodist, with an allergy to monosodium glutamate (sigh). You get my point.
The locals can be a strange bunch too. On a trip through Malawi, our 1958 Land Rover ground to an agonising, clunking halt, as only a Land Rover can, in a mosquito-ridden swamp called Kazilizili. From behind a dark bush materialised a man wearing a broad hat fashioned from black bin bags and fishing line, strumming a jaunty tune on a homemade banjo. He was joined by another rural type, clad in a fashionable, though grubby, Burberry trench coat, who brought a Tipex bottle to his nostrils, declaring in the Queen’s own English: “Where’s my snuff? Where’s my snuff?” It’s not something that you easily forget, and inhabitants (or should I say inmates?) of Kazilizili still appear to me in disturbed moments.
And then there are the nomads of the world. While working in Kenya’s Rift Valley, a visit to market day in a Maasai village yielded a pair of handsome sun-burnished French folk, wearing what looked like school uniform, carrying a small backpack each. They were in the process of walking from Cape Town to Jerusalem (as you do), trusting only in the generosity of people along the way, and a film has since been made about them. We spent hours listening to their tales of soaking in the hot-tubs of South African millionaires, and of sharing meals with warlords in countries that you only hear about for all the wrong reasons.
Incidentally, this week I bought an apple pie from a lady dressed as a fairy standing at a Harare traffic light. Apparently the apple pie, in addition to a good thing to have with a cup of tea, was also the secret to eternal life. I’ll let you know how that pans out.
As the saying goes; “there’s nought stranger than folk”.
Amongst other things, social media has sanctioned the voyeuristic tendencies within many of us. Consequently it’s now okay to keep a much beadier eye on the doings of others than previously acceptable, without being considered even a little weird. Therefore, I am unashamed to admit that I get regular feeds on a few individuals through whom I vicariously enjoy adventures when reluctantly tethered to my desk, and therefore incapable of having any of my own.
Within a few weeks, a couple of these souls have embarked/are about to embark on pretty incredible personal journeys and every few days I read with a mixture of awe and envy of their latest exploits, bug-bears and conquests. One of my Facebook friends, Julian Monroe Fisher, will shortly begin walking across the belly of Africa, from the coast of Mozambique to the Atlantic in Angola. The second person is someone I regard with the same curious incomprehension as a fax machine: I have no idea what makes it tick but think it is quite marvellous in any case. Well-known ocean rower, Roz Savage, is a few days into her mammoth 4000 mile solo row across the Indian Ocean.
The blogs relate a repertoire of interesting happenings thrown across their paths (Roz seems to be frequently pelted by flying squid), and describes the very human afflictions which make life on the explorer’s pedestal sometimes less than comfy. From painful blisters to sunburn, annoying insects to homesickness... hurrah, they are mere mortals after all. I find myself searching for what motivates these people to take up the mantle of extraordinary endeavour. Much like my great grandfather, who set off from Scotland in the early 19 hundreds to carve a new life for himself in East Africa, I imagine that much of the reward comes from stepping off the well-trodden path and relishing the unexpected.
Whatever it is that galvanises such people, the interesting thing is that the inspiration they provide can come in many forms and you can take what you will from it. Whether it means choosing a different country to visit next year or throwing in a tedious job to do something on your own, pushing your physical and mental limits in running that marathon, or reading a controversial author...the message for me is that boundaries are there to be pushed and only in doing so do we make room to grow (or, less philosophically, experience the novelty of being hit in the face by air-borne seafood).
Nature is frequently required to remind us diminutive little bipedals who’s boss. For all our technological prowess, at the end of the day we’re still squishy, pink and about as impressive as limp lettuce in the face of our world’s capacity to awe. While sometimes these reminders come in devastating quakes and giant waves, at other times they are beautiful and gently surprising. This year, the rains in Namibia have topped the charts, breaking 100 year old records in terms of quantity and wreaking havoc on roads and previously high-and-dry safari camps. Some places received a year's worth of rain in a month. This is all relative of course. We’re talking about a country which enjoys over 300 days of sunshine annually (I know, sickening). So when we say it’s been a record rainy season, bear in mind that the creatures of the Namib mainly subsist on sea fog and may only see 100mm of rain in the whole year. But, if you happen to be a tok-tokkie beetle and have to stand on your head every morning to catch drops of fog running down your back for your morning cuppa, you might agree that in the desert, a little rain goes a long way. Ordinarily, the colours of the Namib and wider Skeleton Coast are vivid and captivating. In fact, you run the risk of sounding like a stuck record and exhausting your personal store of enthusiastic adjectives as you exclaim repeatedly how simply astonishing it all is. Add a little water to the equation and you have tumble-weed grass turning from gun-metal grey to psychedelic green and deep-red sand wearing a carpet of yellow flowers. Shallow mirage-like lakes of water appear for the first time in a decade beneath the giant dunes of Sossusvlei . Late afternoon electric storms paint the sky with bruised purple clouds and sheet-lightning. There goes that blue planet, got a new trick and showing off again... If you haven’t planned what to do with all those public holidays at the end of April/beginning of May, think about heading out to Namibia to witness nature’s little party in the desert.
Have a look at these great pics from the Kulala conservancy near Sossusvlei on our Facebook page. Give us a call on +44 1747 898104 if you'd like to know more about safaris in Namibia. *The above image was taken on Wolwedans in the Namib Rand Reserve. Courtesy of Wolwedans.
After my ascent to Point Lenana last year and vowing not to do it again, (mainly because of the unGodly wake up hour of 3 am for the summit sunrise!), I was driving past Mt Kenya this morning. There she stood, towering above me. She had such beckoning look! I was very tempted to drop everything and walk through the moorland, and head up to the base of the peaks.
I thought I would share it with you...